Volpaia – a medieval Tuscan village you have to visit

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Volpaia at sunset

It is possible that you can go to Tuscany many times and completely miss Volpaia. This is a tiny village in the middle of the Chianti region which is not mentioned on tourist guides and only accessible by car unless you feel like walking for kilometres up a never ending hill. This is a place which is completely off the beaten track though a few years ago I got worried when one of its restaurants was reviewed in a travel magazine as one of the best places to dine al fresco in Tuscany.

There is no such thing as tourist shops like many ‘touristic villages’  in such popular tourist areas. The allure comes from a picturesque medieval village, great views, a great bar, two restaurants and a winery which goes by the name of Castello di Volpaia.

This is a village that you can visit time and time again without getting bored. There is not much to do other than walk in the countryside or amid the narrow streets, drink a coffee or a glass of wine at the village’s only bar. All you need is good company or a nice book to soak up the splendid views.

There is also a winery which is part and parcel of the village and which has been making wine since the 1100s.

The impact as you head up to Volpaia is immediate. The view of this fortified town is breathtaking. But what is stunning about Volpaia is the unique atmosphere of this medieval village.

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The Bar-Ucci

Once you arrive to the square you will see the restaurant La Bottega on one side and the wine bar Bar-Ucci on the other side. At the opposite end you will also see the entrance to the winery Castello di Volpaia which makes some exceptional wines including Chianti Classico as well as a range of Super Tuscans and the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo.

The Bar-Ucci which takes its name from the owner of the bar is a gem. Firstly, the coffees in the morning are exceptional. There is a great selection of wines by the glass from the Chianti region and you can also get platters of home-cured meat as well as pecorino which is served with honey and a selection of mustards.

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The stunning terrace at La Bottega

The restaurant La Bottega has probably one of the best terraces in Tuscany. It has a view of the famous Tuscan rolling hills (see below). But on top of that this is home cooking at its best. You get simple but great ingredients and turn them into a perfect meal. We have eaten here many times and the service and quality of the food has always been top notch. A few recommendations include the Pici al Cinghiale (a Tuscan type of pasta with a wild boar sauce), the pappardelle al tartufo or porcini mushrooms, the ribollita, rabbit served with a truffle sauce, the obvious bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone steak) or a wild boar stew with olives. Their chocolate tart is unbelievably good. It is the first and only time that I can remember that all of us at table (six) ordered dessert twice it was so good.

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The Castello di Volpaia winery

We did not try the other restaurant in Volpaia but visited the winery and tried a range of their wines. Castello di Volpaia, with vineyards surrounding this hilltop village, makes Chianti Classico, the Chianti Classico Riserva and a white wine which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They also make single vineyard wines which are all exceptional. My favourite is Il Puro Casanova, a 100% San Giovese. The property also produce wines from the upcoming region of Tuscany, the Maremma.

Their Vin Santo is also extremely good. The last time I tasted their Vin Santo was last December. it was a 15 year old wine with great complexity and still incredible freshness. Volpaia is only a few kilometres away from Radda in Chianti. If you are in the area, I recommend you visit and then drop me a line about your experience.

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The view from Volpaia

 

Wines from the Mosel

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Stunning views in the Mosel. The wines can be exceptional.

German white wine is probably the wine lovers best kept secret. It only takes a few tastings of a German Riesling, whether bone dry, semi-sweet, sweet or even in its ice-wine variety and you are likely to be hooked. Riesling ages incredibly well, is very versatile and changes character along the way. It is also extremely versatile with food.

When the wine is not mass-produced, and mass production is probably one of the reasons why it had such a bad reputation, it can be brilliant. It also provides exceptional value for money.

A good Riesling to me has unique qualities. It is fresh, vibrant and has a great perfume. The freshness can be surprising even when you are drinking an older wine. It is not uncommon to open a 10 to 15 year old dry wine and still find incredible freshness.

IMG_3854The Mosel Valley is a beautiful and scenic region in Germany and exploring the vineyards and wineries is a great way to get a taste of German culture, its people and some wonderful wines. Most of the region is centred around eating and drinking.

For non-German speakers, German wines can be intimidating because of the labelling even though once grasped it is incredibly simple and extremely transparent. The classic gems of German wines are sweet wines which are best enjoyed alone. I have quite a number of sweet wines in my cellar which can be savoured over the years given the ageing potential is huge. However, because sweet wines are no longer so much in demand, German producers have opted for dry wines called trocken. When it is medium try it is called halbtrocken.

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This weekend, we tasted two different wines from the Mosel. They were from Weingut Lotz.

We tried two wines from the same terroir. One was a 2010 and the other was a 2013. Both were great but also incredibly different one could not help wonder whether the 2013 would develop in such a way.

The location of the vineyards that produce these wines is the Erdener Herrenberg. The slate-stone ground is very weathered and produces wines with a special minerality.

