Skip to content

Bastille Day in Bordeaux

July 15, 2014

Too busy for a post this week – so instead, a quick question:

What renowned Medoc château is named after the tower in the photograph below?

 

IMG_1779

Secret From North Italy Alps – Lagrein Wine

July 1, 2014

The seventh edition of the World Atlas of Wine, edited by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (thanks for the gift, Lisa Hazard!) informs me that the Lagrein grape, grown around the far northern Italian city of Bolzano, produces wine that is “serious stuff…with aging potential and a growing number of followers around the world.”

 

 

Lagrein grows in the Alto Adige province, so far north in Italy that the region is also called the Südtirol, or southern Tyrol, because it is heavily influenced by the bordering country of Austria (and was part of the Austro-Hungarian regime until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War). The predominant language of Bolzano is German, not Italian. Alto Adige produces just one percent of Italy’s wine, on a total vineyard area of 5,300 hectares (over 13,000 acres). The Alto Adige produces a complete range of wines – from sparkling to dessert, but is particularly known for cool climate white wines, including Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürtztraminer, and Riesling as well as lesser known whites more commonly grown in Germany than Italy – including Sylvaner, Müller Thurgau, and Kerner.

IMG_1344

Le Montagne Dolomiti

The region is prone to maritime climate influences from the west (Mediterranean sea) and the east (Adriatic sea), while the range of altitudes within this alpine terrain provides vineyards with multiple microclimates. If you stand in the city of Bolzano and gaze upward you’ll see mountains covered in vineyards. A recent promotional advertisement for Alto Adige wines in Decanter Magazine tells how red porphry sandstone provides mineral tones to the region’s white wines. Some vineyards are located above three thousand feet above sea level, while vineyards closer to the valley floors produce more reds. The sometimes wickedly hot daytime summer temperatures in the Bolzano basin – around the convergence of the Adige and the Isarco rivers – produce rich Lagrein grapes, which are used for both red wines and rosés. Wines bottled under the Denominazione di Origine (DOC) Alto Adige Lagrein label must contain at least 95 percent of that grape, and any wine labeleled ‘riserva’ must age for at least 24 months. IMG_1400_2In this region, the commonly grown red ‘workhorse’ grape is Schiava (also known as Vernatsch). Other local reds, according to the 2014 edition of Guida Vini [published by Altro Consumo], include Marzemino, and Teroldego, and Lagrein – which is velvety and distinct. A cousin of both Pinot Noir and Syrah, Lagrein is tannic enough to provide it with decent ageing potential. Lagrein’s flavor has both zest and minerals – green grass and rock salt, lemon and tar. For dinner in the  town of Muncion, my brother ate partridge and wildfowl risotto, while I munched on Tyrolean ham spaetzle, served with Lagrein wine. Lagrein goes well with both dishes – both poultry and local ham (known as ‘speck’ – and which is distinctive because it is both cured and smoked).   IMG_1287   Lagrein Wine Lable Photo

IMG_1285

Lagrein – goes well with appetizers as well as main courses

Harvest and Chopping Block – Here’s a recipe for a light dish with potatoes and ‘speck’ ham (you can use prosciutto ham) to go with Lagrein wine – from bon appétit magazine. Also, at my nephew’s wedding near Venice a week before this trip, his friend Hanna told me about the website Smitten Kitchen….which happens to have a recipe for making another excellent dish to accompany Lagrein – spaetzle.  Looking for a distinct wine, or even a travel destination few of your friends know about? I recommend Lagrein, and Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Can you take a 45 second survey to help improve this site? This will provide you with more of what you want. Thanks.

IMG_1275

Angels all around us

 

Modena, Italy – Sparkling Lambrusco and Superb Food

June 17, 2014

In late May, after attending a nephew’s wedding near Venice, then exploring Italy’s northern Dolomite Mountains – I considered how best to spend the rest of the trip.

I looked at a map. Having visited Bologna and Verona years ago, I was drawn to the city of Modena.

Modena? Isn’t that renowned for balsamic vinegar?

Indeed. As well as for manufacturing Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati cars. It’s also within the province of Emilia-Romagna – famed for exquisite food, as well as Lambrusco wine. Cars? No big deal. Good food and wine?

I drove there in two hours.

 

Whereas Sangiovese wines of Tuscany (Chianti, Brunello) are often rich, red, and tannic, the province of Emilia-Romagna has – Lambrusco! – pink or red, fresh and frothy. Serve in a chilled glass.

