5 TUSCAN TOWNS THAT YOU SHOULD BE ON YOUR LIST

 

Tuscan landscape

Tuscany is on a lot of folk’s bucket list and for good reason. It is a beautiful place that offers it all. Great food, wine, history, art and landscapes are all at your fingertips when visiting this central Italian region which is home to just under 4 million people. Florence, the region’s capital, receives almost 2 million visitors each year making it one of the top 100 cities visited worldwide. No wonder it always seems crowded!

Tuscany is where the Renaissance started, dragging itself and the rest of Europe out of the Middle Ages. The region is home to seven Unesco World Heritage Sites. These include the centers of Siena, Florence, San Gimignano and Pienza, the Cathedral of Pisa, the Val d’Orcia and the Medici Villas and Gardens. It also has over 100 protected nature reserves.

There are thousands of wineries and vines are planted virtually everywhere you look. Tuscany boasts the second highest number of DOC/G wines in Italy, right behind Piemonte. These are considered the top of the quality pyramid. Some of them are the most famous wines in the world and include Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the Super Tuscans. If you are a wine lover, than Tuscany is a great place to visit and get your wine on.

I’ve visited Tuscany many times. In fact, I spent two months living and working in a small hamlet called Rendola which is in the hills just outside of a town called Montevarchi. (Tip: the Prada outlet is just outside of town) When someone comes to me for advice on visiting, the first thing I ask is where they are staying. Almost, but not always, I am told somewhere in or near Florence. Next, I ask how long they will be in the area. Almost, but not always, I am told 2 or 3 days. Then they will be on to Rome or Venice. I get it. For many it’s a trip of a lifetime and they want to pack in as much of Italy as possible. That’s fine. But, it’s well worth it to spend just a bit more time in Tuscany and seek out the not-so-touristy places.

First, I would suggest a more central location than Florence. Florence is fine but getting in and out is a nightmare most of the time and the hotels and apartments are expensive. Just outside Florence is better and less expensive. But there are better options. I like the area around the town of Poggibonsi. It’s near the main autostrada (highway) linking Florence and Siena. It’s also easy to get to the coast (Pisa, Lucca) and it’s on the edge of the Chianti region. There is no need to go into Poggibonsi itself except to use the market to stock your pantry.

A Tuscan Villa

I like to rent a villa. I know it sounds expensive but most are now chopped up into apartments so they are manageable. Also, if you have a large group, renting a whole villa is very affordable and tons of fun. We’ve done that several times. You can find them on Airbnb, Homeaway and my favorite Parker Villas. We’ve used them many times in the past and have always been happy.

Within Tuscany there are some must-see’s and do’s. Let’s get them out-of-the-way first. Go to Florence for the day. Go to the museums, the Boboli Gardens, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and Baptistry. Then go to Pisa and see the leaning tower. On the way to Pisa visit San Gimignano with its’ medieval towers. See the walled town of  Monteriggioni, just down the road from Poggibonsi. And go to the Chianti hills for a half-day of wine tasting before heading back to the villa or apartment. You could do all of this in two and a half days. That leaves you plenty of time, if you’re staying put for 5 or six days, to see some other cool places.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of places to visit. There is so much to see and do in Tuscany. Ideally spending a month would be the thing to do. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that luxury. So here are some of my favorites. Most of these visits are half-day affairs so you can do more than one town per day.

Siena from above

Siena

A lot of people skip Siena. Big mistake. It’s my favorite town in Tuscany. Think Florence without the crowds and, more importantly, the cars. Siena is a pedestrian city, no cars allowed in most of the city so you can leisurely stroll without the fear of being run over by a Fiat.

I could spend days in Siena. In fact, I have. The more time you have, the better. It’s the largest of the five I’m recommending and there are lots of things to see and do. Here are the highlights:

Piazza del Campo – This is one of the world’s most celebrated squares and certainly one of the most famous in Italy. Twice each summer the piazza is transformed into a racetrack for the famous horse race Il Palio. Crowds squeeze into every corner to see the action. Riders are chosen from 10 of the 17 contrada, or neighborhoods. Horses are then drawn randomly and the race begins. It is a spectacle. It happens once in July and then again in August. If you plan to attend book your tickets and a place to stay well in advance.

Piazza del Campo is a great way to spend a few hours just taking in the town and people watching. There are many cafes that line the square where you can get a coffee, glass of wine or something to eat. I prefer to grab something from one of the many salumeria that occupy the side streets that feed into the piazza. I always head straight to Pizzicheria de Miccoli for some salumi and formaggi and, if they have it that day, a porchetta sandwich. I then go to Il Campo and spend a leisurely couple of hours with my treats.

Fortezza Medicea (Medici Castle) – This is the old Medici fortress that guards the northwestern portion of town. It’s as interesting as any other old Medici fort but it has something the others don’t. The Enoteca Italiana is in the fortress. This is like a wine museum or library. You can visit the cellars and then taste wines from all over Italy. You can even buy some to take out. This is a must see for wine lovers.

Duomo – Visit Siena’s Gothic Cathedral above the Piazza del Campo. The exterior is magnificent. Inside there are works by Michaelangelo, Donatello, Pisano and Pinturicchio.

