Category Archives: Italy

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Postcard: Sunset over Burano Island and Venice, Italy

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Sunset over the Venetian lagoon island of Burano, known for traditional, handmade lace, and located a short walk from the Venissa Wine Resort, where I stayed over the weekend.

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Venice and the 118 islands that constitute its whole, testify to the ingenuity, artistry, and humor of humanity. The city is exquisite in every light, in every circumstance; quixotic in its ornate persistence, and seductive in the details of its decay.

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Postcard: Abbey of Follina in Prosecco Country

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View of the fountain inside the Abbey of Follina in the province of Treviso. We ran in for a brief look on a drizzly day while touring Prosecco country. The monastic complex dates back to the 12th century, during which the grape-loving Cistercians replaced the Benedictine monks

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Postcard: Prosecco Grapes in Conegliano Valdobbiadene

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The Perera grape, allowed for use in the Prosecco blend (in addition to Glera, the primary grape.) The winery Marchiori makes the only single-varietal bottling of Perera.

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Where I am going – Trento, Italy for Metodo Classico Camp

Good Morning Trento!

Have you ever wished to learn how to make Champagne? Perhaps attend an intensive course held in the shadows of the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy, led by leaders in the art of the Italian version, Metodo Classico?  Thanks to Ferrari Winery and the Lunelli Family in Trento, the first ever Metodo Classico Camp went forth last week!

Metodo Classico, like Méthode Traditionelle and Champagne, refers to the painstaking process of crafting sparkling wine by inducing a second fermentation of the still base wine in a bottle by adding sugar and yeast; allowing the wine a minimum ageing period on the lees (spent yeast) for complexity; and the unwieldy process of riddling and disgorgement which is the consolidation and removal of the yeast, while keeping the sparkling wine under pressure and in the bottle. Phew. What a pain, but the finest and most complex sparklings in the world are produced this way.  You want to drink the best, right?

Day 1 of the inaugural camp, and I am honored to be in the company of a handful of wine pros from the U.S. as we join Ferrari winery in learning about the regional topography and viticulture in Trento, as well as Ferrari’s method for sparkling wine production.

Here are some images from the first day:

Sun is shining over Ferrari today!

Stand-up provided by Marcello, Luke and Philip

Tasting from the tank

A toast to base wine – there would be no bubbly without it!

A walk through the cellar

They keep the naughtiest wines behind bars

So lazy, resting while her lees do all the work…

Beauty in the bottling line

All days should end at the Villa Margon

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