Category Archives: Music

Wines To Love in January

SO many wines, so little time.

Over the holidays I tried so many terrific wines, I missed a few blogs because I was too busy drinking. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Some were spectacular splurges and others were fabulous finds that are budget-friendly. Since getting financially fit is the second most common resolution, this week is dedicated to bottles that won’t break the bank.

vouvrayBougrier Vouvray Chenin Blanc 2012  AOC, Loire, France $13.95 I sampled this wine walking into an LCBO looking for a red or three and I couldn’t pass  up this white charmer.  This wine is a tad sweet but not overwhelmingly so.  Pale gold and fruity with aromas of peach, pear and mango. I really enjoyed this wine, especially at that price. 12% alcohol ,Food Match: Pesto, Rich Seafood  with a little Taylor Swift or Sophie Milman playing in the background.

 

A Stressed Spanish Sensation
A Stressed Spanish Sensation

Buried Hope, Tempranillo 2010, Ribera del Duero, Spain  $19.95 This  wine was a perfect match from the first sip. It’s  rich and full-bodied – fruity with cherry, plums and a touch of spice. It is nicely balanced and will only improve with time. I loved this wine and will be clearing some space for a few extra bottles. 14% alcohol . Food match: Roast Pork, Steak aux Poivre served with some Dave Matthews or Mumford and Sons.

Deep and Delicious
Deep and Delicious

Buried Hope, Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 North Coast, California, $19.95 Grown in the massive area which encompasses the North Coast, this California Cabernet is earthy and smooth. Makes you wish you were sipping a glass in a cottage overlooking the Pacific. Cherry and vanilla notes, nicely balanced. 14.2% alcohol. Food match: meat, meat and more meat – and Foreigner blasting “I’ve Been Waiting”.

A Bargain from South Africa
A Bargain from South Africa

The Pavillion, Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, South Africa, $12.00 I knew nothing about this wine. It came by way of a party. It looked great in the glass – purpley-red with the kind of full-bodied swirl that I am a fan of. Produced by Boschendal Estates, this blend has lovely blackberry and spicy and a pleasure to drink with friends. What surprised me most was the price.  Alcohol 14%  Food match: Roast Beef or a Spaghetti with Meat Sauce and the Rolling Stones with plenty of Satisfaction.

I hope you enjoy these tasty bargains. If you have a favourite value wine, let us know. Coming soon, the wines of B.C’s Osoyoos , wines worth splurging on, and the wines of Sicily.

Wishing you a 2014 filled with memorable occasions and memorable wine!   .

Cheers!

The Maine Event; When life’s a beautiful beach

There are times in many of our lives where the pure joy and bliss you feel is hard to describe. Generally they come from time spent with the ones we love, witnessing a wedding or cradling a new-born baby.  And while those are extremely special moments mine came during a recent trip to a beach house in Maine.

stairsGrowing up I was never one of those girls who spent endless hours giggling on the phone with friends and I seemed to understand the ways of boys better than teenage girls.  But as I get older I greatly cherish the relationships I’ve built with a particular group of women introduced to me by my blog writing partner, Lis. Her extremely giving nature draws people in and over the years she’s generously shared her closest friends with me.  And oh what lovely friends they are…smart, funny, accomplished, beautiful and generous of spirit.

beachFor thirty years Lis and her family have rented a beach house in Maine each summer for a couple of weeks enjoying the sun, sand and warm ocean breeze…ok, occasionally the breeze isn’t so warm since we are talking about the Atlantic.  This year she arranged the house for an extra week themed around wine, women and song and invited 5 friends including myself.

cartThe six of us drove down in a caravan of two cars and the laughter of the road set the tone for the week along with our first shopping trip to the liquor store.  I know it looks like a lot but we thought it would last, ha who were we kidding. There were equal amounts of white and red from around the world and if you’re looking closely even a bottle gin in the corner of the cart to start off cocktail hour.

all on the beachMornings were meant for long walks on the beach (exercise was necessary after all the food and wine) but no pressure if you just wanted to laze around the house and have a second cup of coffee. Days were for sitting in the sun, reading beach books, swimming in the ocean and sipping wine.

