There's nothing like a trip to Italy to seriously put paid to any attempt at dietary restraint and so it came to pass that 3 days later and 5lbs heavier, I have just returned from a trip to Piemonte.
Set amongst what must be some of the world's most beautiful scenery, Il Cascinone is the jewel in the crown of Azienda Araldica, one of Italy's most progressive and successful wine co-operatives. The precipitously steep vineyards are planted with a real cornucopia of grape varieties - Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay & Cabernet all feature to some extent but it is the wines of Barbera and Brachetto that are the real stars. Ceppi Storici is a brilliant example of entry level Barbera - bursting with fruit and underpinned with a hint of oak from 9 months in 2000 litre "botti," this is cracking, "everyday" wine at £7.99.
Moving further up the food chain, the single vineyard "D'Annona," Barbera d'Asti is a really serious piece of work - ripe, warm and textured, it coats the palate with rich, red flavours yet still has sufficient brightness and acidity which is the hallmark of great Barbera. This would struggle to meet most people's criteria of "everyday" wine but at £18.99 it nonetheless remains fantastic value.
Leaving Il Cascinone we drove 2 1/2 hours north east to the beautiful region of Franciacorta in the shadow of the Alps. Here we were greeted by the delightful Laura Gatti who provided us with a wonderful introduction to the area, its history and its glorious sparkling wines. Her family's estate - Ferghettina - is one of the region's most successful producers and, with 200 hectares of vineyard, one of the largest landowners. Their wines, from a blend of Chardonnay & Pinot Noir, are produced in the "Franciacorta" method which bears a startling similarity to that used in Champagne. Given significant bottle maturity, these are wines of real finesse and grace and the Milledi and Rose in particular I found to be supremely elegant. Beautifully packaged in a bottle designed by the family for both aesthetic and quality purposes, they offer a unique and striking alternative for those looking for something a bit different.