After a full morning’s tasting we were having a well-earned lunch at Sartori in Lavis, in the magical mountain kingdom of Trentino. We were discussing whether to head straight to Piedmont or try to cram in another visit. Giorgio spotted something on the list, a Lagrein by Rottensteiner. We were gently keeping our eyes open for a Lagrein on this trip. Lagrein is usually a light to medium-bodied red wine peculiar to Trentino and Alto Adige. Its father is Teroldego (another local grape) and some people say it is distantly related to Syrah or Pinot Noir. Giorgio had a dim recollection of hearing about Rottensteiner. The bottle was ordered. It was very good – fuller and deeper than the grapey examples we had come across so far. So, instead of turning south back down the valley, we turned north to Bolzano, not far from the Brenner Pass and the Austrian border.
Hannes Rottensteiner is the son at the helm of the winery. He sounds German, speaks German but, as he explains, Bolzano is still in Italy. Hannes’ grandfather started the winery in 1956 and all the family is involved – mother Rosa, father Toni, Hannes and his sister Evi. The biggest influence on the wine is the red porphyr rock that the vines grow on and which add to the exotic spiciness in the wines.
Hannes studied Oenology firstly locally at San Michele, then Geisenheim in the Rheingau in Germany, then Udine in Friuli and now makes the wine with his father. It’s a wide range of wines. Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Pinot Grigio, Muller-Thurgau (the most impressive we have tasted so far), dry Gewurztraminer and Goldmuskateller form the range of whites. In the reds he offers Edelvernatsch (also known as Schiava in Italian and Trollinger in German), Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir), Lagrein and a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenière. It’s an impressive range and half of their output gets no further that the Bolzano city limits. The rest is sold to visitors, some restaurants around Italy and now us.
Salvatore Molettieri (Taurasi-Montemarano)
We have a bit of a thing for Taurasi, the so-called “Barolo of The South”. The grape is Aglianico and here, an hour’s drive into the volcanic hills east of Naples, Aglianico is untamed, tannic and, often, grand.
The Molettieri family has been making wine for 4 generations in Montemarano, in the southern part of the Taurasi zone. In 1983, instead of selling grapes to Mastroberardino (widely credited with bringing Taurasi onto the world stage), Salvatore Molettieri decided to make his own wine.
Salvatore, now 65, is joined by his 4 sons Giovanni, Giuseppe, Luigi, Paolo and their families. Giovanni, who studied Oenology, has been playing a leading role.
Salvatore and his wife Angela had hoped to have a daughter but their Doctor told them they might need 12 children before getting a girl. They called it a day at 4.
Friuli, the top right hand corner of Italy, may be best known as Italy’s top white wine region, but the locals are also very proud of their Merlot.
Franco Toros (Cormons/Collio)
Franco Toros makes the most intense examples of Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano and Pinot Bianco we have come across in Friuli. What makes them so top-class, top-shelf, top-quality? Location, location, location. He and his vines are in the sweetest sweet-spot in Friuli, not the “Collio Orientali”, the “Collio”. La-di-dah!
His Pinot Bianco, treated to a spell in some new oak, is very vinous, serious, almost Burgundian in its finesse. A refreshing change from all that Meursault we drink… the Pinot Grigio is broad-shouldered and packed with flavour, illustrating the potential of this widely seen grape. The Friulano is magnificently complex, packed with nuts, delicate flowers, a hint of mandarin oil.
Alessandro Vicentini Orgnani (Valeriano/Grave) ORGANIC
A massive earthquake in 1976 hit the small village of Valeriano in the foothills of the Alps, reducing the Orgnani home to rubble. The family moved their home into the winery and the winery into the barn. Alessandro Vicentini Orgnani studied architecture in Venice before returning home to take over the winery from his father, overhauling and modernising everything and bottling the entire output himself.
Pinot Grigio is one of the few white grapes to have a pink flesh, the natural colour is usually filtered away – Alessandro’s often has its natural pinkish tinge. Always easy-going with notes of peach stone and honeysuckle.
Many of us remember how worked-up our Hungarian colleague Kristian used to get that the Italians called their delicious white wine from Friuli in the north-eastern corner of the country “Tocai Friulano”. How dare they use the word Tocai? They are trying to piggy-back on the reputation of Hungary’s famous dessert wine, Tokaji. (Never mind that Tocai Friulano is dry.) Under enormous pressure from the Hungarians, the European Wine Police have now forced the Italians to drop the word Tocai. Whatever it says on the label, it has a beautiful honeysuckle nose and a creamy, rich texture. When we first visited Alessandro 15 years ago, we drank his Friulano in nearby San Daniele with its famous ham – perfect!
We visited him again recently and found that the wine-making style has changed. What happened? “Quite a lot. My wife and I split up, I have a new girlfriend called Raffaella, I ditched my Oenologues and made the wine myself”. In our opinion, ditching the consultants was a very good move. The wines are bolder and more textured. Bravo!
To all intents and purposes, he has been organic for several years (and using very low levels of SO2) but is currently, finally, going through the certification process.
Friuli is certainly best known as one of Italy’s top white wine regions and we adore Alessandro’s confident new Friulano, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
For red, locally, the Friulians rate their Merlot. Perversely perhaps, we found ourselves drawn to Alessandro Vicentini Orgnani’s herbal, gently stern, Cab Franc.
Cantina di Casteggio (Oltrepo Pavese)
The little known region of Oltrepó Pavese is a bump on the plain 60kms south of Milan. There is one major player in town. It’s fair to say Cantina di Casteggio is bigger than any other winery we work with. Much bigger. A Co-op with 350 members and a massive facility, part run-down fascista-style, part space age. Try as we might, we just couldn’t resist the wines. Impressive across the whole range. The Cantina is very switched-on and started a “quality project” with their best 50 growers, bringing in famous Italian consultant Riccardo Cotarella.
