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Amalfi – surprisingly great wines as well as super lemons

6 May

The Wine Wanderers were recently on the Amalfi coast in search of the world’s finest lemons.  We found them, in droves(or should that be groves?), but what we also stumbled across, quite unexpectedly, were some of Italy’s best and least-celebrated wines.

Campania was not known for its winemaking skills as recently as a decade ago, but boy, have they come a long way in this land of fine mozzarella, fabulous seafood and, indeed, superlative lemons.   They are making excellent fiano, falanghina, Greco di tufo and aglianico in Campania, as well as some excellent white blends – and the Wanderers were lucky enough to be staying at two of the best hotels in the region, where some serious thought has been given to showcasing Campania on the wine list.

First stop was the Santa Caterina in Amalfi, where we tasted that superb aglianico.  The Wanderers first tasted this sumptuous, inky red in neighbouring Basilicata, where it has an AOC, and did not realise production was more widespread.   A Donnaluna 2011, actually 90 per cent aglianico tempered with 10 per cent primitivo,  was a voluptuous drop to accompany an inventive dish of burrata, poached egg and asparagus; the Greco di tufo “Devon” from Cantine Antonio Caggiano Taurasi which preceded it was crisp, dry and refreshing.

Sitting over the sea next day with an excellent seafood risotto, it was fitting to be served a splendid falanghina from Feudi di San Gregorio.     But even better was a Furore blend of 60 per cent falanghina and 40 per cent indigenous biancolella.  Furore is named for a wine village just up the coast from Amalfi; this very excellent example came from from Cantine Marisa Cuomo.

On to Sorrento and one of the world’s oldest and grandest grand hotels, the exemplary Excelsior Vittoria, where they actually have a live pianist serenading guests in the breakfast room every morning.   Dinner is served in the Michelin-starred Terrazza Bosquet, where maitre d‘ Luciano gave us more Campania whites which knocked our socks off.   With scampi from the Messina Straits in Sicily we had the smokiest and most minerally fiano de avellino Colli di Lapio from Cleria Romano.   And a Per Eva Costa d’Amalfi falanghina blend from  Tenuta San Francesco stood up beautifully to a dish of orzo risotto perfumed with black garlic and candied zest of Sorrento lemons from the hotel garden beneath a bed of delicate white cuttlefish.

Although the blue lobster with bisque reduction sauce and caulifower foam must be the finest dish cooked anywhere on the Amalfi coast, we couldn’t blame Luciano for serving us a chardonnay from hundreds of miles north in Cortefranca,Lombardy.   Ca‘ del Bosco is one of the best chardonnays in all Italy and possibly the world; it can stand side by side with Montrachet, big, buttery with a lemony nose and altogether gorgeous.

The Wine Wanderers rarely choose Italian wines outside Italy, yet they never fail to surprise and delight us in their country of origin.   You have to be more careful with what you pick up in the British supermarkets, but Sainsburys does a pretty decent Aglianico del Vulture from Basiiicata at £8.   They also have a drinkable Greco di Tufo on offer till May 17 at £8(normally £10), but the Wanderers preferred a somewhat more elegant version of this varietal from Tre Fiori, £10.99 at Waitrose.   Wine Direct has that fine Feudi falanghina for £13, and Mad About Wines has the Furore for £21.85, the kind of price Campanian winemakers could not have dreamt their wines would fetch a decade or so ago.

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Festive fizz and great value supermarket reds to see in a Happy New Year

28 Dec

The festive season started with some extraordinary fizz for The Wine Wanderers, continuing with a few excellent red wines which have reminded us what spectacular value the high street can offer.

 
First, the fizz – and none are more festive to look at than the exquisite hand-painted bottles and flutes which distinguish Perrier Jouet(pronounce that Jou-ETT), the favourite Champagne of Grace Kelly and Coco Chanel.   The brand has just taken over the Winter Garden of The Sanderson, one of London’s buzziest drinking destinations, for a season of old-fashioned fizz served the old-fashioned way.   For £65 a couple can enjoy a glass each of the spectacular Belle Epoque 2007 with a taste of Oscietra caviar, a pairing that always works.   The non-vintage Grand Brut is only £15 a glass, but frankly no match for the spectacular Belle Epoque.

We saw in Christmas Day with more fizz, another spectacular vintage bottle from Veuve Cliquot, but the star of our feast was inevitably a rich red wine.   Sainsburys  Taste the Difference 2012 Amarone made a spectacular partner for our turkey and is worth grabbing while on promotion at £14 until New Years Day.   Had we feasted on beef, we would have paired it with the Waitrose In Partnership Reserve Shiraz from St. Hallett, an elegant drop at £11.99.

