Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wining and Dining by the Sea

On Tuesday, February 24th, my associate Marina Palmerio and I joined C. Dodici Vintners Club Program Director Silvia Anchini and Cellar Master Gherardo Fedrigo on a scouting trip to a private Antinori winery near Bolgheri. The winery is on the Alta Maremma coast, which is about 50 kilometers of stunning coastline framing the islands of the Tuscan archipelago of Elba, Gorgona and Capraia with Corsica looming in the distance.

From Florence, it took us about 90 mintues to drive to Tenuta Guado al Tasso which is due west of Castello di Casole, and we could feel the sea getting closer and the weather getting warmer with every kilometer.

Guado al Tasso started producing Super Tuscan wines in 1990, but the estate is steeped in a rich history. The Etruscans made this area habitable and planted vineyards there as early as 700 BC. After the fall of the Roman empire, for centuries the area was a malaria-ridden marshland and the people were very poor, subsisting only on the food they grew and animals they hunted. The della Gherardesca family started investing heavily in agriculture and making wine on the land in the 17th century. Then in the early 1930s, Carlotta della Gherardesco married Niccolò Antinori and her sister Clarice married Mario Incisa della Rochetta. (Clarice is the grandmother of C. Dodici winemaker, Piero Incisa della Rochetta). Niccolò and Mario’s shared passion for winemaking resulted in a major transformation of this coastline. Mario began experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet resulting in the creation in 1964 of “Sassicaia,” named after the stones which had to be removed from the land in order to cultivate it. Niccolò planted 70,000 vines on his land which is now called Guado al Tasso and produced “Rosé Antinori.”

Guado al Tasso is not open to the public, however the members of C. Dodici, Castello di Casole’s Vintner’s Club, will be able to experience private lunches and wine tastings in the villa and on the beautiful grounds. It is a sustainable working farm which produces wheat, sunflowers and olives, plus food for the animals which include Allegra Antinori’s race horses and the hybrid pig/wild boar called Cinta Senese.

After out tour we were treated to a tasting accompanied by a selection of cured meats from the Cinta Senese. We tasted the 2008 Vermentino- a crisp, light and fruity white wine, and the Il Bruciato 2007 Super Tuscan, a delightful blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Bruciato, incidentally, means “burnt” and the wine is named after the Il Bruciato forest on the estate that was burned in the mid-19th-century by the people of Bolgheri because the owner of the land tried to prevent them from hunting and foraging for food there. The Rosé still produced at Guado al Tasso, called Scalabrone, is named after a legendary bandit who was considered to be the “Robin Hood” of the Maremma area.

After the tour we headed to the quaint seaside village of San Vincenzo for lunch at Zanibar which has the cozy, comfy feel of a little beach house. There is some major construction going on in the harbor but it didn’t detract much from our experience. We enjoyed an aperitif on the terrace looking out at the sea and chatted with an old salty dog named Mario. For lunch Marina and I had a grilled white fish similar to sea bass that was so fresh and cooked to perfection. The adventuresome Silva ordered raw shrimp and a plate of steamed Bianchetti e rossetti, hundreds of tiny white fish about an inch long that she doused in lemon juice and olive oil. Gherardo had grilled squid that at first glance looked like a grilled translucent garden hose but it was surprisingly sweet and tender.

On the way to another winery Silvia wanted to check out, we drove up the Via Aurelio past the Enoteca Maestrini which Silvia said is a great place to buy wine. She then turned right onto Viale dei Cipressi, one of the most beautiful roads I have ever driven down. Lined with about 2500 huge Cypress trees, the road which is protected by the Belle Arti (the Italian Historical Society), ends in the charming little village of Bolgheri. You enter the town through a narrow arch under a castle that dates back to the 8th century and belonged to the della Gherardesca family. Silvia pointed out several great restaurants with inviting al fresco dining areas that I will write about this spring when I return for a longer visit.

As we reluctantly headed back home, I kept looking back over my shoulder at the glistening sea until it finally dwindled out of sight. I know that this is a place I will return to many times in my life.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Welcoming Brunellos in Montalcino

On Monday, Feb. 23, I took a road trip to Montalcino to experience an exciting and exclusive occasion in the heart of Brunello wine country. (Brunello was first created by the Biondi Santi family in the late 19th century and named “the brunette” for it’s dark red color.) Thanks to C. Dodici Vintner’s Club Program Director Silvia Anchini who was able to secure a ticket for me, I had the good fortune of attending "Benvenuto Brunello 2009." During this four-day event held in the Fortezza in Montalcino, Brunello producers from all over southern Tuscany presented their 2004 vintages to wine merchants, distributors and other professionals in the wine industry. Over170 wineries were represented this year, so it’s a good thing my guide was Castello di Casole’s Cellar Master, Gherardo Fedrigo.

There were about 40 long tables set up inside a big tent with 20 or so wineries per row and the place was packed full of people sniffing, swirling and tasting. Gherardo chose six wineries for us to focus on and each of the wines we tasted were delicious. Pian delle Vigne, produced by Antinori, was my favorite because it was slightly sweeter and smoother on my novice American palate than Brunellos, made of 100% Sangiovese, typically are. Of the others we sampled―Col d’Orcia, Lisini, Argiano and Barbi―Gherardo informed me that his grandmother prefers Lisini over almost all Brunellos because it is still produced the “old-fashioned way.”
After an hour of tastings we were ready for lunch. Rather than compete with the crowds in Montalcino, we headed to a tiny village 8 km. from Montalcino called Sant’ Angelo in Colle. With only seven tables in the quaint interior and al fresco dining in warm weather, Trattoria Il Lecchio is one of those little gems you hope to come across when you venture off the beaten path. I ordered a salad with thinly sliced raw artichokes and Parmesean followed by a steaming bowl of chick pea soup, while Gherardo had pork sausage with white beans and a glass of Montalcino di Rosso from the Sesta di Sopra winery just down the road. It was the perfect meal for a wintry day.

Our next stop was the Abbazia di Sant’ Antimo, reputedly one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in all of Italy which dates from the 12th century. Though the frescoes on the walls are all but gone, the alabaster stonework is well-preserved and there is the hauntingly beautiful sound of monks chanting in the background. Apparently the Benedictine monks who live nearby do actually chant in the church at scheduled times of day and it would be ideal to plan a visit during one of these 12-minute sessions.

Our final destination was the Argiano winery, one of the super premier producers of Brunello di Montalcino. Our guide, Eliza, was kind enough to give us brief tour of the exquisite estate which included a visit to the seeping, mold-covered cellar where wine barrels have been stored since the 15th-century. The estate and its magnificent villa dating back to 1570 are owned by the Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano, significant other to Castello di Casole winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers. (Noemi and Hans have partnered on a winery in Patagonia called Bodega Noemi.) I purchased a Rosso di Montalcino and two bottles of “A Lisa” from Bodega Noemi which Gherardo himself had a hand in making.