This year I'm doing a bit of island hopping - one summer, three very different islands.
First up was a lads trip to Ibiza. I'm still trying to piece together exactly what went on that week in mid-June, but as it coincided with the opening stages of the World Cup, a few cans were certainly involved. Full details will no doubt emerge after a sustained period of quiet introspection.
My second island of the summer is Sicily, our main family holiday of the year.
Not wishing to over-extend ourselves, we limited our stay to the north-western corner of the island, taking in Palermo, Cefalù, Trapani, Erice and San Vito Lo Capo.
I'd heard a few horror stories about driving in and around Palermo and things didn't get off to the best of starts when an irate customer in front of us in the car rental queue quite literally came to blows with the staff over a disputed charge.
After some delay, we grabbed our keys and fled.
Circumnavigating Palermo wasn't half as bad as I'd been led to believe. Yes the three/four lane highway is lacking in certain basic road markings, but by staying alert and sticking to the middle lane (if you can work out where it is), the seemingly chaotic traffic will simply weave it's way around you. While local drivers seem to manage just fine with only one hand for driving (the other invariably hangs idly from the open window), I wasn't taking any chances and kept two hands firmly on the wheel as we made our way along the coast towards Cefalù.
After a few days spent sunning ourselves on the glorious beach at Cefalù, we decided it was time to venture inland to explore the island's parched interior. Although I'd been warned by a native Sicilian student that there were more interesting places to visit, as I pored over my Sicilian travel map, my gaze kept returning to the same place.
Located about 50 kilometres south of Palermo, Corleone is a small town of around 12,000 inhabitants. The region has been inhabited since prehistoric times and the quaint Museo Pippo Rizzo in the centre of town modestly documents the anthropological history of the area.
But of course, there's only one reason why tourists come to Corleone.
The Mafia. Or, to be more precise, Don Vito Corleone - The Godfather.
Our guide at the fascinating Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla Mafia e del Movimento Antimafia bravely tried to shift the Hollywood narrative by emphasising that there was more to Corleone than just the Cosa Nostra, but the attempt was ultimately self-defeating, as one comes away from the museum more convinced than ever that Corleone is a town that continues to be plagued by organised crime. Indeed, the mafia remains deeply embedded throughout the region of Palermo - our guide told us that a recent survey found that 80% of businesses in Palermo pay il pizzo (protection money) to the mafia. And in Corleone itself, local government has been dissolved due to mafia infiltration.
Corleone has long been a notorious mafia stronghold and it is not difficult to understand why Mario Puzo chose it as the birthplace of his iconic literary creation, Don Vito Corleone. Many of Italy's most notorious mafiosi were born here. Tommy Gagliano, "the Quiet Don"; Jack Dragna, "the Cappone of LA"; Giuseppe "the Clutch Hand" Morello, founder of the infamous 107th Street Mob, a precursor to the Morello and subsequently Genovese crime families; Michele Navarra, a leading physician and feared crime boss; Luciano Leggio, who, after killing his boss Navarra, took over as head of the Corleonesi crime clan; Leoluca Bagarella, a feared boss who was implicated in 100s of murders and terrorist attacks, including the assassinations of anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; Salvatore "Totò" Riina, "the boss of all bosses", whose brutal rein of terror oversaw the assassination of a 13-year-old boy, and the terrorist atrocities that killed Falcone and Borsellino; and Bernardo Provenzano, "the Accountant", a notorious boss who was on the run from 1963 until his eventual arrest in 2006.
While the Godfather may be a cinematic masterpiece, the brutal reality of the mafia is, of course, altogether different from its Hollywood incarnation.
Indeed, one doesn't have to venture far from Corleone's main central piazza to discover a town mired in poverty and lacking in enterprise or investment. Wandering the ramshackle streets of Corleone, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the mafia has sucked the very lifeblood from the town, for who would want to invest in place so immersed in such enduring criminality?
The fallout from the atrocities committed by the Corleonesi mafia continues to this day, as prosecutors continue to unravel events surrounding the mafia terror campaign of the early 1990s. In particular, anti-mafia prosecutor Nino Di Matteo, who lives under armed protection, has led the investigation into historic links between the mafia and the political establishment in Rome. In doing so he follows in the footsteps of courageous anti-mafia crusaders like Placido Rizzotto, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Brave idealists who paid with their lives for their stand against the Cosa Nostra.
They, rather than any fictitious mafia don, are the real heroes of Corleone.
