Eat, drink, love … you’re in Italy!

The wine regions of Italy.

Our latest overseas venture saw us discovering the northern parts of Italy, from Rome upwards. Our journey of discovery took us from Rome through Umbria and Tuscany in the centre of Italy, to Liguria on the northwest coastline and Veneto in the north east where our trip ended, sadly, in Venice. It was a journey of good food, good wine, good people, good scenery and good fun. In short, it was all about la dolce vita!

 

Having been fortunate enough to have visited Italy before, both of us knew what lay in store, but we both also knew that one could never have enough of Italy! Simply put, this visit just whet our appetites even more!

After three glorious days discovering Rome and all its attractions (again!), including a number of small and intimate but very popular family run restaurants, we took to the road and headed to our next stopover at the luxurious Borgo San Luigi Hotel, a 17th century palazzo which has been beautifully restored and modernised, which blends in perfectly with the 12 acres of Tuscan parkland in which it is located. It’s less than half an hour’s drive from both Siena and Florence.

But enough of the accommodation already! Our drive to the hotel took us on a short tour of Umbria.

Umbria

ABOVE: A vineyard in Umbria. I close my eyes and I can still see it!

Umbria in the past has been often overshadowed by its more famous neighbouring region of Tuscany. However, it well deserves it’s nickname as “the green heart of Italy” and there is some wonderful countryside that surrounds the hilltop towns of Orvieto, Assisi, Gubbio and Perugia.

Near Orvieto (with its magnificent cathedral) you find the white wines of the same name, while further south you find the wonderful wines of Montefalco made from sagrantino, producing brambly red wines, from which a passito wine is also made.

BELOW: Good food, good wine and good company ... and you're in Italy. This is Umbrian food and wine at its best.

As a wine region, Umbria is undergoing quite a few changes as it was somewhat left behind Tuscany on the international scene (with the exception of two notable producers – Lungarotti and Arnaldo Caprai who have long been the flagship estates of the region) and with 11 DOC’s and two DOCG’s in the region. More attention is now being paid to the vineyards which is being reflected in the quality of the wine from other producers.

Umbria, as Tuscany, opts for simple wholesome cooking with grilled meats being popular as well as lots of game and soups. The region is also home to black truffles in the autumn. The olive oil is as highly rated as that of Tuscany.

Tuscany

ABOVE: Driving through the Tuscan landscape, surrounded by vineyards and thousands of years of history!

Tuscany is the geographical centre of Italy. Here you find two of the greatest Italian medieval and renaissance cities, Florence and Siena. Florence is perhaps the cultural heart of the country.

The Tuscan countryside is actually rather varied. The Chianti Classico, in particular, is very hilly with dense woods interspersed with vineyards. Further south the country is more open with magnificent sweeping vistas, punctuated with poplars and olive groves.

The country is varied, but always evocative. Here too are the lovely small hilltop towns such as Montalcino, Montepulciano, Radda-in-Chianti, Castellina-in-Chianti and San Gimignano.

BELOW: Another view of beautiful, breathtaking Tuscany. I am more convinced that ever that my real name is Giovanni and NOT Johann!!!

The Tuscan wine scene has undergone a dramatic change in the past twenty years in terms of quality. Long gone are the straw covered fiascos of Chianti and DOC wines of questionable standards. Italy, in general, has transformed its wine industry, now concentrating on superb traditional regional wines.

Tuscany was at the forefront of the revolution of introducing world-class Vino da Tavola from international grape varieties. More recently, with the rest of Italy following this trend, the Tuscans turned the tide again to concentrate on exploring the superb qualities of their native grape varieties. The main grape red variety, sangiovese, is now recognised as a “grade A” superstar variety.

The main Tuscan wine regions are Chianti Classico, which stretches from just south of Florence to Siena from North to South and from Tavernelle in the West to Gaiole in the East. Within this region you will find the attractive Tuscan towns of Radda, Castellina, Greve, Panzano and Castelnuovo de Berardenga.

South of Siena are Montalcino, famed for its weighty, complex Brunello di Montalcino and its finer, more aromatic Rosso di Montalcino, and to the East, Montepulciano with its Vino Nobile.

To the west, you find San Gimignano, with its medieval towers, built by merchants demonstrating their wealth rather than for military purposes, and which can be seen for miles around. The most famous white wines of the region, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, is grown in the vineyards around the town and made on farms nearby.

ABOVE: The Tenuta Bichi Borghesi estate which we visited has been the property of the same family for four centuries. The 17th generation of the Scorgiano family produces DOCG Chianti Colli Senesi wine, a red IGT wine, Vinsanto, oil and honey, and they offer lovely accommodation as well. 