Piazza dei Salimbeni – This is not only a beautiful piazza but also home to the oldest bank on the planet, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. The bank was founded in 1472 and has been in the news lately. It may not survive much longer in its’ current form so you may just want to make a visit while it’s still around.

Mangia Tower – This tower, over 100 meters high, sits next to the town hall in Piazza del Campo. Construction was begun in 1325 and completed in 1348. The climb is well worth it. You will be rewarded with a commanding view of the city and surrounding countryside.

There is more to Siena but that should get you started. It’s one of my favorite European towns for just wandering around and getting lost. And if you do get lost, just make your way back to Il Campo and start all over again.

Volterra high on its’ perch

Volterra

The most underrated Tuscan town in my opinion. This Etruscan town dates to at least the 7th century BC. In fact, it is believed that the surrounding area has been continuously inhabited since the 8th century BC. It was one of the most important Etruscan settlements and largest with almost 25,000 inhabitants. The whole town stands perched on a hill 1700 feet above sea level. The area is rich in alabaster and the local artists do wonders with this translucent mineral.

Volterra is a treasure trove of riches from both the Etruscan and Roman periods. There is  an unparalleled collection of Etruscan antiquities from this ancient civilization on display in the Guarnacci Museum. The Porto all’Arco is still intact after 2,000 years. Its’ 3 badly eroded heads keep watch on all who enter the city. The Roman theater just outside the walls dates to the 1st century BC.

I like to just take my time and stroll through the narrow streets and take in as much of the atmosphere as possible. Visit the Duomo (Cathedral), enlarged after an earthquake in the 13th century, to see its’ many paintings, wood carvings and statues from some of the best artists of the time. For a unique experience visit the Fortezza Medicea or Medici Fortress. Part of it is now a prison. At certain times of the year you can have a meal cooked by famous chefs helped by the inmates. Enoteca Scali is a great place to stop for lunch. Very friendly staff and great food and wine.

Montalcino

This hilltop town is a must-see for all wine lovers. It was hard to choose between here and Montepulciano due east on another hill. For pure charm this wins out. The town is small and can be done in half a day. I would  combine this with a visit to one of the wineries that surround the hill. I cannot guarantee which take visitors and which charge for tastings but some of my favorites are: Biondi-Santi; Siro Pacenti; Ucceliera; Pian dell’Orino; Il Palazzone; Carpazo and Sassetti. Here is a handy reference for the producers with a map.

Stroll the narrow streets and take in the view of Val d’Orcia. Try and have lunch at Osticcio. This is an enoteca in the true sense. It’s a wine shop, wine bar and restaurant serving small plates, sandwiches, cheese and salumi. Sit in the back room for stunning views of the valley below.

Sant’Antimo Abbey

Time permitting visit the Sant’Antimo Abbey just south of town. It is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany. It was a powerful monastery in the middle ages. The abbey fell into disrepair and remained that way until the 1980’s when efforts were started to restore it. Today there are about a dozen monks who call Sant’Antimo home.

Panzano

Panzano is a small town located on a ridge along the Chiantigiana (Chianti road) exactly halfway between Florence and Siena. This is one of the smaller Chianti towns that is often overlooked but it should not be. There is not much to see and do but stroll the town and look at the remains of a Roman road here and there. It’s a great way to really see and appreciate the small towns of Chianti.

Try to go on a Sunday as you will be in for a treat. Sunday is market day so the piazza is humming with activity. Before you go make a reservation for lunch at Solociccia. Lunch starts at 1PM sharp and the seating is communal. For 30 Euro, you get a 7-course meal. Each course consists of meat from various parts of the cow, cooked using various methods. There is even a tartare version called Tuscan Sushi. And you can bring your own wine. The world’s most famous butcher Dario Cecchini owns the restaurant. His butcher shop is just across the street where it has been for several hundred years. Visit the shop and you’ll be welcomed with a glass of wine, some bruschetta with lardo and other bites to whet your appetite before heading over for lunch.

Talamone, Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano – Yes, I know that’s three towns but they are all worth visiting and are within a couple of minutes drive of each other.

Many people skip the coast. This is another big mistake. In the warmer months the coast is a cool respite from the hot interior of Tuscany. Why not take a day trip and spend some time in a small fishing village or seaside resort town?

Porto Ercole by Petitverdot: Matteo Vinattieri

Talamone is small. It’s really small. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. It’s located on the very southern edge of the Maremma regional park. Park your car and take a walk up to the main piazza which overlooks the Mediterranean and the rest of the town. Wander through the marina with its mix of fishing boats and mega-yachts. There are two hotels and a handful of cafes in the town. An hour or two is more than enough time to see everything there is to see.

Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano are both located on the Monte Argentario promontory on southeastern Tuscany. It is linked to the mainland by a few causeways. The area has been a vacation spot for wealthy Italians since Roman times.

Pass through the town of Orbetello on your way to Porto Santo Stefano. Park the car and walk along the harbor where fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries are coming and going. Have lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the water. It’s a great spot for super-fresh seafood and a bottle of Vermentino.

After lunch drive around the promontory to Porto Ercole. It was here in 1610 that the famous Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio died of malaria on his way back to Rome after being exiled by the Pope. He is buried in the Cathedral.

