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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 176 (February 18, 2008)

Monday, February 11: Few to Montreal for a meeting at Maison de Futailles, the wine bottling company. Back in Toronto in time to take Guy and Laura out to dinner for Guy's birthday, which is on Wednesday, but I leave for Italy tomorrow. I have booked for the four of us at Gamelle and am bringing my own wines – Burrowing Owl Chardonnay 2006, Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir 2001 and Nk'Mmip Qam Qmt Merlot 2005 from BC, all of which turn out to be splendid. I started with mushroom risotto and the sea bass.

Tuesday, February 12: A heavy snowfall today. Meeting with David Rose and Sandy Kurbis of Forefront Communications to discuss this year's Ontario Wine Awards and to settle on a host for the gala dinner. Deborah drove Sheila Swerling-Puritt and me to the airport in a snow storm. We are flying Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then on to Venice for a tour of the new Bottega grappa distillery. Our flight is delayed 90 minutes because of the late arrival of the crew and the de-icing process. We take off at 7 pm. For dinner I opt for the chicken instead of pasta (I imagine I'll be eating a lot of pasta over the next four days in Italy). The meal consists of chicken breast, rice, spinach and a red sauce. It looks like the Italian flag. I order the white wine, a non-descript Riesling from Baden, and then switch to red, an even less inviting choice from somewhere in France. Watch George Clooney in Michael Clayton and, with the aid of a cognac, fall asleep for a couple of hours.

Bottega grappa distillery

Wednesday, February 13: Because of our late arrival in Frankfurt we miss our connection and have to be booked on a flight at 12.30 pm. We are a group of seven, Sheila, Billy Munnelly and his partner Kato, Rod Phillips from Ottawa, Edward Finstein, Bottega's importing agent Philip Mirabelli and me. It seems our names got lost in the computer and it takes 45 minutes for us to get new boarding passes. Venice is bright and relatively warm and the sun is shining, so in spite of tiredness we are all delighted. We are driven by bus to Portobuffolè, where our hotel is, Villa Giustinian. We have lunch in the dining room (prosciutto, salad and egg flan with Bottega Prosecco and fruit salad). Then we drive to the city of Conegliano to visit Europe's oldest wine school, founded in 1876. We tour the building, including the library with its 18,000 volumes on wine, the museum of wine artifacts and, most interestingly, the prototype wine bar – a room decorated with poetic invocations to drink wine. My favourite wine bar in the world – Bottega del Vino in Verona – is modeled after this room. Then on to Sandro Bottega's distillery in Bibano di Godena de Sant'Urbano, where we have a welcoming glass of prosecco and some salami. Back to the hotel for dinner in the Enoteca Ca'Vin. We begin with the obligatory prosecco, Vino dei Poeti Prosecco Brut, followed by Vino dei Poeti Rosé Brut, which cannot be called Prosecco because it's made from Rabosa, a local red variety, and Pinot Noir. Edward insists that Sandro call it Rosecco, which prompts a discussion about a name for the wine. I suggest Rose Echo and Rod, Rose Prose. Edward keeps coming back to Rosecco until we tell him enough already.

The menu:

Frittura di Pesca (lightly battered whitebait, shrimps, prawns, red mullet and calamari) served with the two sparkling wines

Prosciutto and a white, soft cow cheese, again with the sparkling wines

Risotto made with prosecco

Grilled vegetables with Acino d'Oro Chianti Classico 2004

A variety of local cheeses served with Bottega Il Vino degli Dei Amarone 2003 (funky at first but opened up to be rich and flavourful). Sandro insisted we try his 10-year-old balsamic vinegar with the cheese, which was delicious, as is his acacia honey which, much to the group's chagrin, he no longer makes.

Biscotti with Fragolino Rosso – made with Isabella, reminiscent of what Canadian wines used to taste like. I recall having first tried this wine in Collio with Enzo DeLuca in the mid 1980s. It was illegal then and had to be served from under the counter.

We finish the evening with a selection of grappas – Bottega is the largest producer of grappa in Italy and has dozens of varieties – served in stemless glasses that roll around the table. I opt for the Brunello and also try the Merlot. They are both delicious and very mellow. To bed, exhausted at 11 pm.