Just further west on the Tuscan coast is the world-renowned wine region of Bolgheri, where the “Super Tuscans” of Ornellaia and Sassicaia are made, and the “international varieties” such as cabernet sauvignon do so well. The news on the coast though is white! More-ish, refreshing and with a complex and delightful flavour, Vermentino has stormed in to prove that Tuscany does have a great white wine. In fact, delightful Vermentino is found all along the coast, as well as a little inland.

Tuscan cuisine is wholesome and rustic rather being refined or complex. Local ingredients, fresh according to the seasons, are crucial. It is not a tomato-based cuisine, although Tuscan tomatoes and vegetabes are very good. Crostini (little toasts) with liver paste, anchovy paste or fresh tomatoes are probably the Tuscan dish that is best known internationally. Pasta is not a traditional local dish, though it will be used along with game, for example, in the delicious game dish “Papardelle alla Lepere” or “Papardelle alla Cinghale”. (These are wide pasta strips with hare or wild boar). Soup is a Tuscan staple, particularly those rich bean soups laced with the excellent local olive oil. Nearly all the wine estates also make their own extra virgin olive oil, which is an added bonus to the visitor.

Liguria

ABOVE: The Ligurian vineyards as seen from the sea with one of the many villages hugging the cliffs along the stunningly beautiful Italian Riviera.­

Liguria is located in the northwest region of Italy along the Italian Riviera. It is bordered by the Piedmont wine region to the north, the Alps and French wine region of Provence to the west, the Apennine Mountains and the Emilia-Romagna wine region to the east with a small border shared with Tuscany in the south-east along the Ligurian sea.

Liguria has several Denominazione di origine controllata regions with the most notable being the Cinque Terre DOC from cliffside vineyards situated among the five fishing villages of Cinque Terre in the province of La Spezia. The DOC produces light white wines made from grape varieties such as bosco, albarola and vermentino. In the west is the red wine producing region of Dolceacqua producing wine from the indigenous rossese grape.

If you're planning a trip to Italy, Liguria might not be the first destination on your list, but include it at all cost of you can. Tuscany is next door, with the art and shopping of Florence and the­ historic sweep of Siena. B­ut don't overlook the sights and the flavours of this small region, framed by steep mountains and warm seas, with a culture all its own. Those vineyards against those steep cliffs will blow your mind!

Not only will you get to sample rare Ligurian wines, you'll get the decided treat of Ligurian cuisine -- a happy combination of basil, garlic, citrus, vegetables, pasta and seafood.

­Liguria also has some of the most glorious landscapes in all of Italy:

  • the Riviera di Ponente and the Riviera di Levante­
  • the resort towns of San Remo and Portofino, long a haven for writers and artists (one area is even known as the Poet's Gulf)
  • the high seaside cliffs and villages of the Cinque Terre ("five lands"), framed by rugged forests
  • the colorful, bustling waterfront of Genoa, a popular departure point for cruises along the Italian coast
  • steep terraces thick with vines, olive trees, oak, heather and flowers -- even orchids

BELOW: Another angle of the vineyards against the steep cliffs of Liguria. Just goes to show to what lengths (or should it be heights and angles?) the Italians will go to to make wine. Bless them!

 

Liguria's rocky hiking trails are justly famous, particularly those that connect the five villages of the Cinque Terre (sometimes spelled Cinqueterre). The best known is the Via dell'Amore, or walk of love, along which lovers through the ages have carved initials and left keepsakes, tokens and mementos.

The landscape has helped breed a Ligurian culture of self-reliance. High ­ mountains separate Liguria from much of the rest of Italy, making it relatively inaccessible by land. The ocean has historically meant freedom as well as income, and it creates a warm climate more similar to southern regions of Italy than to neighboring Tuscany.

Since before the Roman Empire, Liguria's people have been known for their independence. Although Rome attempted to conquer the region, small pockets of local resistance persisted for centuries in places such as Cinque Terre. And the residents of Genoa, the capital city, fought strenuously for liberation before the Allied army arrived at the end of World War II.

Compared to most of Italy's regions, Liguria produces relatively little wine -- the second lowest out­put of any region. The steep seaside cliffs don't always provide the most hospitable climate for vines -- or people. In fact, some vineyards are accessible only by boat. There's virtually no flat land, and estates are too small and fragmented for mass production. However, the relative scarcity of grapes allows Liguria to specialize in local vines -- roughly 100 different varieties. Liguria grows almost no international varietals in any significant quantity.

