All posts by Budapest Wine Snob

About Budapest Wine Snob

A wine enthusiast, writer, translator, judge and trainer based in Budapest. I offer translation, editing and writing services relating to wine. Managing Editor of WineSofa, member of the Circle of Wine Writers, holder of the WSET diploma, Weinakademiker, Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador and Expert and Judge at the International Wine Challenge, Berliner Wine Challenge and Vinitaly's FiveStarWines. Passionate about Hungarian and Italian wine, but the whole world is my oyster ....

Campania’s Switzerland

Think of Campania, and Naples and the sun-blessed coasts of Amalfi and Sorrento as well as the looming volcano of Vesuvius come to mind. What few people probably realise is that Campania also boasts its own ‘Switzerland’.

Irpinia

Head inland northeast of Naples and you come to a hilly, cooler area of the region up in the Apennines. This is Irpinia, the land of the wolf, where you are more likely to encounter snowy winters and autumn rains in its continental climate than the blazing sun you associate with the south of Italy. We visited just on the cusp of the autumn rains and cold winter as we arrived in early December to explore the wines of the region.

A treasure trove of native varieties

Hidden away inland, Irpinia boasts a treasure trove of native varieties and three of Campania’s four DOCGs – Greco di Tufo DOCG, Fiano di Avellino DOCG and Taurasi DOCG – as well as a catch-all Irpinia DOC. You won’t find any Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon here; the region is all about indigenous varieties, 99.99% of grapes are native, so that doesn’t leave much room for others! As well as Greco, Fiano and Aglianico, you’ll also find white varieties Coda di Volpe and Falanghina as well as reds Piedirosso and Sciascinoso. Moreover, this region boasts around half the wineries in Campania. It has a cool climate with normally mild summers and a large diurnal range. Although not strictly speaking a volcanic region, there is important volcanic influence from Vesuvius and its many eruptions, which resulted in black ash being blown inland by the wind. This defines parts of the region – yielding wines with great structure and complexity. The area is also rich in sulphur, with abandoned sulphur mines dotting the landscape. Incidentally, the area north of Naples boasted more than 100 volcanoes!

Our three-day exploration hosted by the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Irpinia kicked off with a short presentation about Irpinia and its DOCGs followed by a hearty meal with members of the Consorzio, including its president, Stefano di Marzo, at the Trattoria “Valleverde” zi’ Pasqualina on the outskirts of Atripalda, our base for the coming days. We enjoyed local dishes such as savoury cake with ricotta, pumpkin and guanciale, beans with scarola and chickpeas, delicious fusilli avellinesi with the rich tomato sauce that the main course meat was cooked in and a selection of desserts. As the coming days would focus on the three DOCGs, we tasted some of the other wines found in Irpinia DOC, such as Coda di Volpe, Falanghina and Piedirosso as well as Irpinia Aglianico, generally a lighter, fresher version of the variety than the bigger, bolder Taurasi.

Cave winery in Tufo

The following morning, we set off to discover the Greco di Tufo DOCG. On the edge of the town of Tufo, we meet up with Simone from the Cantine di Marzo and head up to the steep vineyards above the town. Between showers of rain and rainbows in every direction, we learn about the various cru that the winery produces, and the ancient trellising system used in the vineyards further down the hill, which we can’t reach that day due to the sticky, heavy, wet clay underfoot. These old vines are trained high, so that other crops can be grown underneath. The clay soil is good for retaining water, while the ancient part of the vineyard is sand from the sea that covered the area five million years ago; there are also areas of limestone with fossils, tuff, volcanic pumice and black ash, which is why they choose to vinify some of their crus separately.

Once the rain sets in again, we head down to visit the Cantine di Marzo, the oldest winery in the region, carved into the tuff of the hillside below the village, where Ferrante di Somma, the current owner, regales us in his impeccable English with tales of history, sulphur mining and wines, while leading us through the quirky ‘cave’ winery. “Sorry about the puddles,” he says, “that’s the inconvenience of working in a cave.” We then head up the hill for a mammoth tasting of Greco di Tufo back to 2018, including a tank sample from 2021, before enjoying a delicious buffet lunch of various local dishes.

So what should you know about Greco?

Well, Greco is one the most ancient varieties in southern Italy, boasting high acidity and phenolic grip, earning it the name of a “red dressed up as a white”. It’s generally deeper in colour than most Italian whites, has a full, opulent, oily body and notes of yellow peach, candied fruit, ginger, tropical fruit and spice, as well as occasional sulphurous mineral notes.

And Greco di Tufo?

There are about 635 hectares under vine with around 3.5 million bottles produced each year, with the most densely planted area on the steep slopes around Tufo, which gives the denomination its name and is one of its ‘grand cru’. To qualify as Greco di Tufo DOCG, the wine must be at least 85% Greco, with Coda di Volpe Bianco making up the rest, although most wines are 100%. The tuff and sulphur-rich volcanic and clay soils result in refreshing, perfumed wines with mineral complexity and aromas of pear, tropical fruit and toasted almond. While mineral and zesty when young, we also confirmed the truth that it is best around 3 years old in our tasting, as the 2018s were still showing extremely well and clearly had the structure and concentration to age for another few years too.

Bracing winds in Avellino

After lunch, we set off for the town of Lapio, considered to be one of Fiano di Avellino DOCG’s grand crus, and visit several of the town’s most important vineyards, lying at around 530 metres above sea level and discover for ourselves how the winds, rather strong on this day, help to keep them cool, ventilated and free of disease – after a while, we take shelter in our vehicle and move to a less exposed spot. This is the most planted area of the DOCG with herbs and olives as well as vines. The soils are predominantly clay and limestone, which lend the wines their distinctive minerality, as well volcanic ash blown from Vesuvius. Lapio itself is included in two DOCGs, Fiano di Avellino and Taurasi, which overlap, so Aglianico is planted here too. Most producers own vines in varying areas planted with different varieties under different conditions. Ian d’Agata considers this DOCG one of Italy’s finest white wine designations, along with Greco di Tufo, of course! However, its area is significantly bigger than that of its more phenolic counterpart, as the DOCG includes 26 communes. We then discover the different styles of the variety produced in the DOCG in the majestic surroundings of the Palazzo Filangieri in the town of Lapio, followed by a finger food reception with some of the local producers.

So what should you know about Fiano?

Fiano is a versatile variety that reflects its terroir and responds well to winemaking. It is more restrained than Greco and feels right at home on volcanic soils, yielding wines with delicate fruit aromas and lovely pure minerality. There are marked differences in its wines depending on where it is grown, so the Consorzio is considering zonification. Although it was nearly extinct by the latter half of the 20th century, only planted sporadically around Avellino, the variety is now experiencing a renaissance and Fiano wines can be found on menus all around the world.

And Fiano di Avellino DOCG?

There are about 420 hectares under vine with around 2 million bottles produced each year. The most planted area is in the northeast around the town of Lapio, considered its best cru. To qualify as Fiano di Avellino DOCG, the wine must be at least 85% Fiano, with Greco, Coda di Volpe Bianca and Trebbiano Toscano making up the rest, though most are 100%. It may also use the name Apianum on the label to show its connection to the historical Roman wine. The soils are mainly clay, limestone and volcanic, giving the wine its distinctive mineral traits. Besides the basic version, a Riserva requiring minimum 12 months ageing may also be produced since 2019. The wines are fine, elegant, refreshing and savoury with relatively high acidity. They boast notes of mint, musk, quince, kerosene and toast, as well as orange blossom and white flowers, which helps to differentiate Fiano from Greco and Falanghina. With age, the wines take on notes of honey, chestnut and hazelnut – also grown in the area.

Barolo of the south or Taurasi of the north?

Finally, we come to Taurasi, sometimes referred to as Barolo of the south, although of course the Taurasi producers say that Barolo should be called the Taurasi of the north! We did not specifically visit Taurasi vineyards due to our very short visit but spent a morning tasting through a decade of Taurasi wines in the company of Massimo Di Renzo, winemaker at Mastroberardino, and prominent Campanian journalist Luciano Pignataro. And this tasting certainly showed these southern behemoths’ ability to age! Indeed, one of the panel members said he had tasted as far back as 1934 a few years ago and the wines were in perfect condition!! We didn’t get to taste wines that old, but the wine we tried from from 2008, a perfect year with good temperatures and rain at the right time, was certainly showing well. Muscular and powerful with lovely freshness and well-integrated oak, displaying notes of dried and fresh crunchy fruit as well as great complexity from smoke, spice and balsamic tones. Finished very long, of course.

Some background

Phylloxera arrived very late in the south of Italy, so in the 1920s there was big production here in Irpinia, with the powerful Aglianico wines produced here (and in Vulture in Basilicata) being shipped north to beef up more ‘insipid’ northern Italian wines, and even those of Bordeaux. Much of this wine was dispatched from the Taurasi station, which is how the DOC, and later DOCG got its name. It received the DOC in 1970, along with Fiano di Avellino and was then promoted to DOCG in 1993, becoming the first in south and central Italy to receive this honour.

Mountain viticulture in the south

Although we are in the far south, Taurasi is a cool climate wine, as temperatures inland in Irpinia are 2-3°C lower than on the coast, with thermal currents creating a large diurnal range. For example, in 2021, we were told, even on the hottest days of 40-41°C, the temperature dropped to 20-22°C at night! This is mountain viticulture with vines planted from 300 m to 650 m above sea level.