It goes without saying that Vinitaly is a wine fair.
Over 15,000 wines promoted by 4,380 exhibitors from 36 different countries to 128,000 attendees of 143 different nationalities. That's a lot of wine! And while I didn't get around to tasting them all, I did give it a pretty good bash!
But, if four days guzzling wine is just too much for you, there are a few alternatives.
So, on the final day of Vinitaly 2018, I decided to seek out some refreshing alternatives. Here's what I found.
Vinitaly 2018 - alternatives to wine
Within minutes of arriving at the fair, I was fortunate enough to bump into a good friend of mine from the Veronese bagpiping community (a small but voluble fraternity). Pietro also happens to be overseeing events in the International Pavilion and he quickly set me up with a Japanese sake tasting - the ideal way to kickstart a hitherto mundane Wednesday morning!
For this tasting, I was fortunate enough to be in the expert hands of of Katsuhiko Miyasaka and Dominique Grandemenge from the Masumi Brewing Company, who nimbly guided us through the intoxicating world of premium Japanese Sake.
Having learned that the Masumi Brewery was founded in 1662 in the heart of the Japanese Alps, a region famed for the purity of its water, we started off with the Yawaraka Type-1. Soft, clean and surprisingly fruity, without any acidity, at 12% this would make an interesting alternative to a lunchtime bottle of white wine.
Our second Sake was the Karakuchi Gold, which at 15% was slightly stronger than the Yawaraka and not as obviously fruity.
After a quick explanation of the production process, including the mystical world of rice polishing, we were on to the next drop, the Karakuchi Kiippon. Light bodied and dry, it is one of the key expressions of the Masumi brand.
A brief discussion around some of the issues currently facing the sake industry (it is generally considered to be the unfashionable drink of an older generation and, while quality has really improved in recent years, in an ultra competitive market, consumption is currently falling), and we were on to the final expression, the Nanago, from Masumi's super premium range.
As with whisky, yeast is a crucial ingredient in Sake fermentation and this expression is named 'Seventh Heaven' in honour of yeast strain number seven, which was developed by the Masumi Brewery in 1946 and of which the brewery is particularly proud. Its mellow fragrance and strength in fermentation make it the most commonly used yeast in Japan.
I have to say, the sake was not at all what I was expecting. Chilled, smooth and fragrant, I was completely blown away by it. I had been expecting some barely palatable fire water, but was surprised to learn that sake is generally fermented with a typical alcohol content of between 12% and 16% abv. Not only that, but it is best enjoyed like a bottle of wine (i.e. in one sitting and with a meal).
Now my only problem is trying to find a supplier in Verona!
With lunchtime rapidly approaching, it was time for a light aperitivo.
What better than a quality Italian gin made using only the finest local ingredients?
Franco Cavallero is a distinguished looking moustachioed entrepreneur from Asti, a small town about 55km east of Turin, famous for its sweet, sparkling wine (spumante). The Piedmontese also have a strong tradition of producing fashionable, aromatic aperitifs, such as Vermouth.
Cavallero's bar, "Il Cicchetto", has been selecting and serving gin to his customers from all over the world. A few years ago he decided to start producing his own.
The result is Gin Agricolo, a farmhouse style gin, produced using only locally sourced natural ingredients. From the mountains of Piedmont, juniper, wormwood (used in vermouth and absinthe), wild raspberries and many other aromatic plants with fragrant essences grow naturally. Gin Agricolo is produced in small batches. In order to protect their delicate and deep perfumes, the botanicals are individually infused in the alcohol base.
The range includes 3 different expressions, the Gadan, a fresh clear gin with a pleasantly dry bitter taste, the Blagheur, a herbaceous gin with spicy notes of cumin, coriander and mint, and the Evra, a fruity pink gin with notes of wild berries, mint and orange peel. All are great to sip neat, but even better with ice and tonic!
Finally stop on the tour was Vermouth, the quintessential Italian aperitif.
Essentially a heavily aromatised fortified wine, Vermouth was traditionally used for medicinal purposes, before being embraced as the ideal aperitif.
Vermouth is also a common cocktail ingredient, particularly in Martinis, Manhattans and, of course, the Negroni (one part gin, one part vermouth rosso, and one part Campari, garnished with orange peel). Vermouth's utility lies in its capacity to lower the alcohol content of cocktails with strong spirits as their base, whilst also providing a pleasant herbal-aromatic flavour.