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The Lotz wines. (Photo taken from website of wine producer)

We first tried the 2010 Riesling Schieferstein from Weingut Klaus Lotz. For a four-year old wine this still had incredible freshness. It is complex on the nose with hints of exotic fruits. It has the right balance between acidity and sweetness and goes perfectly well with a light meal. We tried it again a day later and it still showed the same sort of freshness indicating that it still has the potential to age. Overall this is an incredible value for money wine.

The 2013 Lotz Schieferstein from the same producer has different labelling now. This is the sort of wine that you will enjoy drinking when it is extremely hot. It is crisp and has great acidity. It is not as complex on the nose as the 2010. It is indeed rather gentle on the nose though it has a really nice aroma which reminded me of marzipan. To me this was a perfect wine to drink as an aperitif also because the finish was not as long as the previous wine. Overall, it was still fantastic.

The great thing about Rieslings is their ageing potential and therefore the possibility to try different wines of different vintages. You do not need to worry if you don’t finish the wines. Firstly these two wines had a screw cap. Moreover, given that these wines can age, you can actually test their ageing potential by trying them days later. If they still taste good, then you know that they can still age.

The only problem with these wines is that they are so hard to find. But that makes them all the more alluring.

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The wines of Sicily – a wine region like no other

The fishing village of Scoglitti which believe it or not triggered my passion for Sicilian wines

Maybe it is because of Malta’s close affinity to Sicily, or because of the fact that I have been there so many times, but I find Sicilian wines to be extremely interesting. True, they might not compare with the finesse of Barolo’s from Piemonte or Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany but still they are extremely fascinating.

Sicilian cuisine to me epitomises what is best about Mediterranean food. Take simple, sometimes humble ingredients and within minutes you have the makings of a great meal. Like my home country, Sicily is a hotpot of different influences from the Mediterranean. Some of the most memorable meals I have experienced were in Sicily whether it was a menu free restaurant in Scoglitti serving just one fish dish after another of what their fishermen had caught earlier in the day, to some of the best pasta creations. Nothing beats their spaghetti with sea urchins or pasta with prawns and pine nuts or pistachios which are so common in Sicilian cuisine.

But this post is not about Sicilian food but rather about its wines. Sicily came rather late to the wine connoisseurs attention and for various reasons. For many years, Sicilian wine producers made wine which were transported to the North of Italy to be blended with other more well known wines. There were also a few large producers who mainly focused on quantity rather than quality.

But a handful of winemakers, also spotting the potential of this island, decided to take matters into their hands starting from the 1990s and began to make their own wines under their own labels. This has led to a major reversal of fortunes and many now consider Sicily to be one of the most interesting wine regions in Italy.

Some winemakers like Cusumano call Sicily a continent because of so many terroirs that this island has to offer. The variety of wine styles that have emerged in recent years ensures that this may indeed be the case.

There are parts of Sicily which are further South from Tunisia and therefore extremely hot for wine making. Nevertheless, the wines produced, despite their intensity also have the right amount of acidity which makes for balanced wines when aged well. I can assure you that a 10 year old Nero d’Avola can give you as much pleasure as more renowned wines.

The Nero d’ Avola is the most well-known grape from Sicily and it originally comes from South-East Sicily (Avola) close to Pachino which is world famous for the cherry tomato variety of that name. Nowadays, Nero D’Avola is grown pretty much across the whole island.

Then there are wines from higher altitudes or those from the volcanic region of Etna which offer great examples of the potential that wines from volcanic regions have. Here, the most interesting grape is the Nerello Mascalese which is traditionally grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The wines from the Etna have an exceptional minerality mainly because of the volcanic soil.  One of my long time favourites from this area are the wines from the long established Benanti. Many Sicilian wine makers have now invested in this area including Tasca d’Almerita, Cusumano and Firriato. One of the most innovative in the Etna region is Belgian winemaker Frank Cornelissen who has established himself with his natural wines which use no sulphur whatsoever. His are considered to be cult wines.

The main white grape variety of Sicily is the Insolia which is a very fruity wine but when well made has great balance in terms of fruit and acidity. It also blends well with international varieties such as Chardonnay.

The first time I discovered Sicilian wines was thanks to a passionate wine lover who had a great Enoteca in the small fishing village of Scoglitti. He had a small but very interesting selection of wines in his enoteca. He guided me years ago to some of the best winemakers the island had. My fascination with Sicilian wines grew from there.

Among my favourite winemakers are Benanti, Cusumano, Morgante, Firriato, Tasca d’Almerita, Ceuso and Planeta. I will write about these and many more wine producers in future blogposts. There are many other winemakers worthy of a mention. So watch this space for more blogposts in future.