Thursday, February 14: After breakfast in the hotel, a bus takes us to Sandro Bottega's glass factory, where they produce all the multi-shaped bottles and mascots for the Alexander series of grappas. We watch the artists create flowers, aeroplanes, snails and Viking ships that are fixed inside the grappa bottles. We all get the opportunity to "blow" a bunch of grapes. The glass is heated up to red hot, placed in a mold and we have to blow our lungs out. To create colour the glass is heated in ovens to 580° Celsius. A rose if left too long will turn from red to black. Then on to tour the Bottega distillery. The distillery is located 45 kilometres from Venice on a 19th-century farmstead. At the entrance to the property is a stand of two-hundred-year-old mulberry trees that used to support a silkworm operation. Formerly a convent and then occupied by the Germans in WWII, it is now a flourishing distillery with a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and a separate distilling facility. Sandro Bottega's father, Aldo, bought the property in 2004 and replaced the grain fields with vines. Today the company produces 6 million bottles a year, over half of which are grappa, the rest Prosecco and wines, olive oil from Umbria and a little honey. Sandro says he his company has 70% of the global grappa market. In total he produces some 45 products.

A selection of Alexander grappas

Making Bottega grappa's decorative bottles   Tony blowing glass grapes

To make one litre of grappa it takes 10 kilos of grape skins, 8 kilos if it's a sugar-rich pomace like Amarone. Once distilled, the pomace is used as fuel for the furnace to create the steam necessary for the process. Sandro's research team is currently working on a method of putting resveratrol extracted from the grape pomace into his grappas. He tours us through his museum showing us all the different bottles he has designed and an adjacent museum of grappas made by his competitors.

We lunch at the nearby Richeton Agriturismo at Gaiarine. Beginning with Bottega Cuvée dei Poeti 2007, a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon, lightly sparkling. The first dish is Grilled Radicchio with Coppa (a style of prosciutto). This is followed by Paste Tortelle stuffed with Ricotta and vegetables with sage butter. A sorbet of Fragolino, then Polenta with duck liver sauce and beans alongside baked duck, swerved with Acino d'Oro Chianti Classico 2003 in magnums. After a dessert of various baked goods we try Elixir 0 (Zero), a non-alcoholic digestif. It's sweet and herby, like a Vermouth without a kick.

After lunch we tour the warehouse and bottling facility, tasting raw grappas of Moscato, Amarone and Nero d'Avola before they are cut with water. Then we move to the tasting room for a mammoth tasting of Bottega products. A wood fire in the room imparts a smoky note to the air, making tasting difficult. Sandro is the incarnation of the Energizer Bunny. He starts giving technical details on each of the Proseccos we are about to taste until we tell him it's all in the notes and we'd be here till midnight if he went into such detail. In short, Prosecco is generally made from two grape varieties: Prosecco tondo must be at least 85%, the rest Prosecco lungo, which is spicy and has more acidity.

The tasting:

  • Canevari Frizzante – simple, dry, peach skin, apple
  • Prosecco Vino dei Poeti Brut – creamy, elegant
  • DOC Vino dei Poeti Prosecco – smoky, earthy
  • Cuvee Vino dei Poeti Brut – (Chardonnay/Sauvignon) floral, creamy, grassy, apple
  • Vino dei Poeti Cartizze Extra Dry – floral, soft, creamy
  • Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut 2003 (Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc and 10% Pinot Noir) – floral, apple puree, elegant, well balanced
  • Vino dei Poeti Rosé – floral, wild strawberry
  • Vino dell'Amore Petalo Moscato – medium sweet, grassy, herby, light
  • Don Carmelo Rosso 2005 (Negroamaro and 15% Primitivo) – black fruits, dry, earthy
  • Taras Primitivo 2004 – plum, rustic, earthy
  • Fonte Alcerro Chianti 2007 – dry, sour cherry
  • Gallo Nero Chianti Classico 2004 – dry, lean, sinewy
  • Gallo Nero Chianti Classico Riserva 2001 – dry, soft, cherry; firm structure
  • Bottega Amarone Vino degli Dei 2003 – floral, dried plum, spicy, rich, full on the palate

Bottega Grappas: Sandro tells us not to swirl the glass when tasting grappa, otherwise you burn your nose with the alcohol. The first series made from blended grapes by different systems. We are instructed only to smell because we have lots of grappas to come. Sandro tastes milk between each grappa sample when he's tasting seriously.