Modena’s large open plaza – Piazza Grande – resembles that of many ancient Italian cities, surrounded by concentric ring roads pierced by perpendicular avenues shooting toward the center like spokes to a bicycle hub. After parking, I walked ten minutes before happening – by chance – across a splendid wine bar.

Fabrizio, the manager of Modena’s wine bar Enoteca Athenaeum told me that Lambrusco, “is an easy wine, like Prosecco.”  During a late Thursday afternoon we listened to music by the Doors, U2, and Buffalo Springfield while he explained how most – over 90 percent – of Lambrusco sparkling wine is made using the Charmat Method, as opposed to the Classical Method (also known as Metodo Classico, or Méthode Champenoise), which is used to make Champagne and several other sparklers, including Franciacorta from Italy, Cava from Spain, and Crémant from France.

Both methods require adding additional yeast and sugar to the wine after it has undergone primary fermentation (where sugar first transforms into alcohol) to initiate a secondary fermentation. In the Charmat Method, this fermentation is speeded up in pressure controlled tanks (often steel), whereas in the Classical Method it takes place more gradually in the bottle (the sugar and yeast are added to the bottle before it is capped).

Modena's Piaza Grande in the evening

Modena’s Piazza Grande in the evening

 

The Charmat method produces fresh wines that are rich with fruit and floral aromas, but which lack complexity found in Champagne (or other Classical Method products) – which typically undergo longer secondary fermentations – often 24 months or more. Lambrusco can be frizzante (fizzy) or spumante (sparkling). Though bubbles in a Lambrusco are often larger than those found in sparkling wines made using the Classic Method, the overall pressure in the bottle is, paradoxically, often less – resulting in little or no foaming over the rim on opening.

IMG_1646Lambrusco is the name of both grape and wine. True Lambrusco is neither sweet or white, and contains at least 11 percent alcohol. There are over a dozen Lambrusco grape varieties (and dozens of clones), and wine is made primarily from six of them. Additionally (and confusingly) there are at least eight separate separate Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regions producing Lambrusco wine. Be wary – some of the grapes and the DOC regions share the same names.

Fabrizio chilled a wine glass by swirling ice cubes inside, then filled it with Lambrusco di Modena, assuring me this was from the vicinity of the city. He referred to other varieties of Lambrusco in his English (learned while visiting America) as being “from the suburbs.”

Below is a  brief description of four of the main grape varieties (not clones) used to make Lambrusco wines.

  • Lambrusco di Sorbara – From north of Modena, producing high quality, dry to medium dry fragrant wines.
  • Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce – At least four Lambrusco grape varieties come from this, the largest Lambrusco producing and exporting region, with both light-colored wines, and drier, darker wines. Both Sorbara and Salamino Lambrusco grapes are often cultivated on plains, often in proximity to each other.
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castlevetro - This Lambrusco grape comes from a small hilly region 20 kilometers south of Modena, and produces deep purple, tannic, dry wines. Not only the leaves, but the stalks turn rich red during autumn. The quantity of production is relatively low, but the quality is high. The wine is intensely ruby-red and violet, with its foam the same color. In general, fruit and acidity are reasonably balanced, and there is often bitter aftertaste (not unpleasant). For many, either this or Lambrusco di Sorbara produce the cream of the crop of Lambrusco wines.
  • Lambrusco di Modena – This is what Fabrizio served – decent wine, decent price, made from grapes produced in various regions close to Modena. The quality has elevated over time enough to result in the inclusion of the wine in DOC status.
Excellent ristorante in Modean

Ring the doorbell first – for excellent food served in Modena at Trattoria Aldina (see the two upstairs window signs?)

 

Lambrusco wine turned into a huge, welcome surprise. Sit in the sun on a summer afternoon,  fill your glass with frothy, purple, and delicious, low-alcohol vino and enjoy it with cuts of prosciutto, olives, and cheese. You’ll enjoy. This fizzy wine goes well with rich foods from appetizers through desserts, including sweet sausage, salami, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, lasagna, tortellini, and all types of pasta. As the Italian writer and musical composer Bruno Barilli said, “il Lambrusco fa boom nello stomaco,” meaning – obviously – that the wine goes ‘boom’ in the stomach.

photo (85)

photo (86)

IMG_1668

Eating well in Modena is not difficult

Eating well in Modena? Not difficult

 

According to a book I bought in a Modena bookstore, written by Sandro Bellei and titled – La Rivincita del Lambrusco – Il vino più venduto nel mondo (The Revenge of Lambrusco – the best selling wine in the world), the word ‘Lambrusco’ derives from two Latin words – labrum, meaning margin, and ruscum, meaning wild plant – indicating a grape that once grew wild along forest edges. Romans harvested these grapes from Apennine Mountain slopes. Before them, Etruscans also made wine from Lambrusco grapes.