100% Pinot Noir, Postumio is a true Methode Champenoise, fermented and aged for 18 months in bottle. Pinot Grigio, beautifully balanced. Sauvignon in the creamy, rather than zizzy, style. Malvasia, exotic in the nose, good depth in the mouth. Fabulous Barbera – smooth and deep. A smoky Pinot Noir and now, their newest wine, a spicy, grapey, gently sweet, gently sparkling Moscato.
There are also two interesting local oddities, both red and both frizzante (gently sparkling); the rarely seen Bonarda, which is dry, and the Sangue di Giuda (Blood of Judas), which has a soft touch of sweetness.
Albani (Oltrepo Pavese) ORGANIC-NATURAL
You could argue that we already had the small winemaking zone of Oltrepo Pavese in Lombardy, south of Milan well-covered, having worked with Cantina di Casteggio for at least a decade. It was by coincidence we stumbled across Albani, a small independent, organic grower up in the hills above Casteggio, with a completely contrasting style.
There was a noisy welcome, with screaming kids and loads of people, when we arrived to taste. “Please come this way” – they had laid on a translator (very wise, as our Italian is, at best, formative). We were met by the tidal wave of energy that is Riccardo Albani, his sister Anna and, on her arm, their fully suited and booted father Erico who was born in 1928. They were all on hand to meet the “hot-shot wine merchants” from London. We really liked the wines. Certified organic for 11 years. Mainly Barbera and Riesling Renato with a little Pinot Nero, Nebbiolo and Bonarda. Old vines. No S02, no filtering. Distinctive. Characterful. Built for ageing. “We don’t want want to release them until they’re ready”, says Riccardo. Suits us. We now have, among other bottlings, their Costa del Morone 2004 on our shelves – a lush, complex, structured red from 85% Barbera with smatterings of Vespolina, Pinot Nero, Croatina, Nebbiolo and Moscato.
Barolo is always a treat and many say it is Italy’s greatest wine. Who are we to disagree? It comes from the rippled Piedmontese landscape just south of Alba. An hour’s drive south of Turin. As you look from the highest point, the hilltop town of La Morra across the valley you can pick out the townships on their respective hills, evoking mediaeval times.
Despite the value of Barolo, until quite recently Piemonte was really quite poor. Relying heavily on the land and very much at the mercy of the harsh mountain winters, life was pretty hard. A recurring (and slightly irreverent) theme around the valley was that the men were always groomed to run the small family farms, usually leaving school prematurely. What to do with the girls? – Oh, send them to school and college, maybe they can get a job in the towns and cities…As a result, many of the women speak more languages than the usual Piemontese dialect and Italian. It was Daniela Veglio who smilingly told us “that’s why our men are so stupid!” – one way of looking at it maybe, but they can certainly make great wine!
Although it seems to us as if Barolo has always been a classic fine wine, in the 1800s and first half of the 1900s Barbera was considered the king of wine in Piedmont and Barbera vines were planted in all the best positions. Nebbiolo, the grape which finds its purest expression in Barolo and Barbaresco, was just too difficult, too tough. It needed such a long time in bottle (routinely 20-30 years) to tame its aggressive tannins and awkward acidity. Time was, only a century ago, when Barbera Nebbiolo took over as Barolo and Barbaresco became more valued and Barbera became unfashionable. In the past fifteen years many growers have started taking Barbera more seriously. It makes an excellent counterpoint, with its big flavour and low tannin, to the more tannic Nebbiolo.
Barolo’s stature was increasing in the mid 1960’s and there was a revolution in the mid 70’s led by Elio Altare and friends who modernised their winemaking, seeking to control the tannin levels and boost aromas. There is still a rift between traditionalists and modernistas (usually referred to as “barrique” wines in the area), the traditionalists saying the modern wines are just too oaky and won’t age and the modernistas saying the traditional wines are undrinkable young and why wait 30 years to find if the wine is any good?
What we found on our trip was a rich and satisfying third way opening up – where some growers have eased back on the new oak, aiming for a wine with the weight, body and power of some of the better traditionalists, but with the perfume, nuance and sheer approachability of the modernists.
Like Burgundy, there is a clear definition of styles from township to township; Monforte – powerful, tough. La Morra – elegant, perfumed. Serralunga – sleek minerality and poise. Barolo – power and perfume. Also a “cru” system has taken increasing hold over the past few years with “cru” vineyards such as “Cannubi”, “Arborina” and “Rocche” specified on the label. These are considered a higher level than straight village Barolo – and equivalent to 1er cru status. Mauro Sebaste says the “cru” is now more important than the old fashioned Riserva system.
Many are experimenting with super-cuvées of Barbera and Langhe Rosso blends in various combinations of Barbera, Nebbiolo, Freisa, Brachetto and international varieties like Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir. Still, the unique noble grape of the region is Nebbiolo, now planted in all the prime positions and with a string of very good to excellent vintages (with 2 exceptions) over the last 15 years Barolo is highly valued as one of the great red wines of the world. We love it!
Gianfranco Alessandria (Monforte d’Alba)
From the hilltop town of La Morra, across the valley you can pick out the Barolo townships on their respective hills, evoking mediaeval times. There is enormous variety in styles from the different townships. Serralunga is stern and minerally, La Morra is elegant and perfumed, Barolo town is a balance of power and elegance, Monforte d’Alba is considered the bruiser, the most macho and powerful. This is where Gianfranco and Bruna Alessandria and their two daughters Vittoria and Marta live.
