With international travel off the menu, these wines will whisk you away to Europe

As he lights a cigarette, I ask him about the display at cellar door: most wineries display awards and trophies from critics and competitions, so why kitsch at Kir-Yianni?

Yiannis Boutaris’ lizard tattoo. Alamy

Boutaris levels his gaze at me and says: “You can’t appreciate the beauty unless you acknowledge the ugliness.”

The wine: 2017 Kir-Yianni Kali Riza VieillesVignes Xinomavro [Amyndeon]

The wine that first attracted me to the xinomavro grape more than a decade ago was Ramnista, made from Kir-Yianni’s Naoussa vineyard. And while the current vintage 2016 Ramnista ($45) is good – dense, gamey, earthy – I’m more excited by the current vintage of Kali Riza, made from old xinomavro vines grown in the higher-altitude sandy plains of Amyndeon: it has the most beautiful, enticing, floral aroma – like a lighter-bodied pinot noir – and then a salivating, juicy red fruit flavour wrapped up in nebbiolo-like dusty, dry terracotta tannins. $40

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Take me back to Solicchiata, April 2015

Pietradolce winery in Solicchiata in Siciliy. 

When I leave Taormina it’s a balmy spring day and the sun is glittering on the blue water of the Strait of Messina. Less than an hour later, when I get to the village of Passopisciaro, halfway up the northern slopes of Mount Etna, there are patches of late snow still clinging to the roadside and the sky is drizzly grey.

At this moment, the car decides to break down. So, I phone the winemaker at Pietradolce, my first winery appointment, to come and rescue me. During the wait, I take refuge from the drizzle in the Blue Moon café in the small town square, eating excellent pistachio arancini as truckies in high-viz come and go and Europop blares from a TV in the corner.

The Pietradolce cellar door is a few kilometres away in Solicchiata, but before we taste, winemaker Giuseppe Parlavecchio insists that we visit one of his most precious vineyards. We walk up a snow-edged narrow track, over stone terraces and down into a small, sheltered amphitheatre seemingly scraped out of the landscape, where 100-year-old bush vines huddle in the cold.

Pietradolce winery’s barrel room.  

This is Etna,” says the winemaker, almost misty-eyed. “These plants know the mountain. The way they are grown, alberello, like bushes, is the best way for a plant to feel the soil and the weather and the sun every day.”

Nearby is an old shepherd’s hut that has been transformed into a warm tasting room. As Parlavecchio opens bottles of wine made from those old vines, he also brings out small plates of the sweetest and silkiest prosciutto I have ever eaten. And as delicious as the wines are, it’s the taste of that prosciutto that I remember when I open a bottle of Pietradolce now.

The wine: 2019 Pietradolce Archineri [Mount Etna]

The red nerello mascalese grape is perfectly suited to the cool, high-altitude volcanic landscape of Etna, and expresses the wild, rugged character of the place through fine, grippy tannins often found in the top reds from here.

Archineri is one of five contrada, or cru, single-vineyard wines produced by Pietradolce, and is a glorious expression of grape and place: luminous red in the glass, it’s bursting with a perfume of redcurrant and Campari. It’s ethereal and yet intense in the mouth, with a sprinkling of volcanic tannins on the finish. Needless to say, it tastes fantastic with the best-quality prosciutto you can find. $82

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Take me back to San Sebastiàn, July 2018

A tiny green boat transports people to Casa Cámara in San Sebastián. 

There’s something about having to make a special journey to get to a restaurant that heightens anticipation and sharpens the appetite.

A taxi takes us from the centre of San Sebastiàn, away from the pintxos bars and beaches filled with holidaymakers, through less glamorous suburbs where walls are daubed with “Tourists go home!”, eventually depositing us next to a jetty looking over a river that leads out to the sea.

Across the river we can see our destination among a jumble of houses and tree-covered hills: Casa Cámara, a restaurant established in 1884 in a 17th-century mansion, with a dining room built out over the water. We climb into a tiny green boat and put-put across the water.

Casa Cámara, with its dining room built over the water, serves flawless ingredients, prepared simply. 

San Sebastiàn is famous for its fancy, modern Michelin-starred restaurants serving multi-course degustation menus of finicky food. But some of the greatest dining experiences can be found in more modest, traditional places such as Casa Cámara, which serve flawless ingredients, prepared simply. There is a big square opening in the middle of the restaurant floor here, beneath which lies an aquarium holding live langoustes, the local spiny lobsters, which are winched up theatrically in a cage for guests to choose and order for lunch.

As fantastic as the food and the setting are, though, what catches my eye – predictably – is the wine list, full of classic Spanish white wines at mouth-wateringly accessible prices.

I order a bottle of 11-year-old Viña Gravonia, a super-traditional white Rioja that has developed almost cult-like status and is almost impossible to find in Australia – and is on the list here for a fraction of the price I’d have to pay for it in an equivalent restaurant at home.

The wine is sublime: so lively and fresh even at 11 years old, so full of white flowers and fragrant vanilla pods, but also rich and mature and satisfying. And it tastes utterly remarkable with roasted langouste.

The wine: 2008 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva [Rioja]

After all that build-up, I’d love to be able to recommend you go out and buy a bottle of Viña Gravonia – but I can’t: the importer tells me global demand for this wine is so great she is lucky to get an allocation. The few bottles she does ship are immediately snapped up by canny collectors and sommeliers.

There are, however, some bottles of absolutely stunning, mature red reserva from López de Heredia floating around, and I can thoroughly recommend it: layers and layers of deeply savoury flavour, sweet oak and dried meat, a core of macerated plum fruit, then long lingering tannins, tongue-hugging but graceful. Mature red Rioja like this also transports me straight to San Sebastiàn because I celebrated my 50th birthday there, at Gerald’s Bar, with a couple of bottles of 1968, a terrible vintage in most parts of the world – but not, it turns out, in northern Spain. $120


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