Between 1960 and 1970, the grape grew in international stature, and in the 70’s Lambrusco invaded the US market. Today it is largely exported to the US, UK, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, and Brazil. Much of this exported wine is a blend of Lambrusco grapes from at least eight separate Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regions, and can contain up to 15 percent of juice from non-Lambrusco grapes. Fortunately, the benefits of genuine Lambrusco are replacing wines that in the recent past were sold overseas (many in the US) which were overly sweet and fizzy, as Eric Asimov described in his New York Times piece. The better and genuine Lambrusco wines are mentioned in an article about wines that are best to drink young in a recent piece by Will Lyons in the Wall Street Journal.

 

Enjoying life at Enoteca

Enjoying time with new friends and fresh wine at Enoteca Athenaeum in Modena

Words and Wine -

1. Lambrusco Book PhotoSandro Bellei’s paperback book (mentioned above) is titled  La Rivincita del Lambrusco (The Revenge of Lambrusco). It includes a series of independent essays about Lambrusco. Written in Italian (though approachable if you understand Spanish or French), the book is a love song to a grape and wine, as well as to excellent food, rich history, and a culture that takes pride in enjoying the beauty of long meals and slow drinks with companions.

Different chapters describe types of Lambrusco grapes, history and marketing of the wine, and also include recipes, a long poem, and even an essay on how well Lambrusco pairs with sushi.

Enjoy!

 

Harvest and Chopping Block -

Here is the translated introductory paragraph from the book titled i Sapori dell’ Emilia (The Flavors of Emilia), by Ambra Ferrari.

“Sundays in summer, when the city is quiet and deserted, about noon I leave the house and go hunting for perfumes, seeking scents of the kitchen. On weekdays it’s impossible to catch them, as they are confused among a thousand other smells – the scent of meat sauce and broth, so gentle and delicate, cannot withstand the bully of car fumes. I wander streets and sniff the air like a bloodhound. If I take a slight hint of foods I do not let them get away. I follow, with patience and expertise, into the heart of old houses and finally stand with eyes half-closed in the hallways of those who know lasagna noodles.”

And below is a dessert recipe from the book, listed with a recommended wine to match.

Modena Bonnissima Pie 

Ingredients -

  • 5 cups (500 grams) sifted flour
  • 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • grated peel from 1/2 a lemon
  • 3/4 cup (250 grams) melted honey
  • 2 cups (250 grams) chopped walnut kernels
  • 1 small glass of rum

Steps -

  1. Mix the flower, sugar, butter, egg yolks, and lemon peel.
  2. Divide this dough in two.
  3. Take one half of the dough and use it to line a buttered baking pan.
  4. Mix the melted honey, chopped walnut kernels, and rum.
  5. Pour this honey nut mixture over the dough in the pan, then level it with a knife blade.
  6. Cover this with the remaining dough.
  7. Bake at 350 to 375 (medium heat) for about 30 minutes.

Finally -

Serve with Lambrusco di Sorbara Dolce (sweet) wine.

Finally – can you take 45 seconds to take a survey to help improve this site, so it gives you more of what you want? Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

The Season for Rosé Wine

June 3, 2014

For those of you interested, even peripherally, in French wine, I suggest you subscribe to the web log The Riviera Grapevine – Pronto! In recent posts, Chrissie has written about rosé wine from southern France and about the Rolle grape. She’s included photos of hedonistic midnight swimmers and wine aficionados on green landscapes below peach colored moonlight. Chrissie’s blog clues readers into the nuances of varied wine appellations dotting the Riviera – where some striking rosé is produced. There’s so much going on in this region, I cannot keep up.

Rose from Provence....even in Islamabad

Rose from Provence….appreciated in Asia

 

Here, in the humble outreaches of a Diplomatic Enclave within the capital city of an Asian country, I frequent a semi-autonomous restaurant associated with the French embassy. It has access to a smattering of decent Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, and bottles of rosé – exceeding the wine capacity of any other restaurant located within this nation of close to two hundred million souls. The back label of the 2012 Marius Peyold Côtes de Provence (photographed above) informed me that this rosé is made from Grenache, Syrah, and Censault (classic grape varieties in many Languedoc wines), and that it has notes of red fruit, white peach, and citrus. It tasted crisp and slightly tangy – a fresh way to ring in summer.

