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Parched in Provence

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With southern France Frying, a winemaker fights to save his infant vines

Jean-Marc Espinasse rolls out of bed at 4:30 a.m., slips on a pair of faded swim trunks and a t-shirt, and prepares to work by day's first light.

This summer, Espinasse is dedicated to an urgent mission: saving his newly planted vineyards from the two-month drought and summer heat wave that has been baking southeast France.

"Every day I look at the forecast, and for the last six weeks it says it will rain next week, but then the rain doesn't come," says Espinasse, sitting in his rustic farmhouse kitchen and dunking a piece of baguette in his predawn cup of coffee. "I don't want my vines to die."

The 48-year-old former Rhône winemaker, who followed his dreams to coastal Bandol, has been planting vineyards from scratch for the past two years and farming them organically. His goal is to focus on making rosé at his stunningly picturesque Mas des Brun. (Read my previous blog on Espinasse, "Bandol—The Hard Way.")

High on Cinque Terre

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A native son’s heroic efforts in Italy’s mythic coastal vineyards

Heydi Bonanini is a rare type—a young Cinque Terre native willing to work the hard, vertiginous vineyard terraces near his home.

Standing on Possaitara, the Mediterranean seaside cliff into which his family's farm is cut, Bonanini, 37, remembers the entire landscape once covered with grapevines. By the 1990s, it was all but abandoned.

Over the last 20 years, Bonanini has fought to reverse the trend as a way "to honor my grandparents." He has restored about 5 acres—the maximum he believes one person can cultivate in the Cinque Terre, an enclave of five ancient fishing villages between sea and mountains on the Ligurian coast of Italy.

"My father cut down my grandparents' vineyard to plant fruit trees. Then I cut down the fruit trees to plant vines," says Bonanini, a strapping man with short-cropped hair, a goatee and the easy smile of someone who starts some days fishing at dawn off the rocks below.

A Barolo maestro's Mediterranean dream

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Elio Altare has been up since dawn, working in a vineyard rooted on terraces about 600 feet above deep-blue Mediterranean waters.

Altare, the legendary Barolo winemaker, officially retired nine years ago. But at 65, he still works in his vineyards and finds time for the love of his later life: making small amounts of white wine in the rugged—and once endangered—vineyards of the Cinque Terre on Italy's Ligurian coast.

"I have a very big problem: I love this job," says Altare, tying up new vine growth as a few of his also-retired cousins hoe away weeds and repair drystone walls. "I can't stop. I work 12 hours a day. I am a very stupid man."

This year marks Altare's 50th vintage, and the eighth for his Campogrande wine label in the Cinque Terre. 

Tasting Lisbon's modern flavors

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Less than a day into a long weekend trip to Lisbon, strolling down a wide sun-splashed boulevard, I came to a conclusion: "I could live here."

"Why?" asked my wife (who knows me too well). "Because it's a sunny place with great food, and you can drink wine all day?"

Well, yeah.

Portugal's capital is Europe's latest urban bloomer, with a new generation of chefs—still under 40—enlivening southern Portugal's seafood- and olive oil–based cuisine with modern techniques and a lighter touch. Lisbon (see my travel article, "Lisbon's New Dawn," in the July 31 issue of Wine Spectator) is now a great place to eat beautiful food full of intense flavors and drink complex, varied wines at a fraction of the prices in most of the continent.

Funking off!

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Keeping it clean with a top young Penedes talent

Eduard Pié Palomar's winemaking techniques are out there.]

Here in the Baix Penedès along Spain's Catalan coast, he uses local varieties from single vineyards, fermenting all his wines with wild yeast in terra cotta amphorae. Some amphorae are sunk in the ground between vineyard rows, where they spend the winter under rain, snow and grazing sheep.

"It's a romantic concept," says the fresh-faced, 29-year-old winemaker, who calls his vineyard-made wines "liquid terroir."

Similar "romantic concepts" often make something called vinegar.

Here's the amazing thing about Pié Palomar: In these raw circumstances, he makes limpid, pristine wines with none of the oxidation, funk, murk or abundance of volatile acidity you might expect. "I am very strict with the wines I sell under my brand," he says.