lynnOur nights were filled with delicious dinners, more wine and singing along to Lis’ amazing playlist. Some days we even sat on the beach long after everyone else had left just chatting as the sun went down. And as the tide went out again in the late evening we sometimes snuck back down to the beach whispering and laughing as we walked in the dark along the water’s edge.

puzzleIt was all so uncomplicated and easy as if we’d been friends for life.  Everyone chipped in with the cooking and cleaning and there was even a big jigsaw puzzle on the table that everyone just seemed to pick away at in hopes of finding that one elusive piece nobody could find. I’m extremely competitive so it almost killed me to leave before the puzzle was finished.

At the end of the week I was the first to leave and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and believe when I say I’m not the mushy type. But at a certain age when you start to feel like the world doesn’t see you anymore these women made me feel amazing not only about myself but the possibilities of what life still has to offer.

book&wineSitting there with my toes in the sand, the sound of the waves washing against the shore I realized life couldn’t be more perfect.  So for all the times life lets you down remember there will be other times when life’s a beautiful beach.  We’ve only been apart for a short time but I’m missing my marvelous friends and hope this is the beginning of an amazing new tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Songs: Grape Harmonies

Grape Inspiration
Grape Inspiration

There are so many ways to appreciate a good glass of wine. You can buy a case, tell a friend, and if you are a musician, write a song about it. How many songs can you think of with wine in the title?

The most bizarre, best known,with a title that makes me strangely sad:

Spill the Wine– Eric Burdon and War (1970)

According to Wikipedia – the inspiration came from Lonnie Jordan – founding member of the band War, who accidentally spilled a glass of wine all over the mixing board. Rock and Roll legend Eric Burdon thought it was so funny, he and Jordan wrote a song about it. That explains the Wine, but not the Gnome, which always made me think of Twin Peaks.

This title makes me happy:
Red, Red Wine – UB40 – (1984)

Neil Diamond wrote and performed this song lamenting a lost love by drowning his sorrows in red wine. It made it to number 62 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1968. UB40’s reggae-style version spun the tune to the top of the charts around the world, hitting number one in the US when it was re-released in 1988.

 

 

Days of Wine and Roses – Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer (1962)

This song picked up an Oscar for best original song from the movie of the same name. It went on to be performed by greats Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams. The film was a brilliant and tragic tale of two average people whose lives are devastated by alcoholism. (ok, that’s a real downer for a wine blog – but the performances are truly incredible).

How deep is the love:

Poison and Wine – Civil Wars – 2009

This haunting tune by the fabulous Nashville duo John Paul White and Joy Williams looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of relationships (and I firmly believe the wine part = the good). I first heard it on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The song is on their album Barton Hollow which debuted as #1 on the ITunes Singer-Songwriter chart.

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Cracklin’ Rosie –Neil Diamond – 1970

Wait a minute – I thought this song was about a spunky gal named Rosie or a store-bought love doll. Wrong! Cracklin’ Rosie is a bottle of cheap sparkling wine with a Canadian connection. This was Diamond’s first #1 hit and he got the idea from a folk tale about a native tribe in Northern Canada where the men far out-numbered the women (have you ever been to Fort McMurray?). The guys who didn’t get the girl on a Saturday night– got a bottle of Cracklin’ Rosie. Re-reading the lyrics with that in mind gives the song a whole new perspective.

“Cracklin’ Rose, get on board/ We’re gonna ride till there ain’t no more to go/ Taking it slow/ Lord, don’t you know/Have made me a time with a poor man’s lady”

Those are just some of the titles that hit the charts. Imagine how many wine-inspired tunes sounded great ….until the morning after.

Got another favourite wine title? Send it to us!

Mozart Makes the Vines Grow Stronger

A Rocking VintageThe connection between wine and music is a marriage made in heaven, not just because it is the combination of two of my favourites things, or even because I can’t imagine my life without either, but there is actually a science behind the power of this pairing.

Throw a little ACDC on the sound system and you might describe the red you are sipping as as punchy or bold, while those Pat Metheny tunes will have you calling a white wine  light and crisp. A study out of Herriot – Watt University in Edinburgh suggests the music you are listening to  affects the way it tastes and certain kinds of music will make the wine taste better.

