It’s about the wine. And it’s about the food. Welcome to Tuscany.
For most people when they think of Italy and wine, images of Chianti wrapped in wicker bottles perhaps come to mind. Or maybe the simple but excellent Pinot Grigio. But if you’re passionate about wine Italy conjures images of rolling Tuscan hills and the other great wine regions of Piedmont, Umbria, Lazio, Alto Adige and more. Perhaps the most famous wines come from Piedmont and Tuscany. So for this journey Tim and I decided on Tuscany – home of Chianti, Brunello, the so-called Super Tuscans and of course Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Traveling for me brings the opportunity to immerse myself as much as possible in the culture of my destination. I do my best to learn the basics of the language without bastardizing it too much. To be sure, French will always escape me. And the French don’t care anyway. So why should I. It’s also important for me to engage in conversation and friendly smiles with the local people — regardless of the language barrier. And of course, I want to sample the tastes of the local cuisine; especially indulging in the fresh and typical ingredients. There’s no exception in Italy. And I’m doing my best to broaden my experience. To live. As if I did. Here.
While the pomodoro (tomato) is at the end of the season, I can’t help but to search for the ultimate bruschetta — where it was born, in Tuscany. And every town we walk through it’s hard not to fall victim to the good (but perhaps not always so good for you) salami and other cured meats. The list goes on. We’ve found that the porcini mushrooms are very much in season and fresh. Match that with Chianini beef and you’re on the way gastronomy heaven. The list goes on. Truffles too are in season as is wild boar. The local Sienese pasta (Pici) with any number of sauces utilizing fresh ingredients delight the palate. And no matter where you are in Italy, every day is a good day for gelato. Outstanding.
But allow me to diverge. And for those perhaps less passionate about wine, I hope not to bore you. If anything, I hope to enlighten or entertain you. There’s no question that Tim and I have been indulging in both casual Trattoria’s and the finer restaurants in the towns we visit. Inasmuch as the food is outstanding, what I’ve noticed is that in most cases the wine presentation is different than I’ve head elsewhere in Europe and the United States.
After ordering a bottle of wine, and for Tim and I this can take 3/4’s of the time spent in the restaurant as we labor over the excellent choices on the wine lists where we typically have been ordering both a bianca and rosso (white and red), the server rolls a small table (or in some cases when they’re not on wheels, carefully picks it up) to the edge of our table. On the neatly white draped table usually rests several stems of finer stemware, a decanter and a corkscrew. The server presents the bottle and proceeds to put the corkscrew to use. After delicately pulling the cork off the bottle with much effort to not create a “popping” sound, he or she smells the cork. Upon satisfying the server’s olfactory organ, he’ll pour a small amount into a glass, then lift it to his nose then lips and tastes it. Now this part is not so unusual except for perhaps in the United States where rarely the server will taste the wine before presenting it to the diner.
It’s now when the real passion for the wine shows in a Tuscan restaurant. The server then pours a small amount of wine into the decanter. Of course, if the wine requires no decanting then this step is eliminated. He then swirls the wine to cover as much of the surface of the decanter as possible. When satisfied he pours the small amount of wine from the decanter into one of the stems. Again he coats the inside of the glass with the wine and then like a careful chemist dressed in server garb he pours the wine into the next stem, and so on. Tim has now fondly referred to this process as “charging” the glass. Whatever it’s called, it’s welcomed. This ensures that any vagrant remains either light dust, pour rinsing after washing or whatever doesn’t affect the aroma nor flavor of the wine.
But my observation of this technique doesn’t end in the restaurant. Several of the cantinas (cantina is a word for winery or wine cellar) we’ve visited for desgustazione (wine tasting) have used the same technique for presenting and sharing their wines. And I should note that the cantinas that approach winemaking seriously will use the best stemware, usually from Riedel or Spieglau, to present and taste their wines.
Now you might think this is a bit overkill. But having experienced drinking wine from stemware that wasn’t properly washed or sat on the shelf too long, you’ll appreciate a clean and ready glass. What’s more, if you use this process when drinking multiple varieties of wines from the same glass, you’ll experience the new wine without the lingering aromas and flavors of the previous. Never use water to rinse a glass prior to pouring in something new. Always rinse with wine. Trust me. It makes a difference.
Alright. Enough of the wine. For now anyway. I’ll be sure to continue to share with you the tastes and flavors of Italy as we make our way from Montepulciano to Florence through the small towns of Tuscany. Stay tuned.
Photos: 1) classic Tuscan crostini with duck liver pate and vin santo jelly; 2) taglietelle pasta with rabbit and porcini muchrooms; 3) wine presentation: smelling the cork; 4) working server couple toasting Italy and its flavors with us in Montepulciano; 5) Tim examining the color and tasting Tuscan’s finest product; 6) Tuscan wines for dinner decanted and ready to taste