Gianfranco Alessandria is one of the brightest stars of the township. With our not-very-fluent Italian, communication has usually relied on warm goodwill here. Vittoria, now 26, has been working alongside Gianfranco in the cellar for a few years and has been studying English.
Gianfranco and Vittoria continue to use the traditional fermentation methods, punching down the cap in open-top fermentation vats. Having said that, the wines are far from traditional. Tiny quantities, low yield – they manage to combine raw power with silky finesse.
Cavallotto (Castiglione Falletto)
We have long admired Cavallotto’s Barolos. They are the epitome of elegance, power and poise. If you start your journey into Barolo with Cavallotto, you would be forgiven for finding them a bit stern and ungiving. But just wait. Come at them with respect, with context and they will reveal their refined beauty, their precision and glimpses of perfection.
There was a moment when, having admired them from afar for long enough, we had to make the call. After an unhurried and complete tasting with Giuseppe Cavallotto, it was inevitable their wines would find their way onto our shelves. We have been back again to visit the camera-shy Giuseppe and to marvel at the consistency and quality of their wines, year-in year-out.
The Cavallotto history is a useful example of how the region evolved, albeit much earlier than most. In common with every other grower of the era, the family sold all of their production (apart from what they used themselves) to the big local merchants and Cantina Sociale (the townships’ Co-ops).
In 1944 they took the bold step to vinify and bottle their entire output themselves. So in 1948, when the wine was released, their label was born. Many other growers followed their example in later decades. There was a big move towards self-bottling in the 1970s, 80s and 90s as Barolo became increasingly sought-after and valued.
San Giuseppe is a 3.78 ha parcel within their monopole Bricco Boschis vineyard with vines planted between 1932 and 1956. They have made a Barolo Riserva from these vines in the good vintages since 1970.
Il Chiosso (Gattinara)
North, due north, to the Alps, up into Alto Piemonte. Past the rice fields of Arborio to Gattinara – the other home of Nebbiolo.
Carlo Cambieri and Marco Alunno brought their two families’ vineyards together to form Il Chiosso in 2007 and make beautiful, high toned, high-altitude Nebbiolo in the Alto Piemonte.
Carlo has a day job as an engineer. Marco is an Oenologue and, with his Dad, takes cares of their vines over in the Colle Novarese, including their Ghemme. Carlo and his Dad look after Il Chiosso’s Gattinara vines, including their monopole Gattinara Cru vineyard “Galizja”.
Il Chiosso means “home garden” or “Clos”. It’s still a small winery and small is beautiful.
Gavi, made from a grape called Cortese, is considered one of the finest white wines of Italy and evokes wet straw, white flowers, honeysuckle and bitter almonds.
The town of Gavi, north of Genoa, has an imposing citadel, some fantastic almond biscuits and, surprisingly, no vines. The best Gavi is called Gavi di Gavi and comes from a small village called Rovereto on the gently undulating plateau above Gavi and its gorge. Marco Gemme, who runs Fontanassa with his brother Roberto, is possibly one of the most bearded men we have ever met. A visit there is a truly rural experience with children, chickens and dogs running underfoot, and a beaten-up car under a tree. Roll back the big door of the barn and you get a surprise – the shiniest modern winery.
Guasti Clemente (Nizza Monferrato)
One of the highlights of our recent trip to northern Italy was stumbling across a ridiculously good Barbera d’Asti in Le Due Lanterne, a restaurant in Nizza Monferrato in Piedmont. We were there to visit the iconic Scarpa winery and were wading through a bottle of their delicious Barbaresco 1999 when we asked the patron if he could recommend something else from his winelist that was in a similarly unreconstructed and old-fashioned vein. He thought for a moment and said “there is just one other wine I can think of”. He disappeared and came back with a bottle of Barbera d’Asti Fonda San Nicolao 2007 by Guasti Clemente. It was excellent. Plump, deep, dark autumnal fruit and a whisper of truffles and distant bonfire.
The following day, after a wonderful tasting at Scarpa, we hotfooted it around to meet Andrea and Alessandro Guasti and to be dazzled by Andrea’s incredibly mobile and expressive hand gestures. And the wines.
We were looking for an uncompromising, old-style Barolo and were convinced we’d find it in the mediaeval township of Serralunga d’Alba, famous for its particularly tough, untamed, tannic Nebbiolo. After several teeth-staining tastings we stumbled across Palladino. Tar and roses, truffles and more tar…Mission successful!
Maurilio and his niece Veronica make a wonderful range of classic regional wines mainly from the chalk & clay soils of Serralunga. Dolcetto, Barbera, a Barbera Superiore “Bricco delle Olive”, a Nebbiolo from the nearby township of Roddi. The range of Barolo has been growing. The Barolo Serralunga, Vigna Broglio and Riserva San Bernardo (a magnificent parcel rented from the church for decades) have recently been joined by two more Crus, Parafada and Ornato. They also make small amounts of Roero Arneis, a Gavi (which almost entirely goes to Malta), a Moscato d’Asti and a Barolo Chinato. Alongside their wonderful, classic Barolos, we often snap up unexpected old vintages of their Dolcetto and Nebbiolo whenever we spot them. Old Dolcetto? Yes, really! To give an example, we were lucky enough to be having dinner at Elio Altare’s home and one of the most startling wines was a 15 year-old Dolcetto. Who would have thought it could age? We have just taken delivery of the last few bottles of Palladino’s 2009 Dolcetto. Move quickly!
Pugnane (Castiglione Falletto)
We had been losing sleep. Agonising over the small gap in our range of Barolo. We were missing one of the key townships, Castiglione Falletto, where power and structure harmonise with perfume and elegance. We had to plug the gap, pronto.
