Archive for the ‘Italy’Category

Radicchio di Treviso: sweet winter crunch

Lucio Torresan of Tenuta al Parco golds a sheaf of field-grown radichhio
We’ve written about the beautiful Venetian city of Treviso as a center for Prosecco DOC and the birthplace of tiramisù, but it’s also home to one of our favorite winter vegetables. Radicchio Rosso di Treviso IGP is the blanched winter chicory indigenous to the region.

Treviso radicchio generally comes in elongated, slightly pointy, tightly packed heads. But as Lucio Torresan of Park Farm (actually, Azienda Agricola Tenuta al Parco) shows above, field-grown radicchio looks little like the market product. Those big red and green weeds he’s holding “are so bitter that even the goats won’t eat them.”

Workers at the Tenuta al Parco farm trim Treviso radicchioWhen Torresan and his workers get done with the field-grown plants, though, they will be tender and sweet, with just a slight residual bitterness.

Magic in the dark

“You must force it in cold water in the dark,” he explains. “It becomes a completely different vegetable.” His barn includes a room-sized refrigerator stacked high with field-harvested radicchio. From October into the winter, his workers pull up the plants by the roots, removing the top half of the leaves with machetes. With part of the root still attached, the plants hold in cold storage for a month before they are replanted in water for forcing.

Completely stripped of their outer leaves, heads of Treviso radicchio soak in cold water before being packed and shipped.Torresan sets the field-harvested plants into indoor shallow tanks fed with a constant flow of spring water. Under the low light, tender inner leaves begin to grow at the heart of the plant in about 10 days. After another 15-18 days, they are ready to harvest. Workers strip the outer leaves, leaving the tender hearts. The market vegetable has burgundy-red leaves with white ribs. Once the tanks are clear, the process repeats with more plants from the cooler. This system produces delicate radicchio di Treviso until early May.

The farm store at Tenuta al Parco is open daily at Via San Martino 24/B, Morgano (+39 042 273 9028).

Both tasty and lovely

Venetians go wild over Treviso radicchio, preferring it to its softball-shaped cousin, radicchio di Chioggia. (The latter is the bitter variety grown in the U.S.) Restaurateurs serve it in risottos, chopped into a raw salsa for steak tartare, and roasted and drizzled with vinegar. Portions are usually small, since the intense flavor can be sharp. My favorite treatment was duck ravioli with radicchio-chestnut sauce. It’s a seasonal specialty at Graspo de Ua, a tiny hotel restaurant in Venice. The restaurant has excelled at traditional Venetian fare since 1860. It’s on Calle dei Bombaseri not far from the Rialto bridge (+39 041 520 0150, ristorantealgraspodeua.it/en). The following recipe is adapted from their version, as shown below.

RADICCHIO AND CHESTNUT SAUCE ON RAVIOLI


The traditional Venetian dish uses ravioli stuffed with duck and spinach. Ground pork ravioli or mushroom ravioli can substitute.

Serves 4

Radicchio and chestnut sauce on ravioli as served at Ristorante al Graspo de Ua in Venice, Italy.Ingredients

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
4 heads radicchio di Treviso, chopped
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 7-ounce can of Italian chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 lb. fresh ravioli
2 ounces Gran Padano cheese, coarsely shredded
1 small bunch Italian parsley, minced

Directions

Bring large pot of lightly salted water to a boil for pasta.

In 10- to 12-inch frying pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add shallot and cook 2 minutes until soft. Then add radicchio to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until it wilts (7-10 minutes). Add vinegar, sugar, chestnuts, and sea salt and continue to cook until radicchio is almost melting.

Meanwhile, cook ravioli al dente. Drain and keep warm.

Divide ravioli evenly onto four preheated 10-inch plates and top with sauce. Sprinkle with shredded cheese and minced parsley.

17

01 2017

Limestone mountains loom over Jerzu vines

Jerzu and Antichi Poderi winery
Famed for its local strain of Cannonau, the vineyards of Jerzu grow in a massive natural amphitheater scooped out of the side of a limestone range. The basin ascends from sea level to 750 meters, and the soils are all a mix of soft limestone and crumbly schist. The photo above shows the ridge and the hillside village of Jerzu. The industrial site in the foreground is the Antichi Poderi Jerzu cooperative (www.jerzuantichipoderi.it/en/), which produces 1.8 million bottles a year.