Research out of the University of Leicester in the UK found that music can also  affect the kind of wine you buy. So  listening to Tony Bennett Leaving his Heart in San Francisco while shopping could lead you to a lovely Napa Valley red – while sultry French songstress  Edith Piaff could send you directly into the Bordeaux aisle.

There are web sites dedicated to music and wine pairings. WIneandMusic.com – tells us Katy Perry’s Teenage Dreams goes nicely with 7 Deadly Zins Zinfandel 2007, or Maroon 5’s Hands All Over is perfectly paired with d’Arenberg’s Stump Jump. The web site’s philosophy is “Wine is like music, you may not know what is good, but you know what you like.”

Seven Deadly Zins Suggested with Angelic Katy Perry

Another web site dedicated to harmonic pairings, WineFoodMood.com – combines beat of the music and wine style – so fast-paced and energetic tunes like Abba is best consumed with something easy drinking – like a Beaujolais. Most of the research focuses on how our wine decisions and appreciation are  influenced by music.

You don’t have to look far to see more evidence of the marriage of music and wine. For example, AC/DC Back in Black Shiraz, the Rolling Stones Forty Licks Merlot, or Sting’s Tuscan creation Sister Moon – clearly wine appreciation extends to all musical genres.

Wines That RockA Calfornia winery out of Mendocino County called  Wines that Rock produces Forty Licks Merlot and that’s just the beginning. Wines That Rock calls itself the official wine of rock and roll. Its mission: to  “create great tasting wines inspired by music.” http://www.winesthatrock.com/The-Wine. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon, Police’s Synchronicity Red Blend, Woodstock Chardonnay – the labels are amazing and the reviews pretty great, too.

According to the website,  winemaker Mark Beaman has music blasting through the cellar while working his magic. He even has playlists for harvesting (including U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Led Zepplin and Dire Straits) and for blending (Fleetwood Mac, Police, Pink Floyd and The Red Hot Chili Peppers).

A  small winery in Tuscany believes the love affair  goes both ways.. It uses the power of music to coax the best out of its grapes.

The Sound of Mozart in Paradise

Il Paradiso di Frassina plays Mozart to its vines 24 hours a day. Owner Giancarlo Cignozzi believed playing music to the vines would enhance their flavour – and make Giancarlo happy at the same time. A civil lawyer from Milan, he bought the vineyard in 1999 and brought his love of music with him.

Whether classical music makes the vines go stronger, or if it is merely a marketing tool, it is an effective one.  Il Paradiso has become known as the Mozart Vineyard. Every major wine publication along with the international media has come to call and to sample.

“We became known as the people who play music to the grapes. They thought we were nuts,” says Ulisse Cignozzi, Giancarlo’s son who gave us the tour.

The speaker people at BOSE believed enough to donate 100 speakers to the cause. The University of Florence took notice and is currently involved in a long term study to see if there is science to support the theory.  Ulisse says it’s too early to tell, but there are some initial findings that suggest the grapes respond to sound.

“We noted the sugar content is higher in grapes that are closer to the speakers,” he says.

One of the wines under the influence that we sampled, a Brunello di Montalcino 2007 was full-bodied and delicious. While I haven’t found it in the LCBO, Zoltan Szabo – sommelier at Toronto’s Trump International Hotel and Tower stocks it at the hotel.

Another wine, though not grown in the shadow of the speakers, accompanies the musical theme. 12 Uve (12 grapes) features 12 different varietals – 6 Italian, 6 Bordeaux – one for each note on the musical scale.

There’s no shortage of interest in the pairing of music and wine closer to home. Mount Royal University in Calgary offers a course in music and wine pairings. www.Mtroyal.ca

Jackson-Triggs holds a  spectacular concert series each summer, a perfect example of the harmonious blend of good music and good wine – www.jacksontriggswinery.com

The Outside Lands Festival near San Francisco even hired a wine curator to pair wines with the music performances on the menu.

