I am a believer in Karma. For example I was devastated when two bottles of treasured dessert wines carried back from the Canary Islands were broken in equally tearful ways. A few months later, out of nowhere, a kind gentleman from the Wines of Croatia fair gave me two bottles of the best dessert wines on offer. Karma.
So when I found out I was being sent to Monopoli in Puglia to judge Radici’s Festival dei Vitigni Autoctoni (Native Grapes Festival), I regarded it as Karma making up for my cancelled-due-to-volcano-madness holiday in April. (OK I probably don’t know what Karma really means but it’s fun to think it exists in this way!) Yes, technically I’d be ‘working’ on this trip, but I’d also be hanging with one of my best friends Whitney in a Greek-style resort visiting vineyards and lounging by the pool and beach. And let’s face it, the ‘work’ (tasting 70 wines per day) wasn’t exactly strenuous.
By the pool at our Hotel Melograno
There were other more career related bonuses to the trip as well. I was privileged enough to be tasting with 13 of some of the top wine journalists around, including our Presidente Carlo Macchi, member of the Wine Gang and author of The Wine-Pages Tom Cannavan, Italian scribbler extraordinaire Franco Ziliani, Italian wine, food, and travel expert Kyle Phillips…to name a few (full list on Radici’s site). I was exercising my palate (don’t laugh, becoming a wine expert take LOTS of practice), and learning heaps about the wines of Puglia. I’d certainly tasted Primitivo (the grape variety made famous in the USA after it was found to be Zinfandel’s twin), Negroamaro (the robust ‘big boy’ grape of Puglia), and Fiano (although only from Campania) before, however lining them up one after another gave me an excellent idea of the varieties and how they fared from region to region, and winemaker to winemaker.
Whitney and fellow judges doing what they do best
I won’t bore you with tasting notes on each of the wines (you’d be reading for days), however I will tell you MY winners (and whether other not they coincided with the winners of the festival or not) and my general impressions of the wines. But let’s save that for part two. For now I’ll just tell you how nice everyone was and how pretty Puglia is (journalism at its best I tell ya…).
But it’s true. Everyone WAS so nice. From organisers Nicola Campanile and Enzo Scivetti, to translators and assistants, Marilena and Cristina, to the winemakers we met, and of course my fellow judges, generousity and ‘amichevolezza’ abounded. The Italian spirit is such a welcoming warm one, and Southerners in particular open their doors and hearts with a sense of sun-soaked relaxation, a witty, sharp sense of humour, and tons of charm.
I Trulli in the town of Alberobello
And I’m going to sound like I work for Puglia’s tourism board right now, but if you haven’t been to Italy’s ‘heel’, it is a must-add to any list. Unlike most of Italy’s North and West, Puglia (or Apulia in English) has been one of the areas least invaded by tourists. It is rugged and unspoiled with its copper soil and white-washed Trulli (see picture), and it looks more like Greece than it does like the fertile Tuscan hills that come to most Americans’ minds when they picture Italy. Northern Italians refer to the South half-jokingly as ‘Africa’ because it is considered to be poorer and much less developed than its Northern neighbours. However, having travelled extensively around all of Italy, I do not find this to be the case. OK, statistically they are poorer. Agriculture is their main source of income, and they produce the vast majority of Italy’s olive oil (not surprising when you see the ancient gnarled olive trees that dot the landscape). But, from a foreigner’s perspective at least, I don’t find the South to be that much less developed than the North (in fact the only ‘holes in the floor for toilets’ I had to squat over were in the North!! Too much information..?). Every region in Italy has its own unique characteristics and traditions. While there is of course something intrinsically ‘Italian’ about all the people I’ve met on my travels, they are all deeply tied to and proud of the region they come from. And rightly so. Each region is beautiful in its own way. And Puglia is no exception. So GO! Puglia is really pushing the tourism thing right now (although let’s hope all these tourists don’t spoil what’s so wonderfully ‘untouristy’ about the place!). And buy some olive oil. And some wine of course.