How did we come across Pugnane? There is a Cantina Communale in Castiglione Falletto run by Alan Tardi, a New Yorker who settled here ages ago. It’s a great place to do some research and, following our trawl of Alan’s shelves, Pugnane was top of our shopping list.
Pugnane is a family winery, owned by the two Sordo brothers, although Enrico does almost everything as his brother Franco works in a Salami factory nearby. Enrico’s cousin Matteo is also onboard and his parents are still in attendance. His mother works daily in the vines and, when we returned to pick-up our order, his father Giovanni appeared with the presence of a mature movie star, complete with fantastically low voice, to present us with a basket of Nebbiolo grapes from their Barolo Villero vineyard.
Enrico’s grandfather started the Azienda in 1950 with 2 hectares of vines. They now have just under 12 hectares. 2 for Dolcetto, 8 for Nebbiolo, the rest Barbera and a tiny parcel of Chardonnay. Enrico joined as soon as he left school. Winemaking is totally traditional, wild yeasts, three years in the classic, big Botti – 3,000 and 5,000 litre casks made from Slovenian oak. Wines also rest in concrete vats. Not a single barrique in sight. Jewel in the crown is their Barolo, which all comes from the Villero vineyard. We love their wines, which are unmessed-with, authentic and balance elegance and power.
Scarpa (Nizza Monferrato)
There is a very useful restaurant in La Morra called Il Duca Bianco. The food may lack the finesse of some of the other local restaurants, but it is always reliable. The main draw for us is that you can buy a bottle in the wine shop next door, the Gallo Wine Gallery, and drink it with your meal. The shop may be touristy, but it’s still great. A succession of rooms that start wide and end in tighter and tighter focus. The first room features the rest of the world outside Italy, next is Italy outside Piedmont. Next is Piedmont, then the rest of Barolo and finally a room filled with growers from La Morra. There is also a glass case with some of the stupidly expensive stuff. We had been eyeing up a bottle in the glass cabinet for a while. Scarpa. Never heard of them. Expensive yes, but, in the context of current Barolo pricing, not outside the realms of reality. So one lunch on a Sunday last October we sat eating outdoors at the restaurant. What would you like to drink? A bottle of Barolo Tettimorra 1999 by Scarpa please. Less than a minute later the guy from the shop burst into the courtyard with the bottle and a decanter. “This is the best Barolo in the shop”, he said. “Sure you can spend more” (here he peppered the expectant air with high profile examples) “but this – this is proper Barolo. Anything else is boolshit.”
Turns out he was right. It was jaw-dropping – certainly one of the best Barolos we had ever tasted. Old-fashioned but without the faults you could occasionally come across in earlier decades. We were hooked. So we made our advances and hurried over again as soon as Christmas was done with.
Scarpa is a very unusual estate. It is the only winery in Piedmont allowed to vinify its Barolo outside the Barolo boundaries. Started in 1854, Scarpa pre-dates all the new wine laws and has the only official exemption. Originally set-up by a winemaker from the Veneto, Antonio Scarpa, the estate passed from the Scarpa family at the end of the 1800s and has passed through the hands of five local families. Today it is run by Martina Barosio and her mother Maria Piera Zola. Martina’s stepfather, a Swiss banker, bought it in 2001.
Mario Pesce, who owned the estate from the 1970s until 2001, was responsible for Scarpa’s DNA. He farmed organically (although to this day they are un-certified) and eschewed modern techniques. No temperature control – if you want the cellar cooling, you open the door. No use of barriques – preferring the big traditional casks, Botti. Pesce felt they should be able to offer mature vintages, built up a stock of older wine and had a special bottle made with a slimmer neck for slower maturation. The style was designed to accompany the local food and therefore could, should be more austere.
The Zolas were determined to continue in the same style. They have had the same winemaker for the last 50 years, Carlo Castino, and have continued with the same philosophy and techniques set up by Pesce.
While it was their Barolo which brought us knocking, Scarpa have a much wider range than just Barolo. Being based in Nizza Monferrato, it is natural that they should be well-known for their Barbera d’Asti. There are three bottlings – the entry-level Casa Scarpa, and two, increasingly serious bottlings, I Bricchi and La Bogliana. There are also several local oddities – varietals you don’t see outside their zone. Dolcetto d’Acqui, Brachetto Secco, Freisa Secco (a close, wild relation of Nebbiolo) and Rouchet. Rouchet, thought to have originated in France, is a very unusual, alcoholic red with a marked floral perfume. Scarpa have vintages in each varietal going back at least one decade and often two or more.
It was an amazing visit – a living history of Piedmontese red wine at the highest level. We learnt a lot that day including the fact that, a century ago, Barolo was impossible to sell. The merchants would give a vat of Barolo away free with every two vats of Dolcetto. How times have changed!
Mauro Veglio (La Morra/Annunziata)
There are two houses on the Cascina Nuova outcrop overlooking the “Arborina” vineyard. One belongs to the chief revolutionary (recently retired) Barolista Elio Altare, the other to his protege Mauro Veglio. With help and guidance from Elio in the early years, Mauro and his wife Daniela started making wine in 1992 and have built up a formidable reputation with their basket of Barolo “crus”, their Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. Elegant, feminine La Morra perfume. Think tar, roses, truffles, tobacco leaf and Earl Grey tea. Their La Morra Crus are Arborina, Gattera, Rocche dell’Annunziata. There is also a butch, structured one from Monforte, Castelletto, which came from Daniela’s side of the family – she was originally a Saffira. Their two Barberas are always brambley. In addition to their regular Barbera, made in stainless steel tanks, they treat their oldest vines (over 60 years old) to a spell in some new oak and bottle it as Cascina Nuova. The Dolcetto vines have distinctive purple leaves, are early ripening and usually deliver light, charming, breezy wines. Mauro coaxes surprising complexity from his “little sweet one”. Elegant, feminine La Morra perfume with a fuller body.
