Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Native grapes past & present

Italy's patrimony of native grapes is one of the beautiful things about its wines and viticulture. According to Ian D'Agata's extensive account of Italian grapes "Native Wine Grapes of Italy" there are around 500 native grapes actually registered and possible for making wines commercially around the country. Many native grapes are captured in the just as numerous amounts of DOC & DOCG certified wine regions, giving them a proper role and keeping the interest of growing them.

Most of these grapes are not "protagonists" and are rarely able to stand on their own. The ones that do have great characteristics as protagonist are the ones that eventually become famous nationally and internationally. Just to mention a few and most obvious: Tuscany's Sangiovese, Nebbiolo & Barbera in Piedmont, Aglianico in Campania, Nero d'Avola in Sicily, etc.

Recently we visited Carmignano for our new tour called Wines & Villas. It's a wonderful wine region even if small and fairly unknown and it is the only one that can claim the Cabernet Sauvignon as its own, apparently imported by Medici family members and grown here for centuries making it native-ish.

Hereunder the Medici legislation of 1716, geographically indicating some areas that are still important wine regions today, including Carmignano. This bando (legislation) was a precursor for the present DOCs that obviously also include grape varieties allowed for their production.

When in the area of Carmignano it is mandatory to pay a visit to one of its impressive Medici villas. This is the one in Poggio a Caiano which also hosts a fantastic collection of food paintings "natura morta" including a couple of interesting studies on native grapes in the beginning of the 1700s.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eat Meat! Solociccino menu at Dario Cecchini

"Solociccino" is the new lunch menu at Dario Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti, and it is my favorite so far. It's all about beef, various unnoble cuts from the cow cooked into the most delicious dishes such as the spicy meat ragout on toast, the boiled beaf and vegetable salad, beef roast and braised meat
Oh my, so much meat, but as Dario shouts out to all who dare enter his butcher shop: 
So he may not speak much English, but he's got it right. And that's what we do...every day on our Super Chianti tour from Florence we offer this special meal that reflects Chianti and Tuscany (and guess what, the simple Chianti wine served up during lunch couldn't be a better match!)

Enjoy these appetising photos :)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Black Death of Olives!

As the grape harvest is over, it's now time for harvesting olives in Tuscany. Unfortunately, the weather conditions that were bad for the grapes were even worse for the olives :(
This, of course, is only generally speaking. A few areas have saved themselves and are producing some relatively decent oils with low acidity (like our Olivoglio which is 0.15 & and peroxides at 2,45meo/k - so a high quality but with bigger prices this year because the yield is less than 9%).

This year's huge challenge has been a combination of a very wet and humid summer and a repetitive attack on the olives by several generations of the olive fly. Basically, any organic operation has been totally helpless against this and even the conventional olive oil makers are overwhelmed and have had little time to arm themselves against this very unpredictable situation. Very few olive oil makers in very fortunate areas will have saved themselves...

As the harvest isn't over yet (in reality it should just have started) we don't know the exact consequence of the conditions yet. Some say that we'll only have 50% of the usual amount harvested and made into olive oil in Tuscany this year. This opens doors for fraud, unfortunately, as Tuscany's oil is already a rare produce (making up only 3% of the total amount of oil made in Italy) and in these days local newspapers are reporting how the police is trying to monitor the arrival of olives and oil from other regions or countries at the olive oil mills in Tuscany.

Learn more about your oil by monitoring the following:
- Label. The origin of the olives must be on the label, so whether Italian, from the EU or from outside the EU. The latter two are usual put in very small writing, as it's not a point of pride. The "vintage" is not obligatory information, but actually quite crucial to the quality. So if you see a vintage - so produce of 2014 in this case - it means the producer is quite serious and wants to ensure the consumers that the oil is fresh. "Best before" is only an indication of when the oil was bottled (which in theory could be quite a while after making). Law is that the oil is good to sell up to 18 months after bottling.
- Price. The price of a great olive oil is high. The yield is low in a good extra virgin olive (around 10-15 % in a normal vintage). If the price of the oil you're buying is suspect, so too low, you can be quite sure that it's a oil mixed with olives or oils from different cheap locations, and the quality of it is dubious.
- Imagery. If the label displays well-known Tuscan localities or symbols or other imagery that associates the consumer to Tuscany, beware that often it's to drive us to buy without noticing where the olives or oil derives from. So look beyond the pretty picture!
- Quality. If the bottle displays an official designation of quality, such as IGP or DOP you're guaranteed of the origin of the product. It can no longer be a blend of olives or oils coming from all over. So there's more chance of getting a higher quality product as the oil has to come from olives from a specific area and the oil has to be made within the same geographical area. The vintage in the case of IGP or DOP is obligatory information on the label. If you don't have access to IGPs or DOPs, get to know the producer and the product in some other way (taste it, read about it on the net, etc.)

