#41: Italy

Year: 2011
Grapes: Sangiovese
Producer: Maurizio Castelli
Alcohol: 14.5%
Source: Naked Wines

With this blog, I don’t often write about the country that the wine is from. I think my post about Paris for the French wine may be the only other one!  It’s often been because I’ve never been to the country, or because there have been other timely subjects to write about.

But I have special memories of Italy. Just as my many, many amazing trips to Paris made it an easy topic, I have had some pretty special holidays in Italy.  They’re special in a different way to Paris though as they are more of a question of quality rather than quantity.  I have been to Italy three times – once joining my Australian family on their holiday in Tuscany and two super touristy tours through the big cities – and all of these trips were before my 19th birthday, but they filled me with such an intense joy that I can’t think of Italy without smiling.

When I think of the Italian countryside, I immediately think of Tuscany and the beautiful villa that I stayed in with Bill, Susie, Alice, James and Ned.  At 16, it was my first holiday without my parents that wasn’t a school trip, my first flight alone and my first airport related disaster when an Italian air traffic control strike meant that the plane never took off and Mummy had to drive all the way back to Gatwick to collect me before taking me back again two days later… It was a treat for taking my GCSEs and it was my first time in Italy.  As a holiday, I remember it more for the time spent with my Australian cousins who I see so rarely than for what I saw of Italy – hanging out by the pool in the sunshine, listening to each other’s favourite music, sharing our annoyance at Goran Ivanisovic’s Wimbledon win as he took out both my British hero (Tim) and their Australian champion (Pat Rafter) – but Italy certainly snuck in and never left. I remember the beautiful rolling hills with sandy coloured towns perched on the top. I remember the cobbled streets and disproportionately large churches. And, oh my gosh, I remember the food! Pasta, pizza, antipasti, bread, cheese, fresh tomatoes; it was heaven!

Later, when planning my big European train journey with KT for my gap year, there was no way that Italy was going to be missed! For the last few weeks of our tour, we got the train from the Cote d’Azur all the way around the coast to Pisa, and I was immediately back in that beautiful countryside again. From there to Florence, Rome, Bologna, Ferrera, Venice and Milan…

Despite visiting these stunning tourist attractions, their postcard sights aren’t what I enjoyed about that leg of our trip. As far as these tourist hotspots were concerned, I think Katie and I were both pretty saturated. At the end of our three month tour that was essentially a ticklist of all of the great sights of Western Europe, we both realised that there was an upper limit of how many churches and buildings and museums you can see before it all becomes a bit blasé.  I have a strong memory of standing in the middle of the Sisteine Chapel, looking up at that extraordinary ceiling, and sort of shrugging. Was that it? I was not impressed. I also thought the Colosseum was small!

I loved Italy instead for the enormous creamy gelato and mountains of pasta. I loved it for the weather and the swerving motorcyclists and the argumentative taxi drivers. I loved it for the colour of the stone and the posing tourists, particularly in Pisa. I loved it for everything that made it Italy!

And it didn’t matter that I was sick of tourist sites as I had a chance to go back and see them again. Just as my earlier holiday had celebrated the end of my GCSEs so Hetti had the same chance after hers, and later that summer we made a similar tour of the top sites of Italy – Pisa, Florence, Rome and Milan.  Making the most of the Italian entry fee policy that allowed anyone 16 or under to get in for free and those who were 18 or under to only pay half-price, we went to everything for the price of just one half-price ticket! And showing off what I had seen before made it more exciting – we perfected the sneaky photos of the Sisteine Chapel roof that had been ‘spoiled’ by my nose appearing in them the first time, we went on the same open top bus tours and I could look again to see what I’d missed the first time, I took Hetti to the restaurants and cafes that I’d loved the first time around and liked just as much on a second taste.

It was a sillier holiday than my previous visit – the ridiculous proto-selfies that we took at the time are a testament to that – and Hetti recorded the whole trip on her camcorder in a video diary so shaky that it was genuinely unwatchable. But it was wonderful. I think of it with the same fondness that I do the three sisters trip we took to Barcelona two years later when Ellie had finished her GCSEs.

In all of these trips, the parts that were so great did not really need to take place in Italy. I could have had just as good a time with my cousins in any pool in any hot country, and Katie and I could have been as pretentiously unimpressed with any magnificence at that stage of our trip. We did have just as much fun in Spain with Ellie as I had in Italy with just Hetti. But Italy and Italian culture is pervasive enough that it still made a difference. Part of the joy of my memories is the deep, dry heat, even in Spring with KT. It’s in the food that is even better than the British versions of it and the fact that there is so much history in every inch of the country. Italy is just a special place and I still feel that way even though it’s been nearly 15 years since I was last there.

