In Love With An Italian

The beautiful region of Tuscany
Both Lis and I love all things Italian…the people, the food, the wine…actually we’re not really sure what’s not to love.  We’ve been there many times and both of us has family there who we wish we could visit more.  But aside from family we love going to explore the various wine regions and generally can’t wait for our next visit.  So in honour of our connections to Bella Italia we bring you our weekend wine picks:
The Estates in the Chianti Classico. Le Marcie
From Lis:
How about a big juicy Chianti Classico?
This wine discovery was one of the new releases at the LCBO a few weeks ago.
Rocca Delle Macie Tenuta Sant’Alfonso Chianti Classico 2007. Lots of ripe red fruit, a lovely spicy aroma and incredibly balanced so it is oh so smooth. I just can’t get enough of Sangiovese grapes. A true Italian treasure. Excellent choice for quaffing with friends or perfectly paired with roasted meats. $21.95.
I have had several of Rocca delle Macie wines before in the $15 – $30 price range and they have not disappointed. The winery is about 40 years old and started by a gentleman named Italo Zingarelli – what a GREAT name and like so many other Italian wineries has turned into a family affair.  But  the really sweet surprise….check out Rocca Delle Macie website – not only does it include all their wines, but food and MUSIC PAIRINGS! If I wasn’t a convert before….

From Tina:
Personally I’m a big fan of a good Barbaresco and this one I found in general list. Not having to go into the vintages section means you should be able to get your hands on this pretty much any time.  It’s the Umberto Fiore Barbaresco DOCG and it’s only $16.30. It’s from the Piedmont region of Italy and the grape varietal is Nebbiolo the same grape used to make Barolo.  As Barbarescos tend to be a bit lighter I served it with a lovely pasta and my husband who often challenges my wine picks loved it.  I’ve since returned and bought 4 more bottles…definatlely easy drinking.  There’s a link to the LCBO in the blog roll on the right.  If you key in either wine in the product section you’ll find which store near you carries these wines.


Where Everybody Knows Your Name

F’Amelia located at 12 Amelia Street, Toronto

A common theme on this wine journey of discovery of mine is the delightful surprises that happen along the way.   Tonight that surprise came in the form of a little place  I had heard and forgotten about in the cacophony of new restaurant listings. Rita, one of my dearest and most willing dinner companions suggested F’amelia , a little Italian eatery tucked away in  Cabbagetown.
The first thing that made me happy, apart from the perfect parking spot, was the charming location. This is place is all about neighborhood. I almost hear the theme song to Cheers.Next, the wine list -lovely suggestions by the glass or bottle, some I recognized, some calling my name.

I picked Garofoli Monte Real 2010 Sangiovese. It came with a strong recommendation  from the waiter.  Such a perfect pick. With Rita running a little late –  I had Google-time. Surprise number two, the winery is about 45 minutes from the farmhouse near Ancona, Italy that I am visiting in three weeks. Thanks to Google and WIFI, within a few minutes, I had made a tasting appointment.
The menu was simple. The pizza fantastic. The conversation lively. But the real joy of F’Amelia on Amelia street, is it feels like it’s run by a favourite aunt or uncle. One who wants  you to take your time, not  rush. If you want to work your way through the wine list, there’s time to compare notes.  If you want to know more about the home made pasta or the pizza dough made on site , just ask. And even though Cliff and Norm aren’t sitting at the the bar, it really one big F’Amelia.

The Big Chill meets Under the Tuscan Sun

Friends Italian Style

Take twelve people. Most of them strangers to one another.  Entice them with the promise of winning wines,  primo pastas and the other tantalizing tastes of Tuscany.

What do you get?

The Big Chill: Italian-style

When I turned  50, instead of shrinking from the F-word, my 50th year would be nothing short of F-F-Fabulous. I pitched a dazzling dozen of dynamic wine drinkers a villa vacation – and it proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Google tuscan villas and you hit about 1.5 million matches – everything from luxury villa retreats to castle apartments.  My group of seasoned travelers included hostel hoppers, cottage couples and travelling teens – old friends and new. Most had never been to Italy.