“We’re creating a new platform where all these pleasure points in our life – eating, drinking and music,” curator Peter Eastlake told Wine Spectator earlier this year.

True, because there is nothing more pleasureable than a tasting a great glass of wine – at any price, while listening to the perfect piece of music.

Slainte (cheers in Gaellic – pronounced Slawn-tcha)

 

 

Weekend Wine Picks

This weekend’s picks are all about the marriage of good taste and good value. We had a little get together for 50 last week to mark a special birthday at work and I offered to pick up the wine. We didn’t have much of a budget, so creativity was required. Considering we are barrelling towards party season, I thought I would share a few of the picks for this weekend or for your next party.

A Sparkling that Sparkles

Jackson-Triggs Entourage Grand Reserve 2008 is a  bubbly that is worth a celebration. The crisp clean sparkling fine bubbles are  produced in the  Methode Classique which you only care about because it makes a sparkling so delicious you could easily compare it with a much more costly champagne. The taste is luxurious but at $22.95 a bottle, the price is not.

 

 

Some Red Crowd Pleasers

Montes Pinot Noir Limited Selection 2010 Casablanca Valley of Aconcagua, Chile at 14% alcohol was my personal favourite. Deep ruby colour, tastes of red berries – strawberry, raspberry, along with plums and herbs – I found it simply delicious and kept heading back for more. Well worth the $14.95 price.

 Rocca delle Macie Vernaiolo Chianti DOCG 2009

Medium-bodied with dark berries  and spice well balanced and perfect for the pasta that was on the menu. 12% alcohol. Rocca delle Macie is one of my favoruite producers because on their website they pair wine and song – this one apparently goes perfectly with Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone.  A tasty temptation at $13.95

Winning Whites

Inniskillin Unoaked Chardonnay 2009

Inniskillin Unoaked Chardonnay  VQA Niagara Peninsula 2009  This wine came highly recommended – zippy, refreshing with citrus, green apple and melon hints. At only $10.95, it was a top choice of white among the party goers. Good thing I cleaned out the shelf. But clearly others had the same idea, when I returned there was none left. The good news – you can order the 2010 Core Series Unoaked Chardonnay online at www.Greatestatesnioagara.com .

 

 

Babich Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough – From the land of the crisp whites that I have spent many a Saturday afternoon with – this New Zealand wine is herbal and grassy with flavours of gooseberries. Alcohol level is 13% and a sweet price at $14.95.

 

Those are my picks for the weekend. If you have tried a good valued party wine, please share.

Wednesday Wine Picks

I had the chance to taste some delicious wines over the past week and here are a few of my recommendations for the week including a splurge that is extremely worth the price, a couple of super whites and a red that will make you feel like drinking while you are wrapped in a blanket in front of a fireplace. Enjoy.

The Bold and the Beautiful

2007 First Press Cabernet Sauvignon  from the Napa Valley  –  $19.95

Deep Purple – not the music pairing but the colour. This full-bodied California Cab had me humming when my husband tempted me with a taste after work – breaking my weekends only wine at home rule. Blackberry, dark chocolate, mocha – are you getting thirsty yet? Great quality for a decent price. 14.5% alcohol and produced by the Delicato Family – known for other good value Californians. Pairs well with grilled lamb chops and rich pastas.

Music Pairing: Bruce Springsteen all the way. And not just any Springsteen –  Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born to Run.

A Chianti Classico worth the Splurge

Mazzei Ser Lapo Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 $24.95

The Mazzei family has been producing wine under the Castello di Fonterutoli name since 1435. Ser Lapo Mazzei started even earlier and is considered the father of the Chianti name – having authored the first contract for barrels of Chianti. Not surprising there were many more. This deep ruby-red with lovely red fruit aromas and velvety tannins.  James Suckling gave it a 95 and said it was the best Chianti Classico this winery had ever produced.  I popped it open while cooking up a meal of risotto with beef tenderloin. A little more than my average, but so smooth and welcoming, definitely worth the splurge.