The predominance of limestone subsoil at Jerzu means that the vines have to live with scarce water that drains away underground. This drainage carves out great cavern systems for spectacular spelunking. On the outskirts of nearby Ulassai, the Grotta di Su Marmuri (www.grottasumarmuri.it) is open April through October for €10 guided tours. The journey takes about 90 minutes, including the time to climb a steep 100 meters up the mountain to the mouth of the cave. The descent of about 50 meters into the main chambers is much easier. Formed by water erosion during the Jurassic period, the cave system consists of several high-vaulted rooms with marvelously abstract stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Antichi Poderi Jerzu

Antichi Poderi winesThe limestone basin has been known for a thousand years or more as a good place to grow grapes. Records from A.D. 1103 show the people of Jerzu paying tribute to the papal legate in wine rather than gold. Eighteen owners of the oldest vineyards launched the Vitivinicola Antichi Poderi Jerzu wine-grower’s cooperative in 1950. (“Antichi poderi” translates as “ancient estates” or “ancient parcels.”) Now boasting 430 members, this powerhouse cooperative also carries out extensive historical and technical research on Jerzu winemaking.

The cooperative makes Cannonau wines in several styles and price points. Its basic young Cannonau di Sardegna, called Marghia, sells widely in the U.S. for less than $10. It is a bright young wine with raspberry notes and very soft tannins—easy-drinking red. The base riserva, called Chuerra, is made in much the same manner, but receives six months in large oak barrels and a year in small barrels before bottling. The combination of Slovenian and French oak imparts more structure to the tannins as well as pronounced cedar and eucalyptus herbal notes.

Josto Miglior Cannonau di Sardegna DOP Riserva Antichi PoderiThe Josto Miglior riserva, named for a famous Jerzu doctor, is a more bracing version of Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva. I had the chance to taste a 2013, which was still very closed. The wine was elegant, but the tannins were so pronounced that they were like steel bones sticking out of a tuxedo. Then I tried a 2010, which was smooth and supple. The tannins and fruit were in perfect balance. Clearly, this wine rewards the patient buyer. It retails in the U.S. just under $20.

Lorenzo Pusole

Roberto and Lorenzo Pusole operate their family estate in Baunei, well north of Jerzu in a different range of hills. Located near Tortoli, their vineyards are planted in alluvial soils of mixed sand and stones. But the vines are very old. (The youngest were planted in 2004.) The slopes range 30 to 150 meters, and the brothers grow the white Vermentino grape on the lower reaches.

I’ve rarely met wine growers who have gone so all-in for organic production. “We live in the vineyards,” explained Roberto. “A healthy environment is essential to our well-being.” In addition to grapes, the brothers raise semi-feral Razza Sarda pigs and grow heritage varieties of grain and olives.

The Pusole brothers make two versions of Cannonau di Sardegna. Both are fermented in stainless steel without temperature control using wild yeasts. Both wines remain on the skins for about 12 days, or until the initial fermentation subsides. In spring, spontaneous malolactic fermentation softens the wines.

The version bearing the family name, Pusole, is aged 10 months in stainless steel and three months in bottle. It is a lusty Cannonau with pronounced dark berry fruit, hints of leather and anise, and a nice herbal finish.

Spectacular Sa Scala

The version labeled Sa Scala is not registered as a riserva, but it does spend 16 months in small French oak barrels and a year in bottle before release. Made only in limited quantities (2,200 bottles last year), it’s expensive for Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, retailing around €50. (It’s not yet available in the U.S.) The complexity is remarkable enough to justify the price. With a comparatively low 13.5 percent alcohol and little residual sugar, it nonetheless boasts ripe and supple tannins. The fruit is elegant instead of jammy. The nose is so redolent of classic Mediterranean scrub, that you can almost hear the bees buzz as they gather their nectar.

14

01 2017

Mamoiada and its wines evoke primal power

Francesco Sedilesu in Ballu Tundo vineyard near Mamoiada
The little community of Mamoiada sits at the foot of the two highest mountain ranges on Sardinia, the Gennargenti and the Supramonte. It is known for two powerful forces: ancient vines of Cannonau and atavistic carnival masks.

