The Italian wine regions setting London alight

Italian food and wine is taking London by storm at the moment, and high-end examples too. Sommeliers and chefs tell Lucy Shaw why their customers are more receptive to lesser-known varieties and which regions will soon come to the fore.

Italian wine is having a moment in London. We’ve gone mad for meatballs, potty for pasta and bonkers for bruschetta. At pasta palace Padella in London Bridge you’ll find queues snaking into nearby Borough Market rain or shine, full of hungry urbanites keen to get their cacio e pepe fix. Italian food has become so popular in London that barely a week goes by without a new Italian opening popping up around town. It wasn’t always this way.

Wind the clock back a decade and you had The River Café and Locanda Locatelli at one end, Spaghetti House at the other, and a huge hole in the middle. This hole has recently been filled by savvy restaurateurs who have realised that there is money to be made from exploiting Brits’ unconditional love for Italy, a country as expressive as the UK is reserved.

Ruth Rogers of The River Café

Places such as Luca in Clerkenwell, founded by the team behind the hugely popular Clove Club in Shoreditch, embody this new breed of Italian restaurant in London that offers the best of both worlds. Led by head chef Robert Chambers, the site serves seasonal British ingredients interpreted through an Italian lens.

The Italian food renaissance in London has ushered in a renewed thirst for Italian wines, particularly those made on a small scale from native grapes that give the customer an inimitable drinking experience. Many of London’s established high-end Italian restaurants, from Sartoria on Savile

Row to The River Café in Hammersmith, champion almost entirely Italian wine lists, save for the odd bottle or two of Champagne. The same is true of the new guard, with both the aforementioned Luca and Bocca di Lupo in Soho shining a light on native Italian grapes and lesser-known regions, from Alto Adige to Umbria.

Grape wise, the two stars blazing a trail in the London on-trade at the moment are Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, from their respective regions of Tuscany and Piedmont, which is where, according to David Gleave MW of Italian specialist Liberty Wines, “the real depth and quality in Italian wine lies”.

At The River Café, French head sommelier Christophe Decoux is pushing Nebbiolos from Alto Piemonte in the foothills of the Alps, where wines from the sub-regions of Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca and Bramaterra offer a similar taste experience to Barolo and Barbaresco at almost half the price.

Barolo and Barbareso are also selling well at the restaurant, which started life 30 years ago as the staff canteen at architect Richard Rogers’ practice.

“Barolo is flying more than the Super Tuscans at the moment. Burgundy lovers who like mono-varietal wines are going for it,” says Decoux. He adds: “Barolo’s ageing process is similar to Burgundy’s because they both become more savoury and earthy when they lose their fruit.”

Gleave of Liberty is equally excited by the potential of the Nebbiolos from Alto Piemonte. “Younger producers and winemakers from outside of Italy are coming to the region. The wines are a lovely counterpoint to the Langhe – they’re more subtle, velvety and aromatic,” he says.

Gleave has also noticed positive changes taking place in the Langhe, where producers are seeking to make more balanced wines with riper tannins and less toasty oak that are more approachable at a younger age. “I’ve seen so much change in both the Langhe and Tuscany over the past few decades. The wines are delicious and thrilling because of their vibrancy, acidity, definition and well-judged oak,” he says. Philippa Saunders, the Italian wine buyer for Flint Wines, agrees.

“There is a real buzz around Piedmont and Nebbiolo at the moment. People who appreciate Pinot Noir tend to appreciate Nebbiolo, and Burgundy’s sky-high prices are making Piedmont look very attractive. Plus, more gentle extraction is making for easier-to-understand tannins, which have previously been Nebbiolo’s nemesis.”

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