FEASTS AND FUN WITH A FAMILY FLAVOUR

Slow food makes a memorable Winestate 2010 tour of Italy

PETER SIMIC

ITALY is a land of tribes, and in some ways this is what makes it so fascinating. Family is all-important and if you are lucky enough to get a ‘slow food’ invitation to a winery or a family home, grab it with both hands and wipe off the rest of the afternoon.

Winestate magazine and Travelrite International completed their third tour of Italy recently and we were overwhelmed with great acts of kindness and generosity. Our slow food adventure that evolved on this trip made it one of the best wine tours we have conducted. This time we travelled north from Rome with great anticipation for visits to some of the world’s most romantic places; the wine regions of Tuscany, Piedmont, Franciacorta and Verona quickly come to mind, along with the food experience of Emilia-Romagna.

To me the ideal tour group is one that has about 20 -30 persons on the tour, ideally with a specialist guide (I call them colour commentators) and a travel operator who handles the logistics. You then have enough people to find some you relate to, whilst avoiding those you don’t and you are secure in the knowledge that the guide can focus on giving you a good time, without the pressure of finding out why the tap in your hotel room doesn’t work.

Like a good wine, a tour should be balanced, offering a number of memorable visits, some hosted lunches or dinners and free time in old towns for lunch/ coffee/church/museum visits, whatever takes your fancy. Of course, all accommodation B&B, and bus travel must be included.

Here is a follow up report on an Italian wine tour that I conducted last year.

Our first visit took us through the wine region of Umbria, home of the quaffable soave, the step off before Tuscany and a very much underrated area. We were hosted by Lady Livia of Castello Della Regine, a winery owned by her and her famous Milanese lawyer husband, Paolo Nodari, for a marvellous gourmet lunch and an interesting tasting of their unusual red and white blends, which were combined to produce the best possible wine rather than as an afterthought. However, their 100 per cent sangiovese-based Riserva was also a great surprise and would sit well with the best from nearby Tuscany.

After settling in for a three-night stay in the delightful ancient town of Siena, the next day we ventured to the historic Fattoria Della Talosa winery, with a cellar door underneath the town of Montepulciano, gateway to a Tuscan wine experience. Here, while sipping sangiovese, we admired the ancient caves with seashells in the walls and ceilings  proclaiming a previous prehistoric period. Another ‘light’ lunch was enjoyed, with our host Allessandra proclaiming  “typical Tuscan food – salami, prosciutto, pecorino and bruschetta”, with the request for us to “feel emotion and passion(s) from our wine.” We certainly did!

After lunch, a quick trip took us to the super-modern Poliziano winery, with great attention to technical winemaking detail and all the whizz-bang stainless steel and premium oak barrels  you would want to see. It was not surprising that we enjoyed a range of their finely crafted wines. We finished the evening with a hosted walking tour of Siena, with notes taken on likely enotecas for later visits.

The next day saw us in Montalcino, home of the Brunello di Montalcino wines. These wines are the higher-priced versions of sangiovese found in the Tuscany region and have a reputation to match. Our first visit was to Argiano, a classic, stately Tuscan villa built during the Renaissance period. Here we enjoyed a nice range of wines, with drinkability the hallmark. Not far away was the boutique winery of La Togata, everyone’s idea of a summer wine retreat, with a Roman lawyer in charge. They offered nicely crafted wines, with artisanal sensitivity.

That night we enjoyed our first Winestate-hosted Celebration Dinner at the La Bottega del 30 restaurant in a small village north of Siena. The love story of French chef Helene, who followed her Italian husband, Franco, to this town can be seen in the beautiful food that had our tour group raving. Some said it was the best meal they had ever eaten. If you dream of an Italian cooking school holiday, look no further. See their website for more details.

In the Chianti region we visited the extraordinary ancient walled town of San Gimignano where, after a cancelled late-evening winery visit, we commandeered a local enoteca, shut the doors, took over their cellar and ordered the best wines in the store. A nice consolation!