There you have it. 5 Tuscan towns that a lot of tourists don’t visit but should. If you have any other hidden gems in Tuscany or beyond I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Happy travels!

 

 

 

 

Piemonte is not all about red wines. Here are 5 whites from Piemonte you should be drinking.

The hilltop town of Serralunga D’Alba with its’ vineyards.

Piemonte, tucked into the northwest corner of Italy, is a stunningly beautiful place. During the growing season one cannot help but notice that vines are almost everywhere, particularly in the heart of the region in the Roero, Langhe and Monferatto hills. In the fall, during truffle season, the patchwork of red and gold hues from the changing leaves on the vines will leave you breathless. In winter, the hills are often covered with blankets of snow. This is wine country. To be more precise, this is red wine country.

The powerful Nebbiolo based wines shine here and take the spotlight. Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piemonte wines respectively but wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto are also highly regarded. The whites, although also well-regarded, are not nearly as popular outside of the region as they should be. Although it’s winter time and the temperature is not screaming white, I thought a primer on these very good wines was overdue. So, here are some grapes and the wines made from them that you should seek out now and when the weather starts to turn a bit warmer. But first a bit of history.

Piemonte played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 19th century. It was also where the nation’s industrial revolution took place which shaped the new nation’s economy. The region is the second largest behind Sicily and the largest producer of fine wines in the country. It is also home to some of the best cuisine and ingredients, such as white truffles, in a country that is known for its exceptional food. To say Piemonte is important to the wines, economy and culture of Italy is an understatement.

The region has been inhabited since around 1,000 BC by several tribes who settled here. Wine has been produced here since that time. It was the Etruscans who helped the locals with grape growing and winemaking as they did throughout central and northern Italy.  This proud band of people stood in strong opposition against the might of the Romans until they finally capitulated in about 100 BC.

Fast-forward to the 18th century when the House of Savoy acquired all of modern-day Piemonte and set the groundwork for the unification of Italy. The House of Savoy set up shop not in France but in Torino, Italy. Eventually it would acquire the island of Sardegna and become the Kingdom of Sardegna, one of the most powerful in all of Italy. Piemonte then became the central region in the unification movement. In 1861 most of the independent entities of the peninsula were united as the Kingdom of Italy.

Piemonte’s vineyards cover about 110,000 acres. There are almost two dozen grape varieties planted that are unique to the region. The 42 DOC/G’s of the region ranks it as #1 in that category in terms of the number of appellations and the quantity of wine produced at this highest level. In fact, all of Piemonte’s vineyards, except a scant 10%, fall under the DOC/G category. This is the only region in Italy to hold this distinction.

No other region can challenge Piemonte for fine wine production. The region has the lowest average yields each year. All of the vineyards are planted on superior hillside locations and there are many single-vineyard wines produced within each appellation. Piemonte wins more wine awards than other region each year. Piemonte is the King of Italian Wine. And reds get the vast majority of the respect.

But there are some unique, fantastic whites produced here as well. I’ve picked 5 grapes and the wines made from them that you should try.

Moscato

Moscato vineyards
Ripe Moscato grapes

This is the most widely planted white grape and second overall, behind Barbera, in Piemonte. Most of these are used for the sparkling wines of Asti: Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. These are both DOCG wines that share the same geographic boundaries. They are different in style though. This is the largest DOCG in terms of production in the region. Together they account for over 100 million bottles per year.

Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling, slightly sweet wine produced from the Moscato grape exclusively. It was created in the 19th century by Carlo Gancia. Gancia had grown up in the region and traveled to Champagne where he learned the technique of traditionally made sparkling wines. He brought his knowledge back to Piemonte and made a sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. But Gancia’s wine was sweet. It was a big hit.

Eventually, an easier way of making wine sparkle was introduced called the Martinotti method. This involved making the wine sparkle in a tank instead of the bottle it was going to be served from as in Champagne. This, known as the Tank Method, was much easier and less labor intensive. Gancia adopted this method which better preserved the fruit of the Moscato grape. The wine has been recognized by the Italian government as Asti Spumante since the 1930’s.

Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling wine that has a finer mousse (bubbles) than one might imagine from a Tank Method wine. Aromas are pronounced with the telltale grapey notes along with white flowers, orange zest, acacia, stone fruit and rose petals. The acidity is usually moderate as is the alcohol which rarely exceeds 9 or 10%. You can find a good Asti Spumante for around $10.

Moscato d’Asti is also produced from Moscato exclusively but it is a decidedly sweeter version with less sparkle. These wines are frizzante, meaning slightly sparkling. These are perfect wines to pair with desserts due to the high residual sugar. The wines are usually around 5% alcohol and must have the vintage on the label. Due to the low amount of carbonation these wines have a traditional cork unlike the mushroom cork and cage that Asti Spumante has. The aromas are more pronounced. There is much less Moscato d’Asti made and the producers are smaller often making red and white wines from other grapes as well.

Erbaluce

This is an ancient, native grape grown in northern Piemonte near the border with Valle d’Aosta around the town of Caluso. The wines made from it vary in style from bone-dry to ultra-sweet and even sparkling. The reason for the variety is due to its’ thick skins and high natural acidity. Both are required for wines made in the appassimento method. This involves picking ripe grapes and then drying them on mats to concentrate the sugars. Thick skins are beneficial as they are less likely to be affected by rot. The high acidity keeps the sugar in the wine from tasting too cloying or thick.

