For as long as I've been living in Italy, Puglia has been high on my list of places to visit.
A land of unspoiled beauty as yet untainted by mass tourism. Miles of stunning coastline, white sandy beaches, medieval towns, flamingoes, grottoes and the famous trulli of Alberobello.
The pace of life is slow. The food is just how Italians like it - simple, fresh and authentic.
For the Veronese, tired of the expense and hassle of traveling to Sardinia, Puglia is now the hot spot for summer vacations.
The only problem is getting there. Most people who travel from Verona to Puglia drive. That's at least 8 hours in the car - and that's on a good day. I've heard some real horror stories.
So, for the time being, Puglia remains on my wish list.
Perhaps it was this unquenced desire that propelled me towards the Puglia pavilion at Vinitaly 2017.
After the hustle and bustle of the reception area and a quick lap of the more chaotic zones near the entrance, Puglia was an oasis of calm and serenity.
That's not to say it was empty - there was a certain buzz of quiet industry about the place, but it just wasn't as frenetic as the other pavilions.
I soon found myself in conversation with a friendly sommelier at the regional stand who was just about to take me on a swift canter through the region's wine. Responding to my obvious enthusiasm for such a mission (the sun was barely over the yardarm), it wasn't long before I was being introduced to a well-dressed man with more than a passing resemblance to Pete Postlethwaite (think Usual Suspects rather than Brassed Off).
Charismatic and friendly, the man before me was in fact Franco di Filippo, the owner of the Estasi vineyerd. The passion and the pride with which he described his wine was one of the highlights of the fair for me.
It was impossible not to be impressed - and that was before I'd even tasted a drop of his wine!
Estasi is a delightful sparkling wine that takes its distinctive golden-yellow colour from the rather unusual way in which it is produced. Traditionally sparkling wine is made from under-ripe grapes, which gives it its high acidity. The result is a light and simple wine which generally lacks the structure of more complex non-sparkling wines.
Estasi, on the other hand, is made from the Moscoto Reale grape variety, which are left on the vine until they become super-ripe and naturally dry. They are finally harvested in late October, by which time the grapes resemble raisins. The fruit is then fermented and matured in steel tanks for 24 months. The wine is then referemented in the bottle (the Champagne method) for a further 18 months.
The result is a complex well-structured wine. On the nose, ripe fruit, citrus and apricot. On the palate, peach, honey, elderflower and hints of ginger. The bubbles are not as vigorous as with other sparkling wines, the overall result a more delicate, elegant wine with a truly distinctive flavour.
Amongst the inevitable fog of a four-day wine fair, this encounter was a rare moment of insight and clarity. Time seemed to stand still and I was transported to a far-away land of white sandy beaches and dense olive groves. For a fleeting moment, I finally found myself in Puglia.
An introduction to the magical world of independent bottling
It was the week before the start of the festival and I was enjoying the last couple of days of a family holiday in Edinburgh when an old friend called to ask if I wanted to join him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) to celebrate his new job.
Quicker than you can say "I'll have a Bunnahabhain 11yo Pedro Ximénez Finish", I was crossing the murky Water of Leith, dashing past Martin Wishart's Michelin starred restaurant and, with a spring in my step and a flutter in my chest, making my way across the high-walled courtyard of the Vaults.
The Vaults in Leith, a building whose cavernous wine cellars are said to date back to 12th century, is home to the SMWS in Edinburgh. Grand yet snug, decadent yet clubbable, it's like stepping into an Edwardian gentleman's club (at least I imagine it is, never having done so). Membership will set you back £122 for the first year (plus an annual renewal fee thereafter), but included in the price is a welcome pack that contains 3 sample bottles of Society whisky. Members, as I was fortunate enough to discover, can also invite guests to join them for a dram. Knowledgeable and well-informed sommeliers are always on hand to make recommendations based on your personal tastes.
After what is, by all accounts, a vigorous vetting procedure shrouded in secrecy, the SMWS carefully selects its whisky directly from distillery castoffs. When a distillery produces a whisky that it doesn't want to bottle (perhaps it doesn't quite match its unique flavour criteria), rather than simply discarding the unbottled whisky, these casks are instead released to independent whisky bottlers, such as the SMWS. The SMWS Tasting Panel then gives each bottle a mischievous set of tasting notes and a quirky but descriptive name - the bottle I took home with me was called "Eureka Moment".
So as not to identify the distillery from which it originates, whiskies at SMWS are all given a unique, two-part numerical identifier. They are then bottled at cask-strength (upwards of 45%), rather than at the typical industry standard of around 40%. "Eureka Moment" came in at robust 58.6%, so a wee splash of water was necessary to fully appreciate this punchy wee dram.
All told, a visit to the Vaults in Leith is a singular, if not unique, experience.
In fact, there are an ever increasing number of independent whisky bottlers, although few can boast such sumptuous premises as the SMWS. Some, like Berry Brothers and Rudd, which has been supplying gin to the royal family since the reign of George III, and the iconic Gordon & MacPhail, which started out as a grocer in Elgin in 1895, have long histories of selecting and bottling whisky. These veterans have been joined by exciting newcomers like Hidden Spirits, an independent Italian bottler founded in 2013, Rest and Be Thankful, another bold new independent bottler that is producing some outstanding single malts and Chapter 7, which is leading the way with its clean modern branding.
These independent whisky bottlers offer high quality products often at seriously competitive prices.
So, while you're waiting for that elusive invitation to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, why not seek out a single malt from an independent bottler?
As for me, it's nearly midnight and I've got an important deadline to meet.
It's time for another Eureka Moment!
Full of beautiful enoteca and surrounded by lush vineyards, Verona is really a wine-drinking city.
But sometimes wine just doesn't quite hit the spot.
Here are some of my favourite places to enjoy a decent pint, watch the match or just hang out.