Monthly Archives: July 2017

If you can’t get to Tuscany, enjoy the region’s food and wine at home. Here’s how.

TomatoBasil

Traversing Tuscany’s rolling hills, each prettier than the last, feels like a ride on a magic carpet, while around you, the breathtaking landscape forms a living watercolor. Stone farmhouses and once-noble castles with crenelated towers, now converted into hotels and wineries, sit perched upon each mound. Allées of slender Cypress trees hug the winding drives to the top. In Tuscany’s southeast corner lies the medieval town of Montepulciano, beckoning with its dazzling Renaissance palaces, glorious churches, fine red wine and local restaurants serving regional fare like bistecca Fiorentina. But you needn’t travel halfway around the world to appreciate Montepulciano’s vinous virtues, nor its partner cuisine, now that the great food and wine traditions of this corner of Italy can be enjoyed at home.

The adage “what grows together, goes together” applies in Montepulciano. Reigning as one of the top three places in the world for Sangiovese, the area’s famous wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is perfect for pairing with all manner of foods. The well-balanced, medium body delivers supple red fruit, moderate alcohol, and juicy acidity, and works with everything from antipasto to soups to tomato-based sauces over pasta; velvety tannins cut the luscious fat of a steak or cinghiale ragu.

IMG_3683.jpg

The origins of modern Tuscan food stem back to its peasant roots, known as cucina povera or “poor cooking.” Cucina povera was born from economic circumstance – the need to make large, hearty, and inexpensive portions from simple ingredients found in the countryside. Spice blends and complicated techniques weren’t used because they weren’t needed when working with fresh, hyper-local products. The only difference today is that adherence to this culinary legacy is a choice. With access to a reliable butcher and good ingredients, Tuscan cuisine can be recreated easily by the home cook.

To replicate the Tuscan experience at home, be sure to preface the meal with a spread of antipasto. The affettatti misti, a platter of cured sliced meats called salumi, typically includes pork – prosciutto, finocchiona — and beef like bresaola. As accompaniment, a selection of cheeses, preferably Pecorino Toscano (which has a DOP), may be served in shades of maturation. Chicken liver pate with toasted bread — crostini di fegato — and delicately fried, tempura-like vegetables such as zucchini and its flowers, round out the selection. With a slight chill, a youthful Vino Nobile, fresh and fruity, drinks nicely with these foods.

Soups play an important role in Tuscan cooking, especially since they use up leftover or excess produce and bread. From ribollita, a vegetable version typically comprised of black kale, cannellini beans and a stale loaf, to Pappa al Pomodoro,prepared with tomatoes, bread, garlic, olive oil, and basil. The surprisingly rich unctuousness of this simple tomato soup pairs brilliantly with the bright acidity and cherry notes of Vino Nobile.

Soups.jpg

Of course, what distinguishes Italian cuisine from the rest of the world is its pasta. Every region boasts cherished recipes, and Tuscany is no different. Pici, for example, is a simple Tuscan pasta that’s easy to make at home. Created by the Sienese pastaii, or pasta makers, pici is an eggless recipe. Based off a simple dough of flour and water, its thick strands are hand-rolled and cut into strips. Cooked al dente, a range of sauces adhere to the pasta, from simple tomato to meat ragu.

For meat lovers, Tuscany conjures visions of bistecca alla Fiorentina. The rotund cattle of Montepulciano’s Val di Chiana, known as Chianina, are the source of this flavorful T-bone. Typically charred on the exterior, and cooked a shade above rare inside, an older Vino Nobile from a winery’s best vines delivers one of the world’s best culinary pairings. Steak isn’t the only meat on the menu in Tuscany. Roasted game, especially cinghiale (wild boar) and hare, abound, either as a sauce for pasta or as the main course, il secondo, itself.

If you can’t get to Montepulciano, try bringing the food and wine of the region into your home. It’s the next best thing to being there, and doesn’t require a long-distance flight.

RuffinoCookingSchoolTuscany.jpg

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Italy, tuscany, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano

Why You Should Discover Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Tuscany’s Affordable Secret

I was recently in Montepulciano, Tuscany. Here’s a primer on the region’s wine and why  you should consider finding Vino Nobile de Montepulciano in your local wine shop.

