Last month, on a beautiful autumnal saturday, Greg Love, streaming wine video maestro and Piedmont lover, had me over for supper in Notting Hill. The other guest was Clive Vlotman, a serial South African entrepreneur who in his career has managed the 'Wet Wet' pop group. Clive's family in the 1690s was one of the original Dutch settlers in the Cape and they have continued to make wine to this day. Apparently, it isn't that good, the vineyards being poorly situated on the wrong side of the valley from the Meerlust estate, famous for its opulent Merlot. So Clive, an oenophile, vowed that one day he would be involved in a great wine venture and where better to do it than in the timelessly beautiful Monferrato hills of Piedmont. The place was also an idyllic bolt holt to restore the spirit in Clive's constant life of air travel and corporate meetings. Teaming up with business partner, Graham Kresfelder, Clive poured money into the Noceto Michelotti estate near Asti, this Monferrato district famed for the best Barbera, one of Italy's most satisfying reds. And for refreshing, juicy pleasure the delectable Moscato has no rival: at its low alcoholic strength, you can indulge yourself with a full bottle and walk in a straight line afterwards.
Noceto Michelotti is a model modern winery built in a fold of the hills, at the heart of an estate where the vineyards have been sculpted and improved to offer the best aspect and drainage in these privileged sites. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, they are sorted, then washed and cleaned in a unique process which eliminates any toxic residue emanating from the soils. Winemaking is the best of what one could call evolved classic tradition: destemming of the grapes, gentle pressing, alcoholic fermentation in stainless steel tanks for up to three weeks depending on the particular grape and vintage character; the second 'malolactic' conversion, which makes the wine both softer and more complex, is done in small oak barrels à la bourguignonne.
The Barbera stays in wood to mature for six to seven months and after bottling is rested for a further four months before release. At our autumn London supper, Clive showed us two Barbara vintages. The first, a fairly early effort in the estate's history, was good and solid with the fruitcake opulence of the grape. The second, the 2006, was a huge step forward for its beguiling aromas and for the precision, purity and elegance of flavours - which has a lot to do with the excellence of the vintage and the little details like the washing and cleaning of the grapes. It drank beautifully with generous lamb chops, pink and succulent, cut from the rack. Then came the exquisite Moscato d'Asti 2006, which managed the diffficult feat of being as delicious and approachable as any wine from this grape can be, while at the same moment showing the concentation and complexity of a truly fine wine. Bravissimo!
Greg and I are going to the estate in early November. I shall report back on a trip which will include a visit to the Alba truffle festival. Someone has to do it.
A half hour's train ride north from Venice, the province of Treviso has a strong pull for those who like hilly landscapes dotted with elegant country towns. Treviso itself is a mini-Venice and Asolo a gem of a town of old streets and enchanting vistas, which drew writers like Freya Stark and Ernest Hemingway to live here, where Mediterranean warmth meets Alpine coolness. This part of the Veneto also has a string of exquisite 16th century villas built by Andrea Palladio, the great Renaissance architect, author and stonecutter. Close to the Montello hill, on the road to Valdobbiadene, stands the fabulous Palladian-style villa and former country house of the Conte Loredan Gasparini family, whose ancestor was Leonardo, Doge of Venice.
Since those Renaissance times, Montello has been famous for its clay-rich soil, full of iron & minerals - and so ideal for making great red wine. In the 1950s, Count Piero Loredan founded the Venegazzú wine estate, planting cuttings of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot brought back from Bordeaux. Loridan was soon producing a series of stunning reds culminating in his flagship Capo di Stato, which warmed the chilly heart of President Charles de Gaulle. For once, the great man forgot his innate bias towards all things French, and thereafter often drank this splendid wine in preference to fine claret. In 1973, the wine estate and business ( excluding the historic villa) passed into the hands of Giancarlo Palla, a textile entrepreneur and wine lover, with the same passion for viticulture as Piero Loredan.
Early in September, we had the luck to visit Venegazzù and taste the latest vintages of Capo di Stato with Lorenzo Palla, son of Giancarlo. The two currently released vintages, 2004 and 2005, are intriguingly different expressions of a perfect Bordeaux blend, with smaller but vital inclusions of the herby,aromatic Cabernet Franc and the sturdy Malbec; both wines are partly aged in large Slovakian oak tuns, which because of their greater surface area of wine to oak aerate these great reds without making them taste too woody. The hot summer in 2005 has shaped a very full and heady wine, redolent of blackberries and blackcurrants, with strong , ripe tannins and a touch of liquorice. It's the sort of opulent, powerful red that might score 95 points + on the numerical scale of the American wine guru, Robert Parker. Personally, I prefer the 2004, a cooler year. It's much more classic, discreet and subtle, with scents of morello cherry melding with aromas of hazelnut and old roses. Tasted on its own, the palate is a mite austere just now, but drunk with food, the wine is transformed, its fresh acidity and minerality making it an ideal balancing partner for the rich dishes of autumn - roast pheasant, breast of pigeon and best of all, a substantial Côte de Veau with porcini mushrooms. Expect to pay £27.30 a bottle (incl. VAT) for both vintages of Capo di Stato, when bought by the case from the UK agents Ciborio (0208 5784388); for retail stockists log onto www.italianwinesociety.co.uk
For a significant cost saving, the Venegazzú Della Casa 2005 (£15.43) is a junior version of Capo di Stato, made from the same grape mix, but from younger vines. Fine, deep ruby hue; a whiff of black cherry; green peppers, subtle oak and woodlandblack fruits flavours. Then, the Manzoni Bianco 2007 (£9.95) is a true original, the invention of a Professor Manzoni of the prestigious Viticultural Institute of Conegliano; Manzoni's inspiration was to make a grape-cross between the aromatic-mineral Rhine Riesling and the smooth harmonious Pinot Bianco, so creating a wine that is a heavenly match with risotto of pumpkin. There's also a Prosecco Brut (£ 9.39), the fruity sparking wine of the pre-Alps.This one's from Montello and the hills of Asolo, making it firmer than the silky wines from the classic villages around Valdobbiadene, the heart of Prosecco country.
