Chianti, Chianti Classico, Florence, Food, Italy 2014, Sabbatical, Super Tuscans, Tuscan Wine Tours, Tuscany, wine

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside: On Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscan Wines

So, if you’re like me, you weren’t aware that there is a difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico wines. You’ve likely also never heard of Super Tuscans. I learned about these wines on my Tasty Tuscany food and wine tour with Tuscan Wine Tours / Grape Tours :http://www.tuscan-wine-tours.com/Florence_wine_tours.htm. To fill in some remaining blanks, I did follow-up research also reported below.

The Chianti Region of Tuscany

While not precisely delineated, the borders of the Chianti region of Tuscany include a 20km area (approximately 12.4. miles) around and between the provinces of Florence and Siena. It also includes areas toward Arezzo, Pistoia and Montepulciano. http://www.chianti.com. “The story goes that in the 13th century, Florence and Siena, who had been fighting over the Chianti territory for many, many years, decided to settle their dispute once and for all. They mutually agreed to have horsed riders leave their respective towns at dawn, and where the two horses met would be the final boundary, senza scuse. Those shrewd Florentines had a black rooster which they starved for days. The day of the proposed meeting, the hungry rooster crowed much earlier than dawn, so the Florentine knight got a head start. The Sienese rider only made it about several miles from his town’s walls and thus Florence won a much more sizeable chunk of land”. (Amanda Schuster, http://www.snooth.com/region/italy/tuscany/chianti-classico/#ixzz3DmIkPHLa)

Historically, the Chianti Classico region was strictly regulated to include grapes grown and wines made exclusively in Gaiole, Radda and Castellina which were part of the ancient “Florentine Military League of Chianti”. This region has been expanded to include San Casciano and Tavarnelle, Greve and part of Barberino, as well as the areas of Castelnuovo Berardenga and Poggibonsi near Siena.

The Chianti region is indicated in light gray on the map below, the Chianti Classico region in the dark gray. Check our more wine maps and tour information at the following link: http://www.cellartours.com/italy/italian-wine-maps/

Tuscan wine map

The symbol of the Chianti Classico region, the black rooster can still be found on all certified wines from the region. These are considered the best wines this region has to offer and the only ones permitted to carry the name Chianti Classico: http://www.chianti.com/the-hills-of-chianti.html.

Chianti, Chianti Classico and Super Tuscan Wines

In Tuscany and throughout Italy, wine is heavily regulated. It is not permitted, for example, to irrigate vineyards. Here, vintners grow their own grapes. They don’t purchase grapes from others to make their wines. It is considered a matter of tradition, a matter of pride.Sunshine determines the sweetness and juiciness of the grapes. Only natural pesticides, specifically liquid sulfur and liquid copper, are permitted. During wine-making, it is not permitted to add any sugars or yeasts to aid the natural fermentation process. The quality of wine in a given year is considered “God given, natural”.

In addition to regulations about grape growing and the wine making, the composition of wine in the region is also closely regulated. According to our sommelier, Kimberly, and the wine merchant at Pasolini dall’Onda winery which we visited in Barberino, to make a Chianti wine, 85% of the grapes used must be Sangiovese grapes. The remaining 15% can be a mix of Merlot, Cabernet, Canailo and Colorino grapes. Chianti wines are younger, often aged and bottled more quickly than Chiani Classico wines, so their flavors are lighter, less intense.

The wine making process at Pasolini dall’Onda goes as follows: Once the grapes have been pressed, for their lighter table Chiantis, the wine is aged for 1 year in French oak (the absolute best for wine making, we were told), 1 year in Italian oak, and then 9 months, bottled, in a wine cellar on its side so the wine touches the cork. High end varietals, like Chianti Classico and Super Tuscans are aged for 3 years in French oak, 1 year in Italian oak, and 9 months bottled in the cellar.

