As hail clatters against my windowpanes and rain and wind wash the streets clean to the music of thunder, I write. I LOVE THUNDERSTORMS! I find them comforting, peaceful. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.
Suddenly, I realize that the grape and olive growers I met in the Tuscan countryside this week will not feel that way. This rain and hail, if they reach the vineyards, will cause disaster. It is only days before the grape harvest is to begin. In fact, on Monday, perhaps because of fear of the weather, some had already started to bring their grapes in early.
These next few days and weeks and all the sun they can offer will determine the quality of the grape harvest this year. Already it has been an unseasonably wet, cool year, with August and September temperatures and rainfall more typical of June. Grapes are fragile, fickle. They take their character in any given year from the natural mix of rain, sun, soil conditions, and heat. This year, many top Italian vintners have already said that they do not plan to make their high end varietals for fear that a bad crop could harm their reputations. This won’t impact Italian wines in the short term, as it takes years to prepare a wine for distribution, but 5-6 years down the road, it will be felt, even moreso if this hail decimates the soft, ripening grapes.
So, today, I write about wine, and a bit about olives. In Tuscany, most wine makers also press olive oil. It’s the tradition according to the wine merchant at Pasolini dall’Onda Winery in Barberino in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Barberino straddles the Chianti and Chianti Classico grape regions, a small, quaint village built in 1073. Before this trip, I had not known that there was a difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico wines. I will talk more about that in my next post.
Barberino, Italy – Pasolini dall’Onda Winery
Once the grapes have been harvested, the olives are ready to be picked. In this region, both grapes and olives are picked by hand in a centuries old bartering arrangement. Local villagers, or those from the surrounding countryside come to pick grapes or olives in exchange for enough wine or olive oil to last their families for a year. They fill containers from the first, young wine, from the first press of olives and carry them home to enjoy until the harvest next autumn. I would love to have the opportunity to take part in this experience. I will see if I can make it happen.
Several weeks ago, growers went to the fields to prepare them for harvest. They cleared the rows in the vineyard, cutting away lower hanging leaves to expose the tender grapes to the full force of the sun. Sun and warm temperatures now (ideally in the 80s F) will increase juice production and sweetness in these last precious days before harvest.
As we walked in the vineyards, we had the opportunity to taste fresh Sangiovese grapes (the grapes used to make Chianti) from the vines. Warmed by the sun, they were juicy and flavorful, a multi-level sweetness and intensity that was pleasing to the tongue. I could not imagine how they could taste better. Of course, I am not a wine maker. I was to find out.
Our tour of Pasolini dall’Onda included tastings of two cold pressed, extra virgin, olive oils and three red wines. Were we to taste the olive oil properly, we would have drunk sips from small glasses. (Shudder!) That was too much for all of us, so we tasted them with basic Italian bread. I’m so glad we did. The first, the more typical olive oil (in rectangular bottles that we find everywhere) was extremely strong for me, heavy and dense. I found it harsh and bitter. I didn’t like it.
The second, their premium olive oil called Laudemio was light and fresh. Its taste was much more delicate and smooth. It was the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. I bought a bottle to take back to the states.
Then the part I was really looking forward to began, the wine tasting. I am a wine fan. I particularly like reds. I’m also picky about what I like. First, we tried a young 2011 Chianti. I found it harsh with a strong after taste. I’ve found that with several Chiantis since I got here. The wine merchant described it as young and smooth. His description didn’t really match my experience. Between tastings we cleared our palates with what is perhaps the tastiest bread I’ve eaten since I got here. It was a scachatta, which reminded me texture wise of a focaccia, buttery and dense. It was perfect with all the wines.
The second wine was a 2009 Chianti Classico Reserve called Sicelle. (With Chianti Classico wines, always make sure they have the black rooster symbol on the bottle – again, I’ll explain why in my next post.) To me, it had a much more full bodied flavor. It was multi-layered and very smooth. I liked it a great deal! I bought a bottle that I am currently enjoying. It’s my favorite Chianti of this Italian adventure (so far).
The third wine we tried was a 2008 Super Tuscan called San Zanobi. It was delicious. It was flavorful, full bodied, a really complex wine that tasted different on different parts of my tongue. I was delighted to learn that winemakers consider Super Tuscan wines to be “meditation wines”, the idea being that if you open them 1-2 hours prior to drinking them and serve them with red meat, hearty pasta, cheeses, or chocolate, the flavor of the wine matures and changes as the evening goes on. I bought 2 bottles. I’ll let you know how my “meditation” goes.
The sun has finally broken through the clouds and the streets beckon. I hope the vineyards and olive groves are safe. For now, I’m off to meet some friends for my first aperitivo (wine and appetizers). Caio for now!