MontepulcianoView

Perched high atop a hill in southeastern Tuscany lies the picturesque town of Montepulciano. In the province of Siena, this medieval city boasts elegant palaces, churches, piazzas, and sweeping vistas across the undulating landscape. However, the region’s reputation does not derive from this charming town center alone, despite its cameo in New Moon, the sequel to vampire saga Twilight. The local wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, remains the primary draw for wine lovers and tourists today.

Viticulture on the slopes of the Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana valleys spans back to the era of the Etruscans. By the 15th century, Montepulciano’s Sangiovese-based red filled the glasses of Sienese aristocrats; by the 16th century, it had earned words of reverence from Pope Paul III. The wine graced the pages of French writer Voltaire in his book Candide, was described as the “king of wines” by poet Francesco Redi, and appeared in Count of Montechristo by Alexandre Dumas. Indeed, the use of the word “nobile” in the wine’s name appears to stem from its importance to the Tuscan nobility.

Despite its fame, Vino Nobile entered a period of obscurity, at one point in the 19thcentury finding itself labeled as Chianti. A wave of mediocre wine contributed to its reputational decline. By the 1960s, however, Vino Nobile earned recognition as one of Italy’s classic red wine regions with the awarding of a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC. In the 1980s, it received a DOCG (Garantita), the highest classification in Italy, finally returning this fine wine to its former prominence, at least in the eyes of the regulatory system. It has take longer to win over consumers.

Wine overlooking valley.jpg

To conform to DOCG regulations, Vino Nobile wine must come from the hills surrounding the city. The key grape, Sangiovese grosso, is referred to locally as Prugnolo gentile. Sangiovese is well-known throughout the world as the most important grape in Tuscany, forming the base of Montepulciano’s more famous neighbors Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico. One difference between these trio of top growing regions, however, is the amount of Sangiovese required in the wine.

Where Brunello calls for 100 percent and Chianti a minimum of 80 percent, DOCG rules stipulate a minimum of 70 percent of Sangiovese in Vino Nobile, the rest a complement of local varieties like Cannaiolo, Colorino, and violet-scented Mammolo. In recent years, however, a new generation with fresh ideas, has taken the helm of wineries; they’ve placed greater emphasis on showcasing a single varietal, often bottling pure Sangiovese for their top wines.

As for aging, regulations require a minimum of 24 months (36 for riserva wines), of which 12 months must be spent in oak barrels. Local winemakers have long used large Italian botti made from Slavonian wood over small French barrique, because the purpose of aging was not to add flavor, but rather to soften and smooth Sangiovese’s firm tannins while preserving freshness and fruit. The smaller barrels, when used too aggressively, can contribute toast and vanilla notes that mask the elegance and transparency appreciated by Sangiovese enthusiasts.

Depending on the producer and their line of wines, Vino Nobile comes in different styles: from accessible, fruity, and youthful, to graceful and complex with significant aging potential. Regardless, Vino Nobile typically displays a ruby-red hue in youth, developing a garnet-orange tint over the years. The succulent, medium-bodied palate is awash with flavors of plum, wild cherry, and raspberry, often accented with violets and spice. Mouthwatering acidity is a hallmark of the grape, making Vino Nobile an excellent food wine, especially in a region with longstanding culinary traditions.

But what fans of Vino Nobile appreciate most is its compelling value: prices and reputation haven’t caught up with the quality strides of recent decades, making it a great value compared to Brunello and Chianti Classico. A fine, noble wine for a song from a beautiful place rich in history? Sounds like an offer that’s impossible to refuse.

Buildings in Montepulciano.jpg

2 Comments

Filed under Italy, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano

Why Ancient Roman Vineyards Are Reopening in Eastern Galicia

Vineyards of Guimaro in Ribeira Sacra.

In case you missed my article in The Independent, here’s your chance to read…

I’m perched on the retaining wall of a narrow vineyard in Ribeira Sacra, sipping a glass of local red wine made from mencia. Joined by winemaker Pedro Rodriguez of the Guimaro vineyard, we peer over the ledge into the canyon, perhaps hundreds of metres down, to the thin ribbon of river below. I toss a rock. It disappears.

We stroll through his vines, careful with our footing. Rodriguez explains he’s in the process of attaining organic certification. “We practise farming like they did in the past,” he says. He’s not kidding – the first people to make wine here were the Romans. Two thousand years ago, the Roman army worked this same site. They built the stone terrace Rodriguez has rehabilitated – as well as others – to grow grapes and make wine.