But if you find any one of the Sicilian wines from the above producers try them out. You will not be disappointed. One tip: Sicilian wines in comparison to wines of similar quality are cheaper so I would recommend that you try to acquire the higher end wines. You can find exceptional quality for wines between 10 Euros and 30 Euros.

Among my long time favourites are Cusumano’s Noa, a blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cusumano’s Sagana, 100 per cent Nero d’Avola, Rosso del Conte from Tasca d’Almerita, the Nero d’Avola from Morgante, Harmonium from Firriato and the Pietramarina from Benanti.

Siciliy is also home to one of my favourite ever wine shops, the Enoteca Picone. It has an amazing selection of wines from Sicily as well as many of the best Italian wines you can find elsewhere. If you are ever in Palermo, then this is a must visit.

 

 

Santorini – a wine region worth discovering

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Santorini’s views can be breathtaking. Its wines are however worth discovering

It might sound like a cliche but Santorini is all that you can imagine about a Mediterranean island if not more. This volcanic island offers crisp blue seas, breathtaking views, glorious sunsets, excellent produce (particularly tomatoes and aubergines) and incredible wines.

The latter may come as a surprise for people not necessarily in the know. Greek wines can be surprising in their quality. But in terms of island wines, the ones which come from this beautiful island in Southern Aegean are exceptional.

If you have never tried the white wine Assyrtiko, which has a potent dryness and minerality with strong hints of lemon, then you are clearly missing something really special. Just like with Riesling, the first time I tried this grape variety, I was immediately hooked.

The volcanic soil of Santorini is great for grape growing and while many might consider the conditions to be too harsh for wine growing, both the land and the climate make for exceptional wines with great ageing potential.

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The Domaine Sigalas vineyards

The wine makers to look out for in Santorini, and those which are also available outside the island are Domaine Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Gaia – not to be mistaken for the wines of Italian wine giant Angelo Gaja.

Another white grape variety is Athiri which is also an indigenous, white variety. Athiri is an aromatic variety, of lower acidity than Assyrtiko and lower potential alcohol. This is also blended with Assyrtiko making a very interesting combination.

Among the reds is the lesser known though equally excellent Mavrotragano, a red variety indigenous to the island.  This grape came close to extinction but is again being grown by a number of wineries on the island. I can confirm that this wine has exceptional ageing potential. I have tasted a few 2004 over the years and still have a few in my cellar.

When in Santorini we visited the winery of Domaine Sigalas close to Oia. The wine tasting was exceptional in that you tasted the wines pretty much in the middle of the vineyards in a perfect setting. Despite being a small island, Sigalas produces around 300,000 bottles of wine annually and their wines are exported to many countries including Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Holland, England, Cyprus, Switzerland, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Sweden, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, USA and Canada.

We were told that the vines in Santorini are extremely old and have resisted to phylloxera (which is attributed to the fact that that the volcanic soil is well drained). This means that the vines did not need to be replaced during the epidemic of the late 19th century. What is interesting about the Santorini wines is that the vines are planted far apart to get as much exposure to dew as possible and they are often made in the shape of low-spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the island wind.

My recommendation is to try the wines from Santorini if you come across them whether in your favourite wine store or a restaurant or wine bar. You will surely not to be disappointed. The white Assyrtiko might well be among the best wines you have tried in many years.

 

 

 

How to build your knowledge of wine

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Tuscany is a great place to start if you want to build your wine knowledge

Michael Broadbent for many is the modern patron saint of wine. In 2002, in the Decanter magazine, he listed the ten most important things that he had learned on wine. Two quotes stick to mind.

Drink good wine with every meal. Half a bottle of good wine is more interesting – and better for you – than six bottles of plonk.

Be honest and rely on your own tasting; avoid the influence of others.

Many love to drink a good glass of wine but are intimidated by the subject of wine and most people actually hesitate to go beyond the supermarket shelves.

The subject of wine is incredibly fascinating. It is one of constant discovery, one in which only very few if ever will completely master the subject given the width and breath of wines that can be tasted. Take a region and break it down into different communes, within those communes, find different vineyards, some growing different varietals of grapes. You will find that different producers make different wines a few metres from each other and you will end up asking why is one wine dry and the other less dry? Why does one wine have more alcohol then the other? Why is one wine able to age for many years and the other wine best now? How does a wine evolve in the bottle? The combinations are indeed endless.

My interest in wine grew gradually as my interest in food and cooking developed. Wine and food is a complementary subject and in fact you will find that many magazines dealing with food also have wine sections. But then, you can also find wine magazines which help you to start discovering the world of wines. The US magazine Wine Spectator and the British publication Decanter are both excellent magazines to develop your knowledge of wines. You can also look for the Italian Gambero Rosso or the French La Revue du Vin among others. These are extremely good starting points for discovering wines.