Music Pairing – John Mayer

A Classy and Casual White

Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc 2011 17.95

OK I admit it. I totally bought this wine for the label. I have been drinking more Sauvignon Blanc’s from New Zealand recently. But this label with the angel graceful and strong floating above the vines – ok, so I have an imagination – drew the bottle into the cart. These grapes hail from the Western Cape of South Africa.  Ataraxia means a state of mind free from worry and preoccupation. Good thing to, because it was more than a pretty label. Quality wine with mouth-watering acidity, refreshing notes of grapefruit. Medium bodied and well-balanced with a surprising 14% alcohol. Choosing this wine will put you in a worry-free state of mind.

Music Pairing – anything by Sara Bareilles.

Loire Valley: Delicious and Great Price

Donatien Bahuaud 2011  Les Grands Mortier Vouvray $15.95

Pears, peaches, dried fruit – and a  touch of sweetness that fills the mouth. This wine gives me another reason to visit the Loire Valley. Absolutely delicious down to every single one of its 100% Chenine Blanc grapes. Even my husband loved it and he is a committed Red drinker. It is a lovely wine at a lovely price  from Vintages.

Music Pairing – Outstanding Trumpeter Chris Botti Impressions or the lastest Diana Krall Glad Rag Doll.

Do you have a wine pick worth sharing? Let us know.

Happy Weekend!

The Best Day Ever

There are days that are circled on your personal calendar of life followed by five stars. Today has been one of those days.

The Salcheto Vineyard

We started out by visiting Salcheto, one of my favourite wineries in Tuscany. The vines, heavy with ripe fruit, are ready for picking. Three years ago when we came to Cortona with friends for a birthday celebration, we were introduced to Salcheto, producer of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Salcheto’s Vertical Garden

 

It was one of highlights  of a week. And we stayed in touch with the director of hospitality, Ettore (Italian version of Hector) even when the winery was operating out of the back of a restaurant while the main facility was being turned into an ecological marvel.  Ettore gave us a tour and orchestrated a tasting of their outstanding wines over a Tuscan brunch.

The lunch of homemade pasta e fagioli and a plate  of Tuscan meats and cheeses was spectacular, the wine even more so.

My husband Steve at the Mozart Vineyard

Next stop about 35 km from Montepulciano was a winery known for its music.  Il Paradiso Di Frassina believes music will influence the growth of the vines. So it plays Mozart in the vineyard, 24 hours a day. This relatively small operation is in the heart of Brunello country – a region so beautiful that everywhere you look, is a photograph worthy of framing.Returning to Montepulciano, a 16th century hilltop town, we wandered down the side streets steep enough to give your calves a serious workout. We poked around the little shops, including my favourite, Fantamagoria where all the jewelry is handcrafted by the owner. I found a necklace that will make me smile and think of this day every time I wear it.

Then it is wine with a view.   Lucevan e Stelle, a little bar-restaurant at the top of the hill at magic hour.  the outdoor terrace overlooks the valley. Kristian and Luca, attentive, informative, knowledgable to a fault, suggest their favourites from their wall of wine. Each has the  price to order by the bottle, or for 20% less, to take home (which made one of my traveling companions wonder why the mark up has to be so much in restaurants in Canada – GOOD QUESTION! Two visits – 6 bottles. Seems about right.

Guilio – Owner of Osteria Acquachetta

Our day of days,  ended with dinner  at Osteria Acquachetta, a little hole in the wall with a big reputation. It’s the kind of place that represents everything that is best about dining in Italy. It’s loud. Its crowded. The owner and server have personality galore! Anina who is seven months pregnant, greets us like we are old friends.Guilio the owner, armed with a cleaver and eyebrows that stretch halfway up his forehead, deftly navigates the tables loaded down by slabs of beef. The food and wine just keep coming. Each dish is better than the last. The house wine, an excellent a Rosso di  Montalcino cost  6 euros a litre. That’s right. Less than $7.50 a LITRE.

What made this day so special, was getting to share all of this with my husband and with some of my dearest friends.

So when I will have one of those days that feels far too long, and couldn’t end soon enough, I will look back on this one, and know that whatever is going on, I have been truly blessed.

The Perfect Marriage

Wine and music. I can’t imagine life without them.  Of course my family and friends push them out of first and second  place – but really they’re so much a part of my greatest memories: Sunday dinner, Lucia party (A Swedish Christmas celebration), graduations, birthdays, travels or a gathering of great friends.

