"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," said Mark Anthony when delivering his famous eulogy. He might well have carried on " I come to drink Italian wine, not to praise it" (with apologies to Shakespeare).
Italians (and their precursors, the Romans) have been enjoying wine for at least 2,500 years -- Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, and 'Bacchanalias' probably the earliest rave parties!
Small wonder, then, that Italy exports more wine than France (15.8 million hectolitres in 2004), has the largest number of wine producers (one estimate places this at over 1 million!), and produces wine in each and every of its 20 districts.
Of course, the quality of Italian wines varies from the sublime (an Ornellaia from Antinori can set you back by over $100 -- but also transport you to heaven) to the ridiculous (some of the jug wines could clean floors quite well), but then you get what you pay for.
There is an incredible diversity in the wines, grapes, growing conditions and wineries of Italy. There are hundreds of grape varieties in use -- from the Nebbiolo that goes into making Barolo, to the Sangiovese grape used in Chianti, to lesser-known varieties like Trebbiano, Cortese, Barbara, Dolcetto and Valpolicella -- few of which have been even heard of in India. There's a whole world of wine there just waiting to be discovered!
A visit to the annual Vinitaly Wine Fair held in Verona (a Shakespeare connection again -- Verona was the setting for Romeo and Juliet!) every April is a revelation: over 4,000 exhibitors occupy 85,000 square metres of covered space in a mind-boggling display of Italy's best wines and foods.
Strangely enough, few Italian wines have as yet found their way onto retail shelves in India. Mumbai has a much better selection than any other city, including a delectable range of wines from Ruffino: the Orvieto Classico (Rs 900) and Libaio Chardonnay Toscana (Rs 1,200) are the two whites; the reds include Aziano Chianti Classico (Rs 1,125), the Chianti Ruffino Classico DOCG (Rs 2,000) and the Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti (also Rs 2,000).
I do know that the best range of Italians go duty free to the five-star hotels -- and tend to be priced accordingly. These include wines from Marchesi Barolo, Frescobaldi, Antinori, Gaja and Prunetto -- great stuff, mostly reds: big, luscious wines with a complexity and texture that keeps you wanting more.
Italy also has a very drinkable range of sparkling wines: Asti Spumante (made from sweet Muscat grapes) may be scorned by wine snobs for the very cheerful simplicity that is its raison d'etre, but is hugely refreshing on those hot summer afternoons.
Then there are a wide range of lightly fizzy (and light) wines ('Frizzante') that are best drunk young and fresh -- sadly, few of these are likely to be available here so long as our customs duties remain at present levels. Last (but not least) there are Italian Vermouths from Martini & Rossi and Cinzano -- famously one of the ingredients for Bond's 'shaken, not stirred' Martinis.
It's said that Italians are very similar to Indians in many respects -- must be true, witness the delectable choice made by a former Prime Minister years ago. One hopes this association goes beyond designer jewellery, shoes and heads of government to a wider adoption of the Italian way of life -- including their wines.Cin Cin (pronounced 'Chin chin') to you, Madame!