Osvaldo Viberti (La Morra/Serra dei Turchi)
We were brought to Osvaldo’s door by his fabulous Barolo Serra dei Turchi 2001. His house is in a small cluster of farm buildings on a small ridge between Alba and the hilltop village of La Morra called “Serra dei Turchi”. There was a Turkish encampment on this ridge centuries ago. We love the handmade quality of his wines.
Over the last decade he and his family have added a vineyard in Serralunga – famous for its more macho Barolo. In 2010, a couple of friends offered him some grapes from the legendary Cannubi vineyard from which he made a sensational Barolo Riserva. It’s a shame that it was always going to be a one-off but try to catch it while we have a few bottles – it is possibly the finest wine Osvaldo has made so far! Another of his latest projects is his first white wine. Nascetta is a grape variety that had all but died out in the Phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s. Until very recently there were just five or six growers in the nearby village of Novello who still had a couple of rows. Now there are a couple more, including Osvaldo.
Cascina delle Rose (Barbaresco/Tre Stelle)
Chain-smoking powerhouse Giovanna Rizzolio had had enough of the fashion journalism world in Milan when she moved into her grandparents’ house (with her new husband and his teenage sons) in the Tre Stelle hamlet along the ridge from Barbaresco. She started a guesthouse and decided to bottle her own wine.
Most Dolcetto is light, bright, breezy and crunchy. Brace yourself, Giovanna’s is quite different, with its dark, meaty, almost sweaty nose and startling weight and body. This may all sound a bit “locker room”, but fortunately there’s a wonderful core of blackberry fruit running through it. She makes the full compliment. Surprisingly meaty Dolcetto, lush Barbera, bold Nebbiolo and excellent Barbaresco.
Edoardo Sobrino (Diano d’Alba)
Edoardo is a manufacturer and dealer in tiles. Longtime Barolo-lover, he bought a house next to legendary Barolo producer Roberto Voerzio. He also bought some very old vines. We have a vision of Edoardo leaning over the garden fence and asking his neighbour, “so my tanks are at 23 degrees, what do I do now?”
Is Puglia the new Tuscany? Tuscany is hilly, Puglia is flat. Tuscany is known for its light to medium weight reds, Puglia for high alcohol, heavy, rich reds. Maybe the only parallel is the surge of North Europeans buying run-down cottages and houses…
Land is cheap here and the wineries are large and feel a bit industrial. In some cases several co-ops have grouped together to be more commercial and they have all opted to make wines that will export well, wines from Merlot and Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are all very well but not what we were looking for at The Winery. Just when we were beginning to feel we had come to the wrong region, we arrived in Tuglie, the bottom of the heel of Italy.
Schola Sarmenti (Tuglie)
The Men in Black are back. In fact, they are never far away.
It was a convoluted route via a restaurant in an unmarked doorway, down a side alley, hidden away from everyone but the locals. Then a tip from Alfonso, the owner, to go to the tiny Enobar to see his friend Adriano, who then tipped us off about a new winery called Schola Sarmenti right down in Puglia’s southernmost corner. We made the call to Lorenzo and then it all went a bit “Godfather”. “We’ll meet at 17.00h in the square.” “How will we recognise you?” “Don’t worry, we’ll find you”. Men in black, following a black car along remote country roads, horses heads in beds, we experienced them all – apart from the horses heads. The wines are impressive. Traditional Puglian varieties evoking the southern sun-baked land. Rich, earthy and savoury. Precise and powerful. The focus here is on blending different local grape varieties together including NegroAmaro, Malvasia Nera Leccese and Primitivo, Zinfandel’s Italian cousin.
Il Macchione (Montepulciano) Organic
We were having a wonderful dinner at Osteria La Porta in Montichiello between Montepulciano and Montalcino. The first red was high-profile and a bit overwhelming for us. Do you have something a bit more restrained, austere, traditional and low-profile? Daria Cappelli, the charming owner, and her wine-waiter looked at each other and came up with a bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva from Il Macchione.
We contacted Il Macchione at the crack of dawn. May we visit you? We are really sorry we only have one hour to cram a meeting in before heading to Montalcino. “OK!”
An hour later we arrived at Il Macchione to be met by Simone Abram.
Quote #1 – “We’re not from Tuscany. We were driving around for 5 or 6 years looking for the right spot.” His family was originally from Trentino.
Quote #2 – “I didn’t choose Sangiovese – I chose this land”.
Quote #3 “It’s just me, my brother and a couple of gypsies. No, they really are gypsies. Actually just one main one really. He’s one of the family. Totally committed.”
Quote #4 – “100% Sangiovese – not cut with Cabernet or Merlot or other stuff.”
Quote #5 – “Everyone talks about acidity and dark fruits and tannins and stuff – I taste with my body.”
Not certified but totally organic – this is where we first saw Favino plants (Broad Bean/Field Beans) between the rows. An effective natural fertiliser, used to fix nitrogen in the soil.
We listened, loved the attitude, tasted with our bodies and were very impressed. Excellent wines; pure, unmessed-with.
Terre a Mano (Carmignano-Bacchereto) Biodynamic
Before our colleague (now former colleague) Dan Towler joined us, he did a harvest in Tuscany, at Capezzana in Carmignano to be precise. In the evenings, after gruelling days of picking, there were several bottles circulating the dining tables. The one that haunted him was a Carmignano from Terre a Mano, a small estate up in the hills, in the village of Bacchereto.