The most famous masks are the Mamuthones, shown here. The pre-Christian figures perform in ritual ceremonies that mark the turn of the agricultural calendar from the dark of winter toward the season of spring growth. The parade through Mamoidada predates Lenten carnivals. Men dressed in these shaggy black sheepskins with primitive wooden black masks dance slowly through town, each laden with more than 30 kilos of bronze bells. The figures appear first on January 17, the feast of Sant’ Antonio Abate, when the people of Mamoiada dance around bonfires lit on the town squares. They reappear in processions on the Sunday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Mamoiada’s museum building includes an archaeological museum that’s tough to grasp unless you already know a lot about Nuragic culture. The same structure also contains the Museo delle Maschere Mediterranee, or the Mediterranean Mask Museum, which explains a bit about the Mamuthones tradition. It’s at Piazza Europa 15 (+39 0784.569.018, www.museodellamaschere.it). Admission is €5.

About the Mamoiada wines

100 year old Cannonau vine in Mamoiada With vineyards located between 600 and 900 meters above sea level, Mamoiada can boast some of the oldest Cannonau vines still producing. Almost all the grapes are grown bush style, and the vines are cut back annually to train them in the “goblet” style. The vine in the photo to the left was planted in the early 20th century, and it still yields a few clusters of grapes each year. The prevalence of such old vines tends to give Mamoiada wines an unusual depth and complexity. The region had a cooperative winery that flourished from 1950 until failing in 1980.

Since then, a few producers have consolidated holdings of older vineyards and have begun vinting their own wines. Most growers follow organic and even biodynamic practices, and most are certified organic. These high-altitude Cannonaus need to stay on the vine a long time to fully ripen the tannins. As a result, many show an alcohol content up to 15.5 percent.

Cantine Giuseppe Sedilesu

Giuseppe Sedilesu winery in MamoiadaThree children of the founders operate this winery that was created in 1981 to fill the gap left by the coop’s failure. The entry-level Cannonau called “Sartiu” is a pleasant young red that shows the youth of the vines (3-15 years) in its comparative lightness. The flagship “Mamuthone” comes from older vines (15-50 years). Sedilesu ferments this wine in stainless steel and ages it briefly in large Slavonian oak barrels. Spicy notes of wood, anise, and eucalyptus grace an otherwise elegant, rich grapiness.

Sedilesu also makes two distinctive riservas. One is named for an ancient circle dance of Barbagia, “Ballu Tundu.” At the top of this post, winemaker Francesco Sedilesu is standing in the vineyard where the grapes grow. The vines range 60-100 years old. This wine ferments for four to six weeks in big conical vats with manual punch-down. (Fermentation is spontaneous, depending on wild yeasts.) The extraction from the skins is extreme, resulting in a very deep color and tannins that stand up to the 15.5 percent alcohol. All the aromas in the Mamuthone are present, along with leather and tobacco. On first taste, it is very spicy with a long finish.

Best of the best

Francesco Sedilesu sips his riservaThe other riserva is named for founder Giuseppe Sedilesu. Only grapes from the lowest yielding plants in the highest parts of the oldest vineyards are selected for this Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva. The winery only makes it in the best vintages. This is the big brother to Ballu Tundu. It is fermented the same way, and also aged in big oak barrels and in bottle before release. Tart cherries, bramble fruit, and elderberries come to mind on the nose and first taste. As it opens up, this riserva blooms into a complex glass of fruit and herbs with notes of almond and hazelnuts. Although it is great with roasted meats, Francesco (above right) considers it a wine for musing.

The winery is located in the center of Mamoiada at Via V. Emanuele II, 64 (+39 0784.567.91, www.giuseppesedilesu.com).

11

01 2017

Design and wine shine at Hotel Su Gologone

folk art at Su Gologone
Hotel Su Gologone is a destination for design fans as well as wine-lovers. The whitewashed stucco walls and terracotta floor tiles serve as a blank canvas for an explosion of color. Potted geraniums and bright folk art dot every corner of the sprawling property. Bougainvillea crawls up the walls, its blossoms dangling overhead. Immense fig trees provide shade to outdoor patios and dining areas. The guest rooms, which range €121–€287 per night, are virtual galleries of local crafts—hand-loomed bed coverings, ancient pottery, brightly glazed ceramic folk art, furniture fashioned from local juniper wood, charmingly naïf paintings.

double room at Su GologoneSu Gologone began in 1967 as a small restaurant serving food next to the mountain spring by the same name. Since the location was remote, the family opened a small hotel that has grown over the decades into a designer destination. All the connected buildings cling to the topography of the hillside, creating multiple indoor and outdoor steps and staircases to access all the wings. The interiors overflow with folk art. (See the sitting area at the top of this post). Typical of the region, the hotel has no useful address. (You can send mail to Loc. Su Gologone, 08025 Oliena, Sardegna, Italia.) Reservations can be made by phone (+39 0784.287.512 or +39 0784.287.552) or at the multilingual web site (www.sugologone.it).