French oak

French oak barrels

Italian oak

Italian oak barrels

The cellars at Pasolini dall’Onda are located under the streets of Barberino and maintain a naturally perfect temperature (no heating or air conditioning) year round.

wine cellar

Chianti Classico wines must meet further certifications in addition to those governing Chianti which earn them the black rooster on the label and DOGC status (the highest certification for wine in Italy). If you’d like more information on the Italian wine certification system, click here: http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-docg-doc-60449. “All bottles of Chianti Classico have a seal depicting a black rooster (gallo nero)”. http://www.snooth.com/region/italy/tuscany/chianti-classico/#ixzz3DmIkPHLa)

How to drink a Chianti, Chianti Classico, or Super Tuscan wine

Our vintner recommended opening a Chianti wine 15 minutes before serving with white meat, fish, or light pasta. Red meat and pastas with heavier sauces, particularly those with tomatoes call for a Chianti Classico (always look for the black rooster on the label), a richer, more full bodied wine that should be opened 1 hour prior to serving.

In addition to Chianti and Chianti Classico wines, vintners in this area also create what they call Super Tuscans. Super Tuscans are not regulated in the same ways Chianti and Chianti Classico wines are. Vintners refer to Super Tuscans as “meditation wines”. Because they are permitted to mix grapes creatively, some argue that these have more potential for multi-level flavors and are best opened 1-2 hours before serving and savored throughout the evening as their aromas and flavors change. Super Tuscans go well with red meat and hearty cheeses as well as chocolate.

As I noted in my earlier post, I’m partial to Chianti Classico and Super Tuscan wines. Still haven’t mediated yet on my San Zanobi Super Tuscans, but the Sicelle Chianti Classico was delightfully smooth and flavorful.

Well, that’s all I have for today. Ciao for now!

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Chianti, Chianti Classico, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, Florence, Italy 2014, Pasolini della'Anda, Reflections, Sabbatical, Super Tuscans, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 2: Wine, Rain, and a bit about Olives

Hail storm

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

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.

Grapes 2

Sangiovese grapes

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.

Olives

Olives

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!

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Eataly, Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, Reflections, Sabbatical, Slow food movement, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1: San Casciano – Fresh Pasta & the Slow Food Movement

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Ok, I have a confession to make. I love food! I love shopping for it, preparing it, cooking it. Most of all, I love savoring it. I LOVE to eat good, tasty, high quality food. I have found that in Italy in abundance. Fortunately I walk all the time, so I haven’t put on any weight. In fact, I’m getting a lot stronger. I live on a hill and access is through steps or a steep street. I walk, a lot! That said, my diet is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a bit of beef and chicken, some pasta and some bread (less of each than you might expect). I also love organic raspberry jam. I mean I LOVE it! And fresh cheeses. I have no idea what kinds they are, but I LOVE them, older, harder cheeses and younger, softer cheeses. I don’t seem to be much of a fan of goat cheese here, but cheeses made of cows’ milk are heavenly. Oh, and I love Italian wines, especially reds, although I am warming up to whites made of vernaccia grapes, delicious, but little known outside of Italy at the moment. I foresee this changing quickly. I now know the differences between Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscans (more on those later).

So, in my quest for food and drink, I took my first excursion into the Tuscan countryside on September 15, in honor of my sister Kathy’s birthday (which was the 14th) and because I thought it was time for an adventure outside the amazing city of Florence. With Grape Tours, I took this trip into the Tuscan countryside and I met all the people whose photos you see on their site: http://www.foodtourintuscany.com.

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Specifically we toured the chianti and vernaccia grape regions outside Florence. There were seven of us in our group guided by Kimberly, an Amsterdam native, who grew up in Chicago, IL and moved to Italy five years ago (although she spent 3 of those years in Singapore running a restaurant with her Italian husband). He now has a restaurant a bit farther South in Italy which I hope to visit. She is a sommelier. My traveling companions were a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary from Minnesota who now live in New Jersey, a couple from New York on their honeymoon, and a couple from England on an adventure, as well as your intrepid narrator.

It was an amazing adventure including fresh pasta making, a tour of a winery and olive oil press, lunch at an eco-agriculture farm that grows saffron (!!!) and has a delightful bed and breakfast, a visit to historic San Gimignano where we had free time to walk the ancient streets and sample gelato from the shop that has been named “Best gelato in the world” for 8 of the last 10 years (according to our guide), and a truffle hunt with amazing truffle dogs (I’m smitten!) in the forest. (Sadly, we didn’t find any truffles.)

