Corinna Hardgrave: A taste of Tuscany
The wine buff
There was a time when I thought that Chianti was the height of sophistication. It was in the days when the iconic straw-covered, bulbous, fiasco bottles hung from the ceilings of Italian restaurants and some even took pride of place as a lamp in people's homes.
While we've all moved on considerably, and you'll now find Chianti in a more conventional-looking vessel, there is a whiff of nostalgia about the old bottle. If you have some lying around the house, you might want to list them on eBay, where an empty bottle is worth a few quid more than it was when it had wine in it.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Chianti hasn't faded from view - you'll still see plenty of bottles on supermarket shelves, but over the years, the quality at this level has waned somewhat, with an expanded production area and higher volumes.
At the top end, you will, of course, find some seriously good Chianti Classico wines in independent off-licences, from producers such as Fontodi, Antinori and Isole e Olena, but it can be more of a challenge when you're looking for an everyday wine.
I was in Tuscany recently to visit the vineyards of the Castellani family and had an opportunity to walk around a number of them with the owner, Piergiorgio Castellani. The family has been in the wine business since the end of the 19th century, and they now employ 90 people and produce 26 million bottles of wine a year. This is big business, so you expect everything to be on an industrial scale, but it's not the way Piergiorgio views it. He changed to organic farming on the vineyards nearly 20 years ago, after his first child was born, so instead of soil that is parched from the use of insecticides and herbicides, you will see oats, vetch and wild flowers growing between the rows of vines.
These cover crops ensure that top soil is not washed off in the rain, and when they're ploughed back into the ground, fixes it with nitrogen, so there is no need to spray it. It also contributes to the biodiversity in the vineyards, where ladybirds are abundant and wild hares breed.
When talking about wine and terroir, Piergiorgio views it as part of a much bigger concept; it's a mix of culture, people, food and traditions. In one of his vineyards, he has a collaborative programme with artists in residence. There are sculptures on the grounds and paintings in a gallery that looks out over the vineyards.
We also take a quick detour and stop in the hilltop medieval town of Lari, to visit a small artisanal pasta factory, Pastificio Famiglia Martelli, as well as a butcher's shop where they make prosciutto and salami from the local Cinta Senese pigs.
The Castellani wines are not just from the Chianti region, and you will find reds and whites under a number of labels in Spar, Eurospar, Londis and Mace, so look out for Villaggio, Angelico, Poggio al Casone, Carrione, Mirapiana, Tenuta di Ceppaiano and Burchino.
Mount Juliet will be hosting Michael Malat of the acclaimed 18th-century Austrian Weingut Malat Estate at its 'Meet the Maker' wine dinner in the Michelin-star Lady Helen restaurant on June 12. The evening will start with a glass of Malat Brut Nature Reserve 2014 Winnersekt sparkling wine, followed by a six-course tasting menu and wine pairing. Tickets €145 per person, visit www.mountjuliet.ie or phone 056 777 3000.
Poggio Al Casone Chianti DOCG Riserva 2015, €12.99
12.5pc, from Spar, Eurospar, Londis and Mace
This stood out as particularly good value among the wines I tasted at Castellani. As a Riserva, it's got a bit more complexity from longer ageing, so notes of balsamic, spice and prune combine with bright cherry and red fruit flavours.
Casa Belfi Prosecco DOC, €24
10.5pc, from Baggot Street Wines, Fallon & Byrne Wine Cellar, Fallon & Byrne Rathmines, Green Man Wines, and 64 Wines, all Dublin; Le Caveau, Kilkenny; and Bradley's Off Licence, Cork
For a more complex taste of Italian fizz, try this biodynamic Prosecco, which is unfiltered and has flavours of soft ripe pears, apples and a touch of jasmine. Beautiful as an aperitif or with food.
Mandrarossa Frappato, Terre Siciliane IGT 2016, €18.95
13.5pc, from The Vintry, DrinkStore, Jus de Vine, all Dublin; The Wine House, Trim; Mortons, Galway; 1601 Kinsale, Cork
From Sicily, this red is a single varietal Frappato, which has deliciously fresh cherry and raspberry flavours. Chill it slightly and serve it with seared tuna, grilled vegetables or Parma ham.