Summertime in Provence wine country

Summertime in Provence wine country

Over a year ago, my French friend and accomplice in sampling introduced me to rosé. We usually shared bottles of Rosé D’Anjou from the western, Loire Valley region of France.

Provence 3

Provence – more than Roman engineering

But in the Provence region of southern France, where Peter Mayle penned his books and Russell Crowe drove multiple times around a roundabout to thrill movie audiences, rosé is king. Perhaps queen. Certainly for royalty, as well as regular folk. It’s wine to enjoy – blush, fresh, mildly zippy. Rosé is ubiquitous in Provence – bright, light, fresh, and fruity, and the antithesis of all misgivings Americans once had about rosé after they excoriated the marketing triumph of White Zinfandel years ago. Truth is, the success of that wine was responsible for saving the Zinfandel grape from virtual abandonment and extinction within California (and the United States). Zinfandel now gains nothing but respect for producing hefty red wines. And when you drink a hit or two of it as rosé you may realize that it also still provides an excellent way to kick off summertime. But don’t trust my limited experience. Tune into Chrissie’s primer on Provence rosé.

Words and Wine -
photo (1)

Capers and caper

Peter Mayle retired from England and moved to southern France, where he scribbled notes about contract workers fixing up his home in Provence. His subsequent non-fiction book A Year in Provence turned into a best seller more than two decades ago – detailing the highs and lows of renovating a home. His recent fiction book The Marseille Caper [A.A. Knopf, 2012]  is a quick read about the deception of already deceitful land developers. Thrown in are scenes from a private airline and yacht, and the rantings of a few dim-witted hit men piloting stolen motorcycles. There are also plenty of meals where characters enjoy glasses of rosé with artichoke hearts, smoked salmon, clams wrapped in Spanish ham, goat’s cheese, and foie gras.

This book is an easy kick off to summer reading.

Etrsucan Wine, and New Blog Format

May 21, 2014

A 2013 article from Smithsonian Magazine tells, basically, how French wine originated in Italy.

 

P1000104

View southward from Mount Falco, near the source of the Arno River in Tuscany’s Casentino Forest

 

Before Roman society blossomed, the Etruscan civilization shone as a bright light of ingenuity, innovation, and civilization on the region of Italy now known as Tuscany. It was Etruscans, not Romans, who invented the structural arch above doorways, who laid out the fundamental rectilinear street system used to this day for city planning, and who first drained marshes to recover land used for agriculture throughout what is now Italy. The Etruscans were a hilltop dwelling, sometimes seafaring, bawdy lot who loved a good party, creatively concocted food, and who relished downing ample wine. Women enjoyed more respect than offered to females in Greek society and in the later Roman Empire. Many Etruscans belonged to the League of Twelve Cities, each city circled by defensive stone walls that followed contours of rolling landscapes.

P1000157

Today’s Tuscany – formerly Etruria

I wrote about Etruscans in my fictional book River of Tuscanywith an excerpt quoted below.

The Greeks envy us! They criticize us as drunks, sneering that Etruscans taught Gauls the pleasure of wine. They scoff at how we treat women, saying we are too decent to them, which emboldens females with independent and adventurous spirits. They say we descended from Odysseus and his lover Circe and that we share their traits of shamelessness and promiscuity.

Tuscany's city of Pisa - long after the time of Etruscans

Tuscany’s city of Pisa – long after the time of Etruscans

 

According to a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, chemical analyses of ancient amorphas used to carry wine in southern France – south of Montpellier – show these contained wine which originated in Etruria in what is today’s Italy – undoubtedly ferried there by ships. These amorphas were dated to between 525 and 475 BC. The wine also contained basil, rosemary, and pine resin – perhaps preservatives, perhaps additives for medicinal purposes.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - legacy of Etruscans?

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine – legacy of Etruscans?

 

DNA analysis of cattle in Tuscany shows that they descended from cattle brought to the Italian peninsula by seafaring immigrants. These people, who formed Etruria, were likely from Lydia, an Iron Age kingdom located in what is now western Turkey. They may have brought vitis vinifera grape species along, although ample wild grapes likely thrived on the peninsula already. Apparently Etruscans did not train their grapes or prune vines, and considered wine as both common and sacred: wine vessels were buried with bodies in tombs, and wine was used at religious and funerary ceremonies. The Etruscans also apparently liked to grate cheese into their wine to add flavor, and kept cheese graters on hand for visitors to any banquet.