Showcase of different Cannonau styles

Su Gologone provides such an artistic atmosphere that many of the Cannonau producers like to use it to showcase their wines. The wine list in the restaurant is almost encyclopedic, and the producers frequently host potential distributors at the hotel. My little group organized by Renzo Peretto and Donatella Muscianese of Laore met with a handful of producers during our stay to sample some of their wines.

Sella & Mosca

Sella & Mosca (www.sellaemosca.it) began in 1899 as a vine nursery to help rebuild the Sardinian wine industry after the scourge of phylloxera. As such, the company takes a leadership role in rehabilitating some of the island’s indigenous grape varieties, most notably Vermentino among the whites and Cannonau among the reds. The main plantings in Alghero encompass 550 contiguous hectares (1359 acres), one of the largest vineyards in Europe.

The company makes three levels of Cannonau, including a very simple fruity style and a spicy “Dimonios” label made entirely for the domestic market. I recommend trying it in Italy. The low-yield grapes from old vines are fermented and aged in huge oak barrels and concrete. Its very spicy nose is followed by a velvet feel in the mouth and bright raspberry afternotes.

The wine widely available in the U.S. is Cannonau di Sardenga DOC Riserva. Retailing $16-$18 (in Massachusetts), this wine has everything you might ask of a food-friendly Cannonau. The brilliant ruby color and nose of violets and raspberries give way to a plummy mouth-feel flavor with hints of anise and rosemary. There’s just a touch of oak in the finish for an aristocratic balance.

Cantina Santa Maria la Palma

By contrast, Sella & Mosca’s neighbor in Alghero, Cantina Santa Maria la Palma (www.santamarialapalma.it), is a cooperative of about 300 members. In the 1960s, the farmers were all granted uncultivated land near the city to plant Vermentino and Cannonau. The winery’s principal production is Vermentino—it’s the largest in Sardinia—but it also makes two levels of Cannonau. The basic level, called “Le Bombarde”, is an easy-drinking young wine priced under $10 in the U.S. Its Cannonau di Sardenga DOC Riserva is less widely available but worth seeking out. For starters, it’s unusually low in alcohol for a Cannonau (13 percent), yet the tannins are fully ripe. It’s also a rarity among Cannonaus for using a substantial portion of American oak in the aging. This gives it a more pronounced vanilla note, but does present a smooth and elegant finish.

Viticolori della Romangia

This relatively new cooperative of 10 members formed in 1996. It is based in Sorso, in the far northwest corner of the island. Soils here are a hodge-podge of sand, clay, and limestone and the vineyards lie near the sea in the rain shadow of a high ridge. As a result, strong downdrafts and updrafts keep the vines well-ventilated. Although young, the cooperative’s “Radice” (a Cannonau di Sardegna DOC) seemed to really speak of its terroir. The fruit is very deep and clean—like an especially ripe Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The nose is closed, as you might expect from young vines, but the wine blossoms with food.

Cantine di Orgosolo

Representing 19 small growers in the Locoe and Sorasai valleys, Cantine di Orgosolo (www.cantinediorgosolo) makes a entry-level Cannonau called “Neale” (meaning “honest man”). The blend includes 15 percent Bovale, which is immediately apparent on the nose by the aroma of leather. The taste, however, is bright raspberry and cherry. The winery’s “Luna Vona” organic wine is fermented on the stems with wild yeast. It has some slightly green tannins that pair well with robust meats. The flagship wine of this young cooperative (formed in 2006) is the most interesting. Called “Urùlu” after the archaeological site near the vineyards, it presents with a bold, sweet nose of raspberries and roses. Grown on granitic soils at 400-600 meters above sea level, the blend includes tiny percentages of some of Sardinia’s other indigenous grapes. Urùlu is said to be a sacred spot for the ancient Sardinians, and the wine has a certain sacramental quality.

09

01 2017

Camisadu farmstay in heart of Cannonau country

Agriturismo Camisadu
Exploring the Cannonau wine country means spending at least a few days in the mountains of Sardinia. That’s hardly a hardship. The scenery is beautiful and aromas of the Mediterranean scrub hang in the air. This macchia Mediterranea, as it’s called, consists of myrtle and strawberry trees with an undergrowth of yellow-flowered gorse and mastic, a shrub that bleeds a gummy sap. In the heat of the Sardinian sun, they smell like a resinous cache of rosemary, bay, and wild thyme. Stands of cork oak and groves of evergreen holm oaks punctuate patches of machhia. Sheep graze in the few open meadows. Pigs forage for acorns in the oak forest.

