A Wine Lover’s Diary, part 352: And on to Italy

Saturday, July 16: Villa Giustinian in Portobuffolè, Veneto. Very hot this morning. Today the group of 40-odd buyers and journalists moves to Venice. Last night I met a South African jockey who races in Hong Kong, named Douglas Whyte, who is very famous in racing circles, having won the national championship four years in a row. He owns a property in Montecastello di Vibio (Umbria) where he makes a Sagrantino, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

We all pile our luggage into a water taxi that takes us to the back entrance of the Saturnia Hotel. Always a joy to visit Venice, in spite of the crowd of tourists. Deborah and I honeymooned here in 1997. Lunch with Sheila Swerling-Puritt, Sean Wood and Gurvinder Bhatia at Ristorante da’ Raffaele overlooking a canal at a point where the gondoliers drop off their passengers. Amusing to see one gondolier on a cell phone as he paddled his gondola along the narrow canal. The service at this restaurant is terrible but we have
time. I order a bottle of Pieropan Soave “Calvarino” 2009 and share with Gurvinder a plate of shrimp risotto with zucchini flowers.

After lunch, since our hotel rooms are not ready, I go in search of the Furla shop to buy a handbag for Deborah. Eventually find it near the Rialto bridge. At 5 pm we all gather in the lobby to walk over to the main dock. Sandra Bottega has chartered a boat called Moby Dick to take us on a tour of the lagoon and then anchor to have dinner and watch the firework display to celebrate Festa dal Redentore. This annual festival falls on the third Saturday of July and commemorates the end in 1577 of the great plague that killed a third of Venice’s population over two years.

Sandro Bottega and Moby Dick

Partying on the Moby Dick

As we cruise we drink Bottega Prosecco and munch on a variety of tapas – fruit salad, veggie sticks, deep-fried calamari, shrimp and vegetable tempura. The music is loud and everyone dances. Sandro leaps onto the roof of the bridge with a microphone and exhorts us to enjoy ourselves. We don’t need much encouragement.

The lagoon is full of boats, competing with their loud speakers as they wait for the fireworks to begin.

Sunset over Venice

We have dinner at tables downstairs – rice, vegetables and mozzarella, followed by pasta vongole and suckling pig. We drink Bottega Rosso di Montalcino 2009 (earthy, sour cherry, well-structured and dry, 88) and Bottega Amarone 2007 (powerful at 16.5% alcohol, intense, cedar and sweet raisin flavours, 87). The fireworks start at 11:30 pm and last for 35 minutes. A magnificent pyrotechnical display. The crowds on the boats show their appreciation by sounding their horns. We walk back to the hotel and arrive at 1:30 am.

Sunday, July 17: Awoke at 9:30 am as a maid opened the door of my room. Walked around Venice before lunch outdoors at Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana – a mixed salad to start, then sole in a sour sauce with onions, pine nuts and raisins with grilled white polenta (white polenta, I was told, is served with fish and yellow polenta with meat). Bottega Il Vino dei Poeti Prosecco followed by Bottega Rosso di Montalchino 2009, which accompanied tagliolini pasta with shrimp. Tiramisu for dessert with Bottega Fragolino.

A group of us went in search a gelati. Gurvinder recommended Grom but an endless search proved fruitless. At 5:30 we gathered our luggage at the hotel to take the water taxi to the bus depot. We returned by bus to the Villa Giustinian in Portobuffolè, where we had dinner with Sandro Bottega and two of his staff, Daniella Cester and Anna Spellanzon. But first a cleansing ale waiting for them to arrive. The prosecco began to flow again including a rosé sparkler made from Pinot Noir and the local Raboso. The meal started with a plate of frito misto mare followed by spider crab served in its shell on a bed of lettuce, followed by homemade tagliolini with scallops and courgette. Next grilled scampi and mixed salad. Sandro, who entertained us by doing 30 push-ups, sprayed grappa on all our dishes with an atomiser. Dessert: a huge bowl of fresh fruit with Bottega Prosseco Grappa.

Sandro Bottega and Prosecco Gold

Guinness Record Grappa bottle

Monday, July 18: Sandro Bottega gave us a tour of the distillery and winery. His company produces 8 million bottles, 50% under the Bottega label (grappa and wine), 9% under the Alexander label, the rest divided between the labels Academia and Pronol. We tasted proseccos and grappas at various stages of production, ending with a magnificent 10-year-old wood-aged grappa called Riserva Privata. We ended up in Sandro’s glass museum featuring all the bottles and glasses he has designed, including the Guinness Record for a bottle of grappa – 130 litres.