Then we travelled onwards and upwards to the Villa Sensi winery, a superb former hunting lodge of the Medici family, where the hospitality overflowed and our host Massimo delivered the ultimate Italian slow food experience. The wines kept coming and we were amazed at the great-value prices they commanded. Their wines are also available in Australia.

Nothing in Italy is predictable. With wine gifts for all, including lime green winery T-shirts (which made us look like Irish tourists), our tour group voted to stay on and enjoy the sumptuous hospitality rather than move on to our programmed next winery visit. “Cest la vita!”

Now staying in Florence, the group enjoyed a hosted morning tour of the city with free time for lunch before an afternoon visit to the Castello di Gabbiano winery, owned by Australia’s Foster’s Wine Group (now Treasury). This location offered a spectacular view over the hills from the top of the castle. After tasting a nice range of wines, we liked the 2004 IGT 100 per cent sangiovese, which we were told wasn’t labelled as riserva because they had “run out of labels”. Great value!

Now that our Tuscany wine sojourn was over I found it interesting that, compared with previous tours, many wineries were now admitting that a percentage of their sangiovese wines contained cabernet or merlot, following the lead of the “Super Tuscans” from the Bolgheri Coast. Others were proudly pushing their concentrated 100 per cent sangioveses. It did seem odd that quite lean merlot was widely used to “soften” the sangiovese fruit. Sangioveses can be quite tannic and acidic, often with a herbal bitterness on the finish, which makes them great food wines, but less so at wine competitions. Merlot, as a variety has marginally less acids and tannins (although can still be quite lean as it is part of the cabernet family) so maybe the thought is that it can reduce the impact of sangiovese toughness. However, I would have thought that a blend with well-ripened syrah (shiraz) would have been a better option, and I noted that a few houses were experimenting with this blend.

On our third wine tour of Italy, for the first time we did a detour through the “food bowl” of the country, Emilia Romagna, and we were so glad we did. After a few hours enjoying our own free-time long lunch and exploration of Bologna, the mother ship (bus) headed on to the outskirts of Parma, where we were introduced to the delights of premium lambrusco, made in a dry and semi-sweet fashion rather than the sickly-sweet, commercial style sold in bucketloads around the world.

Here at the Medici Ermete winery we experienced another ultimate Italian family experience, where the whole family, including children, served us courses of food, with varying ages of parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. Our host, Pierluigi Medici, proudly showed us his “hobby”, cellar where row after row of miniature barrels of balsamic vinegar dating back 10, 20 and 40 years were on display. Then, to top it off, Pierluigi organised a special morning visit to the local parmesan factory. We felt very privileged.

After the optional parmesan visit, with some in the tour group venturing on to the Ferrari museum, we had a free day in Parma, followed by the evening Winestate Celebration Dinner at the two-hatted, elegant Parizzi restaurant, with a superb wine list and food to match.

Before beginning our tour of Piedmont I advised our group that we were about to encounter the “toughest” wines in Italy, with mouth-ripping tannins and acid to boot, with tea leaves and herbs a feature of these noble nebbiolos. By the time we had completed our tour I had to embarrassingly explain why we didn’t find any (maybe one). In the ever-increasing globalisation of wine, it seemed that producers were making softer, more consumer-friendly wines that could be drunk earlier and without fear. Unfortunately, the trade-off is that we are unlikely to see as many of  the great masterpieces (but also fewer sump oil wines).

To launch our Piedmont experience, we began by visiting our old favourite, Produtorri del Barbaresco, where el supremo Aldo Vacca gave us a masterclass of the region. I simply sat back and enjoyed the response from our tour group. If you get a chance it is worth a trip just to get to hear his amazing knowledge of the terroir and wines of Barbaresco and Barolo. Although his winery is a co-operative it actually chooses and picks the best fruit from its many growers to make premium wine, unlike many others. We greatly enjoyed a range tasting, followed by a hosted lunch at the local restaurant.

This was followed by an amazing vertical tasting of barberas, dolcettos and barolos at the Cantine Paolo Manzone, where the man himself took us through the complexities of the varietals and the region. Here we saw at first hand the trend towards New World, earlier-released styles of winemaking. The vista from this winery overlooking Barolo has to be one of the world’s most beautiful wine region views!