Finally, news of an exciting Italian restaurant when you're next in London. Osteria Stecca at 1 Blenheim Terrace, St John's Wood NW8 OEH (020 7328 5014) is the joint venture of Lorenzo Palla and chef-patron, Stefano Stecca. Stefano has the simple priorities of all good Italian cooks:the finest ingredients packed with flavour- Emilian pasta with razor clams, garlic and tomato, a juicy veal cotoletta and a really authentic tiramisu – all are brilliant. A full review next time.
Cava is Spain's most dynamic wine export, accounting for half of all sparkling wine sales worldwide, excluding Champagne. Yet despite its international success and the serious way in which the finer wines are made in the Penedes hills, Cava is stuck with a cheap and cheerful image. Eighty per cent of the market in Britain is in the hands of the supermarkets, so quality can vary from the dismal - “burnt earth in a glass”, as one wag put it – to the truly delicious, pitched at realistic prices for mellow wines of decent maturity. Where to look?
Sainsburys has a particularly astute selection of sparkling wines: their Cavas regularly come from market leaders like Codorniu and Freixenet which provide consistent quality and value, aided by the supermarket's considerable purchasing power. Their Taste the Difference Cava 2006 (£9.99) is one of the best own-label sparklers on the market – it gets a minimum cellaring of 12 months rather than the statutory 9 months, and loaded with Chardonnay (80 per cent) it's attuned to the taste of the modern consumer who might prefer freshness to strong 'hot country' flavours. For a small saving, Sainsbury's also sell the Cuvée Raventós Brut and Pinot Noir Brut, both from Codorniu (£8.99) and very good they are
Across the road from Codorniu, another member of that renowned house's founding family, Don Manuel Raventós runs a very different, breakaway operation in a strikingly beautiful modern winery fronted by an ancient oak tree. Run like a Bordeaux chateau, all the grapes for Raventós i Blanc Cava come from the estate's own 90 hectares of vineyards; no fruit is bought in. Driving us through the hilly vineyards in his old beloved Land Rover (circa 1970), Don Manuel had discarded his smart jacket and tie, to show us with obvious pride his 70-year-old Xarel.lo vines – the heartbeat of great Cava – which deliver concentrated, complex, but never heavy flavours to the finished wines. The Raventós range available through the Waterloo Wine Company (+44 20 7403 7967 email@example.com) starts with the pure lightly-aged 2005 Raventos i Blanc Brut (£8.10), fresh and crisp, an excellent aperitif. The 2002 Elisabet Raventós is altogether more serious. Deeper gold in colour, rich and vinous, it has the yeasty leesy flavour of real maturity – great with “Bull” the local Catalan pork pâté with inserts of foie gras. The top of the range 2000 Selection Manuel Raventós Grand Reserva Personel (£20.64) has the finesse of fine vintage Champagne at a saving of at least 50 percent on cost.
Gramona is the other top name in San Saturni d'Anoia, an historic Cava bodega that has a mythical reputation among Catalan and Castilian wine collectors. Gramona is also the most innovative producer in the region, growing 20 different grape varieties and making 12 different Cavas and a further dozen still wines. Winemaker Jaume Gramona studied wine science at Dijon university in Burgundy, so he has an open minded, sophisticated attitude towards his grapes. Jaume is happy to use both Catalan and French varieties. The only yardstick is which variety works best in a particular part of his 29 hectares of vineyards, the highest in Penedes. With the cool breezes coming down from the Montserrat Sierra, this is ideal territory for juicy, vibrant Pinot Noir and a fabulous base for the best pink Cava of all – and young with it. By contrast, the Gramona Col.leccio d'Art, 100% Chardonnay, from the 1996 and 1997 vintages shows what complexities of flavours can be achieved with a dozen years in bottle. And the old traditions are also splendidly maintained in the 2002 Gramona Celler Batlle, a supreme expression of aged Xarel.lo.
At the moment, Gramona has no importer in the United Kingdom. But if you're on holiday in or near Barcelona this summer, take the 40 minute drive to San Saturni, where the house is happy to welcome visitors. The fascinating tour to see how these hand-crafted wines are made is worth every cent of the 20 euro entrance charge. And you can buy one of these treasures on site. Ring or mail Gramona to arrange a visit Tel +34 93-891.01.13 Or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Afterwards there's an excellent restaurant round the corner serving roast duck to die for.