By the second century BC Etruscan society was largely conquered by and absorbed into the growing Roman Empire.

What is the legacy of the Etruscan people? Tuscany. Home, eventually, to Florence – a city-state that flourished in the 1500’s because of its wealth, progressive notions and tolerance (sometimes, not always), as well as magnetism for bold and spirited Renaissance artists, thinkers, architects, engineers, bankers, and politicians. Today, the signature wine grape of Tuscany is Sangiovese (the primary grape in chianti, in Brunello di Montalcino, and in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). What grape did the Etruscans use? We don’t know yet, though archaeological evidence will likely reveal that answer in the not distant future.

Montepulciano wine route

Montepulciano wine route

Interested in knowing more about Tuscany? A list of books about Tuscany is included at the end of this post.

 

Changes to Format – 

The original title of this web blog was Vino Expressions – because it was about thoughts, viewpoints, quotes, and people’s attitudes toward wine. That’s still what this site is about. But the focus of this blog is about to get tighter. This site will now include specialized sections. When this blog is published – every second Tuesday (more or less) – it will include at least one of these sections, in addition to the main post. This will add structure and a dose of predictability. The section names, and topics they hit on, will be:

 

Vino Video -

Will be brief and focused on different locations producing wine.

DSC_0115

Small town, big wine

The first should be a feed either from Italy’s Alto-Adige, or Venezia.

 

 

 

 

 

Traversing Time -

Wine country

Roman wine country

Delving into specific Geography or History relating to wine.

 

 

 

 

 

Provence

Bon apetit

Harvest and Chopping Block -

Exploring one bottle of wine, or one recipe.

 

 

 

Words and Wine -

DSC_0575

Pablo Neruda – lover of women, poetry, wine

Reviewing wine related books – non-fiction, and fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

Working with Wine -

Wine tasting - challenging work

Wine tasting – challenging work

Quotes, often from winemakers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to read more about Tuscany? Below is a bibliography, compiled for the book Wine and Work.

  • Fortune Is a River, Roger D. Masters, Plume, New York, 1999
  • The Hills of Tuscany, Ferenc Máté, Delta, New York, 1998
  • The Etruscans, Raymond Bloch, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1958
  • Hannibal: One Man Against Rome, Harold Lamb, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1958
  • Pride of Carthage, David Anthony Durham, Doubleday, New York, 2005
  • Hannibal – The General from Carthage, Ernle Bradford, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1981
  • Leonardo Da Vinci – Engineer and Architect, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec, 1987
  • Leonardo Da Vinci – Flights of the Mind, Charles Nicholl, Viking, New York, 2004
  • Daily Life in the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Newman, McFarland & Company Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2001
  • Tuscany in Mind, edited by Alice Leccese Powers, Vintage Departures, 2005
  • In Tuscany, Frances Mayes, Edward Mayes, Bob Krist. Broadway Books, New York
  • Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes, Broadway Books, New York, 1997
  • Travelers’ Tales Italy, edited by Anne Calcagno, Travelers’ Tales, San Francisco, 2001
  • The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998
  • Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi, University of Toronto Press, 2006
  • A Taste of Tuscany, Eyewitness Travel Guides, DK Publishing Inc. New York, 2004
  • The National Park of the Casentine Forests – where trees touch the sky, Giunti, Florence-Milan, 2003
  • Vroom with a View, Peter Moore, Centro Books, New York, 2006
  • Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, by Harold Bloom, Warner Books, Inc. New York, 2002
  • Dante, by Thomas G. Bergin, The Orion Press, New York, 1965
  • Brunelleschi’s Dome – How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King; Penguin Books, New York, 2001
  • La Bella Figura, Beppe Severgnini, Broadway Books, New York, 2006
  • A Thousand Days in Tuscany, Marlena De Blasi
  • The Most Beautiful Villages of Tuscany, James Bentley
  • River of Tuscany (Rivers of Time Series), T. Mullen, Roundwood Press, 2013
  • Fortune Is a River, Roger D. Masters, Plume, New York, 1999
  • The Hills of Tuscany, Ferenc Máté, Delta, New York, 1998
  • The Etruscans, Raymond Bloch, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1958
  • Hannibal: One Man Against Rome, Harold Lamb, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1958
  • Pride of Carthage, David Anthony Durham, Doubleday, New York, 2005
  • Hannibal – The General from Carthage, Ernle Bradford, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1981
  • Leonardo Da Vinci – Engineer and Architect, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec, 1987
  • Leonardo Da Vinci – Flights of the Mind, Charles Nicholl, Viking, New York, 2004
  • Daily Life in the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Newman, McFarland & Company Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2001
  • Tuscany in Mind, edited by Alice Leccese Powers, Vintage Departures, 2005
  • In Tuscany, Frances Mayes, Edward Mayes, Bob Krist. Broadway Books, New York
  • Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes, Broadway Books, New York, 1997
  • Travelers’ Tales Italy, edited by Anne Calcagno, Travelers’ Tales, San Francisco, 2001
  • The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998
  • Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi, University of Toronto Press, 2006
  • A Taste of Tuscany, Eyewitness Travel Guides, DK Publishing Inc. New York, 2004
  • The National Park of the Casentine Forests – where trees touch the sky, Giunti, Florence-Milan, 2003
  • Vroom with a View, Peter Moore, Centro Books, New York, 2006
  • Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, by Harold Bloom, Warner Books, Inc. New York, 2002
  • Dante, by Thomas G. Bergin, The Orion Press, New York, 1965
  • Brunelleschi’s Dome – How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King; Penguin Books, New York, 2001
  • La Bella Figura, Beppe Severgnini, Broadway Books, New York, 2006
  • A Thousand Days in Tuscany, Marlena De Blasi
  • The Most Beautiful Villages of Tuscany, James Bentley

