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By Joseph Romero

NEW YORK, 15 July 2006 When thinking of wine routes in France, Alsace or the Beaujolais immediately spring to mind. Italian culinary journalist Ornella D'Alessio and photographer Marco Santini have taken an unusual approach, travelling right across southern France from Spain to Italy, as well as Portugal, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Slovenia.

In New York for the launch of her book entitled "Wine Country Europe: Touring, Tasting, and Buying in the Most Beautiful Wine Regions", Ornella D'Alessio spoke briefly with Culturekiosque about her approach to wine tourism and tasting in Europe.

CK: Where do you come from in Italy?

ODA: Genoa. I was born and brought up there until the age of twenty. Then I moved to Paris and later to Venezuela. I also spent several months in the United States. After that I settled in Florence for fifteen years.

CK: What was the reason for these moves?

ODA : I didn't like my hometown.

CK: Why is that?

ODA: I always thought it was too confining, too up-tight. I wanted to discover something else. Five years ago, I decided to come back to Genoa which has changed a lot in the last twenty years. Now I feel comfortable there. Also, as a travel writer, I travel a lot and don't have to spend all my time there. Finally, I feel I have what is best in Genoa: fantastic weather and a very nice appartment with lots of light which was difficult to have in Florence despite the beauty of the city. 

CK: So, you are the new Marco Polo for the Genovese?

ODA: Actually, the Genovese believe that no matter where they travel or live they always return to Genoa.

CK: What brought you to travel writing and notably to food and wine?

ODA: I was born to travel. At fourteen I wanted to go to England to learn English, but my parents were against it. They let me go the year after and that is when I began to travel. As for food and wine, I have always liked to eat and drink. This led me to appreciate and understand more about life.

CK: You have no formal training in culinary art or viticulture?

ODA: No, I lernt both in the field.

CK: How long have you been working in food and wine?

ODA: Twenty years.

CK: Your new book is about the wine trails or routes of Europe. Why did you want to write this book?

ODA: I think that Europe has something special and something was missing in the market. There are plenty of books about wines in Europe but none combine and assess the beauty of landscapes with the flavours of the best wines. Of course, there are many wine and travel guides, but none match attractive and pleasant itineraries with very important bodegas.

CK: Why did you decide to cover the whole of Europe in your book rather than one country at a time?

ODA: Four years ago, the original idea was to write about the best wine routes in the world. It was the publisher that limited us to Europe. The difficulty was to select only twenty wine itineraries for the twenty chapters of the book. In fact, we created each of the itineraries. With the exception of Alsace and Alto Adige none of the itineraries are on the official wine trails. They are based on our own travels in these regions.

A good example is the Loire in France. To follow this river makes for a beautiful trip visually and you can taste exceptional and very different wines along the way. Each wine comes from a different terroir and they change almost every kilometer.

CK: Would your book appeal more to those who love travel or more to those who love wine?

ODA: To those that love both. Wine can be a good excuse to get to know the world and in this case lesser known regions of Europe.

CK: Since official wine trails already exist, can you elaborate on your criteria in the creation of your own itineraries?

ODA: As I mentioned, only two itineraries are official: Alsace and Alto Adige. For the other eighteen we studied maps selecting points of departure and final destinations.

For example, most travellers do the traditional wine route of the Rhone valley.  But in our chapter entitled, "Mediterranean France", the traveller crosses France starting at the Spanish border and ending at the Italian border. In my view, this is one of the most beautiful corners of France and the wines are superb. A wonderful feeling followed us as we tasted the wines of this region, and as with the other chapters of the book, we selected the wines we liked best.

The selection reflects our taste and in some cases the wines are very well known, but others will be unknown even to the most sophisticated aficionado. Frankly, the best known wines are not always the best, and in every country we travelled we found very interesting wines by very small wine makers. We really followed our own taste.

CK: In each chapter there is a section, "Labels To Look For".

ODA: Yes. For every wine maker we tasted very many wines, wrote tasting notes for each wine, and then chose two that we liked most.

CK: You also recommend local restaurants at the end of each chapter. Was your selection based on wine pairings for regional cuisines or because they were simply dans le coin ?

