Wines of the Mediterranean: an Italian Journey

It had been 9 years since I stepped on Italian soil and first soaked in the wisdom of winemakers whose families were making wine as far back as the 11th century. Tuscan names such as Banfi, Brolio and Felsina were etched into my palate as heroes of the modern Italian Renaissance in wine quality.
A month or so ago, my plans were set to again taste the legendary wines of Italy, only this time my wish was to see more and do more, and I got it.
Just before the great wine adventure to Tuscany, Sicily and Campania, I spent some time with Roland Marandino, wine ambassador for Cecchi Wines of Tuscany, a partner with Banfi Vintners, a major importer of fine Italian wines and owner of Castello Banfi of Montalcino. Marandino is a passionate advocate of Sangiovese, the native grape found in Chianti Classico. He confirmed to me that Cecchi and other Italian wines are food sensitive and complement a menu. He skillfully laid the groundwork for the “old world” authenticity of Cecchi Chianti Classico 2008 ( $9.75) with its ruby red notes, dry with a fruity finish.
When our group got to our base in Ciena, the walled pedestrian-only city in Tuscany, our major visit was to Castello Banfi, some 70 kilometers south. The origin of the fortress can be traced to the ancient Etruscans, with the historic name of Poggio alle Mura. The Castello is the crown of a 7,100 acre vinicultural estate purchased in the 70’s by the John and Harry Mariani Family, American importers from New York and led today by two grandchildren, James Mariani and Cristina Mariani-May. The estate is a beacon for hospitality in the region with a full service enoteca, glass museum, Taverna for lunches and Il Restorante for fine dinner dining. Recently, luxury rooms and suites were built at a next-door resort, Il Borgo.
Our group was privileged to meet founder John Mariani who pointed out that Banfi is really a constellation of single vineyards with some 29 different subsoils, for planting many varietals of grapes. Mariani enthused that “my goal has always been to offer quality wine like the Brunello Di Montalcino, at a price the consumer would buy. This is our flagship wine, aged for a minimum 4 years in barrel and 1 in bottle. Banfi’s was the first authentic Brunello, after years of Sangiovese clonal and vinification research.” The 2006 is the latest release ( $65.) with bundled earthiness and red berry notes. Elegant and refined, the ’06 Brunello brings a new proof to Banfi’s pursuit of excellence. I am proud that my column TASTE OF WINE was chosen by Baanfi for its lead review of Brunello.
On to Sicily, where my forefathers lived in the port of Messina and the lofty monuments of Taormina, on the northeast side of this strategic island, just below the Italian mainland. It was something of a thrill to see commercial signage with the name MANGIO stretched across advertising messages in the Messina-Taormina corridor.
Mt. Aetna dominates the landscape south of the port of Messina and just north of Taormina. This 11,000 foot mountain is the most active volcano in the world. The ancient Greeks, who once claimed Sicily, worshiped it as a home of the Gods. The mountain has erupted some 200 times, leaving in its wake terraced, black lava soil, perfect for enriched wine grapes.
One of the leading wineries in the area is Tasca d’Almerita, just named the Italian Winery of the Year in the latest edition of Vini d’ Italia, a leading wine publication. It praised the Sicilian vineyard whose grapes come largely from the Mt. Aetna region, as having “a truly excellent range of wines.” Last year it was the Sicilian Wine Producer of the year
by the Italian Sommelier Association. Nero d’ Avola is the native grape causing a sensation in the area. This winery is mixing it with Cabernet and Merlot. Sicily’s wines are just starting to assert themselves on the world market. They offer strength with distinguished flavors, at pricing that is very reasonable.
Our last winery stop was in the Campania district near Naples, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius, another active volcano with lava soil. Aglianico is the region’s wine varietal to try, with a chocolate-like taste. Our winery was Cantina Del Vesuvio, just outside Naples. Maurizio Russo is the owner/winemaker, who quickly offered us farm-fresh tomato sauce in home made pasta, freshly picked mushrooms and zucchini, with same- day baked bread to go with the wine of choice, Aglianico 2009 for 10 euro.
Italy is a family dominated country. At times, this has constrained growth and contributes to its stagnant economy as is dramatically clear these days. But they are much more comfortable being closer to each other and any visitors that might come their way. A glass of wine, a loaf of bread, some Italian cheese, lively conversation, hugs and squeezes and they are a happy group. They don’t work on Sundays and they don’t work in the afternoon. Getting some rest and being with loved ones is an Italian lifestyle that lowers stress and allows a long and loving life. SALUTE ITALIA!

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