I still remember the first time I noticed rose bushes blooming at the ends of the ordered rows of grapevines in an Italian vineyard. I was on a leisurely driving trip through Piedmont with my parents one June, and the sight of red roses set against the brilliant, leafy green of the vines was repeated everywhere we went. Not having a green thumb myself, I saw it as just another way that Italians strive to incorporate beauty into all aspects of daily life.
It turns out this picturesque practice is not unique to Italy, but is standard in Bordeaux, the Napa Valley and in vineyards all over the world. Aside from the belief that roses bring good luck to a harvest, grape growers use them as barometers of the vineyard’s health. Fragrant rose blossoms are an early warning system against powdery mildew and once were for the dreaded phylloxera, too. This insect feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines and it nearly destroyed all the vineyards in Europe in the late 19th century. Fortunately for wine-lovers, there’s only one thing these destructive little aphids like more than grapevines – and that’s roses. So farmers planted so-called “sentinel roses” among their vines and watched them closely for tell-tale signs of infestation: as soon as it appeared, they quickly took action and sprayed sulphur on the grapevines to prevent them from becoming infested too. The practice persists but only as a “mildew alert” today.
That mystery solved, I still find June to be one of the best months to tour Italy’s wine regions by car. The days are long but the sun doesn’t have the blistering heat of July or August, and the vintners aren’t frantically busy with the harvest like they are in the fall. Bunches of grapes are just starting to form on the vines, while other fruits like peaches, apricots and cherries are at the height of their growing season. Four vineyards that welcome visitors are listed below: two are island vineyards and two are situated in the celebrated wine growing regions of Tuscany and Piedmont. Several are open only on weekdays and, in many cases, wine tastings aren’t possible without a reservation so it’s a good idea to call or email before you go.
Ischia, the largest island in the Bay of Naples, is known for its thermal resorts and its white wine. Both benefit from the island’s volcanic past that results in natural hot springs, fumaroles and a rich volcanic soil that is ideal for growing grapes. Until recently, the island’s wine makers were more concerned with quantity than quality; this changed when three local farming families banded together to create the state-of-the-art Pietratorcia Winery. Its 18th century cellars produce small batches of fine red and white wines, grappa and dessert wines. A wine tasting on their beautiful terrace overlooking the gardens and vineyard is a very special experience – the wines are served on tables made from volcanic stone and are accompanied by traditional, Ischia-style appetizers (Via Provinciale Panza 267, Forio, tel. 081-908206 or 081-907232; open daily from April through October).
Tucked away in the Trexenta Hills, 20 minutes north of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia, the Argiolas Winery makes well-priced wines from local vermentino, bovale, cannonau and carignano grapes. This winery has become a favorite of sommeliers throughout the United States because Giacomo Tachis, the famous Italian wine pioneer credited with crafting the Super-Tuscans, is their consultant. Tour the winery and then stop at Santa Maria di Sibiola, a beautiful Romanesque church hidden in the olive groves nearby (Via Roma 56, località Serdiana, tel. 070-740606; call at least one week in advance to arrange at tour).
Renato Ratti played a major role in the rebirth of Barolo as a wine-producing region, and he produces superb wines on the L’Annunziata hill below the picturesque Langhe village of La Morra in Piedmont. His Wine Museum, installed in a former abbey, is worth a visit. Directly below the abbey are theCantine Ratti where you can stop for a wine tasting following your visit to the museum (La Morra, località La Annunziata, tel. 0173-50185; cellar tours and wine tastings on weekdays at 10:30am and 3:00pm by prior appointment; call 0173-50185 or send an e-mail to email@example.com).
Outside the Tuscan town of Montalcino there are 47 acres of vineyards and a winery called Casato Prime Donne (House of the First Women) where the wine makers are all female. This is revolutionary for Italy, and the excellent wine made here is proof that the so-called “weaker sex” can compete at the highest levels of enology. Wine tastings and cellar visits are offered on weekdays, while vertical tastings and barrel tastings of Brunello straight from the oak barriques where the wine is being aged can also be arranged (Montalcino, località Podere Casato 17, tel. 0577-849421; English-language tours given Monday-Friday, 9:00am-1:00pm and 3:00-6:00pm; on weekends by advance reservation only).Wine & Roses - Four wineries worth the detour by Kate
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