Also -

  • The Etruscan World, Jean MacIntosh Turfa, Routledge, New York, 2013

 

 

Fresh Video from Southern France Wine Country

May 6, 2014

Last spring I spent time rambling through the Languedoc and Bordeaux regions of southern France. The brief video below includes not only shots of vineyards (conspicuously absent of greenery), but three structural highlights visited during the trip – the Canal du Midi, Carcassonne Fortress, and the Citadelle of Blaye.

All three relate to the curious history of wine production in France.

First, check out the video.

 

Both the Languedoc and Bordeaux are massive wine producing regions. Bordeaux has long been associated with high quality wines, while the Languedoc was historically renowned for mass produced table wines. No longer. Cellar magicians in the Languedoc are now focused on quality and character, and some excellent, meticulously crafted wines from that region are available at a decent price. (Check out a previous post about the Languedoc.) In my book Wine and Work, Charles Capbern-Gasqueton gives a tasting of Languedoc wines from the French AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) regions of Corbières, Minervois, Berlou, Cessenon, and Faugères. An excerpt is included in a previous blog post.

(Charles, a wine and barrel dealer from a Cognac producing family, told me: “You need people to say, ‘This wine, I’m sorry but even if it’s from a famous château, it’s just crap.’ It’s like food. Tonight you’ll get a piece of meat from the butcher. It’s beautiful meat. You go to the supermarket, and it’s going to be crap….Wine is to be a real pleasure. It needs to be fun, exciting, simple. Now they make so much fuss about wine it’s pretentious, snobbish, and boring. You need to be with a real winemaker, you don’t want beautiful girls with small skirts showing you around…”)

Incidentally, the Guardian newspaper recently included a good article on Languedoc wine.

Now, back to those structures, and a bit of history.

Canal du Midi -

Construction of the 150 mile long Canal du Midi was completed in 1681, joining the southeast coast of France and the city of Toulouse. Because Toulouse was already connected to Bordeaux (on the eastern coastline) via the Garonne River, the canal provided the missing link for a sea-to-sea waterway passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Building the canal was what one non-fiction author (of a most excellent book, by the way) deemed a feat of ‘impossible engineering.’ The notion was not only technically challenging (no water projects of any great scope had been constructed in the region since the Roman Empire), but psychologically daunting. Local farmers were baffled by the notion that humans were brazen enough to try to alter the course of nature, and were equally stupefied that it was financed by the seat of the government (which they generally held in suspicion) in northern France.

IMG_8599

Ancient knowledge from Illiterate mountain women may have helped ensure the success of these eight egg-shaped staircase locks at Beziers

The notion of the canal had lasted for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci even visited France to scope out the prospect for building such a canal. The visionary who piloted the actual scheme, however, was a retired tax collector named Pierre-Paul Riquet who assuaged the fears of locals, then garnered local confidence and support to plunge ahead with the work. Unexpectedly, the most technically oppressive challenges of hydraulic engineering were partially solved by laboring women who had descended from their farm fields in the Pyrenees mountains to pick up seasonal work. Back home, they and their ancestors had spent centuries maintaining and modifying Roman built irrigation networks. From this, they possessed an almost innate knack for helping to size, shape, and arrange the layout of locks and water routes, as well as to understand the subtle behavior of gravity flowing liquid – a gift to project engineers who lacked such hands-on experience or knowledge.