Paradoxically, this is one region in Italy that is benefitting from climate change, with the grapes ripening more easily and earlier and resulting in better tannin maturity – important in a variety like Aglianico with its prominent tannins! One of the things that makes Aglianico difficult to cultivate is the fact that it is late ripening, so it was a big risk for the farmers here to leave the grapes on the vine for an extra month. It is, surprisingly, one of the last regions in Italy to harvest, often as late as the end of November! Although this is, of course, changing.

What should you know about Aglianico?

Aglianico produces deeply coloured, complex wines with intense sour cherry, spice, black pepper and vanilla and floral hints. It also boasts leather, resin, eucalyptus and smoky red and black fruit. Most important to note are its high tannins and high acidity, which is why it is frequently compared with Nebbiolo, and these give it long ageing potential. It takes well to oak ageing, with some producers using French oak barrique and some large Slavonian casks, although in the past, the local chestnut was typical. Aglianico performs well on volcanic soils.

And Taurasi DOCG?

There are around 475 hectares under vine with around 850,000 bottles produced each year.. There are 17 towns in the DOCG. The area is large and diverse with differing soils – limestone, sandstone, clay and volcanic deposits – and altitudes, with the best sites at higher altitudes. Hence interest in creating zones within Taurasi. Increasing numbers of producers are becoming organic, around 20% to date, but conditions make this challenging. To qualify as Taurasi DOCG, the wine must be at least 85% Aglianico, with Piedirosso usually making up the rest, although Barbera and Sangiovese are also permitted. Taurasi must age for 36 months (12 in wood), while Taurasi Riserva requires 48 months (18 in wood). Taurasi wines are always firm savoury wines with great depth of flavour and structure, ensuring they can age wonderfully. They may also boast a floral note along with the smoky red and black fruit and flinty minerality. When young, they are tough, tannic and acidic, but with time, they develop lovely notes of spice, leather and smoke as well as their dominant sour cherry.

And on to Vesuvius and Salerno

And our odyssey did not finish here. We also briefly travelled to sunnier climes in Naples to taste some wines from Vesuvio and to Salerno to discover the wines to the south of Naples. But that will be two more tales!

From marshland to world-class superstar

The evolution of Bolgheri

What was once a malaria-ridden marsh on the Tuscan shore is now one of Italy’s most prestigious wine regions and home to some of the so-called Super Tuscans. Wines such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Massetto are now counted among Italy’s most prestigious wines.

Yet how did this uninviting, neglected area of the Maremma, where people died from poverty and malaria and prior to WWII produced nondescript red and white wines, peaches, apricots, almonds, potatoes and onions, become one of the most sought-after vineyard areas in Italy – the Tuscan equivalent of Napa? And how did it come to be predominantly planted with international varieties, primarily those from, Bordeaux rather than Tuscan king Sangiovese?

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Birth and growth of the Super Tuscans

It all began at Tenuta San Guido, home of Sassicaia, when Mario Inciso della Rocchetta married into the noble Tuscan Della Gherardesca family, who had been instrumental in this area’s development, buying land and building castles here in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, they started to drain this very fertile land and the Tenuta San Guido building was actually a greenhouse, growing flowers such as tulips, which were sold to Holland. The estate became Mario Inciso’s hobby farm for horse breeding and viticulture. Piedmontese by birth, he was not enamoured with the local wines and in 1944 started to cultivate vines to produce wines for his own consumption. He experimented first with Sangiovese and Canaiolo in a vineyard at 400m in Castiglioncello di Bolgheri and then, away from prying eyes, he decided to plant cuttings of Bordeaux varieties. His wines were eventually released commercially in 1968 and called Sassicaia – named after the rocky area in which the vines were growing. The wine was a huge success and the vineyards moved down to around Tenuta San Guido itself.

 

Encouraged by his success, he was then followed by others, such as Piermario Meletti Cavallari from Bergamo in 1977, who founded Grattamacco and released the his first Rosso in 1982. Soon after, Ludovico Antinori (Mario Inceso’s nephew) also planted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which he thought would thrive in the Bolgheri climate and the sandy clay soils, on some other family land. Thus, Ornellaia was born, as was Massetto, the estate’s pure Merlot, planted on a plot with unique clay soils. Incidentally, Ornellaia’s winemaker from the late eighties to 1997 was Eger’s Tibor Gal. Michele Satta also got in on the act around this time. And so, the Super Tuscan phenomenon was born.

The disciplinare at the time only allowed for white and rosato, so comically, these wines, considered by many as the best Tuscan wines, hence the name, had to be labelled as lowly vino da tavola, or in the best case, Toscana IGT. It was only in 1994 that reds could also be labelled as Bolgheri DOC.

Naturally, with the success of these wines, the big guns from elsewhere in the country didn’t want to be left out, so Piero Antinori founded Guado al Tasso in 1990, Gaja arrived from Barbaresco, the Allegrini family from the Veneto and Balfi all arrived on the scene. Winemaking in the region exploded from around 250 hectares at the end of the nineties to around 1,200 hectares now, with around four million bottles being produced in the DOC by around 65 companies, 95% of which belong to the Consortium. Riccardo Binda, its General Manager, jokes that “almost nobody is from Bolgheri, maybe that’s why they all get on so well – they are all guests here”. Just like the grapes, which are now an integral part of the landscape.

Unique terroir

Bolgheri benefits from special climatic conditions and a patchwork of diverse soil types. It stretches along a band of maritime hills running parallel to the coast down through their foothills and across the plain to the dunes and marshes near the sea. This so-called ’Bolgheri amphitheatre’ is where marine breezes meet mountain breezes, tempering the hot summer sun and ensuring cool nights. Thus, the grapes retain acidity, and balance and finesse are maintained in these Mediterranean blends. The sunlight seems to have a special quality and is also reflected back by the sea. Grapes mature gradually in moderate conditions ensuring both phenolic and sugar ripeness, resulting in elegant, firm tannins.

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The region’s geological history has endowed it with huge soil diversity, even in a relatively small area. Alluvial soils, round pebbles deposited by ancient watercourses, are interspersed with windblown sand from Africa, limestone and clay, and even some volcanic rock from the Metalliferous Hills to the east. The oldest rocks in the denomination are those of the Bolgheri Hills, ancient flysch not found anywhere else in the area. Marine terraces form the undulations clearly visible as you look along the cypress-lined Strada Bolgherese that cuts through the centre of the region. Each area has a very different composition and so, in order to understand their soils and wines better, the denomination is now undertaking careful zonation with Attilio Scienza of Milan University. Each winery has plots on various types of soils, which they harvest and vinify separately and then blend. The highest quality vineyards are those at the bottoms of the slopes and on the plain, stretching along either side of Strada Bolgherese, which is where you’ll find most of the big names.

Styles of wine

The variations on Bordeaux blends – the Super Tuscans – are what most people associate with Bolgheri, with some also containing some Syrah or adding a Tuscan touch with a splash of Sangiovese, which has almost disappeared from the DOC. Interestingly monovarietal wines were only permitted later, so Massetto was, and still is, labelled as Toscana IGT, while Sassicaia now has its own DOC – the only estate in Italy to boast such. There is also a small percentage of rosato produced.

However, the region is increasingly creating great whites, primarily from Vermentino. Antinori’s Guado al Tasso, the largest Bolgheri estate, is a firm follower and is planting more of the variety, while Grattamacco makes one of the best Vermentino-based whites in Italy. Poggio al Tesoro’s Solosole is also a classic, pioneer of the trend to grow Vermentino in Bolgheri, and they now also produce a version partially fermented in amphora, PagusCamilla, which we saw bubbling away in the winery. Viognier is also gaining ground, with Michele Satta producing a lovely version with short skin contact.

Producers to visit

As well as trying to get through the hallowed gates of Ornellaia, Tenuta San Guido, Guado al Tasso and Tenuta Argentiera’s impressive premises with their fabulous view across the plain to the sea. it’s also worth paying a visit to Bolgheri pioneers Grattamacco and Michele Satta, who are located at higher altitudes than many of their counterparts. Another interesting port of call is Guado al Melo, the estate of scientist Attilio Scienza and his son Michele. Not only does Attilio boast one of the most impressive wine and Italian culture libraries I’ve ever seen – around 15,000 volumes – they also have a small museum, an experimental vineyard with over 70 varieties (including vines from the Caucasus, Spain and Portugal, which are being studied regarding future climate change) and some vitis silvestris climbing up the trees next to the vineyards.

Eating and sleeping

Having worked up an appetite wine tasting, serious meat eaters should head to Osteria La Magona for some Tuscan steak, while fish lovers might head to the coast and indulge themselves at I Ginepri or Tana del Pirata in Marina di Castagneto Carducci. Help is also at hand for vegetarians in meat-loving Tuscany as Podere Arduino has a great pop-up restaurant in summer next to Strada Bolgherese with delicious vegetarian treats and a picnic-like atmosphere. In Bolgheri itself, you can dine with wines selected from the shelves of Enoteca Tognoni’s restaurant. The picturesque town with its narrow streets makes a good base or, if you fancy getting away from it all, book one of the cottages on the estate of renowned photographer Oliviero Toscani, where you can relax among vineyards and paddocks with a great view of neighbouring Casale Marittimo.

