Tuscan Blind Tasting with Eyes Wide Open

Two Glasses Half Full
Two Glasses Half Full

When life takes a turn…

A bit of a personal story before I share a wine adventure that I wish upon every lover of great wine.
Fifteen months ago, my husband and favourite travelling companion had a terrible accident. He fell down cement stairs head first landing him in intensive care with a brain injury,unable to walk and barely able to talk. Life changed in an instant. The love of my life, partner in wine, in travel, in all those mundane day-to-day things you take for granted, was not there.  And no one could tell me what the future would look like, or whether he would ever be back. Those were dark days.

Miraculously,within a relatively short time, he fought his way back. Different in some ways, and wonderfully familiar in others. Better. ( He actually tells people he is smarter.) But because of the type of  brain injury, he could not drink for a year.

The relevance to this entry, is because we got to share our first glass of wine together since the accident in our favourite place in the world.

Steve's First Glass  at E Lucevan Le Stelle
Steve’s First Glass
at E Lucevan Le Stelle

And maybe Bacchus the God of Grapes  took pity on a wine lover being forced to abstain for that long,  because that evening, we were invited to a blind tasting by 10 wine producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG at E Lucevan Le Stelle Wine Bar.

Vino Nobile, along with Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti, are the  three celebrated gems of  the Sangiovese grape. In 1980, Vino Nobile  became the first to receive the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation. It must be aged for two years before release and is characteristically full-bodied with firm tannins.

This evening we were testing the new releases of the 2011.

The Contenders
The Contenders

Ten numbered bottles at the bar, a score sheet and a room full of producers and wine lovers.  There was nothing formal about this tasting – it was a chance to talk with the producers and for people like Cinzia, who owns the bar, she gets to know what kinds of wine appeal the most.

Organizer Cinzia in Action
Organizer Cinzia in Action

Oh what a night!   I was completely intimidated until Cinzia  told me that only one in  ten producers can identify their own wine, let alone all 10.   Vittorio Bagnasco, who produces Lamberto,  blamed the fact he had a cold. Great excuse, I told him.

They all come with stories.

 

 

Vittorio of LambertoVittorio has been producing wines at Lamberto for 10 years. Before that he was a documentary cameraman and Director of Photography for feature films when he decided to take his love of wine one brave step further.

 

Il Conventino Ready for Sampling
Il Conventino
Ready for Sampling

 

Dr. Alberto Brini of Il Conventino Wines – had just that day made a bid to the LCBO to get his organic wines into their stores.   He looked about 25 and like all of the producers, utterly charming. His wine was ready before the label.

 

 

And Cinzia, the event organizer – I found out that night, was a marine engineer before she toasted a new career and opened up the wine bar and B & B.

All the wines were rated for colour, nose and taste. We ranked them and tried to guess the producer.  The wines ranged from elegant and silky to tannins that packed a serious punch.

Tasting Blind
Tasting Blind

Of course, whenever I ambled my way to the bar for a refill, I peeked at some of the marks.  The producers tended to be quite generous with their marks, while some of the wine lovers were, in my opinion, much too tough.

Valdipiatta  Took Top Marks
Valdipiatta
Took Top Marks

Valdipiatta, a small winery making a significant mark, came in first place. The 2007 Riserva is available at Vintages. It  was my third pick ( and my husband’s first pick – I told you he says he is smarter now).

Il Conventino ranked second – and producer Brini was one of the few who correctly identified his own wine.

 

Montemercurio Messaggero
Montemercurio Messaggero

Montemercurio Messaggero came third. I loved this wine – the colour and nose were quite subtle, but exploded on the palate.

 

 

 

And while I  only managed to match one wine with its proper label –  it was the chance to preview some of excellent wines that will hopefully one day soon be available in Canada.

 

 

 

 

Weekend Wine Picks that WOW

Rolf Binder Ma I? Have This Evening Shiraz/Mataro 2009 (Barossa Valley, Australia)

Have This Evening?
Have This Evening?

Great value alert: I love to start with a wine that tastes like it should cost much more. This Barossa Valley red is a blend of 80% Shiraz and 20% Mataro grapes. It is structured and elegant with blackberry and hints of dark chocolate. And I admit it, I am a sucker for an Australian wine with a lovely label and this one is a beaut.The Australians and Californians often have great labels and still manage to get the wine right. All too often the memorable label is a strong sign that the wine will be anything but.  And I must give honourable mention to Ontario’s Megalomaniac wines that produce award-winning labels and terrific wines. More on the art of the wine label next week.

Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2009 DOCG $19.95 LCBO, $18.80 SAQ

Value Vino
Value Vino

OK I was seduced by a wine I love at a price that seemed too good to be true. This is another great value wine. Strong cherry and tobacco notes, the wine is extra dry.  It could benefit from decanting. While this is not as smooth as some of  the wines of its Tuscan neighbours, you don’t often see Vino Nobile di Montepulciano at this price. 12.7% alcohol.

 

 

Quinta Da Lixa Pouco Comum Alvarinho 2011 $14.95

Fresh and Crisp White
Fresh and Crisp White

This white from Portugal’s Minho region is aromatic and crisp. Think citrus, think lime – a wine that is ripe with opportunity. It is fresh and balanced, but with substance. At $14.95 – if you haven’t ventured past Charodnnay and Pinot Grigio, give yourself a new grape to try. It comes from northern part of the country, a region best known for Vino Verde – refreshing whites with a green tinge.

 

 

 

The Splurge of the Week

Bold and Beautiful
Bold and Beautiful

Mollydooker The Boxer Shiraz 2010 (South Australia) $29.95

I love this wine. I love this winery’s philisophy and I would love to have its two founders, Sarah and Sparky Marquis ,over for  dinner. Mollydooker is Aussie slang  for left hander – because Sarah and Sparky  are both lefties.  Just last month, I wrote about Mollydooker’s Maitre D’. This week I was delighted to see a new and equally distinctive label on the shelf at Vintages.  The Boxer is a guaranteed crowd pleaser if you like full-bodied, fruity, rich, bold, delicious – and I could go on and on wine. While this style of fruity, highly alcoholized wine is not to everyone’s taste, it has a lot of fans. Sarah and Sparky’s story is as rich as its wines.  They went from the brink of bankruptcy to almost overnight success. Check out their fabulous web site. It is as creative as their labels. Their wines get rave reviews and they can’t produce enough of it.  It is a splurge, but I am sipping it as I write, and it is ripe with blackberries, blueberries, spice  and plenty of promise that keep delivering. Alcohol: (hold on to your hat) 16%

What attracts your eye to the bottle? The label, the grape, the region or the rating?

A Small Tuscan Winery gets Top Marks

 

Morning Glory in Montepulciano

Tucked into the valley underneath those clouds is a modest winery getting anything but modest results. When you drive down the long dirt road approaching Tenuta Valdipiatta and you witness the glory of the past and the taste of the future.

Acres and acres of vines, some decades old, some barely a year, roots finding a home in some of the most valuable terroir in Italy.

Everything about this place feels authentic.

This is not product of good marketing. This is the product of care, attention and excellent grapes. We lucked out on this day because it was prime harvest time. The workers were hand picking  the vines.  Truckloads of fat juicy grapes were  poured into the de-stemmer and the fermentation process begins.

A Truckload of Beauty
A Truckload of Juicy Beauties

We got a tour and tasting of four of their wines for 10 Euros. They have another tour that sounds sublime: a sensory wine tasting that guides you through the experience using natural and artificial aromas that lead you through the sampling of three of their fine wines.I called at the last-minute on the off-chance they had an available time. Lucia graciously obliged with a tour of the estate and a tasting of some of their best.
It’s one of the many things I love about this country.

There is always something around the corner to discover that makes your life so much richer for having experienced it.

 In this case, it was the Valdipiatta Vino Nobile Di Montipulciano 2009. And it wasn’t just us. Robert Parker gave it a whopping 93 – not bad considering it is only 17 Euros a bottle. We sampled the Rosso, the Vino Nobile, the Riserva and Lucia threw in a Super Tuscan blend of Canaiolo and Merlot  for comparison.

Tenuta Valdipiatta produces 140,000 bottles a year. And I am taking home four of them for tonight’s  dinner and four of them back to Canada.  Such difficult decisions. Allowing you to bring back   only four bottles is sheer torture. The signs that say We Ship Worldwide  are so misleading. In Canada,  it only valuable of you are buying crazy expensive wine. The base price for shipping 6 bottles in 110 Euros. Argh!

But Valdipiatta will make my final cut. And when I am sitting on my back deck with great friends, a plate of simple pasta and I pop open that bottle – it will bring back memories of another perfect day in the outskirts of Montepulciano, Italy – a glass in hand and a dream to return again.

Is there a special wine that brings back memories for you?