  • Nardini Aquavite (50%) – rancid, cardboard
  • Nonino (pot still) 43% – elegant, hay, nutty
  • Alexander Grappa (38%) – floral, leather, lighter style
  • Sandro Bottega Bianco (38%) – spicy, floral
  • Poli (40%) – powerful, woody, stemmy, vegetal
  • Grappa Alexander Cru (38%) – oily, putty-like nose

Bottega varietal grappas:

  • Falanghina – spicy, white pepper
  • Greco di Tufo – round, touch of chocolate sweetness
  • Prosecco – light and fruity
  • Sauvignon Blanc – floral, clove
  • Nero d'Avola – light, fragrant, perfumed
  • Cabernet – apple
  • Nebbiolo da Barolo – floral
  • Brunello di Montalcino – spicy
  • Amarone – raisiny, sweet tobacco
  • Amarone at 60% – hefty, woody, minty

Aged grappas:

  • Cabernet-Merlot (Hungarian oak) – spicy, oaky
  • Grappa Sandro Bottega Fume (Prosecco) – spicy, tealeaf
  • Grappa Maestri (Prosecco di Cartizze) – sweet, spicy nutmeg, clove, mellow
  • Grappa Sandra Bottega Fumé 80% alc. Prosecco (unfiltered) – oaky, vanilla, toast

Liqueur grappas:

  • Limone & Grappa – intense lemon with honey
  • Coco & Grappa – coconut cream with licorice and cinnamon
  • Cannella & Grappa Bottega – intense clove
  • Marron Glacé Bottega – chocolate and roast chestnut
  • Fior di Latte Bottega – vanilla, white chocolate, rich
  • Gianduia Bottega – chocolate, hazel nut

We end the tasting with a Prosecco and peach grappa cocktail. It's 9 pm before we reach our dinner restaurant, Trattoria Al Larin at Carpesica di Vittorio Veneto, a rustic country inn. Over Prosecco we are all given a diploma for having completed the tasting. The chef prepares an amuse-bouche of deep-fried courgettes. With creamy Polenta and grilled Sopressa (like a large salami) we drink Acino d'Oro Chianti Classico Riserva 2001, followed by individual bowls of radicchio and beans. This is a peasant dish which involves pouring the mash of beans over the radicchio and then adding a spoonful of red wine, olive oil, some vinegar and salt and pepper and then tossing it all together. The result is none too pleasant to look at but tastes delicious. My dinner companion, an oenologist and wine chemist who speaks no English, tells me that the best temperature to taste olive oil is 27° Celsius. A Bottega Il Vino degli Dei Amarone 2003 appears, which we have with the local delicacy, Costate di Chianine Toscana (a Tuscan T-bone) with grilled radicchio. For dessert, tiramisù, which, we are told with much pride by a local wine distributor, was invented 40 years ago in the brothels of Treviso to give the patrons stamina. We end the meal well after midnight with Il Vino dell'Amore Moscato and a series of grappas, including the 60% alcohol Amarone.

Sheep in a Prosecco vineyard

Friday, February 15: After breakfast we drive up to the Castello di Conegliano, then along the Strada di Vini Bianchi – which links Conegliano and Valdobiaddene – to Follina to see the 12th-century abbey, created by the Cistercians and taken over by the Benedictines. Then on through pre-Alpine vineyards to the village of Rolle di Cison di Valmarino, where we lunch at Ristorante da Andreetta. We begin with the requisite Bottega Prosecco both white and rosé with a plate of bite-sized crostini spread with ricotta and herbs, chicken livers and lardo. Then tagliatelle with rabbit served with Fonte Alcerro Chianti 2007. The next dish is a series of frittatas – containing onion, asiago and snails respectively. Dessert is plum tart and in the background Elvis sings. Except the CD sticks and we hear "Love Me Tender" repeated eternally. We drown out the memory with a glass of Bottega Tardiva Grappa made from the pomace of Recioto della Amarone.

Sandro Bottega and Jessica
Lucretia in mid off-colour joke

Drive to Venice. I'm sure the Italian Tourist Authority, or whatever it's called, made the city of Mestre so ugly so we would appreciate Venice all the more. A water taxi takes us up the Grand Canal to our hotel, Londra Palace. My bedroom overlooks the canal and the Basilica on the island of San Giorgio. For dinner we walk to Fiaschetteria Toscana. Sandro has invited a troupe from the Compagnia della Calza to join us. From what I could understand they dress up in 15th-century costumes and celebrate the life and times of the eighteenth century erotic poet Giorgio Baffo, exchanging sexual banter commedia dell'arte style. They are all dressed in doublet and hose; one leg is violet, the other half yellow and half red, representing the flag colours of Venice. Sandro has asked us to write a love poem, which we are to deliver at the end of the meal as part of the evening's festivities. We start with a Bellini (Prosecco and peach juice). First course, spider crab with Prosecco, then sole in a sweet and sour sauce with onions, pine nuts and raisins and grilled slices of polenta. Then a thin pasta dyed black with cuttlefish ink and dressed with lobster sauce. Next course, risotto vongole, followed by sea bass served with Cuvee Vino dei Poeti Brut and Acino d'Oro Chianti Classico 2004. The arrival of a plate of Veneto cheeses prompts a lot of sexual innuendo among the Compagnia. There is much double entendre repartee, which either goes over our heads or is lost in translation, especially with spontaneous line-by-line translations of dirty jokes. The only one competent to translate is Sandro's assistant, Jessica, who spends most of the evening hiding behind her serviette, blushing and refusing to speak. Dessert is semifreddo studded with grappa-soaked raisins. Then comes the grappa. We all recite our poems. I stood on a chair to mimic Sandro, who always managed to find something to stand on when he addressed us at the distillery.

