The Wine Wanderers finally got to Puglia this summer, where we were expecting extraordinary food from the home of burrata, that luscious form of mozzarella stuffed with fresh cream, and capocollo, a wonderful cut of cured pork neck little seen outside the region, but rather ordinary wine. For decades Puglia has been Italy’s wine barrel, sending millions of gallons of red to other parts of the country to enrich their blends, and marketing some rather indifferent primitivo, the same grape as the Wanderers’ beloved zinfandel.
In the flesh, though, it was a different story. Back-Roads Touring ferried us by mini-bus between some highly authentic restaurants serving up a decent drop with food which exceeded our wildest expectations – italy’s finest antipasti on plates piled high not only with burrata and capocollo, but stuffed vegetables and rarefied dishes not seen elsewhere like the ubiquitous mashed broad been dip – Puglian hummus! – served with wild local bitter greens.
While we drank our favourite bottles in restaurants not on the tour – Terranima in Bari, which showed us how great Puglian primitivo could be in a bottle of Petrigiovani and Coco Pazzo in Martina Franca, where we discovered Puglia can do decent white too in a luscious La Voliera fiano, we have Back-Roads to thank for a visit to Azienda Castel di Salve, a winery with British heritage which makes wonderful, incredibly well-priced wines with the region’s indigenous grapes.
Surprisingly, our favourites from this vineyard were not primitivo, but the delicious Santimedici Rosato, a rose made from negroamaro, and Priante – a blend of 50 per cent negroamaro and 50 per cent montepulciano – rich and voluptuous. The quaffability a big dollop of montepulciano can bring to the wines of this region is a trick not lost on Waitrose, whose Rich and Intense Italian Red NV Puglia is a blend of 20 per cent montepulciano, 30 per cent primitivo and 50 per cent nero di troia, fine value at £4.99
Laithwaites are fielding their own interesting primitivo blends, unusually mixing it in their Tenuto di Somaro with the aglianico found in this region as well as in neighbouring Basilicata. Their La Fonte d’Oro, in which Primitivo meets the often tough and difficult negroamaro, is simply voluptuous. They are also importing a Puglian grape we never saw on the ground – a ssusumaniello, which was pleasant enough but not nearly as interesting the two aforementioned blends.
Of the Puglians available on the high street, there is a marked difference in quality, not surprising given how much indifferent primitivo gets on to the market. While the Palastri we tasted from Sainsburys seemed thin and bland, the supermarket’s flagship Taste The Difference Primitivo del Salento yielded all the warm voluptuousness of the best primitivos the Wanderers tasted in situ and much better value at £6 on promotion than the £6.50 Palastri. As rich and amazing as anything we drank in Puglia is the award-winning Villa Magna Primitivo di Mandoria, £10 from M&S and worth every penny, a close runner-up the Terre di Faiano organic Primitivo del Salento exclusive to Waitrose for £9.49,
As this tour also took us back to Matera, the urban jewel of neighbouring Basilicata, with its famous urban caves teetering down the hillside, the Wanderers also decided to taste the a
glianicos associated with this region which are available on the high street; this lesser-known grape deserves a wider audience. Sainsburys TTD version from the foot of the dramatically-named Mount Vulture is smooth, elegant and very fair value at £8 a bottle, and the £10 Messapi from M&S simply glorious.
Visit http://backroadstouring.com/ for details of their next trip to Puglia coming up in October; being ferried by mini-bus is a better idea than a hire car when you have two-hour lunches with wine to look forward to every day!
This time last year The Wine Wanderers were in the Languedoc discovering the wines of astounding quality which are rebuilding the region’s reputation. It’s largely down to a handful of visionaries who have persuaded growers to concentrate on quality rather than the quantity for which the region used to be known. These pioneers are taking risks, producing wines which command more than £20 a bottle in the UK and have to stand competition with the much better-known names from Bordeaux and Burgundy, many of which don’t justify their hefty price tag.