Erbaluce harvest at Ferrando. Photo, Madrose.
View of vineyards near Caluso. Photo, Madrose.

The wine made from Erbaluce is called Erbaluce di Caluso or Caluso DOCG. All of the styles are permitted under the regulations. It is up to the producer to decide what style he or she wants to make. It is possible and often common for a producer to make dry, sweet and sparkling. The still, dry style is becoming more popular. The dry wines hint of apple, white flowers and citrus. The sweet versions will have more stone fruit, honey and spice. These are not easy to find but well worth the effort. One of the best producers is Liugi Ferrando.

Arneis

Arneis in the local dialect refers to a difficult personality. It fits as the grape is difficult to grow with its’ naturally low acidity and inclination to become overripe if harvested too late. It is also prone to mildew, has low yields and oxidizes rather easily. For these reasons the grape, and its’ wines, fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century. If it were not for two producers, Giacosa and Vietti, the grape may have remained in obscurity and disappeared altogether.

These and other growers found that the chalky, sandy soils of its’ home, the Roero hills, added structure and acidity to the wines. Now, there are several outstanding producers of Roero Arneis DOCG including Giacosa, Vietti, Ceretto and Malvira to name just a few. The wines are on the fuller side with aromas of nuts, peaches, apricot, honey, ripe red apple, pear and orange blossom. There is also an excellent sparkling wine made under the Roero DOCG if you can find it.

Cortese

The Crotese grape with its’ restrained character has been documented as far back as 1659. In 1870 it was noted that the grape was widely planted in the Alessandria province of southeastern Piemonte. The grape was particularly valued for its’ resistance to disease and its’ ability to deliver large crops while producing quality wines. It is still considered a vigorous variety and yields must be curtailed to tame the naturally high acidity. Ripe fruit from lower yields produces wines with ripe apple, pear and citrus with refreshing acidity.

Although Cortese is grown outside of Piemonte in Lombardia and the Veneto it performs best around the town of Gavi in southeastern Piemonte. Wine has been made in Gavi since at least 972 AD. The wines gained popularity in the 1960’s and 70’s in Italy and abroad.

The Gavi DOCG encompasses 11 communes. The wines must be made exclusively from Cortese grown on hillside vineyards. In cooler years when the grapes don’t ripen fully the wines can be rather austere. Ripe grapes from low yields have good body with plenty of acidity and minerality. Producers can also make a sparkling version. If all the grapes come from one of 18 communes and hamlets the producer may label the wine with the name of the commune as in Gavi del Comune di Gavi is the grapes are all from the commune of Gavi.

Timorasso

Timorasso vineyards in Colli Tortonesi.
La Colombera Colli Tortonesi

 

 

 

 

 

Timorasso is an ancient variety that was once widely planted in Piemonte and Liguria. Its’ home is in the hills of Tortona in southeastern Piemonte. The grape fell out of favor after the arrival of phylloxera when it was not re-planted in favor of other grapes that were easier to grow and more commercially viable. If it were not for the efforts of one man, Walter Massa, the grape would have disappeared forever. Today there are several producers producing excellent wines from this high-quality grape.

The wines made from Timorasso, labeled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC, are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Piemonte today, red or white. I love them. They are high in acidity with good body. The aromatics are intense with floral and citrus notes along with apple, pear and a tinge of honey. The palate is on the full side but the acid keeps everything fresh. Although there is not a lot of oak being used on the wines they have a beautiful texture and creaminess that comes solely from the grape. Most of these retail in the mid to high twenties but they are worth it. Look for the wine of Walter Massa and La Colombera.

I hope you can find these in your local retail shop or a restaurant as they are well worth the hunt.

 

Stunning 2005 Barolo from La Spinetta

 

2005 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe

Back in 1999 we opened our first restaurant, L’Amante, in the picturesque fishing town of Gloucester, MA. Gloucester was, and still is, a fishing village. Back then the town wasn’t as gentrified as it is now. The downtown waterfront wasn’t developed (although it is starting to be it still has a long way to go) and main street was a mix of casual places and rowdy bars. We opened in East Gloucester away from the hustle of downtown. It was more of a neighborhood with some higher-end homes on the water and the Rocky Neck Arts Colony and theater down the street.

We were definitely something new to the town. L’Amante was the high-end place but we still kept a casual feel to our small, 41 seater with windows overlooking the East Gloucester square. We were successful from the first night and reservations were hard to come by. What does this have to do with the above wine?

Every time I open a bottle of La Spinetta I think of our first restaurant in Gloucester. We were doing upscale, creative Italian and everyone loved it. To go with the food we knew we wanted a great wine list with lots of big names like Gaja, Ornellaia, Paitin, Biondi-Santi, Conterno and others. Problem was that we didn’t have a lot of money when we opened. That, and we were new and most of those wines were, and still are, highly allocated. A sales rep actually told us: 1. You’ll never get any of those wines because you’re in Gloucester and 2. Forget about any ‘great’ wines from Italy and focus on the cheaper stuff as that is all that will sell in Gloucester. Yes, that did happen. We never called him back.