One of the simpler lodgings I experienced was a farmhouse just outside Oliena. Agriturismo Camisadu offers a farmstay in six guest rooms, two with en suite bathrooms with bidet and shower. Rough-hewn wooden beams cross the ceilings, and terracotta tiles cover the floors. Whitewashed walls are decorated with country artifacts—baskets, old saddles, woven bags, painted wooden shelves. But the interiors are really only for sleeping. If you’re here, you’ll want to be outdoors. The grounds are landscaped with pomegranate trees and prickly pear cactus. The farm offers cooking classes and excursions to gather wild herbs.

Tasting the countryside

Making bread at Camisadu The basic stay at Camisadu includes a Sardinian country breakfast of fresh bread, jams and coffee. But the farm stay also offers lunch and dinner with local vegetables and roast meats. The staff make the Sardinian crisp flat bread called pane carasau. Rolled very thin, it puffs up when cooked in a brick oven burning oak logs.

roasting meat at CamisaduThe cooks also roast pork and lamb on vertical metal skewers in front of a roaring fire in a shallow wood fireplace. I was with a group organized by Laore Sardegna, which provides technical assistance to Sardinian agriculture. So we began an afternoon feast by standing around sipping a crisp Cannonau rosé and eating hot carasau and appertizers of pecorino sardo. In this case, the cheese consisted of balls of soft, fresh cheese rolled in grated aged cheese (below). The salty, piquant cheese was a perfect foil for the fruity wine. Later, we moved on to fire-roasted pork with Cannonau wines from the Cantina Oliena (see previous post). It was hard to move on….

Overnight rates at Camisadu vary by season, but rarely exceed €65 per night with breakfast. The web site (agriturismocamisadu.com) is severely dated, so the easiest way to arrange a booking is by email at camisadu@email.it. Agriturismo Camisadu is about 1 km outside Oliena’s town center on the Strada Vecchia Oliena-Orgosolo. Phone service is spotty, but the number (a cell connection) is +39 368.347.9502. Alternately, book through Sardegna.com or Booking.com.

Pecorino sardo and rose

07

01 2017

High-altitude Cannonau wines exude lush fruit

Mountain vineyards near Oliena
Nearly three-quarters of Sardinia’s Cannonau vineyards grace the steep slopes of Nuoro province. These half-wild uplands are a world apart from the sybaritic beach towns along the coast. They’re also vastly different from Sardinia’s lowland vineyards famed for the white Vermentino

Oliena mountainsRemnants of the Nuragic culture from the Bronze Age persist in the hills, including two dialects of the ancient Sardinian language, which edges out Italian as a first language in some villages. The archaic Sardinians (1800bc-ad200) were adept architects, erecting more than 1,000 tall stone towers. Judging from the archaeological evidence, they also made wine.

Rome never conquered Sardinia beyond the coast. Cicero called the mountainous interior “Barbaria.” In Sardinian, it’s Barbagia. With vineyards as high as 700 meters, Barbagia is home to the most powerful and complex Cannonau wines. They are literally barbarian wines, though the term hardly does justice to their finesse. The winemakers of Cannonau di Sardegna DOC have put together a touring itinerary called La Strada del Vino Cannonau (www.stradadelvinocannonau.it). It covers most of the landmark churches, tiny museums, and points of sale for Cannonau. Marked by the sign at right showing a roadway and a goblet of red wine, it even includes a few wineries.

Cantina Oliena

Cantina di Oliena muralThis cooperative producer reflects one strain of Cannonau winemaking. Most growers are too small to make their own wine, so they band together as cooperatives. Cantina Oliena has about 100 members and produces about 350,000 bottles of top-flight wines. In addition to a sparkling Charmat-technique rosé, the cooperative makes three wines from Cannonau—all of them called “Nepente di Oliena.” Just to add to the confusion about Cannonau, the grape and the wines made from it near Oliena are called Nepente—a reference to the ancient Greek “medicine for sorrow,” also known as the “drink of forgetfulness.” Since the wines contain a minimum of 14 percent alcohol, careless drinkers will feel no pain (until the next day). The showroom is open Monday-Tuesday and Saturday mornings (Via Nuoro 112, Oliena, +39-0784-287-509, www.cantinasocialeoliena.it).