I think the thing that impressed me the most was the commitment to the “Slow Food” movement and eating locally, organically, and healthily that everyone we saw supported. I, personally, wasn’t familiar with the “Slow Food” movement, so I asked a lot of questions. It seems to be about eating locally, a zero carbon footprint, organic, non-pesticide, non-GMO food, and taking the time to savor what you eat. I’m in! To learn more, there are a number of relevant articles here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/slow-food-movement/. A grocery store dedicated to the philosophy of healthy, local eating called Eataly was started in Italy . There are now 27 Eataly stores worldwide, 10 in Italy, including Florence, 13 in Japan, 1 in Dubai, 1 in Turkey, and 1 in Chicago and New York. Find out more here. http://www.eataly.com/global/. You can also purchase their products online through http://www.eataly.com/ which seems to fly in the face of the zero carbon footprint, eat locally philosophy they were built on, but there you go.

My next several blog posts will cover all I learned about these regions of Tuscany, wine and olive oil, organic food, saffron, and truffles. Today, I’ll talk about homemade pasta in San Casciano.

Homemade pasta in San Casciano – The first stop on our adventure was San Casciano, a hilltop village, 17.6 kilometers (10.9 miles) and a 27 minute drive (or 30 minute bus ride) from Florence. San Casciano was bombed repeatedly during WWII, so very little of the ancient architecture remains except small segments of the city wall. It is also Machiavelli’s birthplace and the site where he wrote The Prince after being exiled from Florence when the Medici family lost power in 1512.

We were here not for Machiavelli, but rather to observe a family run, from scratch, pasta shop that serves the region. Called Maccheroni e raviuoli (macaroni and ravioli), the shop is run by a mother, father, and son with one shop assistant.

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They make fresh pasta throughout the day by hand and with the support of small mixing, blending, cutting and stuffing machines. They are known for their tasty desserts (Mama’s speciality) and their ravioli and homemade sauces which are popular with restaurants and families throughout the region.

After a demonstration on preparing pasta dough, slicing various types of pasta, and setting a machine to stuff fresh ravioli, I purchased some “gnudi” (literally without clothes – nude). These are the stuffing inside ravioli made of buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan cheeses, eggs, nutmeg (the secret ingredient), and salt and pepper rolled into balls. You can add other finely cut ingredients like spinach, tomatoes, peppers, basil, sage, etc. as desired, but be careful of the moisture content. (These ingredients will likely sound familiar to anyone who makes stuffed pasta or lasagna.) To cook, you simply put the gnudi in boiling, lightly salted water until they float (just a couple minutes). After cooking them for dinner, I sprinkled mine with a bit of salt and pepper and they were delicious.

gnudi

I also purchased some of the ravioli we had watched being made. The pasta makers recommended that I hold it in the frig for a day or two before eating it as the flavor is “better, more mixed”. I’ll try that today! They recommended it with salt, pepper, butter and fresh sage. I picked up some fresh sage at the eco-agricultural saffron farm we visited later in the day (more on that in a later post). I’m to melt the butter in a pan, add chopped sage, saute for a moment, then add the pasta, mix it together and salt and pepper to taste. I’ll let you know!

As with gnudi, fresh pasta should be cooked only until it floats for a lovely al dente texture. Dried pasta takes longer because it is being rehydrated as it cooks (I’d never thought of that.). For regular pasta, fusilli, rigatoni, spaghetti, fettucine, etc., the pasta makers recommend 40% semolina flour, 60% farina (all purpose flour), and 5 eggs per kilo (2.2 pounds) of pasta dough. You will likely need to add a touch of water (less than 1/4 cup – add by tablespoons) to get it to the initial crumbly consistency you desire (30% humidity according to our host – I have no idea what 30% humidity is like, but did understand crumbly texture that binds together when you squeeze some in your hand). They don’t put salt in the pasta dough. You can add that to the water as you’re cooking. For stuffed pasta, you want a firmer dough so they recommend 50% semolina, 50% farina, and 7 eggs per kilo.  (Again, you will likely need to add a bit of water – up to ¼ cup to get the texture crumbly, but able to bind.) After cutting the pasta in desired shapes, they sprinkle the pasta with rice flour so that it doesn’t stick together.

Pasta tips: Fresh pasta is good in the frig for up to 5 days, stuffed pasta for 3. Fresh, dried pasta is best within 7 days. You can, of course, also freeze fresh pasta.

In my next post, we’ll discuss wine and olive oil. Caio!

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