Dan was keen for us to taste the wine and, if possible, bring some in. Even with our Sicilian colleague Giorgio working the phone and email, it was initially hard to make contact but, after a few years, we broke through and we have been ordering ever since.
Our visit in March 2016 was one of the highpoints of our Tuscan trip.
Rossella Bencini Tesi inherited the beautiful estate high up in the hills and woods above Prato and Carmignano from her grandfather. Her grandfather had been a lawyer in the mediaeval city of Pistoia in the valley below and bought the estate in the 1920s. It was run as a self-sufficient smallholding. The estate previously formed part of a much larger estate belonging to the Medici family and was used for hunting parties. Today Rossella has 8 hectares of land of which 4 are covered with vines. She also has olive trees and rents out some of the buildings on the property as holiday homes.
Carmignano was given the DOC status in 1975 and was the first Tuscan DOC to allow Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend. This may appear to be the beginnings of what became the “Super Tuscan” trend of the 1980s/90s but Rossella was keen to point out that Cabernet Sauvignon had been long established in the zone. The Medicis were bankers (they bankrolled Christopher Columbus) and had wide influence. Catherine de Medici even married into French royalty. It is thought that through this connection Cabernet found its way to Carmignano and became known locally as Uva Francesca. It was by no means a one-way trade – Bechamel sauce, according to the Florentines (but much disputed since), was brought to France from Tuscany (where it was known as Glue Sauce).
Why is it that Carmignano got the DOC in 1975 but the locals are celebrating its 300th Anniversary?
In 1716, The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici wrote a Bando (Ban, or Proclamation) proclaiming that Carmignano, Chianti, Pomino and Valdarno were superior quality and granting them legal protections. The locals therefore argue that their DOC dates back 300 years.
Carmignano can trace its winemaking roots further back. Wine vessels have been discovered in Etruscan sites at Monte Albano and in Roman times, Julius Caesar rewarded his high-ranking veterans with land in the area to make wine.
A few years ago, we stumbled across a delicious Chianti Rufina by Dreolino in the unassuming and excellent Trattoria Tre Soldi in Florence. The following morning we were driving north-east out of Florence to the pretty town of Rufina and knocking on Sabrina Tanini’s door. (Tanini? Dreolino? Dreolino was her grandfather, Gino Tanini’s nickname).
We were back in Tuscany in March and another visit was overdue. Her wines are no-nonsense, toothsome – breezy strawberries/raspberries and yet savoury, with weight and texture. It was a welcome relief after too much overhyped, overpriced, overharsh Chianti Classico. We agonised long and hard over whether or not to buy it in the old straw-covered flasks, finally opting for the newer label and bottles. Feel free to lobby us for the flasks for next time. After all, you may need new candle-holders for your 1960s retro interior, right?
Montepulciano is best known for its Vino Nobile and it’s fair to say that, despite tasting relentlessly, the charm of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano had passed us by. Until one chilly night in January when we were sitting in “La Brocca d’Oro” the only Trattoria open in Chianciano Terme, Montepulciano’s neighbour. We told our young host Leonardo that we had an appointment with Boscarelli the following morning and asked what should we drink tonight. He said “drink the Boscarelli. There’s nothing better.” Over the following 90 minutes we had what could be best described as an awakening. Back in London, a few months later, their exquisite Vino Nobile did not stay on our shelves for long.
Castelvecchi (Radda in Chianti)
Not content with expanding their range of wines locally, the Paladin family (Annone Veneto), makers of our perennial favourite Prosecco, bought an estate in Tuscany, in the heart of the Chianti Classico region and have converted part of it into a luxury hotel.
The heavily fortified Castelvecchi was built in 1043 at the convergence of several ancient roads between Florence and Siena. It was a time of constant friction between local nobles and later developed into intense rivalry between the two larger city states.
The vineyards are Castelvecchi (on the estate) and Colle Petrosi which, at 560m above sea level, are among the highest (and coolest at night) in the whole Chianti region. These two vineyards were originally planted between 1300-1400. Today’s vines average over 50 years old.
The Paladins have been working with one of Italy’s top enologists, Franco Bernabei, since 1999. Bernabei, probably best known for his work with several high visibility Tuscan estates and wines such as Flaccianello, brings some of his trademark sleek, polished elegance to today’s Castelvecchi’s wines.
Capotondo (Round Head) is a classic Chianti Classico blend of Sangiovese with a splash of Canaiolo.
Podere Ciona (Gaiole)
Having travelled the world for Exxon, Franco and Franca Gatteschi thought they’d had enough of jet-setting and red tape and that they’d retire to Gaiole deep in the the hills of Chianti-shire. They bought Podere Ciona from the monastry. Oddly, there were very few vines as the monks just kept sheep and pigs. To stop them getting bored, they opened an Agriturismo and planted some vines. Some retirement! There’s no getting away from the paperwork and we thoroughly enjoyed Franco’s enthusiastic rant about Italian bureaucracy. We can almost picture him as one of those guys who move into the hills and forests of Montana. There the similarity ends. Instead of trapping boar and law-enforcers they run cookery classes and make modern, silky wines; stylish Chianti Riserva, a fabulous Merlot IGT called Le Diacce and Montegrossoli, their charming Sangiovese.
Antico Colle (Montepulciano)
We first started our conversation with Antico Colle in Montepulciano five years ago. Strictly speaking, they started the conversation with us. Their determination paid off. A very cheeky, chunky Chianti Colli Senesi from south of Sienna was the catalyst. 80% Sangiovese with 10% each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. And what’s not to like with their Vino Nobile?