My effort, recited in a phony Italian accent:

Grappa me grappa
Come to your papa
Sit on my lapa
You don't need a mapa
Now take off your wrapa
And make me happa
Don't give me that crapa
About generation gapa
Or I'll give you a slapa
'Cos I don't take no crapa
So shut your trapa
And no more of your rapa
Put on Frak Zappa
And I go take my napa.

Murano glass chandeliers at Campinello Glass

Saturday, February 16: After breakfast we take the vaporetto to Murano, stopping at various docks along the way. The journey takes nearly an hour. We visit Campinello Glass, a large, rambling production house. We watch a glass blower create a very realistic horse from an egg-shaped piece of red hot glass in three minutes; and then he creates a red vase in the same amount of time. The owner shows us the room where his artists create a range of 20,000 colours by blending oxides in the sand the use to make glass. After touring the glass factory we take a private water taxi back to the main island for lunch at Osteria alla Botte on Colle della Bissa – a traditional restaurant which Philip says is frequented by gondoliers. Rod orders a bottle of Inama Vigneti di Foscarino Soave Classico 2006, which goes beautifully with our plate of mixed seafood and grilled vegetables. With the pasta pomodora that follows the waiter recommends Le Ragose Valpolicella 2006, a very fruity wine in Beaujolais style, nicely chilled. We walk around Venice looking for the perfumerie where Monica works, one of the members of the Compagnia della Calza cast from last night. We finally find the place, Santa Maria Novella on Salizada San Samuele. You can smell the shop fifty paces before you arrive. We buy a thank-you gift for Jessica and continue the afternoon watching Sheila and Jessica shop. Eventually I find a pair of earrings for Deborah. Back at the hotel, a hot bath and packing while watching the Arsenal v. Manchester United. Billy Munnelly and Kato, Arsenal supporters, are watching the match at an English pub. Before they left I said it would be 3–0 United. It is already 3–0 United at half time. This is our last evening in Venice and we all feel like pizza so Jessica leads us to Ristorante Pizzeria Antica Sacrestia. The owner offers us a Prosecco as we wait for our table of eight to be prepared. Billy and Kato leave the match early in disgust (final score 4–0 United). Billy wants some local wine so he orders Isola Augusta Schioppettino delle Venezia 2006. It tastes musty, probably dirty barrels. We try another wine at the sommelier's insistence, Merk Cava Geretto Refosco Riserva 'Mezzosecolo' 1999. The pizzas start arriving, along with grilled vegetables. We order a bottle of La Viarte Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, which tastes delicious. Then comes the grappa. The waiter puts two bottles on the table, Matale Peraino Moscato from Sicily and Bonaventure Maschino Prime Uve 2005. Neither is as refined and elegant as the Alexander grappas, but since they don't have any of Sandro's in the restaurant we have to make do with these. We walk back to the hotel and are there by 11:15 pm, the earliest night we've had on the trip. Finish packing.

Sunday, February 17: Up at 7 am and a quick breakfast before our group takes a water taxi to Venice Airport (!). We check in and are told that we may not make the connection in Rome if the flight is delayed because the travel agent in Toronto has only allowed us an hour between arrival and departure. Needless to say, the flight to Rome is delayed so we are rebooked on a later flight to Frankfurt to connect to an Air Canada flight to Toronto at 5 pm. This allows us a leisurely lunch at Käfer's. The food is remarkably good here. We order a bottle of Roger Champault Sancerre 'Le Clos du Roi' 2006 to drink with a series of dishes – sausage, sauerkraut, spiced purple cabbage and salad. Then I have a Weiner Schnitzel with fried potatoes and more salad. With this a bottle of Käfer's Merlot 2007 from Chile. On the flight back I watched three movies – We Own The Night, The Valley of Elan and Elizabeth I. Arrived at 8 pm . Deborah is at the airport to whisk me home to a very affectionate greeting from Pinot the Wonder Dog.




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