To my neverending delight, I had managed to persuade the family that we should be going to Southern Italian wine country for our three weeks of summer holidays in 2013. Not that they mind going to Italy – why would anyone? – but I can fully sympathize with wariness at the notion of letting me loose where I love wine the most; they may not see as much of me as they would ideally like. But they agreed, and so off we went for a week in Campania and two weeks in Puglia.
The first week we had booked rooms at my good friend Lello Tornatore’s Agriturismo Tenuta Montelaura, which lies right in the middle of Campania’s most famous and best wine country, Irpinia, near Avellino. Check http://www.tenutamontelaura.it for details on availability, how to get there etc. Lello and his family run a lovely place, which manages to combine the pleasures of modern accommodation with the charm of rural Irpinia, with added great hospitality on top. If you are looking to sojourn in the area, the Tenuta should be top of your list.
The food at Tenuta Montelaura is simple, rustic, honest and of great depth of flavour, in that inimitable Italian way that somehow unites rusticity and almost extreme simplicity with elegance, clarity and subtlety. The food is based on local produce, of which Lello is a great champion. Of particular note is the copper-skinned onion from Montoro – la cipolla ramata di Montoro – which has found its most fanatical ambassador in Lello. This onion combines the sweetness and cooking aptitude of shallots with its own slight spiciness and the convenience of being a proper, single-bulb onion. Other raw materials of note at the Tenuta are the garlic from Ufita and their own carcuterie made from heavy swine that they rear themselves. The local Carmasciano cheese is also said to be great, but it is in very short supply, and Lello could not get hold of any when we were there.
Lello is a bit of a mover and shaker in Campanian food and wine circles, and as a result also has some great wines available at the Tenuta. He even makes a bit of fiano and aglianico himself, and while he will tell you that they are simple, rustic wines, let me tell you that you could do a lot worse, even here in the heartland of Campanian wine.
Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking (I swear!), Lello and his mates had arranged that the preliminary tastings of Campanian and Basilicata wines for one of Italy’s big annual wine guides would be taking place at the Tenuta at the same time we were there. While I could obviously not participate in all of the tastings and stay on good terms with the family (it would have meant full-day absences from them for at least three days), I could hardly refuse Lello’s hospitality when he asked whether I wanted to sit in on the tastings. So we agreed that I could take part whenever convenient.
With the family I toured the glorious Amalfi and Sorrento coasts, walked to the top of Mount Vesuvius, ate proper Neapolitan pizza in Naples and even drove as far as the mysterious Castel del Monte in Northern Apulia (and while there devoured a glorious lunch at Pietro Zito’s nearby restaurant Antichi Sapori in Montegrosso d’Andria – worth any trip, and I do mean any). In between, I had a bit of time to sit in on the tastings, and even to visit three producers.
For reasons of space, legibility and a perhaps erroneous assumption about the lack of patience of the online readership, I will be writing separate posts on each category of wines tasted at the guide tastings in Campania, as well as separate posts at each of the producer visits.
At the Tenuta, I managed to sit in on tastings of Fiano di Avellino, piedirosso/Lacryma Christi, Greco di Tufo, Aglianico del Vulture, various Campanian whites (mainly coda di volpe, but also fiano), Taurasi, aglianico from the rest of Campania, and reds from the Salerno/Amalfi coast. These tastings were of the new wines from the producers, i.e. the wines that feature in the guide for 2014. Wines were tasted blind and scored out of 100; my scores were not counted, and I did not track the scoring of others, so there is no way I could tell you which wines did well for guide purposes. Anyway, these were the preliminary tastings, which would not determine how the wines did in the final guide for 2014, but mostly served as a general measure of which wines would proceed to the final tastings for awards.
In such tastings, my scoring gets quite conservative (even if I don’t normally point score wines), and so 85 is a really good score. 85 is therefore the general measure I have used for mentioning wines in the posts from the guide tastings. Scores are mine and mine alone, given before others had revealed their scores. I am sorry that it was not always possible to catch the vintage of all the wines, but where this is not given, count on it being the vintage that would be made commercially available in late-2013/early-2014.
In Puglia, where we had rented a small house on the coast in the rugged, beautiful southern Salento (care of http://www.romesweethome.com, an excellent site that does not only rent Roman apartments), on the east coast just north of Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, I visited individual producers only. We also drove around the wonderful region, visited sights (including the spectacular caves at Castellana Grotte), and had some memorable restaurant visits. I will not tire you with all of the details of our visit, but I want to make special mention of two utterly wonderful places where we spent magical hours:
• Masseria Potenti, near Manduria, http://www.tenutapotenti.it/. This is an ancient fortified masseria that has been converted into a simple but spectacular and utterly tasteful luxury resort, with a wonderful restaurant serving light, elegant but traditional food. We spent the night here, and the rooms were just wonderful, gently inserted into the ancient structure, simple, beautiful and extremely comfortable. Recommended for anyone wanting to spend some time in the Manduria area.
• Osteria A’ Cr’Janz in Putignano, http://www.acrianzputignano.com/. I have mentioned this fantastic osteria before, but I will never tire of heaping praise on it. The place is simple, honest, light and welcoming. The chef, Stefano d’Onghia, cooks some of the most delicious food that I have ever had, and my life has not been short of Michelin-starred restaurants and other culinary highlights. We came as a family for lunch on one day, and as luck would have it, just a couple of days later, I was invited there again by a wine producer. The food is light, cooked with enormous skill to just the right points of texture, consistency, flavor and deliciousness, and explosively tasty. My family still – here at the bleak end of winter – talks about the meal we had there, and several of the dishes we had have crossed over into family myth, including the lovely donkey steak.
All in all, we had a fantastic vacation in the south of Italy, one that will stay in a memories forever, and I have the feeling that it would not be at all unwelcome with the family if we were to go Again, even despite all of my wine fanaticism.