Rainy and green, Galicia was incorporated into the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus, around 29-19BC. To slake the thirst of troops forging the largest gold mine of the era – Las Medulas in nearby Bierzo – they created their own industry. In this mountainous zone there was no flat land; instead, they carved cascading terraces in surrounding canyons and down the steep riverbanks of the Sil and Mino to plant vines.

The vineyards were abandoned during the Dark Ages, but in the centuries to come, monks moved into the valley and replanted. Land passed from church to civilians, but after plant disease was followed by the Spanish Civil War, their owners abandoned both the vineyards and the countryside. Galicia is full of ghost towns.

To see the region is to understand why they left. While Ribeira Sacra has one of the most breathtaking landscapes in Europe – think of the Mosel Valley in Germany – its beauty belies the treacherous work required to tend its fruit.

Working manually on an incline is backbreaking and dangerous. Many sites are remote and barely accessible to small vehicles, let alone tractor equipment that could mechanise planting and picking. Myriad roads remain unpaved, combining hairpin turns with steep angles. These improbably difficult conditions can yield only tiny quantities of wine. Not large fortunes.

Steep vineyards make picking laborious.

Yet over the past two decades, the Roman vineyards have been making a comeback.

Fernando Gonzalez Riveiro, who owns the Adega Algueira vineyard, spent nearly 30 years buying up fragmented abandanados (what locals call the abandoned vineyards) to quilt together enough land worth farming.

“People talk about ‘handmade’ wine, but for most, that’s a marketing term,” he says. “We have to work by hand – there’s no other option. For example, in the white-winemaking region of Rueda in Castile and Leon, producers can plant thousands of verdejo vines in a day. For us, three.” A former banker, he admitted the numbers don’t make sense, but he is guided by passion, not money. “Passion is like a windscreen wiper – it doesn’t eliminate the storm,” he says. “It allows you to move forward.”

Like Guimaro, Algueira produces fresh, perfumed reds from mencia, the valley’s predominant, most promising grape. They can be pinot noir-like in their delicacy, occasionally sanguine and iron-like, but eminently singular. From the unique circumstances of its cooler climate and soil, Ribeira Sacra reds renounce the richer, riper expressions of Spain’s warmer, southerly climes to produce lighter, elegant, more restrained styles.

Following the Sil river east, I reach the neighbouring, less dramatic landscape of Valdeorras. The name means “golden valley”, a moniker likely attributed to the importance of its precious ancient metal mines. Today, the region mainly trades in wine. The grape that drives this revitalised industry is a white one, godello – another variety that was nearly lost when people abandoned the countryside.

Wine geeks tracking the next “it” grape offering high quality for low prices find godello fits their bill. The finest wines made from this compare to French chardonnay. They can be rich, round, and similarly textured; yet Valdeorras remains a secret. Its remote location has protected it from mass tourism. Not even Spaniards have alighted on the bucolic villages lining the 80-mile stretch of river.

In the hills above the river sits another vineyard, Adega Valdesil. A visit provides important historical context to understanding Valdeorras. Sixth-generation owner-winemaker Borja Prada shows me the thick, gnarled trunks of his great-grandfather’s 1887 godello vines. Propped up with rocks and string, they take on an anthropomorphic quality. Though they barely produce enough fruit to bottle, he keeps them “as a living legacy, hoping to one day put Valdeorras on the world map”.

As the wine world grows increasingly homogeneous, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras fulfil the promise of heritage wines that express a unique time and place. That’s why winemakers have returned – and oenophiles are right behind them.

Visit UNESCO site and ancient Roman gold mine Las Medulas, nearby.

Travel essentials

Getting there 

Ryanair flies direct from Stansted to Santiago de Compostela – expect to pay around £130 return during the summer. From there, it’s easiest to rent a car for the 90-minute drive to Ourense. Use this small city as a base for exploring the surrounding landscapes and vineyards of Ribeira Sacra and its Canon do Sil (Sil River Canyon). O Barco de Valdeorras and Las Medulas are a 90-minute drive east from Ourense.

Staying there

A converted monastery overlooking the Canon do Sil, Parador de Santo Estevo is the best option in Ribeira Sacra. Doubles from £90, room only.

Pazo do Castro is the best option in Valdeorras. Another restored historic hotel, rooms are a touch spartan, but antiques provide authentic charm. Doubles from £65, room only.

More information

Adega Algueira

Guimaro

Valdesil

Galicia Tourism

Winery visits and tastings are by appointment.

2 Comments

Filed under Galicia, Spain