A Tuscan Watering Hole

If you ever visit the  town of Montepulciano, put on a pair of comfy shoes and head to the top of the hill. E Lucevan le Stelle is a restaurant with an outdoor patio that overlooks the rolling hills of Tuscany. The restaurant is named after the third  act of Puccini’s opera, Tosca.

 “When the stars were brightly shining ”  tells the story of Mario, a painter in love with Tosca. It became the favourite watering hole of another pair of well-known lovers – Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart during their happier days filming scenes from New Moon.

( For Twilight fans, Montepulciano was the stand in for Volterra hence the New Moon t-shirts and menus in some of the more touristy spots). At twilight, e Lucevan Le  Stelle became our neighborhood gathering place during two days in the town.

 

 

Owner Kristian and Luca moved tables and kept the wine coming as the new arrivals to our group kept coming on our first night. They could not have been more gracious.

There is something so wonderful  about seeing old friends walk through the door of the perfect little restaurant, in the perfect little town, at the start of a perfect little vacation. My friends Cindy and Phil only found it because a kind-hearted truck driver took pity on the first timers trying to navigate the twisty roads in the dark, and he drove them there himself.

Those are  the kind of people you meet everywhere in this wonderful country. They take the time to talk, to share their knowledge, and while you enter as strangers, you often leave as friends who you hope to see again.

Luca was a big fan of the locally produced Valdipiatta, a  small winery with some big  wines.  It became our wine of choice for the eight of us over dinner, lots of catching up, and getting acquainted.  Even with eight bottles, the dinner cost us 45 Euros per couple.

 

The stars shone brightly for us that night.

I love Italy!

 

 

A Foodie’s Temptation (Why everything tastes better in Italy)

Osteria L’Acquachetta has a handwritten sign on the front door that tells visitors if you want a seat, fogettaboutit. Go home.  If you don’t have a reservation, don’t bother.This is not a pretentious little bistro, it’s the favourite place to eat for tourists and locals in Tuscany’s Montepulciano area.
And it is not hard to understand why.
The Lovely Anina

 

Tell waitress Anina that you come from Canada, and she gives you a hug and asks you if we know Debbie Travis – a regular when she is in town.

There are half a dozen long tables side by side, so you never know who your dinner companions will be. My first visit I sat beside two vegetarians from San Francisco. Interesting because at the far end of the restaurant in the kitchen , huge slabs of beef sit on a counter in front of a wood burning stove.

Guilio – Man of Meat

The kitchen  is where Guilio is king.  Order a steak “alla” Fiorentina and Guilio hacks off a slab and brings it to the table for your consideration. My husband Steve, who is a certified carnivore, thought he had died and gone to meat heaven.

The rest of the specials are handwritten on a piece of brown paper and basically feature anything that tickled Guilio’s fancy at the market

that morning or something delectable dropped off by one of the farmers in the region who knows what he’s looking for.

Anina prepared a cornucopia of appetizers – from fried zucchini flowers, to Scamorza cheese baked with thin slices of pear, peperonata, and some concoction with fennel and onion that we wiped clean.

Then there were too many choices on the list of specials so there was plenty of sharing involved among our group of eight. Saltimboca, grilled rabbit, homemade pork sausages, tagliatelle with lamb ragu (a crowd favourite) – all reasonably sized portions.

 

Then there was the beef. You can’t really come to the Osteria without trying the steak.  It’s like going to Moishe’s in Montreal and ordering a peanut butter sandwich.  Our one slab of beef, worthy of serving at Fred Flintstone’s table,  weighed in at 1.9 kilos. And don’t ask for it well done.  Guilio is armed with a cleaver.

 

The colourful  owner has a few other rules, too. Don’t  ask for a cappuccino or any other frou frou item you would find on a tourist menu.  Oh, then there is a glass rule. you only get one glass for water and wine. It’s up to you to use it wisely. The house wine was a exceptionally quaffable Rosso Di Montepulciano at a whopping six Euros a litre, good enough to order five more.

While we couldn’t finish every bite, we did a fair amount of damage. Maria wanted to gnaw the meat bone, and I think Phil may have licked the dessert plate. Yes…we had dessert too and coffee all around. It started at one Tiramisu with eight forks, then Anina mentioned the chocolate cake and something with peaches. Lynn declared it the best  meal she has ever had and threw down the gauntlet to recreate it at a future gathering.

When it came time for the bill, the guesses ranged from 270 – 350  Euros considering that slab of beef and the parade of dishes that we ordered. Guilio came to the table and did the accounting right in front of us on a paper tablecloth.  The grand total…190 Euros – less than 50 per couple.

No wonder you need reservations!

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.

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.

Salute!