The olive fly is one of the most damaging elements to the production of high quality oil.

It digs a whole for its eggs to hatch

A larva will eat the olive. This will oxidise the olive and the acidity in the oil will increase. It can even give a taste of larva. Yuck!

It's possible to either spray insecticides against the fly (even if this year it would have been hard as the olive fly just kept regenerating itself) - or traps also exist to capture them.

Here the olives have shrivelled up completely, like little olive mummies. Not a good look! In fact, next thing they'll fall to the ground. These could be affected by lebbra, a fungus disease that translates to leprosy (for olives, of course).

Just a reminder of how the olives look when they are completely healthy and ready to be picked for oil (this picture is not from this year though, whereas all the others are from last week!)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vin Santo – wine of the saints

This time of year is a pure pleasure to visit the wineries. Most have finished picking their grapes and are more relaxed now because the most uncontrollable part of their job is done, for the good or for the bad the grapes are in the cellars. Now there’s a lot of activity going on inside the cellars, pumping over wine, and then separating the grape skins from the wine. It smells heavenly of fresh wine all over.

It’s especially magic to visit wineries who make a Vin Santo because the grapes have been picked and are now drying in ventilated rooms, hanging from the ceiling or simply laid on straw mats with windows wide open.

The grape varietals called for to make this wine is typically Trebbiano, Malvasia and Grecchetto. This latter grape also goes by the name Pulcinculo which charmingly means "lice in the rear end" referring to the characteristic dot that may be found on it's skin (see picture below). Different DOC appellations may require different rules for the blending of grapes, and for min alcohol levels.
Also red varietals could be used such as Sangiovese. In fact it's possible to make a specific red version of vin santo called "Occhio di Pernice" (eye of the partridge bird) if at least 50% Sangiovese is used.

Vin Santo is an age-old tradition in Tuscany. Other areas of Italy also used the drying method to make dessert wines but the wine is (with a few exceptions) referred to with other names or the common denominator "passito" which could be translated to raisin wine.

The way Vin Santo is made testifies to its ancient origins. Unlike wines labelled late harvest, grapes for Vin Santo are picked when the acidity inside the grapes is still quite high and will then be placed on bamboo mats or hung up to dry for the next 3-6 months. The longer the drying, the higher the concentration of sugars as more water will have been allowed to evaporate.

At the end of the drying period the grapes will be pressed and the sweet and super concentrated juice will be let to ferment. Some use a starter which is called madre (mother - in glass in picture below) referring to the addition of a bit of an older and finished Vin Santo with the idea that it will help the fermentation and give complexity to the next batch of Vin Santo - a bit like the choice of using sour dough for baking...
Fermentation will be or less successful according to the strength of the yeasts. In fact, alcohol level in Vin Santo can vary greatly between 11.5 and 17 percent and of course the style of wine obtained vary from sweet to bone dry.

The usual minimum requirement for Vin Santo is 3 yrs in barrels, but it is commonly aged anywhere between 5-10 yrs. Traditionally porous chestnut wood was used to age the wine and typically the barrels were not full to the top, allowing the wine to oxidise. The reduction over the years makes the wine more concentrated but also more susceptible to flavours perceived as defaults. So today often oak is used as less porous, yet the angel's share still allows for oxidised characteristics. 

The flavours present are usually reminiscent of honey, dried fruits, caramel, maple sirup and nutty - walnut is present all depending on the level of oxidation of the Vin Santo, like for example in Sherry made in Spain. The use is typically after dinner, originally to dip Cantuccini biscuits in. But great Vin Santos could deserve to be paired with a piece of blue cheese, or simply enjoyed on their own.

The alcohol reported on a Vin Santo DOC always refers to a natural alcohol content, so you can't really compare it to Port, Madeira or Marsala. Speaking of which, some people will serve "vin santo style wines" (no longer can be labelled as Vin Santo) that are wines fortified with Grape Spirit during fermentation. These wines must be labelled as "Vino Liquoroso" (liquor wine) and are by no means as complex and loveable as the true Vin Santos are, but often used as a substitute because much cheaper to make.

Let's talk about money. It's hard to say how much it costs to make a Vin Santo. In fact, it's never made on a large scale, and the reduction of volume is considerable. Wineries who do bother with this process usually do it because of tradition and out of passion for this wine. Often (but not always) bottled in half a litre or half bottles the prices range from around 25 euro a bottle to more than 250 (as in the case of Avignonesi's Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo DOC that ages around 10 yrs - picture above).