Another salesman came in with an alternative to Gaja. It was La Spinetta. He told us that the winery started producing Barbaresco in 1995 and that they were special and were going to be the next big thing so we better hop on the wagon early. So, we tasted the wine and were blown away. That was the 1997 Barbaresco Gallina. We loved everything about it including the label. We bought as much as we could afford and put it on the list. For $50! The wines now sell for over $150 retail! I wish I had a couple of bottles left but they’ve all been drunk.

Now, the wine. 2005 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe

The Rivetti family purchased the Campe vineyard in 2000. At the time it was not known for exceptional grapes. In fact, the owner was selling them in bulk at very high yields. The vines were not very healthy but the south-facing vineyard had great terroir and potential. Yields were cut, vines were nursed back to health by using only natural fertilizers and manual labor in the vineyard. The vineyard in now full of healthy, 50 year-old vines.

La Spinetta is a proponent of oak. More specifically, new French oak. After a manual harvest and fermentation in stainless steel the wine is transferred into new French barriques for 24 months. The wine is then transferred back to stainless steel for 9 months and sees another  12 months in bottle before release. Fortunately the fruit can handle the oak as it does not mask the Nebbiolo grape or the terroir of the vineyard.

This is still a big wine 12 years later. The color is a bit more ruby than garnet but still pale and starting show just a bit of age at the rim. It jumps from the glass with dark red and black fruits, rose, violet, vanilla, caramel, underbrush, tobacco and mushroom. There is also the faintest hint of menthol and spicy licorice. The palate is full and plush with big, chewy tannins. Plenty of acidity keeps it form being too cloying. This has tons of concentration and depth of fruit. The oak is so well-integrated that it really contributes to the overall harmony and balance of the wine. It has great length as the finish goes on and on. This is outstanding and I wish I had more. I traded some patio furniture for this. It was a really nice set but I think I made out in the deal. $199.

Oh, remember that salesman who said we would never get those allocated wines in Gloucester. We did. I still have a wine list floating around somewhere with the 1998 Ornellaia on it. It was the most expensive wine on the list at $55!

 

Quick and Easy Turkey and Sausage Chili and a Wine to Match

Now that winter is in full swing we are turning to heartier fare up here in Vermont. And what better cold-night dinner than chili? And let’s keep it healthy by using, mostly, turkey. This is a super-simple to make, one dish meal that only takes about 25 minutes.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 small Spanish onion, medium dice

1 yellow pepper, medium dice

1 green pepper, medium dice

1 red pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 pound ground turkey

1 pound bulk hot Italian sausage

1 32 ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 16 ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 tablespoons chili powder (or you can use equal parts ground garlic, cayenne, cumin, coriander, pepper flakes)

In a large saucepan heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion, peppers and garlic. Saute until translucent, about 4 minutes.

Add the ground turkey and sausage and cook for additional 5-7 minutes.

Add the beans, tomatoes and chili powder. Turn heat to med-high and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10-15 minutes. You may need to add a bit of water if it gets too thick.

Serve in bowls with some crusty French bread. You can also shred some cheddar on top.

Serves 4-8 depending on size and you’ll have some leftover.

With something hearty and a bit spicy like this chili I like a wine that is a little rustic but also has some fruit to stand up to the spice. I reached for a Syrah/Grenache blend from southern France.

2012 Chateau Cadenette Costieres de Nimes, about $12

This is a juicy, rustic wine from a region that straddles the border of the Rhone Valley and Languedoc. The wines here are blends of several grapes, this being mostly Syrah with a smattering of Grenache. The nose is very aromatic with ripe red and black fruits, prune, cooked plums and tomato skin. The palate is fresh and clean with soft, ripe tannins. This, or something very similar, is a perfect match to this hearty, spicy chili.

New Year’s Resolutions for the Wine Lover

Sparkling wines in New Zealand

It’s a new year which is always exciting. It’s a clean slate. An opportunity to try new things, get better at something, be a better you. So, why shouldn’t wine be a part of that? After all, you’re a wine lover. Right?

So, here are some suggestions for improving the wine lover in you for the upcoming year. These don’t take a lot of effort so no excuses and no quitting half way through.

Forget about ‘Dry January’.

Don’t deprive yourself. I know, I know. The health benefits of taking a month off. All the weight you are going to lose because you aren’t drinking anymore. Blah, blah, blah! Instead, why not just cut down your wine consumption by half. It will save you some money, you’ll lose a few pounds and maybe you’ll be able to stick to your newly purchased gym membership. But by drinking a little you will still be supporting your local wine merchant and/or restaurant when they need you the most. And just think of how good that glass of wine will taste on Friday after work when you have been abstaining all week.

Napa Valley

Visit a winery. Or, better yet, plan a vacation to wine country.