Next morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we arrived at the Antinori-owned Prunotto winery, a classy establishment. There we enjoyed a mini-masterclass of eight Piedmontese wines, all reflecting the purity of the grape from this high-tech, high-expertise winery. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the lovely town of Alba, home to the white truffle.

More enjoyment was in order the next morning as we visited Azienda Agricola Marrone, another lovely family winery, halfway through creating a traditional-style Italian villa winery with all the natural elements: solid wood beams, terracotta tiles and iron. When it is completed it will truly be a delight for visits by tourists and winelovers alike.

After a relaxing tasting of Barolos with the obligatory prosciutto and soft Italian cheese from the delightful daughters, we ventured up the planks and railing to the third-floor balcony-in-waiting to enjoy the view. No dangers of occ. health and safety here. What we found hilarious was the story about their miniature dog, which we were told was like a cat and liked to the climb the building. We thought “Yeah, right,” until the next minute there he was, running over the terra cotta roof tiles, three floors up.

The coach was buzzing as we travelled on to Milan for a two-night stay, including a tour of the city the next morning and a Winestate Celebration Dinner that night. The next day was one of our most memorable, with a visit to the fabulous La Montina winery in the region of Franciacorta, This was organised by our Italian wine writer, Georgio Fragiacomo, who made sure all stops were out. Here the sparkling wines are made in the French methode champenoise style, offering great flavour at amazing value. When we arrived we were treated like royalty in a beautifully designed winery which had its own chef and culinary staff worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. After endless toasts by our host through sumptuous courses, we all voted to cancel the next winery visit and continue on with the ultimate expression of our Italian “long lunch”.

Needless to say, the bus was very quiet as we arrived at our next destination, Riva del Garda, a small town on the northern end of Lake Garda, with the regions of Alto Adige to the north and Verona to the south. Here we appropriately booked into a spa and massage resort hotel, the Hotel du Lac et du Parc. Set among old, cool-climate rainforest and next to the lake, it’s a highly recommended destination for those wanting to chill out for a few days. We used this idyllic location as our base the next day to travel south to visit the Azienda Agricola Monte del Fra winery, where food and wine was again laid on by our charming hostess and a book on winery dogs could have been written about this location alone. After waving farewell, we were left to our own devices in the ancient town of Verona, where some of our group hunted down the enotecas while others kept abreast of happenings at Juliet’s balcony.

A truly great Michelin-starred meal was enjoyed that night as our last Winestate Celebration Dinner at Verona’s Il Desco, with chef/owner Elia Rizzo and his wife and son (and staff) putting on a superb spread in a restaurant exuding style and substance. It was a nice official ending to the tour and worthy of the great days enjoyed before. Throughout the tour we enjoyed some of Italy’s finest wines in our Celebration Dinners, including cabernets from Ornellaia, Tignanello and Sassicaia, sangioveses from Antinori, nebbiolos from Gaja and Angelo Cesare, amarone from Masi and too many others to mention; lovely aged wines that best showed off this amazing country.

As an epilogue and wind-down, the next day was organised as a leisurely tourist experience for our group, with a ferry ride from Riva del Garda to Limone for lunch, then an optional extension to Malcesine, with spectacular water and granite hill scenes abounding.

I say this at the end of each tour round-up: what makes our tours so enjoyable is the extraordinary hospitality shown to us by our winery hosts, the interesting agenda of old-town visits (and free time to mooch around), along with some superb Winestate Celebration Dinners, but also the wonderful conviviality of our tour group, where widely diverse personalities become friends – which maybe is not difficult when good wine and food is involved! Personally, my great enjoyment is seeing people enjoy themselves through these great experiences.

Peter Simic is the owner and Editor/Publisher of Winestate magazine. He has conducted 11 wine tours to France, Italy, Spain & Portugal and one on the QE2. The next tour is the Winestate Wine Tour of France , September  10 – 26 September 2011.

Details: www.travelrite.com.au/wine_tours.shtml

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