Trapani, Sicily, Italy
Fifteen years ago, Sicily competed only with Puglia for the title of Italy’s most productive wine region – but we were talking quantity back then, not quality. These days it’s a different story, with quality firmly on the agenda. Folks such as the savvy Diego Planeta, through his innovative Planeta family winery, have put modern Sicilian wine on the map, first with international varieties, and now with indigenous ones. The indigenous grape that has made Sicily’s vinous reputation is Nero d’Avola. It produces rounded reds with ripe fruit and good structure – especially in the south-central coast, from producers such as Cos and, in the far west, from the likes of Ceuso.
It was to the far west, to Trapani, that I headed one long weekend at the end of summer, lured by the otherworldly landscape, the exciting wines, and the promise of great grub. The city of Trapani, on Sicily’s westernmost tip, has an identity all of its own – translucent light bouncing off faded but elegant tenements, the suggestion of the sea on three sides, with hot, haunting salt flats dotted with picturesque windmills. It flourished as a Phoenician trading centre and was an important stopover in the Middle Ages, linking Tunis, Naples, Anjou and Aragon. In fact, the largely flat landscape, dotted with white cubic houses, is more reminiscent of North Africa, which is just 80km across the way – and it is these influences that give the region its unique cuisine.
The most famous dish here is fish couscous, which is served with an intensely flavoured fish broth (you actually discard the fish). And I lost count of the number of dishes I had with almonds, which grow everywhere here, alongside the date, melon and citrus trees. Best was the Trapanese version of pesto I ate at my hotel – a chic restaurant with rooms called Ai Lumi (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, +39 0923 872 418, ailumi.it , rooms from £63) – a heavenly mix of chopped almonds, garlic, basil and fresh, partly-skinned cherry tomatoes, pounded together before being stirred into trenette, a hand-rolled spaghetti. To wash it down? A Grillo.
Marco de Bartoli, in nearby Marsala, is one of Sicily’s great pioneer winemakers and he excels in Grillo and Zibibbo – both white grape varieties – making drop-dead dessert wines and delicious new-wave whites. There is a lot of smart money backing the intriguing flavours of these emerging local varieties, which many believe (including me) represents the future of Italian wine.
The SoCa Valley, Slovenia
It’s hard to tell where Italy stops and Slovenia begins. Though it was the first Yugoslav country to declare independence (in 1992) and the only one whose wine has always been celebrated in western Europe – albeit until recently by a handful of cognoscenti.
It stretches eastwards from the Adriatic to the Pannonian Plain, where the rolling foothills provide some prime grape-growing sites. There are three distinct wine regions: Posavje (along the Sava river), Podravje (along the Drava river) and Primorska (on the coast). Primorska is Slovenia’s most exciting wine region and the best place to visit. Rebula is the big white grape here, though red Bordeaux blends are also winning hearts. While Kras, with its rich, red, iron-heavy soils, sitting on a plateau above Trieste, is famous for its inky, tart teran made from the Refošk grape. The sea and the Alps contribute hugely to the flavours here, producing powerful, aromatic wines.
And none of it was what I expected. As well as the stunning scenery – the Soča Valley is a must – there’s chic accommodation, with plenty of sophisticated cooking, washed down with world-class wines – the best were the aged whites, with intense, waxy, minerally fruit.
In fact, the Soča Valley is a good place to start. Stay at the rather funky Hiša Franko hotel and restaurant (+386 (0)5 389 4120, hisafranko.com , rooms from £87) owned by Valter Kramar and Ana Roš. Roš cooks, while Kramar serves, flitting between the tables and his huge wine cellar, which stocks 400 different wines – 95 per cent from Slovenia.
Kramar particularly loves rebula, and he also rates Slovenia’s Sauvignon Blanc, Vitovska (a local grape) and Malvasia. Other names to look out for include Marjan Simčič, Sutor, Movia and Edi Simčič. ‘Slovenia is a country of boutique wine producers and boutique restaurants, which is not the perception people have outside the country,’ says Kramar. You don’t say, I muttered, as I sipped green bean soup with almond foam, basil and clams.
Next, we moved on to Spodnja Idrija, to the 11-roomed Kendov Dvorec (+386 (0)5 37 25 100, kendov-dvorec.com , rooms from £118), an elegant base for exploring the Vipava Valley, the most well-trodden of Slovenia’s wine routes. The Italians flock to this part of Slovenia to hang out in the restaurants – the cuisine borrows more than a touch from its gregarious neighbour, with influences from Austria, Poland and beyond. To get your bearings, head to Vinoteka Brda ( vinotekabrda.si ), a wine bar and shop housed in the castle dominating the pretty village of Dobrovo where you can taste up to 250 wines by the glass from the surrounding region.
The Douro Valley, Portugal
While everybody else was busy planting French grapes, Portugal stuck to its guns with its indigenous grapes – and aren’t we happy that they did. Now Portuguese wine is the latest must-have in top restaurants, gastropubs, and the more forward-thinking high-street merchants, who coo over its unusual, grape varieties and crave its quirky fruit.