Our pool under the Tuscan sun

I gathered their preferences and narrowed it down to three properties: one about 20 minutes of Cortona, the stunning hill town made famous by Frances Mayer’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second near Siena and the other in Chianti – the heart of Tuscan wine country. The group voted and  committed with cash.

Our beautiful villa

I will admit to moments of trepidation. What if it was a scam? What if the pictures were of another villa surrounded by landfill? Or maybe there was no villa at all? How could I be sure?

Even worse, what if the villa was perfect and everyone didn’t get along?

We planned to meet in a parking lot outside Cortona. One thing you realize quickly – even when you speak Italian, getting directions is not easy. It’s more of a state of mind – like getting a recipe from my mother – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  Invest in a GPS. In this case. no one had to pave paradise , you were surrounded by it.

A place of unbelievable beauty

Andrea, son of the villa owner, and most gracious host – met  us and accompanied  us to the villa. We never would have found it ourselves. The address was something like turn right after the bus stop at marker 232 and continue along the third dirt path until you are absolutely sure an axe murderer will pop out of the bushes and there’s no one to ask for help just chestnut trees and the odd family of wild boar.

But when we turned the final corner, it was obvious, the pictures on the web site didn’t come close.

Our villa turned out to be a 13th century treasure. Six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom over three floors, a huge dining room table where we ate every night and a living room with overstuffed couches  in front of the fireplace, with enough space to dance up a storm.

A villa fit for kings

The main kitchen was big enough that the wannabe Italian cooks never had to compete for space. Then there was the pool, the view and the price.   $2500 for the week or about $500 per couple.

My wonderful band of strangers bonded on the first night over the freshest salami, ripest tomatoes, most fragrant cheeses washed down by local wine. We brought our own music and danced until 3am. Nice start to wash away any worries.

A breathtaking view from the pool

But renting a villa with a group of people forces you to make all kinds of decisions.

Take a wine tour or a cooking class, a bike trip or feign jet lag and relax, visit  places with names that you’ve probably read on wine bottles. Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto.

We took the slow option and hung around the pool most of the first day.

A taste of Tuscany

Blame  Marcella – mother of our host Andrea. She arrived with her cheerful assistant Valentina to cook us a five-course dinner. And we didn’t want to miss a second. I was the only one who could speak passable Italian, but where there is a will there is a way. Johanne and Lynn watched as  the kitchen was transformed into a haven of heavenly smells. Marcella and Valentina whipped up three kinds of appetizers, spinach pie, two kinds of homemade pasta – yes made right then and there – one with fresh mushrooms, the other with fresh tomatoes and a chicken roasted with something delectable, all topped off with a fruit flan of some sort. Did I mention it cost 30 euros a person WITH wine?

Friends and family

There are moments in life when it feels like you are being rewarded for any good deed you have ever done in your life. That’s exactly how I felt. Graced with my daughter and her best friend who is like a daughter to me, my best friends who have been through the best and worst of times, and new friends who have become such an important part of my landscape – we all sat together around a table as families do. How could I be so lucky?

I knew I had nothing to worry about when Johanne one of my oldest and wisest friends said after the first night – there will be tears when we say goodbye.

The rest of the week just kept getting better. Picture the Big Chill – Italian style.  The kitchen became the hub. A few of us, standing around the centre island, one whipping up a salad, another a plate of antipasto – with the freshest ingredients bought that afternoon, another trying out a favourite pasta recipe as familiar to them  as breathing.

Our walking tour of Tuscany

We walked, we talked, we wine toured and talked more. We solved the problems of the  world. Any problem we had a world away.

And on the very last day – we had lunch outside the villa Under the Tuscan Sun – we drank too much – danced on tables and threw rose petals at the wind. But most important we got to experience that something special with people and a place that you will never  forget.

If you are going:

  • 6 months before departure date – confirm with potential housemates. You will find everyone wants to go, but when it comes time to commit, the group shrinks.
  • Get the group to rate their priorities: price, ensuite bathroom, close to town or in the country
  • Look for a recommendation.  We worked with and our most gracious host Andrea who has a number of villas available


Paradise by the Cheeseboard Light

Formaggio, oost, queso, fromage – cheese – loved and savoured, in any language. It even has the power to alter your dreams, according to one British study, but never gives you nightmares.