Once the canal was constructed, all sorts of wares – including wine – flowed in both directions. This led to the Bordelaise implementing taxes and regulations to keep Languedoc wine from encroaching on their own wine export business. However it also provided an avenue for Bordeaux wines to more easily reach Italy and other neighboring regions, so others could taste for themselves whether all the international hype they had heard about French wine had merit. (This export had been going on for long: pottery fragments in Italy’s ancient city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD 79, include writings that indicate the wine came from the region now known as Bordeaux.)

 

IMG_8680

Heavily fortified, and massive, Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The massive fortress of Carcassonne began as a simple mound fort established by Romans, and grew through multiple iterations over centuries. It was invaded by Visigoths, defended (eventually) against Saracens, sieged by crusaders – always maintaining inland poise as a stopping point along the old Roman route that linked the Mediterranean to the Atlantic – established long before the Canal du Midi existed. It’s likely to have housed its share of wine traders making the coast to coast trek centuries ago, though any wine transported that distance would likely have been affordable only by the wealthy or by royalty. Sure, swarms of visitors visit Carcassonne. But if you are ever in the region, choose early morning (preferably) off-season to visit, and enjoy much of the inspiration it provides in peace. It’s worth it.

 

Citadelle of Blaye

DSC_7088

The muddy brown slice forms the waters of the Gironde estuary, which splits Bordeaux in two….the Citadelle on the right was key for defending the waterway, and wines that shipped through it

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban was a military engineer and adviser to King Louis XIV who constructed massive defensive complexes within France in the 1600’s and early 1700’s. One of these was the Citadelle du Blaye (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) on the eastern bank of the Gironde estuary that bisects Bordeaux.

The Citadelle provided national defense, and also vigilance against pirates intent on looting ships laden with wine which regularly sailed to Britain for trade (the wine trade between Bordeaux and England has thrived at least since the 12th century).

These structures were constructed without the aid of internal combustion engines or electricity. They were built using animal and human labor during ages when Novocaine and antibiotics were unavailable. Whenever someone tells me they would like to have lived during a past era, I think – no thanks. The romance of that notion is great, but the reality would have been a hard slog.

 

 

 

California Dreamin’ – and Good Wine

April 29, 2014

 

photo (40)

Viewing the Pacific Coast from Mendocino

 

For a few weeks I visited friends living near California’s coast who love wines: Californian, French, Italian – all. They love to socialize and share. North to south – here’s a quick recap of coastal California wine regions visited and wines tasted, as well as people and beverages shared during this eye-opening venture.

Mendocino County and the Anderson Valley -

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.42.24 PM

Coastal California

 

The northward drive from San Francisco to Mendocino takes three hours. Pass Napa, Sonoma, and Healdsburg along Pacific Coast Highway 101, then turn west at Cloverdale on Route 128. This is a tight and gnarly road, sun dappled and spiraling below tree canopies and passing signs warning of twisted, rough, narrow roads crossed by wandering stags. Pine trees coat hills. Meadows form horse farms. Raptors soar above, and dead skunks splay across asphalt. The Hendy Woods State Park on Hornblower Road is riddled with hefty redwood trees and sheep farms. This is Tolkien country – deep dark forests, and no telling what comes next.

IMG_0895

Coastal miles before the city of Mendocino

 

This is the site of the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County (not to confuse with the larger Alexander Valley in Northern Sonoma County, further south). It’s home to loggers, farmers, cannabis growers, and seriously good winemakers.

IMG_0896

Cooled by fog – the valley is primed for growing Pinot Noir

 

Anderson Valley Pinot NoirThe valley slopes from about 200 feet to just below a thousand feet above sea level, and fog cools the climate in a way that favors northern European grape varieties – including Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. This month’s Travel and Leisure Magazine includes the somewhat vague generalization that Mendocino grows the largest variety of grapes in the United States. Jay McInerney described Pinot Noirs from Anderson in a recent Wall Street Journal article, writing that they tend to be “medium-bodied, more savory than sweet.” A friend who spent years living in northern California’s wine country, stated without doubt that the 2009 Handley Pinot Noir we shared was the best Pinot he ever tasted.