Today’s Languedoc vintners are producing some amazing syrahs in particular and doing gorgeous things with grenache – reds, whites and roses, on their own or in blends – and also with lesser-known varietals including grenache gris, roussanne and vermentino. They are making good carignan from grapes grown on old vines, giving more prominence to mourvedre and also, surprisingly to the Wanderers, producing good chardonnay and pinot noir more associated with northern climes. We were reminded of our 2014 adventures when tasting one spectacular wine after another from Domaines Paul Mas, a family wine estate spanning four generations, which deserve more recognition in the UK.
Jean-Claude Mas has been blazing a quality trail since taking the helm of the family firm in 2000, growing the estate from 85 to 550 acres and contracting with 80 outside growers counted on for a superior crop. It’s a similar pattern to Foncalieu, which we visited last year – not a family firm but a large cooperative in which a couple of great winemakers work their magic on grapes from many growers who concentrate all their efforts on careful cultivation.
We’ve tasted astounding special occasion drops recently from the flagship Chateau Paul Mas range of grand cru appellations, of which the gorgeous Belluguette, a blend of vermentino, grenache, roussanne and viognier is particularly sumptuous. It has enough body to stand up to strong tastes like asparagus, whose delicate mineral taste is killed by red wine, and is available at Majestic. Of the reds, we savoured the Clos de Savignac, a s50% mourvedre with 30% syrah and 20% grenache, and Clos de Mures, which is almost pure syrah.
Drinkers will not be disappointed by the Paul Mas Estate range, described as “everyday luxury” wines, some of which are available at Waitrose Cellar for around £8.99 a bottle. Particularly nice was the GSM – a typically southern blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre in almost equal quantities. And coming back to premium labels, the GSM by Astelia, a vineyard acquired by Mas in 2014, is out of this world, while their chardonnay is another perfect partner for asparagus and perhaps some indulgent lobster mac cheese.
We also remebered the Languedoc while revisiting Terroirs, a London restaurant known for promoting natural wines, the phenomenon which first brought us to the region, where this style of growing is becoming prevalent. This time at Terroirs, however, we were turned on to a superb Beaujolais Villages blanc made from unfiltered chardonnay by Remi and Laurence Dufaitre, new kids on that particular block. A lovely partner to white asparagus with clams and the delicate pork and pistachio pate de campagne the restaurant has made for the delectation of charcuterie loverss every day since it opened.
The WIne Wanderers summoned up all their energy for an evening of rich wines and serious steak at the Gaucho in London last week. We always feel you need as much stamina to survive an evening at the loud, dark, intensely macho Argentinian steakhouse as a whole weekend in Buenos Aires.
But this was the Gaucho with a difference – a rare private enclave in a ground-floor glass box at the Charlotte Street branch where daylight was allowed to seep into the proceedings and, for once in a lifetime, the wines were not from Argentina.
Lisa McGuigan, daughter of the legendary Australian winemaker, chose the Gaucho as the venue to launch her own range of wines to fashionistas mainly because she sees the place as a reflection of her personal style. As in lots of black, silver and Gothic-style glamour – McGuigan herself is a grown-up Goth who has never reneged on the style of her youth, and who believes wine can, even should, be a fashion accessory.
“If I’m going to take a bottle of wine to a friend’s house for dinner, I want it to look as good as it tastes,” she explains, brandishing a bottle of her Silver Collection. This mid-priced range was handsome, but less pleasing to our palate than the entry-level Wilde Thing blends or the sublime Platinum Collection top-end range, but it was certainly the most elegantly-packaged.
Earthy McGuigan seems like the kind of lady who would only ever drink red wine, a perfect partner for the Gaucho’s sumptuous steaks, but she is actually an advocate of chardonnay. She audaciously blends the grape with pinot grigio to make an entry-level Wilde Thing blend coming to your local NISA soon, while in her more upmarket collections she fields both an unoaked Chardonnay – not so much to the Wine Wanderers’ taste, as we are Meursault-loving dinosaurs, as her delicious lightly oaked take on this noble white grape for the Platinum Collection. It was a perfect complement to starters of shrimp ceviche and creamy brandade – who says the Gaucho can’t do fish?