I wonder sometimes if my memories of Italy are so rose-coloured because I don’t have many photos of these trips anymore. The technology around taking photos, using cameras and storing photos has changed beyond recognition since I was 16. I was still using a film camera back then and so hardly took any photos – I had to pay to have them developed after all – and I now can’t find any, lost in the back of some album in a box in my old room or thrown out in an overzealous clear out.  By the time of my later travels, I had a digital camera but in a time before Facebook and cloud storage services, these digital photos proved to be more vulnerable than I’d realised.  When my laptop was stolen in 2004, I lost them all. I have some printed that have been in frames for years and have now faded, or others printed on normal paper and stuck in scrapbooks, but they are mostly gone.

It means that I don’t have many tangible images on which to hang my memories; they are all linked to smells or tastes or sounds. I don’t remember the open top bus tour in Rome with Hetti because of the sites that we saw on the way around – I remember the heat and the sweat and how we nearly died of sunstroke and how grateful we were for the water fountains on the Pontine Hill. I remember Venice for the sound of all of the pigeon wings flapping in St Mark’s Square and how when we were escaping we found a restaurant that cooked as a good a Weiner Schnitzel (‘Milanese’ apparently) as we’d had in Austria but with an Italian twist that was just perfect.  I remember how Katie and my day in Pisa was the sunniest of the whole adventure and we lay on the grass for hours even though it was really damp, soaking up the sun and looking up at the startlingly white monuments around us.

Chris and I are planning on going back to Rome next year for what will be his first trip. We bought Six Nation rugby tickets on a whim, and the rugby will be exciting, of course, but I mainly can’t wait to see this city again – to fall back into its history and food and atmosphere, and to show someone else how great this country is!

Wine Info

From the Naked Wines notes:

From the master of Brunello and one of Italy’s most respected wine consultants Maurizio Castelli, this is the richest, the finest and downright perfect example of Italian fine wine.

Maurizio’s masterpiece is packed with mouth-wateringly juicy cherry and bramble fruits with an ultra-refined smoky oak finish, thanks to 4 years oak ageing.

Wine Notes


We drank this wine with a delicious meal of roast duck, spinach, pickled red cabbage and potatoes cooked in the duck fat. Really delicious, but really strong flavours that may have drowned a lesser wine!

As it was, this wine was warm and fragrant with a fruitiness that was almost floral. I agreed with the official wine notes that there was a strong red fruit flavour and I particularly liked the soft tannic aftertone that created richness and worked well with our meal.

8+/10, rich and delicious


As Liv wrote, I’ve never been to Rome, and in fact Italy is a country that I don’t know well at all. We spent a week (10 days?) on a campsite (of course) next to Lake Garda in 1988, which I barely remember now; and 20 years later, I made one of my poorer travel decisions, and booked myself into a hotel outside Pisa for a few nights in late November, before starting a new job. ‘Outside Pisa’ was really the problem with that trip – and even in Southern Europe, winter weather is never going to show off the rolling hills of Tuscany in quite the same way as spring or summer sunshine.

Anyway, the one silver lining was the bottle of wine I carefully packed into my suitcase and brought back on the plane. I’d never had Brunello di Montalcino, but it was expensive, and came highly recommended by both my guidebook and the man who sold it to me. “Save it for a special occasion,” he told me. So I did – for a New Year’s Eve dinner, in fact, when it more than lived up to its billing.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to try Brunello di Montalcino again. The wine challenge seemed like as good an excuse as any, so late last year I splashed out on a bottle as part of a Naked Wines order. It got slotted away in our wine rack when we moved in here, waiting for another of those special occasions…and frankly, roast duck on a cold Sunday evening with my beautiful wife seemed more than special enough!

Was it as good to drink as the bottle I had almost a decade ago? It’s hard to say – context matters a lot with wine – but I don’t think so. Not quite. That’s a pretty high bar to clear though, and this was still an absolutely delicious bottle of red. Just ridiculously smooth, for starters – maybe the smoothest wine we’ve drunk so far – and with plenty of rich, spicy fruit that seemed to roll across the tongue with each sip. Like Liv, I thought there was something floral about the smell in particular, and it was a very good match with our food – it fit well with the vinegar crunch of the cabbage and with the meaty flavours that ran through everything else. Still, I think I wanted something…more. Something to elevate it onto the same level as the Lebanese red we had, for example. It’s possible we drank it a few years too early (it’s good through till 2031, apparently!), but either way, it just falls short of top marks.

Unlike the food and the company.



2 thoughts on “#41: Italy

  1. WIENER Schnitzel, Liv! Lovely memories of Italy though.
    I’ve re-started printing digital photos and making albums. Then the only paranoia you have concerns a house fire…..
    Chris you may remember (or not) splashing in the lake at Garda, and us being told off by the Italians for letting you go into such cold water (“Fredo, fredo!”). And you can’t have forgotten bowing, and Hannah curtsying, to the man in the ornate costume at the museum (I think) in Venice (I think)?


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