Canalicchio di Sopra (Montalcino)
Canalicchio’s Nonno Pacenti was one of the first dozen growers to start the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino in 1966, to raise the flag of Brunello above the parapets. Things have moved on since then. The reputation of Brunello now jostles with Barolo for primacy as Italy’s finest red and Nonno’s grandsons are running the Canalicchio show. Francesco is studying Economics and Commerce. He’s the one who takes care of business. Marco, his brother, handles production. Their wines are enigmatic. Rich, ripe and yet with a dark twist.
Il Colle di Carli (Montalcino)
“Brunello for the people!” Caterina di Carli was talking about her Rosso di Montalcino and how she cares just as much about her Rosso as her Brunello. Caterina has been making the wine since she inherited the small estate from her father who was a full-time lawyer with a Brunello-making hobby. He pretty much despatched his entire output himself, which might have accelerated his rather premature demise. The style is unreconstructed traditional. She uses wild yeasts – something we have rarely seen outside of Biodynamic white wine making. This can give some challenging aromas – exciting, raw and dangerous. In the mouth they are elegant and pure. No trace of oak. Just ripe, bright, almost breezy fruit.
La Marcellina (Panzano)
The history of Tuscany drips with jealousy and blood. Nowhere more than in the heart of Chianti-shire. La Marcellina is named after Marcello, the first owner of Fabio Castellacci’s house back in feudal times who was gifted a lookout tower at the bottom of the hill by the Sire of Panzano Castle for a “special favour” done on his behalf. We take this to mean “disposing of someone undesirable”. Wind forward 300 years and the farm belongs to Fabio’s Grandfather, the baker and grocer of Panzano, who started making wine as a hobby. Wind forward another 50 years and Fabio is making charming, pure Chianti Classico with a deft, assured touch.
The track down to their house is so rutted and the hill so steep that no lorry can get down it, so Fabio had to bring his wines up to the top in his 4-wheel drive to meet our transporter.
Carmignano is an appellation from just south-west of Florence. Like a Chianti, but with a splash of sunshine-soaked Cabernet Sauvignon. Although the Pratesi’s have always done their wine “on the side” (father and sons working as engineers and car dealers) they are serious about the quality. Supple, high-class, high-toned Tuscan reds.
Marsala – the link between dry Sherry and Madeira? Marsala – not just for cooking with.
We were keen to find out more about Marsala, another of those legendary fortified wines like Sherry, Port and Madeira. We already knew it wasn’t just for cooking with, but beyond that there was much to learn. Question was, where? So we texted a friend of ours who comes from Marsala and asked around when we arrived. The lady in the Hotel said her husband is crazy about it and has a big collection of older Marsala. Everyone recommended the same Enoteca in via Garibaldi so we hot-footed along and the moment we walked into the tiny bar asked if we could have a Marsala Masterclass to bring us up to speed. The charming hostess Alessandra turned off the sport channel and powered up a powerpoint presentation. We were off. She took us through the history. In 1773 John Woodhouse, a British merchant, was sheltering from a storm with his ship and liked the local wine made with the Grillo grape so much he bought several casks. To stabilise it for the voyage to Liverpool, he added some spirit. And so Marsala, as we know it, was born.
She took us through the pyramid of quality from Fino through Superiore and Superiore Riserva up to Vergine. The varying sweetness/dryness levels and the way they cross over. We immersed ourselves in our study, accelerated with the appearance of Alessandra’s very knowledgeable boss/boyfriend Salvo, who resembled a harder version of Serge Gainsbourg. It became very clear to us that the tiny Cantine Buffa were the best in a line-up that included some big names. And that’s why they are now on our shelves. Buffa the Marsala Slayer!
Guccione (Monreale) BIODYNAMIC
It didn’t look more than 5 kms from Giorgio’s village as the crow flies, but, once you leave the proper roads behind and are dealing with dirt tracks, disused railway lines, flocks of sheep and goats, it still took an hour. Meanwhile, it was beautiful, remote and a great valley to make the finest old-vine biodynamic Trebbiano (!) we have ever tasted. Trebbiano, the most planted white in Italy and usually the most neutral, the most forgettable. Francesco Guccione’s is altogether different. 25 year-old vines, biodynamic, an intense nose evocative of tangerine peel, oily and nutty. More reminiscent of new wave biodynamic Riesling (like PJ Kuhn) for instance, than Trebbiano. Unforgettable.
Francesco and his brother Manfreddi’s converted to biodynamism in 2005 and now make arty bottlings of Cataratto (in their hands, an intensely herbal, spicy white), and silky reds made with the seldom seen Perricone (chestnuts, rose, boisenberry, lavender and licorice) and Nerello Mascalese (wild flowers and sour cherries) better known from Faro and Etna.
Mimmo Paone (Condro/Messina)
Mimmo Paone is a Sicilian with the firmest, bone-crunching handshake we have ever experienced. Once our hands had recovered, we were very impressed with his two dark, brambly Nero d’Avolas. Although they are based on the north coast of Sicily, in the top right hand corner of the island, Mimmo’s Nero d’Avola is picked in Agrigento and driven overnight to their winery in Condro’ near Torregrotta. Funnari has become a firm Winery favourite.
Another highpoint is his Malvasia di Lipari, a deliciously unctuous, honied, aromatic dessert wine from a small volcanic island off the northeastern coast visible from Mimmo’s home in Torregrotta.
Giovanni Scarfone – Bonavita (Faro)
We work with small growers and we love it when we come across someone really small. We beat a path to Giovanni Scarfone’s tiny garage door thanks to a tip from Cascina delle Rose Giovanna Rizzolio’s husband Italo.
Faro is in a very striking position right in the top right hand corner of Sicily, high up and with a view of the Straits of Messina across to the rest of Italy. Although not widely known, Faro is one of Sicily’s finest wines. Made from Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera, it has a high tone, less big and heavy than many of Sicily’s reds, more refined.