ODA: No matter where we travelled restaurants were plentiful and in regions such as Tuscany good restaurants have their own caves. Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence has one of the finest caves in the world. You don't go there by chance, you go there because it's Enoteca Pinchiorri. As with the wines, we sometimes discovered unknown restaurants that deserved to be visited. Overall, restaurants were selected as the "best possible choice" in function of the itinerary that we created.

Sometimes wine pairings figured in the selection, but not always, and this aspect varied depending on the country. For instance, in Spain, France and Italy, there is considerable energy devoted to pairing wine and food.  In Hungary we spoke a lot about Tokay which is different from this point of view. The same was true of wines from Austria and Slovenia. The wines were sometimes quite wonderful and very interesting but there was much less attention paid to food pairings as in Italy, France and Spain. Nevertheless, while wines in Austria and Slovenia are virtually unknown, the quality of their white wines in particular is improving year after year. In fact, Slovenia was a big discovery.

CK: In your opinion, do you see a trend whereby tourists are travelling for the food and wine rather than for the usual historical sites or popular attractions.

ODA: That is a tough question. In Italy this is a trend by both Italians and foreign visitors to Italy. But I encountered this in other parts of Europe where Europeans were driving a hundred kilometers to taste a specific cheese or specific wines. Wine is easier. So, as a trend wine is already well-established in this regard.

More and more people are interested in tasting the real flavour of things. This is perhaps an escape from globalization. Instead of all of us eating the same things, it may be very interesting once in a while to  drive or travel somewhere to try something different and to have the pleasure of tasting a flavour that perhaps our grandparents tasted every day.

CK: Your book has just been published in English in the United States, do you think that this kind of food and wine tourism already popular in Europe will appeal to the pragmatic American traveller?

ODA. Very much so. It will help American travellers to become acquainted with lesser known regions of Europe in a more intimate fashion; that is, through food and wine. It is less of a guide and more of a companion book to accompany a traveller off the beat and track.

I also think that more Americans return to Europe to learn more and in greater depth than the usual five-city tour of their first visits. In Europe, Americans are known to be more demanding and often arrive prepared for their trip and want to know as much as possible about specific topics while they are here.

CK: In your opinion what has been the most significant change in Europe since you were a child?

ODA: Well, Europe has changed a lot and faster especially in the last ten years. Although I am from a very traditional Italian family, I am not typical of many Italian women. So for me personally, I have seen that more and more women work. And while men still hold the most power, it is easier for women to enter politics. We still have a problem with abortion because it was politicized when in my opinion this is a personal issue. We should have the possiblilty to choose.

CK: What did the rejection of the European draft constitution by French and Dutch voters last year mean to you as an Italian?

ODA: I am very sorry about that because I think that even if the constitution made the economies of the individual states difficult, I am convinced that Europe should remain together as a union. In the long term it is what is best for us all. But I am also not convinced that the French and Dutch populations were truely aware of or understood what was going on.

CK: Any thoughts about the riots by young people in the immigrant suburbs of French cities?

ODA: I think that this is a problem that the whole of Europe will have. Probably France had it first because France is a big country with a colonial past. They had to accept many people from other countries.

In Italy I don't think that we risk this kind of problem yet, but we will because integration in Europe at the present moment is far from easy. It is not a question of racism,  but more that people are not doing what they could for immigrants.

First of all, we should accept less people, and for those accepted we should give them real opportunities to work and live as they should. Instead, in Italy, more than in France certainly, immigrants mostly sell flowers or turn to prostitution which is very, very sad. So, I think that we should do more. Integration is stil far ahead in the future.

I see more integration in the United States than in Europe, although I am aware that the problem is completely different. People came to America from all over the world with the same desire for freedom which they all shared as a goal and eventually as Americans. Step by step they reached their goal. In Europe people come with no hope and pretend to become  French, Italian or English. The point of departure is different. In America they all came together with the same goal.

Wine Country Europe: Touring, Tasting, and Buying in the Most Beautiful Wine Regions
by Ornella D'Alessio and Marco Santini
Hardcover: 324 pages
Rizzoli (15 November 2005)
ISBN: 0847827704

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