Is there such a thing as lockdown blues? … Well if there is, I am feeling it this week. The continuous daily doom & gloom about the economy, the latest restrictions preventing even visiting our closest neighbours across the Channel. The continued suffering of at least 200 grieving families a day from this dreaded virus. The news that it is under control is a welcome relief but for how long? Will we face a resurgence of the contagion? Who knows? It is the uncertainty about our lives, the future which makes it almost unbearable in the new normal; whatever that turns out to be? This is not easy for any of us. It has impacted not only our family, our street, our town but the whole world. No wonder it is a difficult week. I feel the need to escape to happier days. Wine does not get better in my view than Italy.
Italy is a land of stunning mountainous landscapes punctuated with valleys, topped with Cyprus trees oscillating in the breeze. Its volcanic spine, never more than 70 miles from the sea, allows its vineyards to benefit from the moderating temperatures of the Med. The Greeks knew a thing or two about wine when they brought the grape to Italy around 800 years BC and named Italy Enotria, the land of the vine. Sun-drenched days, cooling breezes so the vines do not get too hot and volcanic soils - Italy has it all. The perfect combination for wine production with joie de vivre. Focused on food and drink which makes their people so wonderful.
For me, wine has an amazing ability to associate with wonderful memories. I will never forget what was probably, in retrospect, an ordinary glass of Italian house red in the Piazza Della Rotunda in Rome. Anyone who has been to that beautiful square in the eternal city cannot fail to be captivated by the Pantheon – it looks old certainly, but not two millennia, built by Hadrian in the first century AD and still being used for active worship. We sat, ( I was with Stephen, who was to become the other half of West Street Vineyard) for an early evening glass of red on a café sprawled out on the pavement in the piazza – watching the world go by. Ordered some pasta with a simple tomato sauce – a few sprigs of fresh basil tossed across the top served with wonderful aged parmesan. The tomatoes tasted of long, sun-filled days and the red wine, with its typical Italian acidity and dark cherry fruit flavours, was a fabulous accompaniment. It was one of the most perfect meals of all time. A few lire – not a Michelin star in sight. Simple wonderful food focused on great quality ingredients. It was a meal, that even though it was over 20 years ago I have never forgotten. It sums up, why, for me, Italy is the heart of food and wine – nowhere does it with more passion and soul. Note it is food and wine. Italian wines are not meant to be drunk on their own.
You can enjoy wines from all over the world on their own whether that’s a Kiwi Sauvignon or a classic Bordeaux, but there is no culture in the world which has its gastronomic tradition more entwined with the grape than Italy. The emphasis is local. Local food and local wine. It does not matter that you might never have heard of the grape variety, there are over 2,500 varieties in Italy which is more than Spain, Portugal and France put together. Just stay local for food and drink because in Italy that will always be the right answer. Most Italian wines have never made it to the super league of the reputation of French wines. There is very little Sangiovese or Nero D’Avola planted outside of Italy not like the great grape varieties of France where Cabernet Sauvignon Chardonnay Pinot Noir Sauvignon are ubiquitous and planted everywhere - just because you haven’t heard of Vermentino, Molinara, Garganega, Corvina et al does not mean that these grapes aren’t any good. They are and they make great wines.
Another trip to Italy took Stephen and I to Parma and yet another café on one of Parma’s stylish boulevards – it is a striking city elegant, with a historic past. A glass of Lambrusco and some cured ham was a revelation. It was the local wine and local food and it worked a treat. The Lambrusco that day was nothing like the cheap thin wines I remembered from drinking as a student, that I vowed I would never drink again as the hangovers were something never to be forgotten. Lambrusco is made from over 60 different grape varieties from Centesimino, Fortano, Malabo Gentile and so the list goes on. A meal to be remembered: a wine with intense vibrant colour, violet bouquet, and high acidity, which was fabulous, cheese (Parmigianino naturally) and Prosciutto di Parma. What is there not to like? A glass of red wine with ham and cheese. This is the reason that Italy is so amazing.
Big Birthdays have never passed us by, without featuring food and wine, normally shared with wonderful family and friends. No trip down wine memory lane would be complete without a trip to Greve in Chianti which we did for Stephen’s 50th. Not far from the crowded streets of Sienna and Florence sits this typical small Italian town complete with large square. It has its fair share of pavement cafes in which to watch the world go about its daily chores in the Italian way. It is the geographic and cultural heart of Chianti Classico and where to learn in quick fashion about Sangiovese. If short of time, a trip to Enonteca Falorni, where you can try over 140 different wines from the local region is where you should start. This we followed with a meal around the corner in Le Gallo Nero. I am not sure it is still there. A Chianti filled night with great friends accompanied by Fiorentina steaks simply cooked on a wood fire and just seasoned with some local thyme, rosemary and garlic – vine tomatoes roasted lightly on the fire and rocket tossed idly into a bowl with olive oil sourced from the hills above the town. Food and wine never to be forgotten.
This trip down memory lane has made me feel a little better. I think an Aperitivo, an institution across Italy and accompanied by a few tasty nibbles. Tapenade on a crostini or a few olives in a bowl - is what I require to complete my recovery from the lockdown down blues. They might come back but a little taste of something Italian, in the short term at least, should see me right. Now, which wine to choose from the land of the vine is the question. Perhaps a Nerello Mascalese or Catarratto from Etna with its wonderful mineral qualities sourced from the very centre of the earth itself, is the answer.