Drawing on the city's proud tradition of liquor production, Turin Vermouth was established in 2011, the branding perhaps reflecting a nostalgic glimpse back to the golden era of the aperitif. In local dialect, Drapò is the name given to the flag of Piedmont, appropriate for a drink that is itself symbolic of the region.
Selecting more than 20 botanicals from across Oceania, Asia, South America and Europe, herbs including cinchona, angelica, star anise, juniper, lemon balm, sage, and chamomile, and carefully infusing them with fine grain alcohol and Trebbiano wine, the resulting blend is then filtered and left to rest for five weeks before being bottled.
The sweet Gran Riserva, produced in limited quantities and matured in a single French oak barrique for at least 8 months, was a fitting way to bring to a close a fascinating morning spent exploring some wonderful alternatives to wine.
Now it's time for a beer!
Cool sites, cool wines was the theme for this tasting hosted by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) on Sunday afternoon and, I have to confess, I thought it was going to be an event about websites. Cool websites.
For those of you not familiar with it's work, WSET is a British organisation which offers courses and exams in the field of wine and spirits. Founded in 1969, it is generally regarded as one of the world's leading providers of wine education. I was introduced to WSET's systematic approach to wine tasting at last year's Vinitaly and I recently completed the Level 1 Award in Wines, a pleasurable hands-on introduction to the world of wine, hosted in the foothills of Valpolicella.
So, I was really looking forward to this event about wine and the world wide web in the vibrant international pavilion of Vinitaly 2018.
Of course, the event wasn't about the world wide web at all.
It was about climatic conditions. And the enological impact of these climatic conditions on wine production.
Well, how was I to know?
Climate is, of course, a fundamental variable when it comes to wine production.
When you think of the great wine producing regions, we generally think of warm, sunny places like Tuscany, Spain, southern California, Australia and South Africa. But there are, of course, some notably cooler regions where great wine is produced. These include Champagne in northern France and the great wines of the Loire Valley and northern California, Argentina and the German Rhineland.
Grapes that cope well in cooler climates include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Solaris. White wines from cool climates tend to have higher acidity, more lemon-lime aromas, and are usually lower alcohol and lighter bodied.
WSETs Cool sites, cool wines tasting explored some fantastic wines from these regions. First up was a delightful Muscadet from the Loire Valley.
Comte Leloup du Château de Chasseloir
Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie,
Cuvée des Ceps Centenaires 2014
Some of the vines at Château de Chasseloir are centuries old and, while the name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, this fine Muscadet from the Loire region was a great way to start the day! Fresh but complex, it has a slight salty tang. Green apples, mouth-tingling acidity, light-bodied, well-balanced, ideal with seafood.
Quartet Anderson Valley Brut, Roederer Estates NV
This sparkling Californian wine from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County belongs to Roederer Estates, the famous French Champagne producer. A hundred miles to the north of San Francisco, the climate here is tempered by cool marine air. Anderson Valley enjoys warms summer days, but cool evenings.
Reminiscent of Champagne, this Brut is a blend of 70% chardonnay and 30% pinot noir.
High acidity, medium body, long-finish, floral with a clear hint of pineapple.
Colome Torrontes 2017
Torrontes is the signature white wine of Argentina and this one comes from the highest vineyard in the world, an astonishing 3,111 metres above sea-level. The vineyards of Calchaquí Valley in northwestern Argentina are also amongst the oldest in Argentina. In fact, founded in 1831, Colome is Argentina's oldest winery.
Light and refreshing, with a clear twang of rose petals and orange. Great as early summer aperitivo or with a simple starter.
Kaseler Nies'chen Riesling Kabinett, von Kesselstatt, Ruwer 2015
A tasty Riesling from the steep Nies'chen slope that overlooks the picturesque village of Kasel in the German Rhineland. Complex flavours of apricot and peach with a twist of lemon, red fruit and stewed apples, this was a great wine to conclude the tasting a really interesting tasting.
The future for cool climate wines
A recent study has found that climate change will dramatically impact many of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world. The study concluded that Europe will be the main victim of the negative effects of global warming, with an expected drop in production of 85 per cent in the areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as the Italian Tuscan and the French Bordeaux regions.
In fact, with wine production already becoming viable in places like the south of England, the Netherlands and even Denmark and Sweden, we are already seeing the impact of climate change on the wine industry.
So, while this tasting wasn't exactly what I was expecting, it did deliver an important message about the impact of climate change and the future of wine production.
And the wine wasn't too bad either!