We could have stopped as soon as we tasted the quite heavenly pinot gris also from the Platinum Collection, not at all what the evening was supposed to be about but a show-stopper, nonetheless . When we started with the reds – and the meaty courses in a divine tasting menu – a very drinkable cabernet shiraz blend came out with a proper Argentinian empanada – a mini beef pasty – but the pure shiraz was an even greater treat, particularly the Platinum from Australia’s Limestone Coast, which a few inspired speciality wine-sellers will stock at north of £20 a bottle, according to distributors Copestick Murray.
Just as the fillet steak the Wanderers bathed in a perfect chimichurri of olive oil infused with coarsely chopped coriander and chile, was better than the Gaucho’s much-vaunted top rib, Lisa McGuigan’s understated pinot noir was a quiet treat after the in-your-face voluptuousness of all that shiraz.
Thanks to Lisa and her dad, whose McGuigan wines are now publicly owned, we can all enjoy very palatable Australian wine at a fair price. The Wine Wanderers always snap up a bottle of McGuigan’s grey label when it comes on £5 half-price promotion at Tesco or Sainsbury’s, and Lisa McGuigan’s Wilde Thing red and white blends will soon be offering great value at your local corner shop for £7. The Silver Collection will come in at about £11 a bottle, but for a real treat splurge on the Platinum if you can find it.
“An Italian wine-tasting would have been considered a joke 30 years ago, particularly of all whites”, confessed the illustrious wine critic Tim Atkin at Enoteca Turi the other night. This excellent Italian restaurant in Putney, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was paying tribute to the wines of Italy’s most northerly wine regions, Alto Adige and Friuli, and The Wine Wanderers were drawn by the fabulous regional food as well as the sublime and delicate wines.
Alto Adige, also known as South Tirol, the hilly far north of Italy where road signs are also in German and some winemakers still wear lederhosen, is home to the country’s best pinot grigio. This is, however, a grape which has been single-handedly responsible for Italy’s poor reputation for white wines. The cheap supermarket variety grown on the flats is so popular simply because it’s inoffensive, with no distinct taste profile, Atkins rightly pointed out, but give the grape some altitude and a decent winemaker and you have a completely different animal. We loved the 2013 from Hotstatter which was served as an aperitif to complement lovely nibbles like fried potato and cheese cakes and mackerel in sweet-sour sauce.
But it was a pinot bianco from Alto Adige served with a sublime starter of meltingly soft smoked duck breast with horseradish sauce – that Germanic influence again – which really gripped our tastebuds. It was a Vorberg Riserva 2010 from Cantina Terlano, one of the most acclaimed growers in the region. We also enjoyed their Quartz sauvignon bianco 2012 which accompanied a plateful of black cannelloni filled with skrei, the new cod sensation from Norway, and served with cuttlefish ragout – to die for. The Gewurtztraminer Kolbenhof from Hofstatter also served with this course was a reminder that Alto Adige is where this most perfumed of grapes made its name, even though its reputation was perfected in Alsace.
It was to the north-east for the main course; Friuli Venezia Giulia adjoins Slovenia in Italy’s easternmost corner, and makes the same style of delicate, fragrant white wine. We enjoyed the Studio di Bianco 2008 from Borgo del Tiglio with our turbot, scallops and risotto of barley, crab, safron and courgette flower, more even than the very posh Ribollo Gialla Pettarin Colli Orientali del Friuli 2011, which is so rare the restaurant had an allocation of just a handful of bottles.
Finally, also from Friuli, a beautiful dessert wine redolent with dried fruit – Le Vigne di Zamo Vola Vola, which made the most beautiful partner for a berry tart with ginger cream and rhubarb jelly which was like late spring on a plate. If the food at Enoteca Turi threatened to eclipse even these finest of wines, it’s no surprise – their new head chef, Michaele Blasi, helped his last restaurant, Sadler’s in Milan, win two Michelin stars. Lucky Putney-dwellers, having Enoteca as their local – their Italian food is some of the best we’ve eaten in London, and they have a great list showcasing fine wines from every region of Italy.