Before I get sucked into the giddy annual maelstrom of Christmas drinks, I want to talk a bit about Italian red wine, not least because Italy is the country I’ve missed the most during lockdown. Stupidly, I didn’t take advantage when they were in our travel corridor this autumn, turning down a trip to Bolzano to taste obscure grape varieties on the somewhat feeble basis that I could be stranded there knowing no one and not speaking Italian.
I love their wines that so effortlessly segue into food. In fact, they generally need food to taste at their best, often having a sharp acidity and tannic structure that needs the edges knocked off by a comforting slow braise or ragù.
The best known Italian red, of course, is chianti, and 2018 is an above-average vintage. Most supermarkets do a decent own-label “classico” – Morrisons’ The Best Chianti Classico (£9, 13.5%) even won a gold medal (though I’m generally a bit sceptical about those), the fruit is really appealing and it would be spot on with lasagne. Lidl’s Corte alle Mura Chianti Riserva 2015 (13%), which is made in the heavily oaked style you used to find in 1970s trattorias, is even cheaper at £5.99; I’d go for lasagne or spaghetti and meatballs with that, too.
Amarone, meanwhile, is a particularly Christmassy red, as I’ve suggested before. Made from partially dried grapes, it’s rich, alcoholic and almost porty – in fact, if you find port overly sweet, amarone would be the perfect alternative to serve with a cheeseboard. Sadly, though, it doesn’t come cheap: I recently tasted one from top producer Quintarelli that retails at £290 a bottle, so you can’t really complain about the 18 quid Tesco is charging for its version. Also don’t overlook valpolicella, which is made from the same grapes, but in a much fresher, more swiggable style that makes it perfect with a good spread of antipasti.
Southern Italy is the place to go for bargain reds. Aldi has a couple of robust examples under its Castellore label, including a warm, brambly Primitivo (13.5%, and incidentally the same grape as zinfandel) for just £4.99, which is decent enough to drink (with pizza, I suggest) and cheap enough to mull.
One region I’d be cautious about, however, is Piedmont in the north-west, and the home of barolo and barbaresco, both of which I more often than not find deeply disappointing, especially from supermarkets. The trick is to find a lesser wine made from the same grape (nebbiolo), such as the excellent example below. Seriously, snap it up.
Four Italian reds to enjoy with food
Tesco Finest Amarone Valpolicella 2017 £18, 15.5%. Rich and slightly sweet, but not excessively so, this is a whale of a bottle to serve with braised beef, blue cheese or even the Christmas turkey.
Castello Perduto Valpolicella 2019 £6.50 Marks & Spencer (though not online), 12.5%. Same grape varieties, totally different style: if you’re a beaujolais fan, you’ll love this bright, breezy, cherryish red. Try it with Rachel Roddy’s spaghetti with prawns and tomatoes (though I’d also enjoy that with a crisp Italian white such as a pinot grigio).
Bolgheri Rosso Grattamacco 2018 £24.99 Waitrose, £27 Berry Bros & Rudd, 13.5%. A big, sexy “Super-Tuscan” to put on the Christmas table, especially if you’re having beef (or just treat yourself to a bottle with a steak).
Cantina del Nebbiolo Nebbiolo d’Alba 2018 £9.74 Waitrose (on promotion), 14.5%. Suave, elegant, autumnal: what barolo should be, and seldom is. Ideal with duck (or other feathered game) or mushroom risotto or ravioli.
• For more by Fiona Beckett, go to matchingfoodandwine.com