The 0.8 hectare of vines originally belonged to Giovanni’s Great Grandfather. His Grandfather and Father (who worked in a bank for his entire career, which he hated) always made wine just for the family. His father is now retired and loves helping in the vineyard. Giovanni had gone to Bologna to study, came back in 2004 and decided to try making wine. His first vintage was 2006. He makes just one wine in his garage (room for one person at a time) and, with less than a hectare of vines, makes just 4,000 bottles a year.
Val Cerasa – Bonaccorsi (Piedimonte/Etna) Organic
Living on a live volcano may seem nuts, but the growers on Mount Etna see it differently. The presence of “The Etna” is not some angry god of fire and destruction, dark, brooding and malignant but more of a mother nature, warm and fertile, gently spewing lava which will recharge and renew the soil with rich mineral nutrients. If you ask the locals what the loud daily siren is for they will say “time to go to the fields to work”. We suspect it’s a test for, and a reminder of, possible eruptions.
In any case it’s a remarkable place. The Etna is visible from far away, although whenever we visit the peak is covered in cloud or mist.
Unusually for the northern hemisphere, the northern, north-facing slope is considered finer than the eastern or southern slopes (there are no vines on the west side). In the sweetest sweet spot you find Val Cerasa. Husband and wife team, Alice (who trained as an agronomist) and Rosario Bonaccorsi made their first bottlings at Benanti in 1997 and bought this startling, terraced vineyard in 2000.
Now organic, they use wild yeasts for all but their white IGT, Rocca delle Compane. No new oak helps the elegance and purity of the fruit and its volcanic terroir shine through. The Etna Bianco is Caricante, the Etna Rosso is Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. These are fascinating wines. The whites are oily, with hints of grapefruit zest, surprisingly good acidity and a savoury, almost salty quality. The Etna Rosso is bold, structured, again with a savoury salty tang, but not overblown – as many wines from the Etna have struck us.
Valentina Cubi (Fumane) ORGANIC
We first tasted (and were wowed by) Valentina Cubi’s Valpolicellas and Amarone in the wonderful Enoteca della Valpolicella in Fumane, just east of Lake Garda, six years ago.
Valentina’s father-in-law Federico Vasan was a big name in Negrar in the neighbouring valley until he sold his wine business in World War 2. Valentina and her husband Giancarlo Vasan found and bought an old winery in Fumane which produced and sold wine in bulk. They were trying to restore it but the building fell down when a worker accidentally knocked down a supporting wall. A complete rebuild was necessary.
If you think Valpolicella is simply a crunchy, harsh red to choke down with a pizza, you may be surprised by the elegance and complexity of Valentina’s wines. Her basic Valpolicella Classico, Iperico, is 75% Corvina with 25% Rondinella and is organic from the 2011 vintage. Her Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Il Tabarro is a blend of Corvina 65%, Rondinella 25% and Molinara 10%. Part of the distinctive flavour of high quality Valpolicella comes from being fermented on the skins of previously crushed grapes. Arusnatico is the Ripasso, the same blend as her Superiore but then the wine is “re-passed” over grape must. Her 2005 evokes autumn bonfires and late autumn fruit. Top of the line is Morar, her Amarone. The best grapes are selected from the best bunches, laid onto screens and allowed to turn into raisins. In January the raisins are crushed and fermented as normal after which the wine spends a year in barrels and a further year in big botti.
Roberto Mazzi (Negrar)
“Have you got any Amarone?” When the weather turns snowy and wintry many think about Amarone, the rich, deep and very alcoholic red from near Verona in northeast Italy. Yes, we have Amarone. When we first visited bear-like Roberto Mazzi and his sons a decade ago, we were invited to eat in their agriturismo restaurant, an informal weekend restaurant. It was one of those 8 course meals you think you may not survive. We were in trouble long before the climax of the savoury courses, their signature Risotto with Amarone. And having finally managed to choke that delicious plate down (just), a soup appeared (soup, after main course?)…and then dessert. It was a gourmet emergency.
They make two Amarones; Punta di Villa, the more elegant of the two (if you can describe a 16% wine as elegant- more like a boxing glove made from eider feathers?), the other, Castel doesn’t pull any punches. Then two beautifully breezy, survivable, truly elegant Valpolicella Classico Superiores; Sanperetto and their Cru, Poiega. Both made from 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 5% Molinara, high-class, elegant Valpolicella evocative of sour cherries, bitter almonds, violets and pepper. They also make a delicious red dessert wine, Recioto della Valpolicella called Le Calcarole. If you need a wine for a chocolate dessert, look no further.
Bosco del Merlo (Annone Veneto) ORGANIC
The Paladin family have been making organic wines under their Bosco del Merlo label for many years. Their organic Prosecco is a perennial favourite here at The Winery. Carlo and Milly Paladin have a spread of vines over the flat plains at Annone Veneto north-east of Venice, the Alps visible in the background. It’s an area rich with Roman history – the old Roman road, the via Postumia runs right by the estate. The wider Paladin family, which includes Carlo’s brother and sister, never seem to let the grass grow below their feet, frequently introducing new wines such as a refined, chocolatey Malbec (called Malbech locally) and a spicy, aromatic Traminer which seems to have adjusted to the clay-heavy soil on the estate.
They also seem keen to snap up estates in other areas. They bought Castello Bonomi in Franciacorta, widely held to be the best area for sparkling wine in Italy. They didn’t stop there and also scooped up a Tuscan estate – Castelvecchi in Radda, in the Chianti Classico Zone near Siena. We are fans of their very sleek, plush Capotondo Chianti Classico.