About the wines

Cantina di Oliena bottles The base Nepente di Oliena comes from vineyards at 200-300 meters. The grapes are hard-harvested in small buckets so they don’t crush each other. The cooperative makes this wine with 10-12 days of maceration on the skins, then ages it in concrete tanks before bottling. The resulting young wine is bright red tending toward purple. The nose contains pronounced notes of tart cherries and hints of roses and violets. The acidity is high and the tannins soft. It’s terrific with pizza and Pecorino di Sardo, the region’s characteristic sheep’s milk cheese.

The top of the cooperative’s Cannonau line is Irilai Nepente di Oliena Classico. It made from grapes grown at 300-400 meters given more than two weeks maceration. The wine ages in in large Slavonian oak barrels for at least a year, then another year in the bottle. Alcohol tops 15 percent, but the fruit concentration, the acidity, and the tannic structure keep the wine from tasting “hot.” The growers never have trouble producing fruit with a high concentration of sugar. But Cannonau’s polyphenols—i.e., the tannins—take a long time to ripen. This wine is strong and elegant with jammy cherry and blackberry fruits. As it opens on the palate with food, it gives off marvelous resinous scents of rosemary, eucalyptus, and wild thyme. It is spectacular with roast lamb.

04

01 2017

Cannonau takes its place in world of Grenache

Harvesting Cannonau in Sardinia
On February 10, Sardinia struts its stuff as it hosts the fifth annual Grenaches du Monde competition in the town of Alghero. It’s the first time that Cannonau di Sardegna (the Sardinian version of Grenache) has really taken center stage in the international competitions. The most widely planted wine grape in the world, Grenache is grown extensively in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, California, and Australia. In the 2016 competition, Spanish wineries dominated the gold medals, French and Sardinian winemakers the silver, and all three countries won bronze. No other nation even placed.

Glass of CannonauSomeday DNA research will unravel the tangled, contentious history of the grape. Grenache was long thought to hail from the southern Rhone, where it’s the backbone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But preliminary DNA research has convinced scholars that northern Spain, where’s it’s known as Garnacha or Garnatxa, is the real birthplace. That’s the official version codified by Jancis Robinson’s The Wine Grapes.

Sardinians beg to differ. They’ve been vinting Cannonau for close to a thousand years (or 400, or 500, or 600, depending on which expert you ask). The DNA match for Grenache/Garnacha/Garnatxa/Cannonau is exact, although some Sardinian clones of Cannonau share DNA sequences with other ancient grapes that originated in Georgia and Armenia. That both the Spaniards and the Sardinians blend Garnacha/Cannonau with Cariñena/Bovale (another red grape that geneticists identify as Spanish) only adds to the confusion. The secondary grape provides both tannins and acidity for balance and better aging potential.

But when it comes to drinking the wines, it’s clear that each region produces a very different style. The monster Garnatxa reds of Spain’s Priorat and Montsant are only distant cousins of the well-mannered Grenache from the Courbières and Minervois regions just over the border in France. Châteauneuf-du-Pape represents still another style—brash and bold, but without Spain’s bombast. Sardinian Cannonau takes many guises, but it is typically characterized by intense dark berry flavors with nice overtones of anise, leather, tobacco, and violets.

Cannonau comes of age

Open vat fermentation of Cannonau After nearly a week traveling through Cannonau country in Sardinia this fall and tasting nearly 200 wines, I came away excited and impressed with Sardinia’s contribution to the world of Grenache. I had not tried Cannonau in more than a decade, and the flawed bargain wines I remembered have disappeared. Led by a strong and disciplined D.O.C. group determined to compete in the international market, the winemakers of Cannonau have brought their ancient grape into the 21st century. A wide range of individual styles still persists, but overall, Cannonau now arrives to the table dressed for success. Despite the finesse of the wines, Cannonau remains a relative bargain—assuming you can find it. In the next few posts, I’ll be treating some of the more striking examples and offering a few peeks at life on Sardinia in the uplands above the famous seaside resorts.

02

01 2017

Little Italy simmers with many new tastes

Different food approaches in Little Italy in Toronto
There are certainly fancier coffee shops than Café Diplomatico (594 College St., 416-534-4637, cafediplomatico.ca), but few that so consistently screen European soccer matches on the TVs. Since 1968, it’s been one of the principal landmarks of Toronto’s Little Italy. Ironically, that’s just about the time that the neighborhood was beginning to lose its accent.