It’s hard to beat supermarkets on price for still wines, given their buying power, and the quality you can get for under £10 is staggering.   One of the best reds we’ve tasted this year was pinotage from Morrisons. The M Signature label was worth every penny of £6.99 for a rich red which Decanter rightly awarded Gold, and the everyday value version which just picked up its own medal in the International Wine & Spirit Competition is ridiculously good value at  £4.  This is a store whose own-label wine(like its meat department, also to be recommended) should be regularly checked out – out of nine new medals they won in the IWSC, seven were for wines costing less than £5; they include the excellent Morrisons own-label South African merlot which took Silver.

 
Lidl is no longer a well-kept secret, especially for lovers of affordable luxury, and we’ve greatly enjoyed being able to buy Californian zinfandel, one of our favourite grapes, there for £4.99 a bottle, less than half what a red this good should cost, while stocks last.   The only problem with Lidl wines is that when they’re gone they’re gone, but their huge buying power means a great new raft of fine wine bargains will always follow; this store also had its fair share of IWSC winners.

 

Of course judging wine is subjective, and what shocks the experts can still please the punters.   The Wine Wanderers’ guilty supermarket pleasure of the year was Apothic Red, a blend of zinfandel, merlot and petite syrah which has been sweetened up in production by industrial wine-makers Gallo, but to us seems the essence of the California we once lived in enjoying affordable but well-made homegrown wines, whence this blend came.  Six out of seven Sainsburys shoppers who reviewed it loved it too( though one agreed with wine critics who deplore the added sugar), and it’s on promotion there at £8 till New Years Day.  You may also find it at ASDA and Tesco.

Pukka primitivo and other Puglian delights

16 Aug

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

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Coco Pazzo, Martina Franca

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!

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Puglian fava bean “hummus” at Coco Pazzo

No longer a joke – Italy’s sublime, lesser-known northern white wines

22 May

“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.

Tuscan Delights and White Surprises in the Heart of Chiantishire

4 May

Tuscan Delights and White Surprises in the Heart of Chiantishire.

Tuscan Delights and White Surprises in the Heart of Chiantishire

4 May

The Wine Wanderers were looking forward to drinking  decent sangiovese, which too rarely makes it to UK supermarket shelves, when they visited Tuscany last week,   At its most joyous, a fine Chianti Classico, at its grandest an austere Brunello from Montalcino, in the south of the region.

We were served both at Castello del Nero, an elegant wine-producting hotel whose list has been voted one of the world’s best by The Wine Spectator.   The estate is in the heart of the Tuscan Hills overlooking Antinori, known for its Super-Tuscans.  These are the fine wines which better producers fielded in the 70s to improve the rep of a region tarnished by a wealth of indifferent chianti in the preceding decades.

Antinori’s Tignanello was among the first of these – 80 per cent sangiovese tempered with 20 per cent cabernet sauvignon.  The 2011 vintage was the first wine served at the tasting the Castello lays on for guests – and the only one we actively disliked in three days of sublime tasting.  Tough and tannic, it was a relief to move on to Antinori’s Badia a Passignano 2009, one of the most delicious Chianti Classicos we have ever tasted, no doubt reflecting its age and 14 months in oak.   Even more toothsome than the Brunello of the same age from La Gerla which completed the tasting.

So much for the reds – it was the whites served during our stay which were the biggest surprises of the trip.  Who knew vermentino, more closely associated with Sardinia and LIguria, was also produced in Tuscany?   Not us, but now we’ll be on the lookout for La Pettegola vermentino from Banfi, a perfect accompaniment to spinach and ricotta-stuffed tortellini and tiramisu made that morning in  a cooking class with the hotel’s Michelin-starred chef, Giovanni Luca di Pirro.

Even more delicious – memorable, in fact – was a white which had nothing to do with Tuscany except pairing beautifully with chef Giovanni’s slow-cooked egg with asparagus and broad been salad served in the Castello’s fine dining La Torre restaurant.   The Confini 2012 from Lis Niris in Friuli Venizia Giulia  was an incredibly flocal blend of gewurtztraminer, pinot grigio and riseling grapes, a reminder of what elegant and fragrant wines are produced in that sometimes overlooked north-eastern corner of Italy.

Back to the reds – of the Castello’s own production,  the use of merlot in their blends gives them a certain seductiveness, and we particularly enjoyed the Levriero, which is 80 per cent merlot, with sangiovese and cab sauv added for a bit of structure.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the Castello’s own olive oil is good enough to drink, and supplies are dwindling fast, thanks to  the 2014 harvest having failed completely.