It is about this time of the year that I snatch a few short visits to various wine producing countries in Europe. Major work within vineyards is reduced, apart that is from the day-to-day maintenance – canopy management to cosset or expose the grapes to various micro-climatic conditions, but winemakers and owners are normally available for tasting, opinion, discussion and all too often, crystal ball gazing on the year’s potential bounty.

Later in the year and you cannot move for immigrant workers bussed in to pick grapes, roads around the vineyards jam packed with the circus of tractors and trailers carting grapes in all directions. Winemakers are near to panic and owners smoke 60 a day until the harvest is pressed. So I flew into Northern Italy last week, to a small airport just outside the medieval city of Bergamo. It was here that I managed to set up base camp for 24 hours to meet winemakers from as far a-field as Piedmont in the North and Apulia in the South, with a few samples sent across from Tuscany. On the plane over I was wistfully re-tracing my own relationship with Italy and Italian wines, it was in Lombardy some 30 odd years ago as a student, I first encountered the delights (and some nightmares) of indigenous Italian reds. It was in the North then that Italy’s greatest contribution to world dining was discovered, Tuscany’s finest red grape, Sangiovese, then as now contributes in a myriad of ways to many wines of the region. My bohemian thrill was to discover the pregnant, pot-bellied bottle known as the fiasco neatly dressed in its own straw jacket labelled Chianti. I and the wine world have moved on considerably since those innocent experiences but my expectations of Italian wines still contain some desire for the simplicity of those observations. That dear little bottle, better seen on a table cloth on the grass or propped against an olive tree than on a restaurant table. Better drunk outside in sunshine with bread and olives than in the Dorchester hotel on a damp London evening. Italy’s view of itself still harbours similar day-dreams.

A hedonistic and ego-centric country as proud of its mighty past from Empire to Renaissance as it is of its peasant idyll today. Many of the wines we discussed and tasted appeared to look over their shoulder to an egalitarian past as much as the focus of a global commercial future.

An encounter with Marco soon compounded this view. He represents a group of some twenty winemakers from Piedmont, most of whom had so little property and even fewer wines that without the mighty Marco, even at his striking height of 5’ 8”, their wines would never see the commercial light of day.

I was not disappointed. Marco opened proceedings with a jar not a bottle. Inside were the knobbly little vegetables worth their weight in copper if not gold. Tartufi, or truffles which are Piedmont’s culinary gift to the world, and when washed down with the sublime expression of the white Cortese

grape – Gavi, with its delicate nuances of ripe pears, the voyage had begun.

This was followed by the three B’s of the region, Barbers, Barberesco, and Barolo. Barolo, romantically known as the “wine of King’s and the King of wines” showed many characteristics of the Burgundy region of France some are majestic dark and grand while others offered a lighter more quaffable finesse and partnered our funghi risotto perfectly.

Barolo’s grape – Nebbiolo has rapidly become one of Italy’s supremely fashionable varieties worldwide, now planted with considerable success by former Italian immigrant families in California. I was to taste it in many forms, especially upon my arrival at Mateo Rocca’s enlarged bottling plant a short drive away. Mateo’s ancestors created swathes of vineyards in Puglia, Italy’s heel running far up the Eastern coastline and cooled occasionally by the breezes of the Adriatic and an that area produces more grapes than the whole of Australia. From DOC regions we tasted Salice Salentino a wine I urge you to try both for its velvety qualities as much as the way it harks back to an earlier culture, followed by Copertino and Primitivo di Manduria. These reds share that delightful hit of Morello cherries with an almost port-like finish. Negroamaro (translating as black and bitter) has also been successfully partnered with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and after a little resistance on my part I fell to the charms of these Euro blends.

So from a brief sampling of Italy’s ‘New World’ on the heel, the star of the show was clearly the early-ripening Primitivo from the south of Manduria, which showed suppleness, richness and food friendly desire in equal measure. After D.N.A. testing it comes as no surprise to my Italian colleagues that the Primitivo grape is the self same Zinfandel of the U.S.A. and the Plavac of Croatia. If you do get the Italian version, I hope you can join me in the early memories of honest, rustic wine and echo the oft heard phrases and respect for wines in their homeland of Enotria of wines being ll genuino.