We met Kevin Dupree, owner of the Culinary Adventure Co. (647-955-8357, www.culinaryadventureco.com), in front of “The Dip” for a walk around the neighborhood along College Street between Euclid Avenue and Shaw Street. Dupree’s company offers a full menu of neighborhood sampling tours and a number of other gastronomic activities—including a summertime canoe trip to the Toronto islands with a master chef who prepares a picnic.

But this particular evening, we concentrated on Little Italy. He explained that Italian immigration to Toronto began around 1880 and slowed to a trickle after 1930. The residential part of the neighborhood remained Italian into the 1960s, and it’s still full of Italian bars, coffee shops, and restaurants.

P.G. Clucks in Little Italy in Toronto That preponderance of eating and drinking establishments made this stretch of College Street a nightlife destination, and other cuisines have moved in to create a dynamic multicultural mix. We ducked into a streetfront stall—P.G. Clucks—selling “Nashville-style” fried chicken sandwiches. (They’re fiery hot with spices.) And we spent a while at Hapa Izakaya (602 College St., 647-748-4272, hapaizakaya.com), a Toronto offshoot of the Vancouver-based chain of hip Japanese bar-restaurants. Dark and loud, our area was bathed in the blue glow of UV lamps—which made the white menus glow in the dark. The sake sampler was eye-opening, and the whole mackerel warmed up with blowtorch blast (see top image) was delicate and delicious.

entrance to Sotto Voce in Little Italy in Toronto But we really felt the soul of Little Italy in the spot across the street from the Dip. Sotto Voce Wine and Pasta Bar (595 College St., 416-536-4564, sottovoce.ca) has been around for about 20 years, and it’s still serving the recipes of the Sicilian grandmother of one of the owners. The wine list is strongest on southern Italian wines, and the pasta plates feature red sauce without shame. We enjoyed some superb Sicilian meatballs made with pine nuts and currants and a bowl of gnocchi with wild boar ragu. The “fanciest” dish of the night was Gamberoni a la Puttanesca—spaghetti with tiger shrimp in a tomato sauce redolent of anchovies, garlic, black olives, and capers. It’s actually a modern Neapolitan dish that’s taken hold on both sides of the Atlantic.

The recipe below is not from Sotto Voce. It’s our own adaptation of many different approaches to puttanesca, but it has the same kind of umami punch as the one we enjoyed in Toronto.

SHRIMP PUTTANESCA


Serves 4 Shrimp puttanesca at Sotto Voce in Toronto's Little Italy

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
pinch of salt
can of anchovies (2 ounces)
1 head of garlic, cloves separated, peeled, and minced
6 ounce can of tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
26-ounce can or box of crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup capers (drained)
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
12 ounces spaghetti
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces tiger shrimp tails with shells

In large pot, heat olive oil. Add chopped onions and pinch of salt. Cook at medium heat until onion begins to soften (about 5 minutes). Add anchovies and garlic, mashing up the anchovies with a spatula. Continue cooking about 3 minutes until garlic has softened. Add tomato paste, wine, and pepper flakes and stir well to mix. Add tomatoes, capers, and olives. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook gently with occasional stirring for about a half hour. It will become thick and saucy.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil to cook spaghetti. When pasta goes into the water, add the lemon zest and juice to the slowly bubbling sauce. Add the shrimp and raise heat until the pot just barely bubbles.

When spaghetti is al dente (7-8 minutes), drain it, reserving some cooking liquid. Add drained spaghetti to shrimp puttanesca sauce and mix well. Add reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin.

Serve hot in bowls.

21

10 2016

Valori wines show strong organic backbone

Luigi Valori at Boston tasting
“When you grow completely organically,” says Luigi Valori of Azienda Valori in Abruzzo, “an interesting thing happens to the grapes. The skins become very thick.” That’s more than an obscure botanical fact. It completely changes the potential of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape.

Color, tannin, and polyphenols all dwell in the skins of red wine grapes. More of those things make up for the shortcomings of mass-produced wine. Like many Italian wines, the reputation of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo suffers from a tradition of overproduction. Wines can still meet DOC standards while being grown at weights up to 10 kilograms per vine. Since the grape has naturally sweet and soft tannins, overproduction creates wines that are soft, flabby and don’t age well. But properly grown with a limited yield and vinted with care for its peculiarities, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo can be an elegant, structured, and noble. It is one of my personal favorites.