 

Final thoughts

And remember, Bolgheri is a region still in its infancy compared to other classic regions; young vines are still not at their best, small producers can only compete with the big in terms of quality, and zonation will enable producers to match varieties and soils more effectively, so the only way is up.

Ten wines to try… and not just the classics

Tenuta Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Vermentino 2018

Zingy, bright citrus acidity and notes of green apple, the wine is textured and creamy on the palate with a lovely herbal, saline finish.

Grattamacco Bolgheri Vermentino 2017

A rich lush wine with a creamy texture and plenty of fresh, zesty lime and grapefruit acidity. Reveals its origins with notes of Mediterranean herbs and salt.

Michele Satta GiovinRe Toscana IGT 2017

A lovely oily textured skin-contact Viognier with rich notes of apricot, butter and spice. Some tannins and a beautiful caramel persistence on the finish.

Tenuta San Guido Le Difese Toscana IGT 2017

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese from the producers of Sassicaia. The Sangiovese contributes fresh acidity and fine tannins. Notes of plum, raspberry and sour cherry mingle with dried tomatoes and herbs and well-integrated oak. Drinking beautifully now.

Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Lauded as one of the best expressions of the last ten years. This classic Bordeaux blend is bursting with dark blackberry, cherry and chocolate. Its supple tannins make it structured yet ripe, rich and elegant wine, lingering long after you swallow.

Michele Satta Piastraia Bolgheri Superiore 2016

This Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese blend is a complex dark fruit salad mixed with notes of chocolate, smoky pepper and spice. The tannins are ripe and smooth, while a lifted herbal note endows this otherwise rich wine with great elegance.

Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Juicy ripe cherry, plum and cassis with well-integrated oak, a fresh mineral note and a hint of liquorice. It boasts bright acidity, chalky tannins and long sweet and spicy finish.

Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore 2016 – This iconic Bordeaux blend with just a splash of Petit Verdot, offers intense dark black-berried fruit with notes of cedar and spice. Smooth, long and textured on the palate with firm tannins and racy acidity. A Bolgheri classic.

Guado al Melo Artis Bolgheri Superiore 2015

Classic Bordeaux blend not produced every year. Freshly crushed raspberries mingle with ripe cherry, cassis and plum. A structured wine with an attractive hint of green pepper.

Poggio al Tesoro Dedicato a Walter Bolgheri Superiore 2015

This 100% Cabernet Franc is bursting with rich dark fruit and notes of pepper and mint. Full-bodied with smooth tannins and juicy acidity that persists on the finish.

*First published in Hungarian in Vince magazine.

The pruning guys

Sustainable pruning made cool

You’ve all heard of flying winemakers, who dash off around the world imparting their wisdom to young wineries, but how many of you have considered the fact that expert pruners might also be doing something similar? I certainly hadn’t until I met Marco Simonit, when I was lucky enough to attend a whole-day masterclass on pruning organised for Vinitaly Academy alumni and other guests by the Sicilian wine magazine Cronache di Gusto as an educational prelude to their Taormina Gourmet festival.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Sitting in the tasting room at the Pietradolce winery on Etna, I was anticipating a highly technical, and probably somewhat boring, lecture on pruning techniques, followed no doubt by some practical exercises in the vineyard, that would be highly useful for my studies but would not necessary enthuse me about pruning. Then, this denim-clad guy with a cool white quiff appeared and proceeded to introduce himself. This was Marco Simonit, one of the founders of Simonit&Sirch. They call themselves the pruning guys, or to be more formal, Vine Master Pruners. Their team of 20 pruning guys fly all around the world helping wineries develop more sustainable ways of pruning. Yet, typically their clients are not young wineries, nor are they small fry; they include big names such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Yquem in Bordeaux, Leroy in Burgundy, Roederer in Champagne, Ornellaia in Tuscany, and the list just goes on. They work with similarly prestigious clients throughout France and Italy as well as in Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and California.

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Pruning for health and longevity

So, why do established estates such as these need the services of these master pruners? Well, many vineyards around the world are ridden with Esca, a fungal disease that can enter through the cuts made by pruning. It’s a serious problem in Bordeaux, where on average 30% of Sauvignon Blanc vines show symptoms as does 7% of Cabernet Sauvignon. Under the desiccation cones – think of them like scars – caused by the pruning, the Esca rots the live wood, which slowly dies. The greater the number and size of the cuts, the greater the damage caused. The yield of the vine is compromised, it doesn’t grow properly and eventually it has to be grubbed up and replaced. One cross-section of a ’live’ vine that Marco shows us is really pretty shocking – about 70% of the vine is actually dead and the sap cannot flow properly and nourish the grapes as this dead wood is effectively strangling the vine. With so little live wood, it’s no wonder that the vine is eventually only able to produce feeble canes and a limited quantity of grapes.

Left to their own devices in the wild, vines will grow to enormous dimensions, creeping up trees and spreading themselves out; they are centenary and can live for hundreds of years. Marco shows us some amazing photos of huge old vines, including some on the Amalfi Coast that are more than two hundred years old with huge trunks and branches and some huge bush vines in Napa. However, domesticated vines need to be pruned so that they fit in the limited space – their first enemy – available to them in the vineyard. A great variety of different training methods have been devised depending on the region, for example guyot in Burgundy, pergola in Trentino, albarello on Etna and einzelfahl in the Mosel. These vines all need to be pruned to maintain the form of these training systems and prevent them from encroaching on their neighbour. This limits their growth in space and in time, since it, unfortunately, slowly kills them in many cases, as they fall prey to fungi and diseases like Esca and lack the energy to fight them.

Respect

Marco has been pruning vines for over 30 years and has been trying to find a more respectful approach; over the last 15 years, Simonit&Sirch have developed their own method to ensure vines lead longer, healthier lives. It works on the basis of four main concepts. Firstly, shaping the vine by pruning so that it is able to develop a natural, healthy system of branches. Secondly, ensuring that the sap is able to flow throughout the vine’s structure, without being hindered by desiccated areas caused by pruning wounds. This means always making cuts on the same side – the top – so that the sap can continue to flow along the vine’s branches. Thirdly, only making small cuts and only on wood that is one or two years’ old. This means that the size of the wound is reduced and hence also the chance of a wood disease entering. Finally, always giving the plant further defence by allowing a certain amount of protective wood if you do have to cut older wood. And actually, when you think about this, it’s pretty logical really. Compare the vine with a person and what effect large and frequent wounds would have on them. Moreover, encouraging the vine’s ramification and construction of live wood helps it to store nutrients and better resist drought, meaning that it needs less assistance with irrigation and fertilisation, so it’s easier to be not only organic or biodynamic, which is not enough anyway, but also to be sustainable.

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Sustaining local tradition

Unlike the impression we have of flying winemakers, with their one-style-fits-all winemaking, the pruning guys not only respect the vine with their method, but also local traditions and savoir faire. They don’t import one model or formula, they take the local training and pruning methods and ’tweak’ them; they seek out local solutions. For example, the branches of cordon- trained vines are encouraged to grow up, but they could also be trained obliquely, so that they develop a step of new live wood each year, but don’t grow upwards too quickly. They believe it’s important to get to know the history, variety and brand style when developing solutions. Eighty-three-year-old Madame Leroy of Burgundian Domaine Leroy was deemed crazy by the locals when she decided to raise the main wire in her vineyards and increase the height of the stakes, giving the vines more space, rather than cutting them back. Nobody has else has stakes that high in Burgundy. However, as Marco says, that’s bravery, not craziness. Tradition is the vines, not the stakes. Or you could make a loop in the cane to come back to the canopy and main wire, rather than cutting it. In albarello vines, they have encouraged branching with spiral development of the arms, helping to maximise the space the vine has to grow in and avoid overly fast upward growth. In fact, the albarello, or bush vine, enables you to respect the vine’s growth better as they can grow up and out and generally have more space, which is probably why many old vines are in fact bush vines. However, the key thing is to find personal solutions which both respect heritage and reduce the impact on the vines.

As you can imagine, there is also resistance to this from local pruners, who the guys mentor and train. Yet, using such methods has led to a reduction in the symptoms of Esca, although it may be the case that vines are infected but are better able to coexist with the disease as they are stronger and healthier. For example, in Franciacorta, 4.8% of Chardonnay vines are affected by Esca, yet in vineyards which practice these sustainable pruning methods, ten years on, only 0.8% of them are showing symptoms.

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Dealing with existing Esca

Diseases like Esca are easily spread when pruning as a pruner moves through the vineyard from plant to plant. Vines known to have Esca – unfortunately, it can take 10-15 years for them to show symptoms – should be marked so that they can be pruned separately with the secateurs being disinfected between, thus avoiding unnecessary manmade spread of the disease.

They also perform surgery on affected vines, just like you would deal with a cavity in a tooth or remove a cancerous growth. They have developed new tools to remove the desiccation cones like a cork and go inside the vine and clean it, removing the part infected by fungi and reducing the toxins, while respecting the sap flow and thus not creating further wounds. It takes two to five minutes to operate on each vine, and regrowth and recovery are also surprisingly fast. They began experimenting in Bordeaux and have now performed surgery on 12,000 vines in seven regions, including Champagne and Bolgheri. Over 90% of these now exhibit no symptoms and needed no further treatment. Yet, this is not something new, as at the end of the 19th century, Poussard also performed vine surgery very successfully, healing 90-95% of vines operated on.

