A food and wine expert navigates wine fair season in northern Italy, including an event with nearly 5,000 producers
What could be better for a trade fair junkie and out-of-the-cellar wine nerd like me? Three wine fairs, two featuring natural wines held before and after the mammoth Vinitaly. The Italian wine world mirrors the confusion of Italian politics. There are many different factions—mainstream Vinitaly (lots of visiting Italian, regional, provincial delegation, and chamber of commerce types) in suits, two rival, somewhat self-righteous, natural wine expositions in jeans, with wineries getting kicked out or switching allegiance due to fundamentalist back-stabbing.
I started at VinoVinoVino in Cerea, arriving in time for a late lunch. Indefatigable navigator Vito Santoro dropped off a refrigerator truck full of food for a restaurateur from the Mesali group at Vinitaly's Campania pavilion, and then met me. I got an open bottle of Paradiso di Manfredi Brunello 2003 and headed for the cafeteria. Last year the food was miserable, but I connected the fair's organizers with Dario Cecchini, who catered, ensuring something great to eat, a rarity at wine events. Dario's preparations—pappa al pomodoro, Cosimino meat loaf, Chianti "tuna," Chianti "sushi," beans and extra virgin cake, were perfect with the Brunello.
I headed back to the fair and bumped into Venetian restaurateurs Cesare, Luca, Gigi, and Albino, who'd been tasting all morning. They introduced me to some of their favorites—murky, old-style Prosecco from Costadila; well-priced, easy-drinking sparkling Malvasia and astounding ice wine from Croci; Dolcetto and Barbaresco from Serafino Rivella; Barbera from Reginin; Nebbiolo and Barolo from Giuseppe Rinaldi. I took a break, and visited with Manfredi and Francesco Guccione, Benjamin Zidarich, and Arianna Occhipinti. And concluded with a Sicilian tasting—Baracco Grillo, Bonavita Faro, and Salvo Foti's group I Vignieri and their Etna Rosso. No more Il Cantante—owner Mick Hucknall (Simply Red) pulled the plug.
I checked into the comfortable, reasonably priced Hotel Villa Bartolomea and had dinner at Antica Trattoria Bellinazzo (no website)—lovely salumi, baccalà and polenta, bigoli with donkey ragu (translated as "ass sauce" on the menu). The room was packed with wine makers who shared their wines with us—we drank Dario Princic, Zidarich, and Podere Le Boncie.
It always rains during Vinitaly, which makes hikes between pavilions a pain, but this year was the exception, with hot summery weather. I met hotelier friends Leonardo and Luciano (Hotel Shalai, which you'll read about in my upcoming Sicilian series--stay tuned!) at the Sicilian pavilion, tasted Etna Reds from Graci and Girolamo Russo, said ciao to the Tasca and Planeta clans, and met new friend journalist Fabrizio Carrera, who shepherded me to Porta del Vento and Caravaglio. The rest of Italy beckoned and I was thirsty, so we went to Cavicchioli for some Lambrusco on the rocks and an Ivan sighting. He introduced me Emanuele from Pizzavacca, insisted that I sample fruit juice (delicious) and then cotecchino with Emanuele's green sauce, also delicious. Fortified, we cut through a mixed pavilion to meet Piermario Cavallari, who was very excited about his new wines from Elba, Vermentino, dry Agliatico rosé, and a fruity young red, all worth purchasing.