I came late to the cheese plate. I was one of those odd kids who didn’t like cheese. “I’m allergic,” I told people when they pushed a cube towards me. Then one day at  McD’s, my teenage crush du jour ordered a  quarter pounder WITH a gloppy square of yellow processed something. Of course, I was too well brought up to send it back.

And so it began.

This week, I discovered a cheese counter worthy of attention. My co-womanofwine blogger, Tina, has already described our outstanding experience at Toronto’s Alimento Fine Food Emporium a few posts ago..

But the cheese counter inside the Mercato is a story unto itself.  The Contardi brothers who own six Grande Cheese shops in the GTA opened Alimento in October of last year.  It’s half restaurant/Mozza bar and half high-end grocery store where you can sample the finest cheese, charcuterie, olive oil and balsamics. And let me tell you, this ain’t no sampling at Costco.
Tammy Vitale is the Queen of Alimento’s cheese domain. She fell in love with cheese working in the Grande Cheese factory as a teenager.
Today, she hums, ponders, nibbles, savours to carefully select the dozens of cheeses sold at the Mercato at any one time.. Spend five minutes with her, and you know she is one of those people who is living the dream.
“My heart is truly into cheese. It’s my passion.”
Her greatest cheese moment; cracking a 50 kg wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a tradition passed down for centuries using a special set of tools to slowly indent the wheel until it breaks apart without crumbling. The process has been described as “cracking open happiness”. Tammy would agree. She describes it with the same reverence as witnessing a live birth.
That’s because many of her life experiences are wrapped in cheese history.
“I grew up in it.” She says she can’t imagine a life without cheese.
Alimento carries 250 varieties of cheese, 140 at any one time. From the freshest Bufala Mozzarella – Tammy’s favourite, to Gorgonzolas, Pecorinos, Friulano and Burrata. And placed among these crown jewels of Italian cheeses, you will see  a number of the finest  that the  Niagara region and Prince Edward County have to offer.
“People think of cheddar, blah mozzarella and cheese curds when they think of local cheese, but I think they are awesome,” says Tammy.
“They’re not as pungent or sharp, yet they are very unique,” she adds.
Tammy’s favourite cheese dish: room-temperature Bufala Mozzarella with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The biggest mistake people make: not taking their cheese out of the fridge for an hour or two before serving.  “It’s why the same cheese will always taste better in Italy” she says.
The other mistake: letting a commitment to low-fat keep you from cheese. “Just eat small amounts” says Tammy. “Though it can be addictive” she admits.
Not to mention, it can give you sweet dreams of some morsel in your future.

Good Bubbles for your Buck

Bring on the bubbly

Summer’s definitely the perfect time for something fun and light and it seems everyone is finding a way to add a little fizz to their wine.  Over the last few years Prosecco sales have risen dramatically and it seems wine makers from around the world have taken notice.  On a recent trip to my local LCBO I realized they actually devoted an entire row of sparkling wines and everyone from the Francis Ford Coppola winery in California to the Wolf Blass label in Australia are offering their versions of sparkling wines to get in on the action.  There even seems to be a good selection of rosé sparkling wines.

In fact, in 2011 Prosecco sales rose 50% and this sparkling wine has done a great job in terms of value.  When you look at the average cost of a half decent bottle of champagne coming in at around $70 and the fact you can get a nice bottle of Prosecco for under $15 which one would you choose if you were just looking for a fun drink for a sunny summer’s day?

Lovely to enjoy on its own Prosecco it’s also a great drink to serve with Hors d’oeuvres, antipasta, or seafood.  I actually found one I really enjoy called Il Prosecco and it’s only $11.75.  It reminds me of an old school pop bottle it doesn’t have your regular type of pop cork it but a cap.  The bubbles are lively and it has medium-intensity citrus, pear and melon notes with a dry, light-body and crisp, refreshing taste.