Then there are books like The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson which is a superb reference book not only teaching you about the growing process of wine but also illustrating with photos, maps and accurate descriptions the wines and specificities of different wines and regions. One of the best books to read on the subject is Hugh Johnson’s A life Uncorked which is a gem of a book which is part biography and full of information on every aspect of wine. This is a book I recommend to all friends because it is beautifully written and touches upon subjects like tasting, cellaring, choosing, understanding, comparing and buying wine as well as wine’s pleasures, lures and mysteries. Read this book with a notebook by your side and write his recommendations. This is the best place to start if you want to learn more about wines.

You can also follow some wine critics on Twitter. Some of the best critics to follow are Jancis Robinson who also writes a weekly column in the Financial Times, James Suckling formerly of Wine Spectator and now having his own website. I also particularly like the insights of Tim Atkin and Robert Joseph among others. My favourite wine blogger is Alder Yallow who writes a wine blog – Vinography.

There is a more direct approach to wine which is to head to a wine region and let yourself become immersed in the culture of wine of that wine region. Whichever the region, you are bound to discover passionate people who will guide you to what the region has to offer in terms of wine and cuisine. They will indicate their favourite wineries or wine stores. The latter are also a great source of information. Go with an open mind and allow the wine merchant to take you on a voyage of discovery. If you eliminate your prejudices, you are bound to be pleasantly surprised.

One thing which I have discovered is that whenever there are vineyards, the landscape is bound to be beautiful if not spectacular. This is the case wherever you go.

Once you start to get more and more knowledgeable you are bound to discover that you want to learn more and more. What is most important is to avoid plonk and always choose to try wines from winemakers which have a story to tell. When you do that, you are bound to never be disappointed. As they like to say, life is too short to drink bad wine.

 

 

Caffe al Dente – a wine lover’s den

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Caffe al Dente has an impressive selection of Italian wines – Photo taken from Caffe al Dente’s website

Ask any Italian, and there are many in Belgium, what their favourite Italian restaurant would be and you are likely to get a very different answer from each and every one of them.

Italians take their food very seriously but probably few as seriously as Federico of Caffe al Dente. A Roman who has settled in Brussels, he is obsessed with a simple rule “Il Pesce non si serve con il formaggio”, i.e. it is a sin to serve cheese with fish.

Now there are some who argue that the client is always right. At Caffe al Dente this is not necessarily the case. If you go there, you will notice that they take this rule extremely seriously. You will find an asterisk on the blackboard with the day’s menu telling you that the pasta dish with fish or shellfish will not be served with cheese on top, and there will be other small blackboards hanging around in the restaurant telling you that you should not put cheese on your spaghetti alle vongole (with clams).

Of course, there is no question that this would be akin to a mortal sin. But while the French or the British are known to use cheese with certain fish dishes, the rule is not as rigid as it sounds. There are some regions which are starting to experiment with fish based dishes and cheese. If you look at Sicilian cuisine, you are bound to find the occasional dish such as the polpette sarde (sardine balls) having pecorino inside. I have also come across a 2 Michelin star chef Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino  who stuffs calamari with smoked cheese.

But back to Caffe al Dente. This is a really great place. Firstly it has an Italian wine list which is incredible in its depth. There are wines from pretty much all regions of Italy and most of the best wine houses are covered. The prices, compared to other Brussels restaurants are also very reasonable given that the wine list shows the price for buying the wines from the enoteca next door as well as those charged in the restaurant.

The menu is extremely simple so you might go there once and be disappointed because of the choice on offer. But the mantra is rather simple. They use what is available and what is in season. So you are unlikely to eat the same thing if you go on separate occasions. They have a choice of two or three antipasti, two or three pasta dishes and two or three main courses. The same goes for desserts.

I have eaten there on a few occasions and the food and service have always been good albeit sometimes slightly slow. But then, that allows you time to savour the atmosphere, drink wine in good company and to chat with Federico who is a very interesting character.

The time we asked him about the cheese philosophy he told us that a client had once walked out after insisting that he wanted cheese with his Spaghetti Marinara. He told us how, at one point his client asked him whether he was going to bring cheese or else he might as well give him the bill. He refused to take cheese to the table and sent the bill instead. The customer walked away angrily but Federico told us that he returned a few days later with an apology and a gift for him.

I am here to offer an authentic service he had told us. Most of the people who come here come for an authentic Italian experience. How can I serve cheese with fish if that is not how it is done in Italy? You must respect the place you are in but you must also understand our philosophy. You cannot really fault him with that.

Verdict: This is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Brussels. The food is excellent, the atmosphere nice, the wine list for Italian wines is probably one of the best I have seen outside Italy. It is like going to an Italian enoteca. The good thing is that it is in Brussels. Booking recommended because it can fill up very easily.

Caffe al dente

Rue du Doyenné 85, 87, 1180 Bruxelles