A Perfect Marriage

I’ll create a playlist for most special occasions, whether it’s a trip, a workout, music to cook by, laid-back tunes and most recently wine-tasting and wine-studying. My husband is my fiercest critic and greatest fan. He loves telling people my playlists degenerate towards the end – but he always downloads them to his iPod, so they  can’t be all that bad.
Every once in a while on a Friday or Saturday night, I will pick a few bottles and wrap them up in a paper bag after they’re opened. All  I need is a few minutes to forget which is which – but if you want to be sure, get someone else to mix up the order. I started by trying three wines, each from a different country and each a different kind of grape. A Rioja from Spain, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California and a Chianti.  If you have never done it before, get a few details about each wine and see what you can pick out from the appearance, aroma and taste. If you know you’ve practiced, challenge yourself and get three California Cabs  or three Australian Chardonnays from different regions.There are lots of great web sites to give you the ABC’s of Wine Tasting from Wine Spectator, bottle notes, or the Wine Doctor.  IYellow Wine Club founder Angela Aiello sums it up for first timers with 5 easy steps:

  1. sight
  2. swirl
  3. smell
  4. sip
  5. savour

If  you do it with friends and each brings a bottle – then you can afford better wine. Experimenting  is a lot of fun definitely worthy of a playlist or two. Building your own is also one of the great pleasures of life so give it a try. Here is mine:

Lis’ Wine-Tasting Playlist

  • Your Body Is a Wonderland – John Mayer (as is the body of a great Cab)
  • Your Song – Elton John  (great swirling music)
  • You Really got a Hold on Me – Smoky Robinson and the Miracles (tried a great Barolo lately?)
  • You Can’t Make it  Love – Michael MacDonald ( who has a voice like the deepest Shiraz)
  • You Are so Beautiful – Joe Cocker (frightening, but I have thought that about a great glass of wine)
  • Humble Me – Norah Jones (I could be thinking about the great winemakers Antinori and Gaja – more or likely their wine)
  • How Deep is Your Love – Bee Gees (or how deep is the  colour in your glass)
  • How Do You Keep the Music Playing -Tony Bennett and George Michael
  • So Right – Paul Simon
  • Sara Smile – Hall and Oates
  • This Guy’s In Love With You – B.J.Thomas
  • Up on the Roof – James Taylor and Carole King (because they go together in perfect harmony like wine and music)
  • Into the Mystic – Van Morrison
  • Sitting on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding (because it may be one of the most perfect songs ever written)
  • Landslide – Fleetwood Mac version
  • Drive  All Night – Bruce Springsteen ( because anyone who would drive all night to buy his woman some shoes deserves toasting)
  • Heart of Mine. – Boz Scaggs
  • Through the Fire – Chaka Khan (because I can hit the high notes in my dreams. Or in my car. Only if I am alone..I promise)
  • Tiny Dancer – Elton John ( because you might have had enough wine to sing along – though watch the wax if you hold up a candle instead of a lighter- concert style) Also a favourite of my blogging partner whose name is Tina Daenzer and back when well-known sportscaster Rod Black hosted Canada AM he would sing to Tiny Daenzer when she arrived at the studio (minus the wine in the mornings of course)
  • Still Crazy After all These Years – Paul Simon (because Paul Simon is such a genius)
  • Thunder Road (the acoustic version or any version for that matter) – Bruce Springsteen ( because he could be the greatest songwriter of our time. This is his greatest song and this is such a powerful  version that it can pair with a wine that’s rough around the edges or smooth as silk).

And if you are exploring Italian – throw in a little Andrea Bocelli,   Chris Botti’s Italia CD is divine, and Chiara Civello, the best Italian-English  singer you have never heard of will keep you coming back for more.

Whatever you choose to  add to your playlist, whatever memory it brings back, whatever wine you pour in your glass, so long as company is selected with care, you will have the perfect blend.

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 rentvillas.com and our most gracious host Andrea who has a number of villas available info@casaleruffignano.com

 

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.