There is a winery in every state which means that you can find one, or more, within a couple hours drive. Wineries are fun places. The people are  always really nice, you get to learn something and you get to taste a bunch of wines. Some of which you may have never tasted before. And wine country vacations are the best, IMHO! One, they are located in beautiful places. Think of Napa, Chianti, Burgundy, Argentina. I could go on but you get the point. Two, the restaurants in wine country are usually really good. At the least you’ll be able to find one or two outstanding restaurants some of which may be at a winery. Three, hot air ballooning. Yes! I know this is on a lot of people’s bucket list and most wine regions have someone giving hot air balloon rides. Why not combine them?! If you need any help in planning your getaway, I’m here to help.

Step out of your comfort zone.

Always drink New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc when you go out to eat? Try something different. Even if it’s Chardonnay. Drinking the same wine over and over again must get really old. I know. I do it and have to stop myself sometimes. Branch out and try something you’ve never tried before. How about a Gruner Veltliner or an Arneis instead of that SB? Instead of reaching for a Malbec (the new Merlot, sorry Miles!) try a red from the Languedoc or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. There’s too much wine out there to be drinking the same thing all the time.

Open that bottle you’ve been saving for the last 15 years.

You know that bottle of Champagne you got as an anniversary gift 12 years ago? You know, the one sitting on the bottom shelf of your fridge. Open it!! It’s probably past its’ due date but what the hell. It’s not going to get any better. Unless it’s Krug or maybe Dom. Hey, most wines are meant to be drunk within the first two years of release. So what are you waiting for. Go to your cellar and look at what you’ve got, pick something and open it. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion. I’ve had phenomenal wines with pizza. Remember the Scavino Barolo I talked about in my last post? That’s a $95 bottle of wine that we drank with a burger. There’s even a night called ‘Open That Bottle Night’.

Getting ready for a Languedoc-Roussillon tasting.

Take a wine class or attend a tasting hosted by a professional.

Yes, I’m being a bit selfish here as I teach classes and host tastings. But, if I had a buck for each time someone told me they wanted to take a class I wouldn’t have to teach classes anymore. Ironic, huh? So just take the class. Most formal classes are not inexpensive but they are well worth it. You’ll be able to wax poetically about malolactic fermentation and rotofermenters at the water cooler or your bosses holiday party. (If you don’t know what those two terms are contact me to sign up for a class). But seriously, you’ll learn a lot. Even at the informal tastings I host everyone learns something. The easiest way to do this is to have a wine professional like me come to your house and host a tasting. They are a ton of fun. Going to your local wine shop’s Saturday tastings don’t count. I’m talking about a sit-down tasting hosted by a wine geek.

So there you have it. That’s your homework for the year. If you have a particular wine resolution that you are committing to this year I’d love to hear about it.

Happy New Year!

Great read from Andrew Jefford about one of my favorite wine regions: Languedoc-Roussillon

I wanted to share this article by Andrew Jefford from Decanter magazine on the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. More specifically, the IGP or Vin de Pays of the region, here called Pays d’Oc.

The Languedoc-Roussillon is one of my favorite wine regions for so many reasons: the breadth of selection of wines; beautiful scenery; the history; the food; the charming towns and villages. I could go on and on. But one aspect I’ve been telling folks about for years is the affordability of the wines. And I’m talking really good wines at ridiculously reasonable prices.

Vineyards in the Languedoc-Roussillon, courtesy Wine Scholar Guild

Pays d’Oc fit into the middle of the quality pyramid of French wines. There are rules that need to be followed in order to make the wines. But the winemaker has much more leeway when it comes to available grapes and wine making techniques among other things. In the Languedoc-Roussillon this means that there are over 50 grapes at the winemaker’s disposal and just about anything goes when it comes to turning those grapes into wine. The winemaker can source grapes from anywhere within the region and blend them together to make his wine. With so much being grown here this is beneficial to the grower, the winemaker and finally the consumer because it keeps prices low.

As Andrew points out, the vast majority of the wines are single varietal. And, more importantly, the name of the grape can appear on the label. This is important because the next level up the pyramid (AOC wines) requires the place-name of the wine. So, a Pays d’Oc wine might read ‘Laurent Miquel Syrah’. While an AOC wine from the same producer might read ‘Laurent Miquel St. Chinian’. With the first wine you know what you are getting, Syrah. But what are the grapes in the second wine? You may not know unless you are a student of the region. Pays d’Oc wines are easier to understand for the average consumer, are reasonably priced and are, mostly, well-made. Enjoy the article. (By the way a St. Chinian is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and other grapes and they are delicious!)

Read on to find out more.

 

Sparkling Wines for New Years Eve. It’s not all about Champagne.

In a couple of days a lot of sparkling wine is going to be opened, sprayed around the room (maybe) and then drunk in celebration of the new year. That’s a good thing. But what sparkler will you be drinking? And how much do you plan on spending? Sparklers will set you back anywhere from $6.99 (stay away from these please) to $699. How do you choose? I’ve done some of the leg work for you. Here are several good options at different price points.

Champagne

All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. In order for a wine to be called Champagne it has to come from the Champagne region in northern France and it has to be made in a very specific way. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier grapes are used to make a base wine. This base wine is then placed in a bottle with some sugar and yeast and then capped. The yeasts eat the sugar giving off some more alcohol and carbon dioxide which is dissolved into the wine since it cannot get out of the bottle. After all the sugar is consumed the yeasts die. The wine is then aged on the dead yeasts, or lees as they are now called, which imparts the distinctive yeasty, bread, biscuit and toasty aromas you get with Champagne. The yeasts then must be removed from the bottle by riddling the bottles. This is a long and labor intensive process. Once complete the bottle is topped off with some reserve wine and sugar (not always) and then corked.