The soil of Liguria is high in limestone -- with an emphasis on the "stone." With so little flat land, growers must raise grapes on terraces carved from the rocky slopes. The slopes do offer one advantage, though: the mountain peaks protect the grapes near the sea from the coldest winter winds blowing down from the Alps. And the limestone soil is particularly good for white grapes, which acquire mineral flavors.

In the Cinque Terre, the soil is constantly buffeted by harsh, salty sea winds. It has been described as lean and parched. But hardship for grapes can lead to extraordinary wines; dry conditions mean higher sugar content in the grapes, so it's no wonder that Cinque Terre is known for its sweet Sciacchetrà.

Unfortunately, because Ligurian wine rarely leaves Liguria, outside merchants tend to hoard it -- sometimes past its prime. The place to drink Ligurian wine is in Liguria -- preferably at an outdoor cafe, in a temperate Riviera breeze, at one of the resort villages.

Ormeasco grapes were brought to Liguria from Piedmont, where they were known as dolcetto. (The varieties have now evolved separately and are quite distinct, though you may be able to tell that they are related.) In 1303, occupying Ormea, the Marchese di Clavesana issued an edict that no varieties but dolcetto were to be planted. The penalty for planting another kind of grape? Decapitation! ­

Liguria is best known for its white wines. Pigato likely derives its name from t­he spots (pighe) that appear on the mature grapes. It gives an accurate representation of the Ligurian landscape, with minerality and a nose of pine woods and seaside air.

The Cinque Terre now produces an eponymous white, a blend of vermentino and bosco grapes. Cinque Terre is light and dry, best with seafood, linguine al pesto or vegetable cakes. Vineyards in this area are scarce, and the wines they produce are relatively rare. The rarest -- and therefore most legendary -- is the sweet Sciacchetrà. Over the centuries, it has won praise from Boccaccio and Petrarch; other poets assert that it's the drink of the gods themselves. Pliny the Elder called it a "lunar wine" -- reflecting the general sense that the Sciacchetrà is not quite of this world!

Speaking of lunar wines, Colli di Luna, or "hills of the moon," produces three wines, two whites (the Bianco and Vermentino) and a dry red (the Rosso), which are regulated by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). The Vermentino is a light, sweet, fruity white that comes from a malvasia variety. You're likely to find it only on the coast -- the delicate grapes can't survive even a mild inland Italian winter.

Rossesse dell'Acqua, Liguria's first red DOC, is intense and dry, best with game and ripe cheeses. According to some sources, the vines have been cultivated here since the days of the Phoenicians. The Rossesse is said to have been Napoleon's favorite wine.

Also worth trying is the Pornassio (or Ormeasco di Pornassio) DOC, an intense cousin of the Piedmont Dolcetto that dates back to the Middle Ages. You'll be lucky to find them outside Italy, but do try them if you can.

Veneto

The last wine region we visited on our trip was Veneto in the northeastern corner of Italy.

RIGHT: The food and wine of Veneto! My mouth is watering all over!!!

Amarone is a specialty of the Valpolicella region in Veneto. it is made by drying the grapes for up to three months after harvest. This process reduces the amount of water in the grapes and makes for tasting a more concentrated wine.

Traditionally, in Italy this was done on straw mats in attics and random rooms in the valley, forward thinking wineries and wine estates revolutionized the production by building a temperature and humidity controlled building to prevent the grapes from being infected by “noble rot” in the wine cellars. Noble rot is the character that is important to producing Sauternes in Bordeaux and Tokaji in Hungary, both white wines. The Noble rot character is lovely in a white wine, but some people find it intrusive in red wines … especially dry ones such as Amarone.

This wine is deep and dark, with aromas that are reminiscent of both big Rhone reds and Ports, but has a very clean attack and notes of dried black cherry, raspberry, black pepper, gamey characters and some well proportioned oak. The palate is rich and full with sweet fruit character and more oak in the very long finish. This big wine is best suited to robust Italian fare, cheese and cold winter nights. All Amarone is at least 15% in alcohol, so be careful, the smoothness and sweet fruit could trick you into over indulging.

LEFT: The last three days of our Italian trip we spent in Venice in the Veneto Wine Region, and on the very last day we went on a gondola ride. Sadly, the only "bubbly" I had to celebrate our wonderful holiday was this cheap local plonk, but surprisingly, it was delightful! Just goes to show what Italy can do to one!

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, but this certainly wasn’t the last time we’ll be visiting Italy. There’s the southern part to discover ... again! Until then, we wish you all le dolce vita!

 

Ends