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Vinosia Essenza di Malvasia 2007 (far left, $15.95, No. 122341) is light-bodied and smooth with a tangy finish. PHOTO COURTESY OF VINTAGES
Vinosia Essenza di Malvasia 2007 (far left, $15.95, No. 122341) is light-bodied and smooth with a tangy finish. PHOTO COURTESY OF VINTAGES

Beppi Crosariol on wine

Off-road Italians Add to ...

Grape varieties in Italy are like Italian political parties: too numerous to keep track of. Some estimates put the number at 1,000, some at 5,000. The sensible guess seems to be somewhere around 2,000.

One certainty is that Italy is home to more vine types than any other nation. Even Portugal, a museum of obscurities such as baga and bastardo, has fewer than 300.

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Either Charles de Gaulle or Winston Churchill are reputed to have said that France must be ungovernable if it can produce 300 cheeses. Imagine the healthy anarchy implied by 2,000 wine grapes.

Most drinkers, even connoisseurs, are hip to just a handful of Italian grapes, mainly biggies like sangiovese, nebbiolo, pinot grigio and prosecco. Once you stray from the top 10 or so, it's easy to lose your bearings, like navigating Italian back roads with directions from the cashier at the Autogrille.

To stretch the travel analogy further, it's also usually a lot more economical and sometimes more fun to stray from the beaten path when it comes to Italian grapes.

If you've never experienced off-road varieties such as gaglioppo, aglianico, nerello cappuccio, grillo or zibbibo, this may be a good time to consider doing so. Though not yet officially trendy, these grapes are getting easier to find and still usually represent good value. That's more than can be said of sangiovese (of Chianti fame) and nebbiolo (the grape of Barolo).

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario's Vintages department is featuring a slew of oddballs as part of a spotlight on various Italian regions, mainly Campania, Puglia, Calabria and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Most selections are well priced and some are available in other provinces.

One thing to bear in mind is that they all exhibit a firm backbone of acidity. These aren't declawed wines trying to deliver the vaguely sweet, rounded quality of a California merlot or Australian shiraz at the same price. Italians drink wine almost exclusively in the context of a meal, and that generally calls for firm acidity to cleanse the palate.

Many of the following wines also share a note of bitterness, of which the Italian palate is particularly fond.

That's the case with Menhir No. Zero Negroamaro 2006 ($14.95, product No. 123364). Negroamaro is one of the more prominent of Italy's "lesser" grapes, and it has the Italian term for bitter - amaro - built into its name.

This wine, from the Salento peninsula that forms the heel of Italy's boot, would be my choice for best value among the southern Italian wines of today's Vintages release. It's a textbook version of the grape, inkwell-dark and full-bodied, with a core of silky, rich dark fruit and overtones of licorice and herbs. And there's a bitter note on the finish. Very satisfying, but definitely to be served with food.

A wine I first sampled in B.C., where it is a steal, joins today's Vintages lineup. Odoardi Savuto 2004 ($18.98 in Ontario, No. 121004; $13.99 in B.C., No. 568220) hails from Calabria, Italy's toe, and is a minestrone of a wine made from gaglioppo, greco nero, nerello cappuccio, magliocco, canino and sangiovese. Flavour-wise, it conjures up a decent Chianti, with a medium body and cherry-like fruit, showing five years of age with just a hint of tangy oxidation. Enjoy it now; I wouldn't cellar it much longer.

Another very good buy is Tharru Cannonau di Sardegna 2006 ($14.95, No. 121053). Cannonau is the name on the island of Sardinia for the fruity red grenache variety. This interpretation is tantalizingly soft and luscious, almost a cross between the earthy Rhone Valley style and a plump, fruity Australian version, velvety and round, with a note of lavender on the finish.

Primitivo is the name in the province of Puglia for zinfandel, the jammy variety associated with California. Gladiator Primitivo di Manduria 2006 ($14.95, No. 23119) put me in mind of a cappuccino topped with cinnamon chocolate, rich, full-bodied and smooth.

New to Vintages and slightly on the expensive side is La Torretta Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2006 ($24.95, No. 123604). Made from the mainstream sangiovese grape, it's included here because it shares some of that off-road bitterness and simply is a good and typically Italian wine. Weighing in at an unusually high 14.5-per-cent alcohol, this Tuscan red is medium full-bodied, with a juicy, cherry-like core and very dry, slightly astringent finish.

My favourite Italian white of the Vintages release is Duca di Castelmonte Gibele Zibibbo Secco 2008 ($16.95, No. 121103). Zibibbo is the Sicilian moniker for muscat of Alexandria, a noble white grape with a distinctive flavour of white table grapes and flowers. The variety can make wines ranging from bone-dry to sweet. This one is the former, with that telltale white-grape essence, a lean body and invigorating minerality. Lots going on for the money.

Puglia's reputation lies mainly with reds, but Vinosia Essenza di Malvasia 2007 ($15.95, No. 122341) shows that the sun's rays need not eviscerate a white wine of its refreshing, crisp acidity. This one is light-bodied and smooth, with hints of honeydew, herbs and celery and a tangy finish.

Ever had a nuragus? Didn't think so. Popular on the beautiful island of Sardinia for its ample fruit output and ability to adapt to many kinds of soils, the variety can yield complex flavours in the right hands. Here, it's light-bodied and herbal, with nuances of lemon, banana and minerals.

The grape oddities are by no means confined to the south of Italy. Grechetto gets combined with the widely planted trebbiano in the Umbria region to make Orvieto, a white wine that varies from dry to slightly sweet. I've been a fan for some time of Salviano, and the latest vintage, Salviano Orvieto Classico Superiore 2007 , is exceptional. Currently available in Quebec as an SAQ specialty selection ($15.75, No. 10782034), it's a big bruiser at 14-per-cent alcohol, showing good weight, a silky texture and citrus flavour with a seam of gritty, chalky stone running through it. It's like eating a grapefruit and then licking drywall.

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