IMG_0859

Roaming through Dry Creek

 

Northern Sonoma Hiking and Zins

Thanks to northern California dweller Lisa Hazard for the hospitality and Zinfandel shared in northern Sonoma County! Our day road trip to explore Dry Creek Valley was a treat. For more on these wines, see my post about Rockpile Ridge.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0898

Corner Lot – home and vineyard

Chardonnay in Sonoma

A wine map of Sonoma County shows how the included Sonoma Valley includes excellent Chardonnays. The Baumann family shared some of these locals wines and dinner during my visit to the City of Sonoma. Earlier that day, Tiffany Tedesco Baumann took me to a local cellar to sample her 2013 Corner Lot Sangiovese – in the barrel since October. This is smooth and seductive, about ready for bottling….and securing one of these rare bottles is harder than you can imagine. As pure as an Italian Brunello di Montalcino, this is 100 percent Sangiovese. It’s also elegant testimony to the potential for growing excellent Sangiovese in Sonoma Valley. Though little known, that’s not news: Italian grape varieties have been planted in Sonoma County since the 1880s.

 

French and Italian Wines Raging in Santa Barbara

After leaving Mendocino and Sonoma counties in California’s Northern Coast wine region, I drove to the county and city of Santa Barbara, which marks the southern end of California’s Central Coast wine region (described in another post, last year). The April 2014 issue of US Airways Magazine includes an entire section dedicated to the city and county of Santa Barbara, California. This includes seven articles about wine.

 

IMG_0901

 

IMG_0914

 

IMG_0900

 

IMG_0926

 

IMG_0932

 

IMG_0906

Santa Barbara celebration

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Anne and Bill Mitchell and their generous wine guru friend Charles King – we celebrated Bill’s birthday in Santa Barbara with winemakers and locals who show how much they respect their European wine making heritage – by opening bottles of Chablis, Montrachet, Barbaresco, Barolo, Pomerol, Cornas and seeing a 1976 Margaux gifted as a welcome surprise. This was a wine extravaganza none who attended will forget. Salud!

 

Zin and Grenache in Ventura

photo Hongolas

Hongola hospitality

A half hour south of Santa Barbara I spent the night in Ventura, California – famed for the song Ventura Highway from the band America, for Chouinard climbing gear, and for an easygoing beach and surfing vibe that lacks throngs of tourists many similar California coastal towns witness. Steven and Melissa Hongola invited a visit, and our planned lunch turned into dinner, and sharing their bottle of Epiphany Cellars Grenache, from Santa Barbara County.

In the county and the state, generally, Grenache is growing more popular as single varietal. It also offers good quality for a decent price. Grenache is often blended with Syrah, which provides more tannins, color, and acidity, but which lacks the spice and alcohol of Grenache. Along with Syrah and Mourvedre, Grenache forms one of the classic components of Rhone Valley blends from southern France, and the primary grape in characteristically powerful (and usually pricey) bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Thanks for providing one of my favorite wine varietals guys.

 

Bubbly in Orange County

Though not really along the wine trail (though there is a winery in town), I visited my old homestead city of Laguna Beach in to see friends. This is within the Southern California wine region. There we dusted off a few bottles of Mionetto Prosecco (DOC) Treviso, delivered (along with grapes and cheeses) by the lovely Bascom sisters to Victoria Beach. Local California alternatives to this Italian sparkling wine include almond champagne from the Wilson Creek Winery in Temecula (mentioned in my book Wine and Work). There were two clear advantages to drinking Prosecco rather than local bubbly on this spring day.

 

photo (48)

Surf, sisters, and time for celebration

 

First, Mionetto is the best selling Prosecco in the U.S. It is fermented completely in a tank using the ‘Charmat’ method, and does not need to be aged, unlike champagne and sparkling wines, which are partially fermented in the bottle using the more elaborate ‘méthode champenoise.’ This gives Prosecco it’s primary quality – freshness. Prosecco also shares qualities more typical of  California sparkling wines and champagnes than those from Europe – more fruit and less yeast characteristics. This made the Prosecco perfect for a spring afternoon (paired with grapes and cheese): fruit and freshness. Nice choice, sisters.

California links with European winemakers stay strong (Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery famously teamed with Château Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux in 1979 to produce Opus One). From north to south, winemakers constantly refer to their varietals and methods as aligning with, or differentiating from, regions that include Bordeaux, the Rhone, and Italy’s Piemonte.

Thanks for the warm hospitality, friends and California.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 368 other followers

%d bloggers like this: