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Italy schmitaly!

Published:  18 January, 2007

It has been - though the incorrigible natives of that sublime country will be unaware of it - a farcical summer for Italy. I speak narrowly of course, vinously, but as a long-standing season-ticket holder to the Comedy of Life, I realise 'twas ever thus and nothing written here will change anything. First, there was my highly literate friend Fiona - WSET graduate, wife of a wealthy vigneron in the Midi - who wanted to spread her wings, and so I suggested she help out at my website,, and become a taster and writer on wines from European regions with which she was familiar.

Dutifully she went to the Italian tasting at Lord's in June, but after two hours of gargling and spitting she was forced to surrender. You can read the full account of her brief wine-tasting career on the website (click through from the home page), but here is a flavour:

I began to feel my age and lack of experience of tasting on this scale. I got a nasty shooting pain in one of my upper left molars. I swilled some water and went on tasting, but the writing was on the wall. My gnashers are my own, and while I do confess to a filling or two and a couple of crowns, they are in reasonable shape.'

Was it all those acids in Italians wines that were her undoing? Or simply a lack of natural stamina? Two hours must be a record for a wine-writing career (even taking into account the myriad mayflies who have written on the subject for Express Newspapers), and it might also be opined that Fiona would have similarly collapsed at any tasting, but I take the view that she would not have felt so assaulted by acids had she begun her career at a WOSA, Chilean, Californian or even a Hungarian generic tasting.

The second hilarity was my visit to the Dolomites and Lombardy in September. In company with wine writers from Singapore, Korea, Canada, the USA, Denmark, Holland, Russia, Japan and the suburb of Southfields (our own Giles Fallowfield, no less), we scribes began by spending two days floundering, in the slick Dolomitic resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, in the choppy waters of a conference about what the Italians called the challenge of wine globalisation. It was, inevitably, nothing of the sort. Is Italy the only nation where the politicians tell the wine producers what they want, rather than the other way around? I rather think it is. Only two speakers, both makers of extremely interesting liquids, Diego Planeta and Antonio Mastroberardino, said anything that the scores of wine-producing delegates might have profited from hearing. However, I confess that, because the organisers only managed

to get me to my hotel bed from the airport the previous night at 3.30am, I may have been dozing when others also delivered telling addresses. All in all, a total waste of time and money, designed to flaunt the pretence that Italy knows how to export. Not once did anyone mention the fact that Italy is being overtaken by New World countries in the wine league and what might be done to reverse this trend.

Over the rest of the trip, let us draw a veil (though it will be lifted, revealing the delicious writhing flesh beneath, in gruesome detail in the book I am writing on wine trips called Vaudeville Amongst the Wines). Suffice to record that Lombardy offers the same salami, risotto, pasta and meat for lunch and dinner; the producers all insist (1980s east-European style) on giving you bottles of wine you cannot possibly carry back (thus our coach driver was gifted the beginnings of a wine cellar); and there exists the odd producer who makes stunning wines that no one in the UK will ever taste because no one has a clue how to export them.

The third and final chapter in my Italian saga took place at the Fiore restaurant in late September, where producers of food and wine from Brescia, also part of Lombardy, had gathered. I hoped to learn something, and I did. I learnt that Italians cannot organise a decent meal and decent drop of wine (a Franciacorta bubbly aside) even in a restaurant. Can you imagine what olive-oil sorbet tastes like? I'll come clean: like a severe constipation relief. The speakers who tried, over the canned music and the hubbub of other diners, to explain their way of life failed to impress. Charles Metcalfe, who had been paid to tell jokes between courses, did his best - he even sang for a few seconds with that angelic voice of his - but such diversions did nothing to dispel the feeling that Italy is doomed. Were it not for its membership of the European Community, it would surely be sold to a consortium of Coca-Cola, Constellation, Wal-Mart, Mitsubishi and Shanghai Steel & Glass.