Small is Big

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How an Italian espresso heir changed a piece of Montalcino

Francesco Illy has done many things for love.

In Montalcino, his muses have been art, wine and a woman.

Illy, 62, is the eldest son of the third generation of Italy's high-end espresso clan. A professional photographer, he is also considered the family's eccentric artista.

In 1987, he was shooting the interior of the New York Italian restaurant Palio, known for its stunning murals painted by Italian artist Sandro Chia. "I fell in love with Sandro's art," says Illy, his blue eyes shining brightly, not looking the part of an Italian industrial scion in his rumpled red wool jacket, scraggly white beard and ponytail.

Illy befriended Chia, who invited him to stay at his highly regarded wine estate, Castello Romitorio, near Montalcino.

Illy fell for the landscape and began thinking of buying his own place. He found it 10 years later when Chia's winemaker, Carlo Vittori, called about a farm being sold by a retiring shepherd.

Wine Therapy

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A wild Sardinian settles down

A decade ago, Alessandro Dettori was a young, crazy winemaker making wild, unpredictable wines on his family's farm at the northwestern tip of Sardinia, off Italy's western coast.

Dettori made surprisingly big reds from what's considered an easy-drinking grape, Monica, and some tamer wines from Cannonau (the local name for Grenache) which typically makes full-bodied inky reds on this Mediterranean island.

They were exciting, often confusing wines—the vinous equivalent of an artist hurling paint at canvas. When you opened a bottle, you quickly understood that they were made by a talented winemaker who definitely had an edge.

Today at 39, Dettori has mellowed. And so have his wines "You can live your life in peace or at war," Dettori says, trying to explain his evolution as a winemaker. "I realized I was at war"...read the full blog here

Slovenian Rhapsody

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Damijan: Unearthing white gold in an Italian border region

Growing up in Gorizia, on Italy’s northeastern border with the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia), Damijan Podversic dreamed of following his father’s path making wine for the family’s local eatery, Osteria Ronko Bienic.

But in his twenties, after Podversic planted his own vineyards and intentionally slashed production to get better flavor concentration in his grapes, his father disowned him.

“My father didn’t believe in quality,” recalls Podversic, 47, a bear of an ethnic Slovenian with laugh lines around gentle blue-green eyes. “He said, ‘That is stupid. You will die of hunger.’”

The two men didn’t talk for eight years.

Now, Podversic’s meticulously produced skin-contact whites—labeled Damijan and classified Venezia Giulia IGT—can be found in elite restaurants across Europe, Asia and the United States. In the 2008 vintage (the last sampled), Wine Spectator rated three of Podversic’s wines—each $50—at 91 or 92 points.

From Mechanic to Winemaker in the Northern Piedmont

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Tiziano Mazzoni spent most of his adult life as a mechanic, working on engines for race cars and boats.

Now he makes wine. In fact, very good red wine in the relatively obscure Ghemme appellation in Italy's northern Piedmont region.

“I decided to do something crazy,” says Mazzoni, 55, explaining why he retired his wrenches when he turned 40 and bought some vineyards to indulge his passion for red wine—particularly Nebbiolo.

Mazzoni, a compact man with clear blue eyes and a graying mustache, is today a leader for quality in Ghemme.  Read the full blog at winespectator.com

A Youthful Obsession

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Norther Piedmont's wine wunderkind goes deep into Nebbiolo

As a teenager in northern Piedmont, when most boys were enthralled by soccer, girls and cars, Cristiano Garella developed another obsession: Italian wine.

At 13, Garella bought his first wine guide, by the influential Italian writer Luigi Veronelli. A couple of years later, he spent his Christmas money on his first two bottles, one of them Barolo Brunate from Enzo Boglietti.

"Wine was like a sensation from a new world," says Garella, who can't pinpoint the origins of his precocious interest. "My father was a gymnastics teacher, my mother was a secretary, and my grandmother drank a lot of bad wine."

But this he knew: He wanted to be part of the booming Italian wine scene. He enlisted his older brother to drive him about 100 miles to southern Piedmont and knocked on the cellar doors of Barolo and Barbaresco producers—from Elio Altare to Angelo Gaja. He tasted wines and soaked up all the knowledge he could.

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