There are other sparkling wines that go through this same process but they cannot be called Champagne. Often they will use the words, Methode Traditionelle or Traditional Method Sparkling Wine but they will not be the same as Champagne. Champagne is unique due to the grapes used, the place they are grown and the process. It is a wonderfully unique, delicious wine that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Some places come close but they cannot match the complexity and energy that Champagne delivers. And for that you pay a premium. Champagne is not cheap. The method, reputation and demand all contribute to the high price we pay for this extraordinary wine.

You can expect to pay upwards of $40 for a bottle of Champagne. There are some out there for slightly less money but I think if you start at $40 it’s a safe bet that you’ll get a good bottle. Some names to look for are: Duval Leroy, Bollinger, A. Margaine, Aubry, Krug (super expensive!), Le Mesnil (one of the great bargains in wine), Tattinger, Billecart-Salmon, Egly-Ouriet, J Lasalle.

Cremant

If a sparkling wine is made in France using the same method as in Champagne but is made outside of the region of Champagne, then the wine is called Cremant. These are good alternatives to Champagne at much friendlier prices, usually from $15 upward. They lack the concentration and depth of Champagne but are more fruit forward. Look for wines labeled Cremant de Limoux, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne and Cremant de Jura.

An assortment of sparkling wines from around the globe – Italy, Argentina, France and Spain.

Cava

Another wine made in the same way as Champagne but from Spain and one of the great values in sparkling wine. You can get a good Cava for under $10! One of my favorites is the Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rose that can be found on sale for $8.99. Once again, these wines are more fruit driven and less complex than Champagne.

New World Traditionally Made Sparkling Wines

Almost everywhere wine is made there is a producer making sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. Some of these are very good and outstanding and some terrible. I would stick with producers from well-known wine regions that have a reputation of making good wines. These wines will fall on a broad spectrum from sweet to dry and from fruity to yeasty and complex.

In California some safe bets are Roederer, Mumm, Iron Horse, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon. Plan on spending upwards of $25 for a good bottle. I really like a wine from Argentina that we tried recently. It’s pictured above from Domaine Bousquet. The wine is a very pale salmon color made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is just the slightest bit of sweetness but it has great body and a creamy mousse (bubbles). It’s made in the traditional way and is only $14. Buy it by the case if you can find it.

Tank Method Sparkling Wines

There are several ways to make a wine sparkle. The method used to make Champagne discussed above is considered the best way. The worst way is to inject wine with carbon dioxide. And then there is the Tank, or Charmat Method. This involves making a base wine, putting it into a sealed tank with sugar and yeast and letting the second fermentation take place in the tank. The wine is then filtered to remove the dead yeasts and bottled all under pressure. This is much less time-consuming and labor intensive. It is also good at showcasing fruit. These wines are made all over the globe but there are two countries that excel at them.

Italy

Prosecco is the first sparkler that comes to mind when Italy is mentioned, and for good reason. It is one of the best-selling sparkling wines on the planet. It comes from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy from the Glera grape. It’s fruity, slightly sweet (off-dry), easy and inexpensive. Everyone likes Prosecco. Chances are you’ll pay about $10-15 for a good one and most producers are a safe bet. Some of my favorites are Zonin, Foss Marai, LaMarca, Carpene Malvoti.

But Italy is not all about Prosecco. Asti, from Piemonte in the northwestern region of Italy, is another famous Italian sparkler made in the tank. This is always off-dry to sweet and offers incredible value as well. Moscato d’Asti is a slightly sparkling (frizzante), sweet wine that pairs well with desserts. And let’s not forget Lambrusco. These dry to off-dry red sparklers are perfect for antipasti, charcuterie and cheeses. There are also traditionally made sparklers from Italy that rival Champagne. These are Franciacorta and Trento DOC

Germany

Last but not least is Germany. The Germans consume a lot of sparkling wine. Much of it is imported. But it is not always sparkling when it gets there. The Germans import excess wine and add the sparkle when it gets there using the Tank Method. These are called Sekt and are great values. They can be anywhere from dry to sweet. Expect to pay $10-15 for a good Sekt. Henkell is a good producer that should be easy to get.

So, there you have it. A primer on sparkling wines for the New Year. I’ll post another article that goes a bit more in-depth into the production methods in the future. In the meantime if you have any questions or comments I’d  love to hear from you. What will you be toasting with this weekend?

 

3 GOOD AND COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WINES

Had these three over the course of a couple of days and was very pleased. The great thing is that they could not have been more different from each other. Variety is the spice of life!

2011 Flametree Cabernet Merlot, Margaret River, AU

Flametree bust onto the Aussie wine scene in 2008 for its’ first-ever wine, the 2007 Cabernet Merlot. The wine received award after award. And the rest is history. A short history, but a good one nonetheless. The winery was started in 2007 when the Towner family purchased some land in Margaret River in Western Australia with the intent of making exceptional, hand-crafted wines. They have come a long way in such a short time regularly being recognized as one of the best, small wineries in the country.