Il Prosecco by Mionetto from Italy

So at this price I say “Bring on the Bubbly”

Now This Is Class

Our never-ending wine education sent us back to the classroom last week to learn about Chardonnay.  The event: the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Conference. The seminar: Extreme Winemaking 101.  Winemakers  from Niagara, BC, the Sonoma Coast, Australia, Burgundy, Argentina gathered to talk about the challenges of producing Chardonnay in often difficult conditions.

“We play Chardonnay the way a musician plays a Stradivarius to express the terroir,” said Jean Lupatelli of Decelle-Villa in Burgundy. But that symphony is often complicated.

“You’ve got to be cruel to be kind,” said Australian-born Craig McDonald who leads the wine-making team at Hillebrand Winery. He said over the past nine years there has been only one season with landmark conditions.

Cool Chardonnay

Still, there’s a reason Chardonnay is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. And we got the chance to taste six of them.  Many of these wines  are not even available on the market yet.   While I have never been a card carrying member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club,  I must admit it is not my go-to varietal. But I believe in keeping an open mind, and what an opportunity for a pair of novices like us to be exposed to the vast differences based on terroir and technique.  Both our favorites was the 2010 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay , from the Sonoma  Coast. Its flawless finish is the product  of a big fault, the San Andreas fault line that created incredible  soil diversity.

The Chardonnay sampling didn’t stop there.  After class there was a luncheon where they set three bottles on each table, all different. Once you finished sampling yours, you could bottle-switch with other tables. Chardonnays from Jura, Burgundy, Prince Edward County, Oregon and many other regions were represented. I am happy to say my luncheon favourite was local. Vineland Estates Reserve 2009 was terrific. Citrusy and bright, crisp and well-balanced, it is a  perfect match for my summer playlist. It’s only available online and on site – so that means there’s another road trip in the near future!

Miso Glazed Pork Belly, Pineapple, Cilantro & Cucumber

The conference officially kicked off in the evening with the spectacular “Explore Your Senses Dinner” hosted at Jackson Triggs.  We met some of the 56 winemakers at various sampling stations and the evening’s menu consisted of Chardonnay-inspired dishes like Miso Glazed Pork Belly with Pineapple, Cilantro and Cucumber, Oysters with Peach Chardonnay Mignonette and other delicious dishes.   The end to a perfect evening came when  Canadian rockers,  The Arkells took the stage at the outdoor amphitheatre.  Going back to class has never been sweeter.

Celebrating Canadian Style

Dinner Under The Stars

Long weekends are all about food, family & friends and of course great wine… and I think this time around we covered off all the bases. We started off with a beautiful dinner under the stars and since there was still some hope Italy could win the Euro cup we drank plenty of red Italian wines. My partner in crime in this blogging venture is always on the lookout for great wines under $20 and never ceases to amaze me with her finds.  She kindly hosted the dinner in her charming backyard and with so much delicious food the fellow (my husband) in the picture was so full he practically went into a food coma. Her find of the week was a bottle of Spadina Una Viola Syrah from Sicily that was pretty darn good and for only $14.95 it’s definitely worth checking out. Of course it seems when we get together there’s always more than one bottle involved and by the end of the evening we were singing and dancing the night away.  Sunday was of course Canada Day and it promised to be an all Canadian Day…starting with blueberry pancakes make with local berries and real maple syrup to a great bbq dinner that included a lovely bottle of Ontario Chardonnay from Vineland Estates. It was a 2009 Chardonnay I received from winemaker Brian Schmidt with a creamy mouth feel yet lovely and light and a perfect match for the bbq’d chicken, corn and roasted sweet potatoes.  It was such a beautiful weekend to be outdoors enjoying the amazing weather and I really hope our neighbours to the south have as great a day as they celebrate Independence Day.

Celebrating Canada Day

During the summer I do tend to drink more white than red wine because I love the cool crisp taste on a hot sunny day.  I’ve been enjoying more Canadian wines especially from the Niagara region and can’t wait to head back down there for a few vineyard tours.  There’s a great Chardonnay celebration going on down in Niagara from July 20-22 which we’ll attend because since we’re definitely not experts we try to take every opportunity to learn more about wine.  There’s a link to the celebration on the right of the blog so check it out and come on down for some tastings.