Healing the vines means that they don’t need to be grubbed up and replaced. This is not only more cost-effective as vines generally recover from surgery within a couple of years, while the cost of replacing a vineyard is significantly more than surgery and also results in the loss of production for five years or so. Moreover, replacing individual vines within established, premium vineyards will lead to a loss of quality, as the vineyard will be populated by vines of varying ages which will not ripen at the same time. They will then not be harvested at optimal ripeness as it would not be feasible to pick the grapes selectively. Thus, these heterogenous vineyards will also affect the house style, which is ultimately not desirable, particularly at prestigious estates. Furthermore, the evolution of a style connected to a single vineyard is something truly valuable, which can only be achieved with the character originating from old vines.

Hands-on learning

After lunch, Marco also took us into the vineyards for a bit of practical experience. Although, as it was the wrong time of year for pruning, nobody was allowed any secateurs in their hands, but Marco took us around vines that had not yet been pruned and we investigated the possibilities in each case for continued natural branching. Following his morning presentation, it was surprisingly easy to select the right canes in most cases. Of course, it was also wonderful to see those old Etna vines that had clearly been respected and in the past and had managed to achieve longevity and still produce high-quality grapes.

Clearly pruning with respect is one of the factors that ensures healthy vines, healthy grapes and hence quality wine – only 5% of grapes from infected vines already lead to a noticeable quality reduction. It also means that we have something to leave to the next generation – a true patrimony of magnificent, healthy vines that can live to a ripe old age and still produce quality healthy fruit, instead of sickly vines that need to be replaced every twenty years or so.

I so thoroughly enjoyed Marco’s energetic, clearly delivered training and learnt so much that I even momentarily considered joining Simonit&Sirch’s pruning school at Plumpton College in January, but my enthusiasm waned when I thought about spending two days outside in wintry English vineyards. However, following this one day of training, I can seriously say that I now understand far more about pruning than I did before and especially what it means for the vines.

*First published in Hungarian in the Sustainability special edition of Vince magazine.

Guado al Tasso

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The vast, 100-hectare Guado al Tasso estate, part of Antinori’s Tuscan empire, stretches from the Strada Bolgherese to the coast road, which bisects all the major estates in the area, taking in a variety of soil types and a range of varieties including Vermentino, the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, as well as Syrah. Around 320 hectares are planted with vines, while they have 200 hectares of cereal, used to feed their pigs, which incidentally produce excellent salami and ham, as well as 1,000 olive trees.

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On arrival, we are immediately taken on a tour of the vineyards by winemaker and estate manager Marco Farrarese and his wife, Luisa. We pass some newly planted Vermentino, a particular favourite of Antinori, and Luisa explains that this now brings the total of Vermentino up to 65 hectares. We also learn that they pick their Vermentino in two separate harvests between 5 and 10 September and at the end of September. The Vermentino is planted here on sandy soils, while other new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon are on clay and rocky soils. The soils change very frequently here on the estate.

Cabernet Franc had been harvested that morning (26 September) following a three-day stop due to rain. We see this being processed later in their futuristic winery, whose walls, floor and individual rooms are insulated to control temperature and humidity. Marco calls them ‘sandwich walls’, which result in the shape of the winery designed by Fiorenzo Valbonesi. This reflects the heat, while holes in it let in air and light. The grapes pass over two sorting tables – one for bunches and then a second one for berry selection. The vast overground cellar is full of French oak barrels, the front barrel of each row marked with exactly what is in that row. They use French oak as they believe this gives the best results, but they do use a small percentage of US oak for Merlot. Interestingly, they also use Hungarian oak for Sangiovese and the estate wine.

On the way to the modern winery, destined primarily for Il Bruciato, Vermentino and rosé, we also pass the old Guado al Tasso cellar, which Luisa tells us will become a ’ghost cellar’ after this vintage as it will be closed, fully renovated and moved underground.

Their biggest block of land is the 200-hectare Guado al Tasso, which gives the estate its name, as well as several plots in the south of the denomination around Torre di Donoratico and a further block of 30 hectares in the north near Bolgheri. The soils are alluvial, rich in sandy clay or silty clay, with one fine gravelly area rich in iron – agglomerato bolgherese. The range of soils in a small area enables them to match varieties with the appropriate soils.

The estate is not only blessed with a variety of soils, as is the whole DOC, but also benefits from being encircled by the ’Bolgheri Amphitheatre’. It also boasts a mild climate with constant sea breezes and cooler air flowing down from the hills that temper the summer heat and ensure good diurnal range, clear skies and plentiful sunshine.  

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The rows in the vineyards are planted in such a way as to enable the fresh air to blow through the vineyards and dry humidity in the vines, ensuring that as few treatments as possible are needed in the vineyards. The estate is organic where possible, especially where spraying after flowering is concerned; they use organic fertilisers, plant legumes as cover crops and do their best to improve the presence of grass in the soil.

Some vines are trained lower to the soil, resulting in higher tannins and lower acidity, while others are trained higher to improve acidity in the grapes. This enables them to play with balance in the finished wines.

It was quite a late harvest this year, but there was good concentration of sugar in the grapes, which were picked at 25-26 brix. 2017 was a particularly dry vintage, but Marco believes they achieved a good result. The soils – much of which were formerly swampy land – are deep, fresh and rich in minerals; moreover, they can irrigate when necessary, important in dry vintages.

Finally, we head to the estate centre to taste four of the wines and enjoy some prosciutto and salami made from a special breed of pig that is a cross between a normal pig and a wild boar.

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The wines

Vermentino 2018

2019-09-26 10.55.43The Vermentino is harvested mid-September after the Merlot. It is quite a protracted harvest, as mentioned above – harvested at different levels of ripeness and for different styles. It is fermented with cultured yeasts in stainless steel and never undergoes malolactic fermentation. The wines are maintained separately on their lees for two months post fermentation. They aim for a wine that is rich in flavour but easy to drink and try to maintain the style every year.

A lovely textured, creamy wine with bright citrus acidity, crunchy green apple and a refreshing, tangy saline finish.

Il Bruciato 2017

2019-09-26 11.00.48The wines are always named after something with a local connection. So, Il Bruciato is named after a local wood that was set fire to by the local peasants in defiance of a cruel estate owner. The wood still exists but is now only 50 hectares instead of its original 150.

This was a hot, dry vintage, so irrigation was important in some vineyards. It’s a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah. All are vinified separately and blended after the malolactic fermentation is complete. No new oak, but aged for one year in 2nd, 3rd and 4th passage barrique.

Dark fruit, toasty oak and luxurious chocolate on the concentrated, spicy nose. Medium alcohol, smooth, fine-grained tannins and elegant fresh acidity. A beautifully layered wine with bags of crunchy dark cassis, bramble, cherry and raspberry pepped up with a touch of liquorice spice. Lingers after tasting.

Cont’Ugo 2017

2019-09-26 11.06.44The first vintage of this 100% Merlot was 2011, when DOC Bolgheri changed its rules to permit wines made 100% with one variety; at the same time, also requiring producers to bottle within the appellations. Fermentation takes place at low temperatures to aid extraction. They are also obsessed with sweet tannins, they say, so they work gently with the skins, with very short pumping over for ten days and then no pumping over. They taste every day to determine when the wine is ready. Normally, they aim to preserve red fruitiness and freshness, but due to the dryness of this vintage, there is more black fruit than normal in the wine.

A complex wine with plenty of ripe plum, dark cherry and raspberry with a toasty, oaky character, balanced by fresh acidity. It’s juicy and ripe with sweet tannins but has slightly warming alcohol.

Guado al Tasso 2016

2019-09-26 11.10.10Fermentation takes place in stainless steel at low temperatures (20-25°C) to preserve freshness. This is then increased to 30°C at the end of the alcoholic fermentation. The wine then goes into French barrique for malolactic fermentation; after it is complete, the best parcels are selected and blended in February.  The wine is aged for 18 months in 30% new oak and 70% 2nd passage. Marco considers the 2016 one of the best expressions of the last ten years. It’s a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, although they also sometimes add a little Petit Verdot depending on the vintage.

A complex, elegant wine packed with dark cherry and blackberry fruit, complemented with balsamic notes, cedar and well-integrated oak. Smooth and supple on the palate with fine-grained tannins and remarkable freshness. Incredible length.

Volcanic viticulture and Baroque palaces

Exploring eastern Sicily

Sicily, the ball waiting to be kicked by Italy’s boot, is currently one of the creative hotspots for Italian wine. Long maligned for producing oceans of deeply coloured, overly alcoholic wine that was shipped north by the tankerload to boost the paler wines of the north and France, it then dabbled with international varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and finally fell victim to the EU’s vine-pull scheme to halt overproduction and excessive agricultural subsidies. However, Sicily’s winemakers have reawakened and producers around the island are now creating increasingly high-quality wines mostly from indigenous varieties.

Ancient traditions

The Mediterranean’s largest island and historically a crossroads for many cultures and trading routes, Sicily benefitted from the winemaking techniques the Ancient Greeks brought with them, although wine had already been made on the island for centuries. Its warm climate, breezes from the surrounding azure seas and diverse landscape of hills, mountains and, of course, the infamous volcano Etna all create the perfect conditions for viticulture to thrive. Its arid climate also means than organic viticulture is increasingly practised.

Wine grapes are cultivated across much of the island and it boasts an astounding 23 DOCs (PDOs) and 1 DOCG (a more prestigious PDO with stricter regulations) as well as the catch-all Sicilia DOC (created in 2001 by a group of producers to help promote Sicily’s indigenous varieties) and a PGI – Terre Siciliane IGT.

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Historically, Sicily was famed for its Marsala, a fortified wine made in a similar way to Sherry which was, just like Sherry and Port, primarily destined for the glasses of the British. The British Navy had expanded its fleet in the region and was seeking something to replace Port for those stationed in there. A wine merchant from Liverpool dosed the local wine with alcohol and, voilà, Marsala was born and became an instant success. The wine, like most fortified wines, is no longer in favour, but if you find yourself in the west of the island, the town of Marsala, flanked by glistening salt pans and windmills, is definitely worth a visit, as are the Cantine Florio, which provides an excellent insight into the making of Marsala wine.

Head east

However, it’s the east of the island where much of the new winemaking action is taking place nowadays. As most people fly into Catania, the city shimmering in the shadow of ever-threatening Mount Etna, this makes life very convenient. Wizzair also fly there three times a week from Budapest. What’s more there’s plenty to enrich your Sicilian experience than just wine. You can scale Mother Etna, go hiking, stroll around magnificent Baroque cities, discover ancient Greek remains and gaze over the sparkling Ionian Sea from chic Taormina.

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Alpine viticulture in the mezzogiorno

The trendiest wine region in Italy at the moment has to be Etna. The region was in the doldrums like the rest of Sicily until its fortunes were revived around the turn of the century by outsiders like Andrea Franchetti, founder of Passopisciaro, and Belgian Frank Cornelisson, who were were drawn to the mountain’s terroir. However, Giuseppe Benanti is credited as being one of the first to revive winemaking on Etna. The Benanti ’Pietramarina’ is one of Etna, and Italy’s iconic, ageworthy whites. Produced from 80-year-old, albarello (bush-trained) Carricante, the main white variety on Etna, it’s dense and mineral-driven with plenty of zesty, citrus acidity. Carricante is mainly grown on Etna’s eastern slopes around the town of Milo, where it is entitled to be labelled as Etna Bianco Superiore. If you visit the Benantis, you can also view a palmento, the traditional Sicilian winery.

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Although Carricante, often with a dash of Catarratto or even obscure local variety Minella, makes fabulous zesty whites, Etna is all about red wine. The main protagonist here is Nerello Mascalese along with its understudy Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese is often compared to Barolo and red Burgundy for its ability to reflect the terroir on which it is grown. It combines the elegance of Pinot Noir with the tannins and structure of Nebbiolo, producing taut ethereal wine when grown at higher altitude (up to 1100m above sea level) and more concentration and texture lower down, but always with subtle aromas of sour cherry, tobacco, herbs and mineral notes. Etna Rosso is often made from Mascalese alone, but it can be blended with up to 20% of the more burly Cappuccio, which adds colour and softens the former’s acidity. Some single-varietal Cappuccio is also bottled and demonstrates a lovely spicy, floral character.

The ultimate terroir wines

Terroir plays a key role on Etna with the volcano being divided into contrade (or cru) based on lava flows from different eruptions over millenia, thus soil composition may vary widely within just few metres, with elevation further emphasising these differences. The contrade were officially deliminated in 2011. Before then, you were not allowed to state the contrada on the label, so Franchetti cunningly got around that by labelling his contrada wines with the first letter of their name, so R for Rampante for instance. Tasting some of these wines gives you a real feel for the differences between the individual contrade.

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Narrow roads wind through the scrub, vineyards and pistachio groves covering Etna’s slopes, but you can also take the Circumetnea railway which begins in Catania. Although you can’t reach everywhere with it, it runs right past Tenuta di Fessina’s lovingly restored lava-stone winery, which also boasts an atmospheric guesthouse. They served up some pretty good food and wine pairings too. If you don’t want to stay on Etna itself, nearby Taormina with its ancient Greek theatre affording magnicent views of the smoking volcano, perched above the sea, makes a convenient base. Taormina Gourmet, a two-day wine and food festival is held here annually in October.

The Baroque triangle

Lovers of Nero d’Avola and Baroque architecture should head further south to Noto, Modica and Ragusa, stopping off at Syracuse’s ancient port of Ortigia on the way. This is Nero d’Avola country and the variety’s name is said to come from the nearby seaside town of Avola. The area around Pachino, also home to the extra sweet Pachino DOP tomato, is considered its grand cru. Like elsewhere in Sicily, bulk wine was the name of the game here and you can still see derelict wineries with rusty pipes where dark, high-alcohol wine would have been pumped onto containers at the port. However, those days are long gone and producers like Zisola, Feudo Maccai and Gulfi are turning out some elegant, yet powerful Nero d’Avola under the Noto DOC. Grown on the area’s white calcareous soils, they boast delicious berry fruit and soft tannins. Gulfi are going one step further and producing vineyard-selected Nero d’Avola. Matteo Cantania shows me how the location (altitude and proximity to the sea) of each individual vineyard affects the wines’ character.

This is one of the hottest areas of the island, lying even further south than the tip of Tunisia, so it’s worth seeking cooler air in stunning Baroque hilltop city Noto, resplendently rebuilt within 50 years following 1693’s devastating earthquake, which killed around 50,000 people and flattened 50 towns. The beautiful balconied palazzi with carved rosettes and nymphs built from soft tufa take on a beautiful honey colour in the bright sunshine. Visiting the historic Caffè Sicilia is a must and you could balance this with trying inventive Sicilian cuisine at Ristorante Crocifisso.

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Elegant Nero d’Avola blends

Driving west, past other Baroque pearls, Ragusa and Modica, which incidentally hides a delightful chocolaterie, Bonajuto, still making thickly grained chocolate using ancient methods, you come to another Nero d’Avola stronghold and the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. Here the Nero d’Avola is blended with another local variety, Frappato, which produces a delicately coloured, fresh juicy, fragrant wine with aromas of strawberry, violet and wild herbs. The Nero d’Avola gives the blend structure while the Frappato provides freshness and elegance. One of Italy’s rising stars, charismatic Arianna Occhipinti is based here and produces elegant wines fom the sandy red topsoil underlaid with white calcareous soils found in Vittoria. She was the first to bottle Frappato as a single varietal. Her spacious cellars and wonderful atmospheric tasting room were perfect for escaping the downpour outside and enjoying her organically farmed, terroir-driven wines. Arianna is the niece of Giusto Occhipinti of the COS Winery, source of the region’s winemaking renaissance and another advocate of low-intervention winemaking. He vinifies and ages his most famous wine, ‘Pithos’, Greek for a large storage container, in terra cotta amphorae.

So, if your perception of Sicilian wine is limited to overripe, sweet Nero d’Avola and unbalanced, alcoholic Chardonnay, it’s time to take a trip to its East and discover its elegant balanced wines and energetic winemakers reinventing historic regions and rediscovering and refining wines made from Sicilian varieties. It won’t do any harm either to erase the memory of the Mafia and its legacy, by exploring Sicily’s Baroque cities, ancient sites and natural beauty.

*First published in Hungarian in the August 2019 edition of Vince magazine.

Visiting the garden of Diodoros

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Italy is a magnet for lovers of food and wine, attracting around 17 million visitors annually in search of the boot’s gastronomic delights, 90% of whom also arrive with wine tasting on their mind. Yet how many of these visitors end up in the south of the country? A paltry 7%, with Lazio, home to the capital Rome, creaming off a good proportion of that. Most of the Italian food and wine lovers end up in Tuscany, Piedmont and Trentino-Alto Adige. So where does that leave Sicily, once known as ‘God’s kitchen’, with its abundance of fresh produce and increasingly high-quality wines. Well, with a fraction of that 7%, I guess.

Sicily and its vinous and gastronomic bounty have a special place in my heart. So, when I received a call from Salvo Giusino of Cronache di Gusto and a subsequent invitation from Luigi Bonsignore, president of the Strada del Vino e dei Sapori della Valle dei Templi (Wine and Flavours Route of the Valley of Temples), to attend their inaugural conference and tasting in Agrigento at the beginning of June, I was delighted to accept.

The area of Agrigento is known primarily for the Valley of the Temples – an archaeological park with wonderfully preserved Greek temples that is the world’s largest archaeological site and one of Sicily’s main attractions. Yet of the 950,000 visitors visiting the park last year (up from 550,000 in 2012, according to director of the park, Giuseppe Parello), how many of these actually take the time to discover the wider region and its produce? Probably a fraction of that, before they jump back onto their tour buses and head back to resorts such as Taormina or Cefalù, having not spent a penny outside the park.

A group of local companies, including olive oil and wine producers, restaurants and hotels have clubbed together to establish a wine and food route, branded with the name ‘Valley of the Temples’ with the aim of improving the quality of tourism in the region and attracting visitors to remain longer and sample its wine, olive oil and abundant hospitality. It’s no coincidence that the Valley of the Temples is at the heart of the route, as the site also boasts a wonderful garden, and wine and olive oil are produced from the plantations within its boundaries.  The  produce from the park is branded with the name Diodoros; Val Paradiso (who also took us on a tour of their facilities) tend the olive and almond groves and produce the olive oil whereas the Canicattì cooperative produce the wine from a blend of 90% Nero d’Avola and 10% Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio – the latter two varieties being more closely associated with Mount Etna.

1 June saw the official start of the wine route with a conference involving discussions and presentations by key members of the route, such as Luigi Bonsignore, its president and owner of Baglio Bonsignore and Fabio Gulotta, its director and owner of the Terracotta restaurant in Agrigento as well as representatives from the Sicilian Regional Institute for Wine and Oil and the Federation of Sicilian Wine Routes.

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Luigi Bonsignore believes that the region has something unique to offer in terms of its olive oils and wines. It’s one of the best places to grow Nero d’Avola , he thinks, and the wines produced here represent the best expression of the variety. The initiative aims to bring this to the eyes of the public and attach it to the already known brand of the ‘Valley of the Temples’, which already draws crowds to Agrigento. The hope is that some of these visitors will then also remain a little longer and discover the beauty of the 250-kilometre route stretching from Casteltermini and Caltanissetta in the north to Licata and its heart, Agrigento, in the south.

The region also boasts attractive, off-the-beaten-track Baroque hill towns such as Nardo and the Farm Cultural Park of Favara where an abandoned town was brought back to life by community efforts and is now one of the area’s most important attractions – as its name suggests, an open-air cultural park. Florinda Saieva from the Farm Cultural Park emphasises the need for cooperation here in order to really achieve something.

One of the participants jokes that they now have a wine road, but no roads! A slight exaggeration perhaps, but one of the hurdles that the region, and Sicily as a whole, faces – is a lack of infrastructure. Many of the roads are in a poor state of repair and often lined with rubbish, an eyesore for tourists not used to this. They realise they need to work together to improve this situation as this also represents a factor for success. They are also proposing the introduction of mobility solutions for sustainable tourism, such as electric carsharing.

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The following day, journalists and visitors to the archaeological park had the chance to taste the producers’ wines and olive oils in an idyllic, if rather hot, setting in the heart of the site. As well as the region’s stated flagship variety, Nero d’Avola, juicy Grillo, elegant Perricone, attractive sparkling wine, zesty Cattaratto Comune, refreshing Nero d’Avola Rosé and spicy Syrah were on offer, demonstrating that the region has plenty to offer the curious wine lover.

A website is under construction at http://www.stradadelvinovalledeitempli.it/, where visitors will soon be able to find comprehensive information on the region and producers taking part in the initiative.

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I wish them the best of luck and hope that the Valle dei Templi will soon become a more recognisable name on the Sicilian wine map. I’ll certainly be watching their progress eagerly.

Italian flair and German efficiency

We’re here to visit Cantina Tramin, the region’s third oldest winemakers’ cooperative, based in the professed home of the Traminer variety, Tramin – or Termeno in Italian. We’re met by Wolfgang Klotz at their futuristic winery at the entrance to the village. This stunning green-veined building, a mixture of metal, cement and glass, based on the vine’s shape, morphology and the role it plays in the local landscape, morphs into a giant sculpture as you approach and has become a major landmark in Tramin.

Building on a long tradition of viticulture
En route to the vineyards, we call into the café in the centre of the village, as we all profess the need for a caffeine injection. In the tiny space, Wolfgang gives a bit of background on the area as we sip our espressi. There’s no viticulture on the valley floor here, unlike around Verona, this is given over to apple orchards. Apple production is big business here – Alto Adige is one of the biggest growers of apples in Europe. Munching on a Pink Lady? There’s a good chance it came from Alto Adige. Everyone around is speaking a form of German, but it’s not the German you’ll learn at school; it’s the kind of Alpine German you’ll found spoken in Tyrol and even Bavaria. Yet unlike their more northerly counterparts, the South Tyrolese don’t learn Hoch Deutsch (High German) and have no connection with it – they speak their local dialect and also learn Italian at school.

Despite today’s vast swathes of apples, they’ve only been here for two hundred years or so, previously corn was planted here on the swampy valley floor. Wolfgang tells us that it was very difficult to cross the valley, so dialects vary greatly from village to village. Viticulture, however, dates back 3000 years here. Monks later invested in viticulture too as it represented the warmest, mildest part of the German-speaking world. Viticulture is still a key industry in the valley nowadays with a myriad of varieties grown along its slopes. Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown on this side of the valley with Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir on the other.

We head off along narrow roads with fabulous views over the valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, to take a look at some of the vineyards and Wolfgang points out where which varieties are typically grown. In the seventies, they merged with another coop from the other side of the valley in Mazon, which is the grand cru for Pinot Noir in Italy. The Pinot Noir from here has great concentration and body. Gewürztraminer (or Traminer Aromatico in Italian), the winery’s flagship variety, prefers higher altitude with heavy soils which retain humidity, whereas Lagrein, another key local variety, is planted low on sandy soils.

The vineyards belonging to the coop’s members run 10km north to south. There are around 350 growers representing about 260 hectares, meaning that most work less than one hectare. The coop, founded 100 years ago, helps to keep such family businesses alive. The income is divided based on quality, meaning that there is only a small difference between grape price and bottle price in Alto Adige, enabling families to make a good income and maintain their traditional way of life. They will probably have some orchards too.

We take a look at some Gewürztraminer vines where botrytis has already set in – it usually appears between November and January. These berries represent the liquid gold that will become luscious late-harvest, naturally sweet wine, Terminium, which the cantina has produced since 1998.Alto Adige, aka Südtirol, is a strange, but delightful place. This most northerly region of Italy used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is thus a combination of Italian style and Austrian gemütlichkeit, one of those German words it’s simply impossible to translate effectively. Although Italian is widely spoken, you often have the feeling you are in Austria – the signs are in both Italian and German and the people are more likely to converse in German than Italian.

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The Gewürztraminer winery
Our next port of call is high up above Bolzano (aka Bozen) to taste the winery’s flagship variety, Gewürztraminer. The cantina, which has played a key role in raising the bar for Alto Adige wine, has based its profile on the aromatic variety and has become synonymous with high-quality, still Gewürztraminer. Its single-vineyard Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer has won Gambero Rosso’s highest accolade, Tre Bicchieri, 18 years on the trot and its newly released Epokale, a spätlese aged for seven years in a silver mine at 2000m scooped up an amazing 100 Parker points last year. However, the proof will be in the pudding or, in this case, in the wineglass.

We take the Renon cable car up the mountainside and across verdant mountaintop meadows to the atmospheric Parkhotel-Holzner, built in 1908. Before getting stuck into the real work of Gewürztraminer tasting, we enjoy the spectacular views across to the snow-covered peaks of the dolomites from the beautiful turn-of-the-century’s sunny terrace. Glass of their Chardonnay blend, Stoan (a play on the dialect word for stone) in hand, Willi Stürz, the cantina’s winemaker gets us up to speed with the variety, one of the oldest in viticulture, dating back at least a thousand years, although nobody knows exactly where it came from.

Traminer gets its name from the village of Tramin where its village museum has a bottle of wine from 1883 where the name Traminer is still used, Gewürztraminer being a spicy mutation of the same variety. Famous names such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling are descendants of the variety and Pinot Noir also shares genetic similarities. The variety still has one of its strongholds in Alto Adige, the other being Alsace. Gewürztraminer from here is generally drier, usually with around 3-7g of residual sugar and spicy notes of cinnamon, whereas Alsatian version may well contain up to 20g and tends to be more floral, with its familiar aromas of rose petals.  Twenty-two percent of the coop’s members’ vineyards are planted with Gewürztraminer.

We taste their range, from the dry Selida 2017, which offers the accustomed rose and lychee character, through to the luscious Terminium 2015, which is labelled as late harvest but is more like a Trockenbeerenauslese. Harvested between the end of November through to mid-January with 60-70% botrytis, the luscious golden-amber liquid proffered orange, marmalade, honey, ripe peach and umami and weighed in at a whopping 320g of residual sugar. Long lingering finish.

Of course, the main course comprised the Nussbaumer and Epokale. The 2016 Nussbaumer, where they had made 25 separate vinifications to try to understand the variations comes from the Nussbaumer vineyard with porphyry base rock. Well-deserving of its tre bicchieri – a rich, creamy, full-bodied wine filling the nose and palate with aromatic rose, lychee and bags of cinnamon spice. The 2009 had already begun to lose varietal expression but had developed greater harmony and elegance on the palate. Still retaining freshness, it had become smoother, creamier, more buttery with vanilla, spice and mineral notes. Willi pointed out that they now release their Gewürztraminer a year later than in the past.

And on to the Parker 100-pointer, the Epokale 2011. This was produced in the old medieval style (hence its name) of the variety, semi-dry with 40g of residual sugar and harvested at the end of October. The first vintage, Willi tells us, boasted 107g. Beautifully balanced and creamy, elegant yet honeyed and rich.

A cooperative recognised for high quality
Back at base camp in Tramin, we also taste some of their other wines, demonstrating that they not only excel with their flagship variety but also turn out very high-quality wines from the wide range of varieties grown in the area, such as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Although a cooperative, here there are none of the negative connotations associated with the concept, these wines have earned them recognition as one of Italy’s top white wine producers. Willi Stürz, the driving force behind helping growers and introducing cutting edge technology in the cellar, was named Italian Winemaker of the Year by Gambero Rosso in 2004. In their search for high quality, they also decided to age their top whites longer, releasing them six months later. This entailed a drop in sales in 2015, but the quality-motivated coop members chose to bear this.

Naturally, we don’t pass up the chance to taste the Maglen Pinot Nero or the Urban Lagrein, the cellar’s top reds.

Cantina Tramin is an excellent example of how the cooperative system helps turn mountain viticulture into an economically sustainable activity for local wine-growing families, whilst pursuing the highest quality in their wines. It is an example that could be followed, despite the distaste for the word ‘cooperative’, in many regions where individual vineyard holdings are relatively small. Not only could it increase the income of grape growers, but it would also enable greater investment in modern technology, thus facilitating an increase in quality.

Many thanks to Irene Graziotto of Studio Cru for organising the trip and to Wolfgang and Willi of Cantina Tramin for hosting us.

Photos by Cantina Tramin, Parkhotel Holzner and Sue Tolson.

Article originally published in two parts on WineSofa. 

Passionate, sustainable winemaking on Vulture

Vinitaly, the annual wine show devoted principally to Italian wines held in Verona, is always a great opportunity to uncover, discover and explore a bewildering range of regions, varieties and producers. The huge pavilions dedicated to the country’s regions are graced with both the magnificent stands of large, prestigious wineries and smaller, less ostentatious producers with small booths. It’s easy to walk kilometres every day and to lose yourself amongst the overwhelming scale of it all. However, a great place to discover some of the latter, smaller, independent producers is in the FIVI (Federazione Italiana Vignaioli Independenti – Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers) zone.

Vigne Mastrodomenico

One such producer was Emanuela Mastrodomenico of Basilicata’s Vigne Mastrodomenico, who took the time to show me her family’s wines and to tell me something of their activities on the ancient, extinct volcano of Vulture.

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Emanuela initial calling led her, like so many from wine-making families, to study something completely different – in her case, law – before being entranced by wine and ending up in the family business after all. Once she’d caught the bug, Emanuela told me she read everything about winemaking she could get her hands on and is now firmly and passionately ensconced in the wine world. Her enthusiasm and passion glow around her, despite it being the last day of an exhausting Vinitaly, as she talks about Vulture and the wines they make there.

Vigna

Five generations of the Mastrodomenico family have been growing grapes and making wine on the slopes of Vulture, but it was her father who really boosted everything 15 years ago with the first bottling of Likos, their Aglianico del Vulture DOC wine. Previously, they had really only produced wine for themselves, selling the excess grapes.
Nowadays, they farm eight hectares on a small hill overlooking the slopes of Mount Vulture. Their west-facing vineyards have plenty of exposure to the sun and are well ventilated by winds coming from the nearby sea, ensuring the grapes ripen well and remain healthy as well as aiding their ability to work organically. They do everything the traditional way, by hand, and with as little intervention as possible. The area, I learn, had been under the sea millennia ago and the volcano created very hard strata, thus conserving its marine deposits and layers of water amongst the rock, which they discovered when they broke through the rocks. Therefore, the vines also have access to a unique richness of nutrients as well as water throughout the hot summers.

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Naturally, as they are on the Vulture, they produce Aglianico, the south’s answer to Nebbiolo, and only Aglianico, Emanuela informs me. The vines on the lower slopes had already been planted by her grandparents, whilst those higher up were planted by her father – this area had previously been given over to cereal.

A tribute to the past yet looking forward to the future

We begin with their unfiltered, cherry-hued IGT Rosato Fonte del Ceraso 2017, a lovely fresh wine bursting with cherry, redcurrants, raspberry and a floral note. Refreshing acidity, a touch of tannins, a good dose of stoniness and a spicy saline finish make this more than just your average summer quaffer. It’s a real wine, reflecting the power of Vulture Aglianico and also harkening back to the past, when it was actually more typical to make rosato on Vulture than rosso, and it was often spumante.

Emanuela dubs the Mòs Rosso Basilicata IGT 2016 the spirit of the volcano and says they decided to make this wine to show the purity of the Aglianico fruit produced on the Vulture’s unique terroir. Fermented in stainless steel and then aged in second use French oak for six months, Mòs is a fresh red-berry-dominated wine with plenty of minerals and spice. Lively acidity, well-managed tannins and beautiful, pure fruit on the palate. Intense and long, it would be the perfect match for the Caciocavallo di montagna cheese typical to Lucania – the ancient name for Basilicata.

Their Likos Agliancio del Vulture DOC is now only produced in the best years, from a special selection of old vines. We taste the 2015, which is rich and dense with chewy yet fine tannins. The intense nose of blackberry, blackcurrant and cherry underlain with plentiful herbs and spices and a touch of dark chocolate is reflected on the palate with bright acidity providing balance to this elegant wine with great ageing potential. I could imagine this with some Easter lamb or perhaps even a dark chocolate dessert.

Our final treat would be an even better pair for dark chocolate or perhaps some blue cheese. Shekàr Passito del Vulture 2012 is a meditation wine produced in limited quantities. The grapes are left to shrivel on the vine, having been selected and had their stems cut during the harvest, concentrating the sugars and further intensifying Aglianico’s already intense stature. The grapes are then macerated on their skins for 15 days, fermented in stainless steel and left to age in French oak for three years in their winery cut into the rock, whose constant temperature and humidity provides the perfect environment for the ageing of this majestic, innovative Aglianico. Beautifully fruity with an attractive tannic structure, plenty of spice and flowers as well as a burst of fresh acidity to balance the residual sugar. Truly a wine with which to contemplate the past, present and future of the magnificent Vulture and those who make wine there, with passion, respect and in harmony with nature, just like the Mastrodomenicos.

Thanks to Emanuela for the first three photos!

Tenuta Cocci Grifoni

Cocci Grifoni sign

Pecorino’s saviour

As soon as we arrive, Marilena leads us off to view the so-called two-hectare mother vineyard, Vigneto Madre, where the first Pecorino vines were planted. We’re in the Offida DOCG in the south of Le Marche to visit the historic producer Tenuta Cocci Grifoni. We gaze out over the rows of Montepulciano lining the steep slope of the historic vineyard of Vigna Messieri to the small hillock of the Vigneto Madre and the Apennine mountains beyond, Gran Sasso, Monte Sibille and Maiella, which is in neighbouring Abruzzo, the other hotspot for Pecorino. The hills are steep, which makes viticulture in the Piceno area difficult. In fact, there is only about 3% of flat land in Le Marche.

 

The clay soils, which Montepulciano loves, are covered with long grass blowing in the winds. Biodiversity, Marilena explains, is important for them.  They want to be able to pass on a respectful relationship with nature to generations to come. The area is well ventilated as cold winds blow over from the Balkans and there is little protection here, they always have sea breezes from the south and the east, so their wines are healthy and rich in salt – the sea is only five kilometres away. The perfect location, only an hour’s drive to the mountains and 15 minutes to the sea.

Marilena in the vineyard

The Montepulciano vineyard was planted in vertical rows by her father 30 years ago, so-called counter polling, girapoggio. So, if it rains, the hillside will easily erode; the grass and borders they’ve retained help to prevent this. The stream we walk past on the way back to the winery and the glass-walled tasting room with magnificent views of the patchwork of vineyards and other crops flows along to their San Basso estate. The property comprises 95 hectares, 50 of which is devoted to vines, 7% to olive groves and 12% to cereals. They also allow a lot of land to lie fallow to conserve the natural habitat and allow the repopulation of flora. So, from the tasting room’s terrace, we can view the Badlands, as Marilena calls them, with patches of pine trees and broom amongst the vines, olive groves and grain fields.  Moreover, they are studying how birds reproduce in different areas in conjunction with wineries in Monferrato and the Prosecco area. We’ll also realise how important the environment is to them later when we see their labels.

Pecorino – a cheese or a grape variety?

Marilena is one of the daughters of Guido Cocci Grifoni, Le Marche’s saviour of the Pecorino variety, thus named by the shepherds because the sheep eat the grapes – Pecorino is a mountain dweller. The variety is now becoming trendy and can be found on many hip somms’ wine lists as well as increasingly on even some supermarket shelves. However, a couple of decades ago, it was almost unheard of. Her father, who unfortunately passed away eight years ago, was curious as to why Pecorino was a permitted variety for the Offida DOC, but was not actually planted, so he went in search of it. Finally, in Ascoli Piceno, he met the owner of a small, pre-phylloxera vineyard, Pescaro di Tronto. Copious research later, he discovered that the best exposure for Pecorino was north and in 1987 he planted the ‘Pecorino Vigna Madre’, and they’ve been producing Pecorino from here since 1990. He was considered crazy at the time for planting this obscure variety.

A bit of history

Her great-grandfather, returning from the States in the 1930s, built the house across the courtyard and began establishing vineyards. Her father was born there. This was still the era of the mezzadria, sharecropping, system in Italy, so when her grandfather passed away in the 1950s, his sons had to leave school in order to support the family. They gradually expanded with time, buying the San Bassano estate in the 1950s, followed by the Tara estate and then the Le Ginestre estate in 2015, where they now have an organic project with six hectares of white grapes. They produced 350,000 bottles of wine the previous year but have the capacity to make around 400,000 bottles per annum. Thirty percent of production is exported.

The Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC was established in 1968, but they were too late to register their wine for it that year, so 1969 was their first bottling of Rosso Piceno wine. 1975 saw the establishment of the Falerio di Collio Ascolani DOC, which permitted Trebbiano, Malvasia and Pecorino, unknown at that time.

Cru wines

First of all, Marilena has us taste three cru wines. The labels for the cru wines all use native animals. Animals that have a positive influence on grapes, so like kinds of steward, were chosen. A toad is depicted on the Colle Vecchio 2016, an Offida DOCG Pecorino whose grapes originate from a historic vineyard close to the Vigneto Madre. The toad was selected as both Pecorino and toads like cold environments. There is also a small lake nearby where toads love to hop around. They are positive for the vineyards as they eat insects that could damage the grapes. It’s a lovely wine, fresh and zesty, yet also chewy and creamy with lively acidity and plenty of nuts and stone fruit. Pecorino is another Italian white with great capacity to age, with Marilena telling us that wines from the best vintages can easily age for twelve years or so. Her sister Paola, by the way, is the winemaker and selected the yeasts for the Pecorino. They are natural yeasts, which are now being studied together with the University of Ancona.

Marilena very reluctantly allows us to try a Passerina. I say reluctantly as she only wanted us to try cru wines, so some discussion ensued before we were permitted to try this less noble local variety. A high yielder which is believed to be related to Trebbiano Toscano and can achieve yields of up to 120-130hl/ha. The Passerina San Basso 2017, a mere IGT, comes from an old autochthonous vineyard area and was a zingy, fresh, lemony wine with plenty of yellow fruit. The estate wines like these are represented by the wild flowers surrounding the vineyards to try to express their strong connections with the land. The Passerina label bears broom flowers, which speckle part of the hillsides near the estate.

Passerina

We’re back to Pecorino with the next wine, made from a small crop from the Vigneto Madre as a homage to her father after he passed away. Winning the ultimate Italian accolade, the Tre Bicchieri, the Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013 (Offida DOCG Pecorino), the first vintage of this wine, comes in a rather environmentally unfriendly heavy bottle. It’s an elegant but chewy, balanced wine with plenty of zesty acidity and flavours of honey, butter, nut, grapefruit and yellow flowers.

Guido homage wine

The final white is another Pecorino, this time with a bit of age, Collio Vecchio Pecorino 2010, aged in stainless steel and refined in bottle. They’ve only used stainless steel and glass since 2010 and made no changes when the DOCG was established in 2011. Now eight years old, Pecorino can clearly age well – a golden, buttery, rich and textured wine with flavours of honey and grapefruit and a long salty finish. Its 13.5% of alcohol, however, seemed much higher.

Collio Vecchio

We then tasted a red estate wine, Rosso Piceno Superiore San Basso 2014, represented by the borage flower. A bright, fresh, easy-drinking wine with crunchy cherry and plum fruit and a slightly saline finish made from 55% Montepulciano and 45% Sangiovese.

Marilena with bottle

The final red was a Vigna Messieri 2013 Rosso Piceno DPC Superiore, a blend of 70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese, from the historic vineyard we had visited earlier. Matured in stainless steel for 30 months followed by 18 months in 40-45 Slavonian oak, it was a balanced wine with great acidity, smoky black fruit, fresh white pepper and notes of liquorice but rather grippy tannins. I love the way that the Sangiovese freshens up the Montepulciano in the reds of Piceno.

Cocci Grifoni fizz

Although we were now running somewhat late thanks to Marilena’s fascinating stories and insight into Pecorino and the organisers were looking stressed and tapping their watches, Marilena insisted we taste their homemade pizza and sip some Passerina fizz on the magnificent terrace.

CG tasting room

*Part of a trip organised by the Circle of Wine Writers and the Marche Chamber of Commerce (Marchet)

 

 

 

 

Visiting the tower of the wind while in the grip of Lucifer

Torrevento

Wines of another Puglia

I have unashamedly stolen my sub-title from large Puglian winery Torrevento, which dubs itself ‘vini di un alt(r)a Puglia’ – ‘wines of another Puglia’; by removing the ‘r’, you then get ‘wines of an ancient Puglia’. I paid a visit to the winery in the Castel del Monte DOC on the invitation of its Technical Director, Leonardo Palumbo, fellow judge at the 2017 VinAgora International Wine Competition held in Budapest in July. Upon discovering we would be spending this year’s family holiday in Puglia, Leonardo promptly invited me to visit the winery.

The name Puglia conjures up oceans of easy-drinking Primitivo and perhaps two of its more well-known DOCs – Primitivo di Manduria and Salice Salentino (a blend of Negroamaro (the region’s most planted black variety) and Malvasia Nera) – will be familar to many. However, as Torrevento’s sub-title suggests, there is more to Puglia than meets the eye of the majority of wine drinkers. There are plenty of native and local grapes to be discovered in Puglia, and in the apparently endless sea of red wine, white and rosato is also produced in small pockets from grapes that few will have heard of, or indeed tasted.

Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte

Torrevento is located in the Castel del Monte DOC, in the wildest and most rugged part of Puglia, in the middle of the Alta Murgia National Park, at the foot of the thirteenth-century castle of the same name, which commands fantastic views of the local countryside. The castle has served as a prison, a plague shelter and a source of building materials for those pilfering the castle and its contents over the years. It sits at the centre of the DOC, which also had three wines styles raised to DOCG status in 2011, all based on local varieties, now constituting three of Puglia’s four DOCGs.

The two reds – Caste del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva DOCG and Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva DOCG – both take Nero di Troia (officially named Uva di Troia) as their backbone, minimum 90% for the former and 65% for the latter, with the rest made up of Aglianico and Montepulciano. Nero di Troia is the third of Puglia’s key varieties, producing well-structured, ageworthy reds with aromas of red fruits, undergrowth, roses, tobacco, black pepper and herbs. The third DOCG is, unusually, a DOCG solely devoted to rosato, the only one in Italy, so Leonardo tells me – Castel del Monte Bombino Nero DOCG. Bombino Nero, grown mostly in Puglia is a variety containing plenty of anthocyanins, so perfect for making rosato as the colour bleeds very quickly before any bitter tannins, giving a soft, well-coloured rosato with flavours of red berries. Although many people will not have heard of the Caste del Monte region, it is actually one of Puglia’s largest production zones.

Torrevento

The Torrevento winery is actually an eighteenth century Benedictine monastery, situated in the ’Torre del Vento’, or Tower of the Wind district, giving rise to its name. It has been the heart of the company since the estate was acquired by the Liantonio brothers in 1948, with wines being aged in large cellars carved into the rock of the monastery. However, its roots go back much earlier, when founder Francesco Liantonio set sail for New York to seek his fortune. Having amassed enough money working in an ice factory, he returned to his beloved Puglia to realise his dream of producing and trading in wine and olive oil, one of the other staples of Puglia. Indeed, wherever you go in Puglia, ancient olive grows dot the region’s characteristic rusty-looking terra rossa soils.

The family cultivates mainly indigenous varieties in this wild, stony landscape of the limestone Murgia plateau. Alongside the DOC(G)’s flagship varieties of Uva di Troia and Bombino Nero, Torrevento cultivate Bombino Bianco, Pampanuto, Aglianico, Fiano, and the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are only used in blends. Naturally, as a large Puglian winery, they also have other lines with local grapes sourced from elsewhere in Puglia and bearing different DOC or IGT names, including the rare sweet Moscato di Trani DOC.

Torrevento botti

We arrived at Torrevento on a scorching hot day, in the middle of the heatwave that the Italians had nicknamed ‘Lucifer’, with temperatures soaring well above 40°C. Leonardo, despite seeming to be holding the fort practically single-handedly whilst many of his colleagues were on holiday, gave us a comprehensive tour of the winery, saw us off on our way to visit Frederic II’s Castel del Monte, reserved us a table at an innovative Puglian restaurant in the shadow of the castle, Montegusto, and generously packed up a dozen wines representative of Castel de Monte to pick up on our way back, for us to taste at our leisure. A couple of hours in the car with Lucifer’s sun beating down would have quickly turned them into mulled wine otherwise. Into the boot with two cases of ‘another Puglia’, including varieties such as Pampanuto, Uva di Troia, Bombino Nero and Bombino Bianco (no relation), which thus far I had only learnt about during my Vinitaly Academy Italia Wine Ambassador course with chief Italian grape guru Ian d’Agata. Leonardo then dispatched us off to visit picturesque port town Trani, centre of the Moscato di Trani DOC. Beware, if you wish to park your car in Trani, there are no parking meters – you need to purchase a kind of ‘scratch card’ from a tobacconist beforehand!

Locorotondo 2

Sipping a light Torrevento white and rosato whilst gazing at our holiday home’s picture-postcard view of hilltop town Locorotondo was the perfect way to while away our last few nights in Puglia and ensured that the remaining wines, mostly reds unsuited to the baking heat, caused our cases to weigh in at just 500g under our luggage allowance. All are now safely waiting for cooler, more appropriate temperatures before tasting.

Locorotondo vines

*This article first appeared on WineSofa, the first and only comprehensive website in English focussing on Central and Eastern European wine.

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