A glass of Bottega Diamond (a sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir in a rhinestone-encrusted bottle which had a delightful honeyed note) and then drove to lunch at L’Enoteca Veneta on the campus of the Scuola Enologica Cerletti in Conegliano. Before lunch, a glass of Pronol Frizzante with a lardo on toast. A mercifully light lunch of beef carpaccio with pickled peppers, then tagliatelle with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella accompanied by Bottega Cuvée Brut (an off-dry blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with a grassy, apple flavour). Then a plate of asiago cheese, grilled vegetables, stuffed prosciutto and salty pork.

Sandro showed us the official Prosecco glass authorized by the Consortio. It looks like a slightly larger version of the Riedel Icewine glass. “I don’t consider Prosecco a sparkling wine,” said Sandro, “but a wine for the meal.” Dessert: strawberries with Bottega Fragolino, a blend of Lambrusco, Pinot Noir, Marzemino and Cabernet Sauvignon. Then we try the world’s first bottle of Bottega Solaris 2010, a hybrid developed by the Scuola Enologica Cerletti. It tastes like a cross between Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc – cat’s pee and white peach nose, green bean and tomato leaf flavour with lively acidity. The crossing is very hardy and disease-resistant, which means little need to spray.

While we taste Solaris, Sandro receives a phone call from Angelo Gaja, for whom he makes a grappa from Angelo’s pomace at Ca’Maranda in Bolgheri. It’s called Exquisite. After a tour of the oenology school (with its collection of 5,000 insects under glass) and allegorical paintings in praise of the virtues of wine in the main hall, we head for Sandro’s glass factory to witness the production of bottles and ornaments that characterise Bottega grappas.

Glass blowing a Bottega grappa bottle

On to the bus for the two-hour drive to Verona and check in to the Victoria Hotel where other member of our group are staying. Dinner at 9 pm at Trattoria Il Pompiere. The Prosecco started flowing again, Bottega Gold (in a gold bottle) with a huge plate of prosciutto, lardo, salami and mortadella accompanied by pickled vegetables. Then pasta fagiole served cold with Bottega Valpolicella Ripasso 2008, followed by macaroni, burrata cheese and eggplant. Next we tasted three Prosecci – Millesimato 2010, Prosecco DOC and Prosecco DOCG. A glass of Prosecco

Gold before Bottega Amarone 2007 with three local cheeses. Then Sandro brought out the grappas! Three of them. Finally dessert arrived – tiramsù (which had won an award from a Texas company called Orthofix as “The Best Tiramisu in the World”! The glass award was in the shape of the map of Texas.) It was pretty good. With it we drank Bottega Recioto della Valpolicella. I excused myself at 1:15 am and,with Gurvinder Bhatia, Sean Wood and Rhonda May, headed for a bar in the Piazza del Erbe, my favourite place in Verona, for a digestif – Montenegro Amaro with a slice of orange. I have never consumed so much Prosecco or grappa in my life.

Tuesday, July 19: After breakfast we drive to the winery in Pescantina where Sandro Bottga makes his Valpolicella and Amarone. He uses a mobile bottling line that drives from winery to winery. It’s 18 metres long and 2.5 metres wide. Don’t know how it negotiates these winding, narrow, hilly roads. We taste tank samples of Valpolicella and Amarone grown at different elevations and from different villages. The four vintages of Amarone are 2010, 2009, 2008 and the 2006 Riserva. Finally a barrel sample of the 2010 Recioto di Soave.

The mobile bottling line

We drive up to Santa Maria Valverde for a magnificent view of the three valleys where Valpoicella is grown – Merano, Fumane and Negrar. Lunch at Ristorante Locando ‘800 in the town of Negrar (Via Moron, 46): salad with pine nuts, parmesan and raisins with a bottle of Bottega Pinot Grigio 2010 followed by cold pasta with mozzarella and tomato. Dessert: cinnamon ice cream with cherries and Bottega Petalo Il Vino dell’Amore

Moscato Rosé Brut. This is followed by an impromptu grappa tasting during which Sandra compares two of his grappas with two other producers. The meal ends with a glass of Exquisite made from Gaja’s Ca’Marcanda pomace (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).

On the road again – to Florence. Outside Bologna we stop at an Autogrill on the motorway. The food they offer is top quality and in the basement they have what is virtually a department store. The food section rivals Pusateri’s. We arrive in Florence at 7:45 pm and our bus driver has to buy a pass to enter the city. The women behind the counter are locking up and refuse to sell him the document. They close at 7:30 and no amount of pleading about traffic jams on the highway would change their minds. They just point at their watches. So we proceed into Florence without the papers.

We check in to Hotel de Ville with is a few paces from Palazzo Antinori where Deborah and I had lunch with Piero Antinori the last time we were in Florence. Dinner at Caffe
Pitti opposite the Pitti Palace. We arrive at 8:50 pm and don’t get our first course until an hour later, although the menu had been pre-arranged. A few of us left after the antipasto plate of carpaccio, buratta cheese, zucchini cake and scalloped potatoes with black truffles. Finished the evening with a pistachio gelato and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

Wednesday, July 20: After breakfast we leave for Montalcino, stopping at the Piazzale Michelangelo for a magnificent view over Florence. We drive past Siena and the fields of sun flowers around Arezzo. At the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo we are toured around the vineyards where Bottega grows its Brunello di Montalcino from field blends of Sangiovese and Sangiovese Grosso.

