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Grape expectations - Picking grapes in Puglia

Last week's trip to Puglia, in Italy's extreme south-east, provided one of the most interesting experiences in this wine writer's crowded year.

Close on half a million acres is dedicated to viticulture, split between wine and table grapes. In the 1980s, wine production reached nearly 350 million gallons -- that's more than three times the current production of Chile. In those days, you wouldn't have found a bottle of Puglian wine in your local wine merchants; indeed, very little was bottled at all.

Our trip was based around the Torrevento winery, housed in a former monastery in the Castel del Monte area, north of Bari. There has been a good deal of investment in Torrevento -- in shiny stainless steel tanks, expensive oak barrels and in technology. Torrevento has vineyards in other parts of Puglia and this is reflected in wines like Sine Nomine and Faneros, representing Salice Salentino in the far south of the province, made principally from a luxuriantly aromatic black grape called negroamaro.

In quality terms, Vigna Pedale is now at least the equivalent in quality of, say, a top-notch Chianti Classico. With this rate of progress, it might soon be able to compete with some of the trendy, much-trumpeted 'Super Tuscans', and be more affordable, too. Certainly, the soft tannins and the abundant fragrance of the nero di troia make Vigna Pedale easy to drink when still relatively young. Alas, it's not available here, as yet.

We spent an afternoon picking grapes. It's a back-breaking task. Even picking carefully, there still seemed an inordinate amount of leaf and stalk in my basket. To make an exceptional wine, this has to be removed, calling for investment in either sorting by hand or expensive machinery -- a small reminder why good wine costs more.

The Kenton Valley sauvignon blanc (€7.99) comes from Adelaide Hills, a region whose 'sauv b' comes without that mean, green, kick in the teeth.

In the past, I've bought a fair bit of the Louis Latour Mâcon-Lugny Les Genievres at the list price. At €10, it's very decent value.

If you like pinot grigio (for me, a no-no), the Villa Maria NZ, at €8, is the one to go for -- but its Chardonnay is far nicer.

Reds? The Réserve St Clair Puisseguin-St Emilion is a snip at €9, as is the Villa Maria pinot noir at €8. Lovers of the tempranillo grape should take to the Vina Mara Rioja Reserva (€6.99). My top buy would be the Finest Vacqueyras, at only €8.