The 2011 Cabernet Merlot is actually a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a good smattering of Merlot and some Petite Verdot and Malbec thrown in for good measure. This is almost opaque purplish that stains the glass. Very aromatic with blackcurrant fruit, cassis, blackberry and some smoke. The oak is there but very well-integrated. The palate is ripe and lush with soft tannins. Plenty of fruit here but not jammy or over the top. Nice long finish. Very good at $35.

2012 Pasquale Pelissero Barbaresco ‘Cascina Crosa’, Piemonte, Italy

Ornella Pelissero and her husband Lorenzo now own the Cascina Crosa farm outside of the the town of Neive. She worked the land with her father, Pasquale, until he passed away in 2007. Even though the farm has been in the family since 1921, the first bottling came in 1971 when Pasquale transitioned from a grower based on quantity to a producer based on quality.

The grapes for this Barbaresco, one of 3 made, come from the cru San Giuliano in the commune of Neive. This is still a bit tight but it does show the tell-tale Nebbiolo markers of rose petal, violet and cherry along with a turned earth note. The tannins are still young and high making this very grippy. Give it some time in a decanter or the glass and it rounds out nicely. This needs food to tame the tannins. Steak would be the obvious choice but lamb, duck or quail would also work. About $34.

2012 Domaine Hauvette Les Baux de Provence ‘Amethyste’, Provence, France

Domaine Hauvette sits at the foothills of the Les Alpilles near to the Roman ruins where Van Gogh painted his famous ‘Starry Night’. The land is wild and rocky with limestone soils, perfect for the vine. Garrigue (the aromatic vegetation found in southern France) is everywhere, even showing up in the finished wines with its’ notes of pine resin, rosemary and lavender. Dominique Hauvette came here in the 1980’s from Savoie to raise horses and make wine. She now has a reputation as one of the best natural wine producers of the region.

She started to focus on biodynamics in 2000. When you are making wines as naturally as she does, a focus on the health of the land is absolutely necessary. Healthy, perfect grapes are mandatory to produce wines of this caliber. In the cellar she is decidedly hands-off and low-tech with outstanding results.

This wine surprised me a bit. The color was a pale ruby. Or was it garnet? Either way, one would not expect such a pale wine from this very hot corner of Provence. The blend is made up of mostly Cinsault with Carignan and Grenache rounding out the grapes. Very perfumed but delicate aromas of raspberry and strawberry with thyme and pine. No oak here. This wine is not a lightweight but certainly not full-bodied. The palate is soft and inviting. It reminds me a bit like a Valpolicella or Barbera in that the tannins are barely there and the acidity is high. Red fruits abound on this juicy wine. This is so refreshing that you cannot help but want to take another sip. Delicious. $35.

2010 Domaine Nau Bourgueil ‘Les Blottieres’, Loire Valley, France

Abel Nau and his family craft some extraordinary wines that offer stunning value from the Bourgueil AOC in the Loire Valley. The Domaine sits in the charming village of Ingrandes-de-Touraine next to the river. It is windy here but the property is protected by the plateau north of the river. The 30 acres of vines they tend on the hillside gives them all the resources needed to make reds and a rose from Cabernet Franc. There is nothing fancy here just good old hard work and dedication to their craft. These are solid wines that are a great introduction to the appellation. It’s tempting to drink them young but if you wait a few years your patience will be rewarded.

Normally this would have been drunk by now. I was rearranging my cellar and saw this on the bottom shelf and immediately knew that I had just found a little treasure. This is made exclusively form the free-run juice of 30-year old vines. Everything is done by hand including the punch-downs in cement tanks. Time has been kind to this wine. The color is still a vibrant, youthful ruby with a surprisingly narrow, brickish rim. Red fruits, earth, violets and a touch of graphite leap from the glass. Smooth would be a good descriptor as the tannins have really mellowed. Medium bodied with tart red fruits and a lively mineral streak lead to a long finish. This would be excellent with duck, roasted root vegetables and a currant sauce. If you can still find the 2010 (only 2,500 cases made) grab all you can. It’s a steal at $19.99.

2015 Slavcek Sivi Pinot, Slovenia

Sivi Pinot is Slovenian for Pinot Gris or Grigio. Although just across the border from one of the premiere white wine regions of Italy, Friuli, this is not what most Italian Pinot Grigios look, smell or taste like.

Look at the color. It’s a beautiful pale salmon. It almost looks like a rose. I guess you could also call this orange as it does lean that way. The color comes from contact with the skins as in red wine making. Just a little contact goes a long way with Pinot Grigio as the skins are more grey than white or golden. The skin contact not only adds some color but loads more to the wine.

The nose is yeasty and biscuity. There is some toast and nutty notes with very ripe pear, figs, dried fruits and a hint of citrus. This has some body to it without being heavy or dull. The acidity helps there by keeping it fresh and vibrant. The finish is slightly bitter but I don’t mind as I think it adds another level of complexity to this interesting wine.

If you have heard of orange wines but have not had a chance to taste on look for this. If we can get it in Vermont, I’m sure it’s available in most major metro areas. I think it’s a great introduction to the genre from a 200 year old winery and a steal at under $15.