Abbazia di Sant'Animo

Bottega's Montalcino vineyard and winery (at the top of the hill)

Up to the town of Castel Nuova dell’Abbate, where the winery is located, commanding a view of the entire valley. We taste a tank sample of Bottega Rosso di Montalcino 2010, followed the Bottega Rosso di Montalcino 2008 (spicy strawberry, lively acidity with a firm finish (89)). Then Bottega Brunello 2008 in Slovenian oak and the same wine in French oak (which is more elegant and less oak-influenced). The 2007 vintage follows and Bottega Brunello di Montalcino 2006 (ruby with a brick-coloured rim; vanilla oak, blackcurrant and cherry nose with a touch of volatile acidity; elegant with a good mouth feel, full and savoury on the palate with good acidity (89)) and Bottega Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2006 (dense ruby colour; floral, cherry nse with an earthy note; well extracted fruit, elegant and well balanced with flavours of herb-tinged dried cherries and strawberries (90)).

Lunch at Osteria Enoteca Santa Caterina in Poggio Rosso. Plates of salami, prosciutto, porcini, bruschetta, mushrooms and chicken livers on bread with Bottega Rosso di Montalcino 2007, followed by heaping plates of roast ribs, sausages and pork, accompanied by Bottega Brunello di Montalcino 2006. Dessert: plum tart with Bottega Recioto di Soave 2006. Next stop, Rome.

Ponte & Parione in Rome

Gurvinder enjoys a quart

We are booked into Villa Pamphili in the southwest of the city. The hotel is set in gardens and there is a shuttle bus service that leaves on the hour and drops you off outside the Vatican across from a great gelateria which our bus driver says is the best in Rome – The Old Bridge. For dinner we opt for pizza and beer at Ponte & Parione (Via S. Maria dell’Anima, 62), named after the 5th and 6th districts of Rome. Amazing thin-crust pizza.

Jill McGuire performing

There are two Russian women in our group who speak no English or Italian, but as luck would have it one of the waitresses comes from Kiev. The lights keep fusing every 20 minutes or so, plunging the restaurant into darkness. But a switch of the breaker brings them back. Jill McGuire sings “O Mio Babbino Caro” and “O Sole Mio,” much to our delight and that of the patrons within earshot.

Thursday, July 20: A free day in Rome. Gurvinder Bhatia, Sean Wood and I went in search of a group gift to Sheila to say thank you for all her hard work in organising the group’s travel and itinerary. We must have walked five miles looking for Ferragamo (we thought a silk scarf would be a good idea). Eventually we found the store near the Spanish Steps but the prices were way out of our budget. Settled on a scarf at Valentino and then headed for lunch near the Piazza Nuova. We chose La Scaletta degli Artisti, which turned out to be inspired. Started with a bottle of Sannio Vigne Sannite Falanghina 2010 (perfect summer wine) for my spaghetti vongole, followed by Vinosia Greco di Tufo 2010.

The Spanish Steps

Piazza Nuova, Rome

A gelateria in Rome

St. Peter's

Even nuns use cell phones

Walked over to St. Peter’s Square and then to The Old Bridge for an ice cream. Back to the hotel to pack and then a 7 pm shuttle bus to the drop-off point and then a taxi to Via Sabini. We are dining at La Galleria, a modern restaurant in La Galleria Alberto Sordi.

But since we are half an hour early we stop for a beer in a nearby restaurant. Our last supper in Rome: focaccia, ham, stuffed zucchini flower, grilled artichokes, tonerrelle pasta with butter, pepper and black truffles; main course, saltimbocca. The wines: Bottega Diamond Proscecco Brut, Bottega Rosso di Montalcino 2009. Back at the hotel bar, Sean Wood, Gurvinder Bhatia, Graham Duncan and I had a farewell drink. Mine was a Fernet Branca.

Friday, July 21: Today we fly back to Toronto at 11:30 am. The car that arrives to take four of us to the airport is not the large van we are expecting. A struggle to get the luggage in the trunk. The driver thinks he’s in a Formula One race. A white-knuckle drive to the airport at 140 km/h, especially since he has the television on and keeps glancing at it. The flight leaves an hour late.

Arrive in Toronto and take a taxi home. Great greeting from Pinot the Wonder Dog, whose Facebook page I’ve been keeping up in my absence. Deborah cooks a dinner of shrimp, quinoa and stir-fried vegetables, which we eat with a bottle of Joie Farm Unoaked Chardonnay 2010 – the best non-oaked Chardonnay I have tasted from British Columbia. Good to be home.

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