Valori Sant'AngeloA former professional footballer for Ascoli Calcio, Valori is a botanist by training. His vineyards in the commune of Teramo in northern Abruzzo near the Marche border are certified 100 percent organic. He has been producing wine on the estate since 1996. His yield is aaround 1.5-2 kilograms of grapes per vine/ In keeping with organic regulations, he treats the vines only with copper and sulfur. But he notes that grapevines find the copper mildly toxic. They react to it by forming slightly smaller berries with much thicker walls. By growing organic grapes with skins packed with tannins and polyphenols, Valori gives himself a leg up in the quest to make a great wine from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

He was in Boston recently for an industry tasting of wines distributed by Masciarelli Wine Co. Masciarelli’s property in Abruzzo adjoins Valori’s vineyards. When the American branch of the family began their outstanding boutique distribution of fine wines, Valori was happy to sign on. He would rather grow grapes and make wine rather than make sales calls.

Valori keeps striving for an ever better synthesis of the vineyard and the winery. He speaks of the temperature gradient of the Teramo hills that sweep down to the Adriatic just 30 kilometers away. The wind flows down the hill, then it flows up the hill,” he says. That ventilation eases the job of the organic grower. Late in the growing season (Montepulciano ripens late), he prunes away leaves to expose the berries. “My goal is to grow perfect grapes.”

Taste of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo


Perfection is in the eye of the beholder—or the palate of the taster. Valori harvests entirely based on his subjective taste of the grapes. “You need all the science and stainless steel to make clean wine,” he says. “But you need the human senses to make great wine.”

I’d argue that he does that. His traditional Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is a bargain red with great fruit extraction and enough structure to stand up to light meats and most pastas. It’s about $10.

Valori calls his riserva Vigna Sant’Angelo. The grapes come from a 3-hectare plot of vines that are more than 50 years old. He macerates for an entire month for maximum extraction of color and polyphenols. (“The skins are almost white when it’s done,” he says.) The wine spends 18 months in new French oak barrique, where it undergoes a malolactic fermentation.

The result is one of the truly great Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines at about $30 a bottle. With an almost inky color in the glass, it exudes dry dark fruits, tobacco, hints of vanilla—all complemented by a bright note of tart cherry.

29

09 2016

Christo’s Floating Piers rise like Franciacorta bubbles

Floating Piers by Christo
For 16 days in late June and early July, the artist Christo let art-lovers walk on water. His “Floating Piers” project was his first outdoor installation since 2005 when he and his late wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, installed 7,500 panels to make gates in New York’s Central Park. Like the gates, the piers gleamed with celebratory saffron-colored fabric. Some 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes supported the 53-foot wide walkway.

Christo at Lake Iseo Nearly two years in the making, the environmental artwork connected two small islands in Lake Iseo with each other and the mainland. And now it’s all gone — but not before an estimated 1 million visitors experienced it.

The poignancy of Christo’s works lies in the tension between the heroic scale of their vision and their ephemeral nature. How appropriate that he chose the wine district of Franciacorta, one of Italy’s great sparkling wines! Years of work go into every bottle. When the wine is poured, the bubbles rise and form a delicate mousse at the top of the glass. But they burst, and the moment is gone—just like “Floating Piers.”

Exploring Franciacorta


People on Floating Piers Timed to the Franciacorta Summer Festival in June, Christo’s work brought a million people to the Franciacorta area, about an hour northeast of Milan. Because so much of Lombardy has cutting edge industry, many wine drinkers don’t realize how bucolic the region can be. In fact, the Strada del Franciacorta was established in 2000. The wine road promotes the region for tourism focused on wine and food. More than 100 wineries along the route handcraft their wines in the metodo classico—with a second fermentation in the bottle. The road also details more than 30 restaurants and wine bars and 30 hotels, bed and breakfasts, and agriturismo farm stays. The Cappuccini Resort is a restored 17th century monastery. (For information in English, see the web site: www.franciacorta.net/en/.)

The area is also great for cycling. The wine road association also details five cycling paths. Each traverses a different section of the region, passing through small villages and vineyards. They are named after different styles of Franciacorta.

The fall Franciacorta Festival takes place September 17-18 this year. It features concerts and food and wine exhibitions throughout the region. For complete details, see the downloadable flyer at www.franciacorta.net/en/festival/.

Franciacorta with food


Franciacorta Contadi Castaldi Saten Franciacorta wines are great for celebrating. But given the modest prices (most $25-$40), you don’t have to wait for a milestone or life-changing event. We recently celebrated the annual tomato glut with pasta tossed with chopped basil and peeled cherry tomatoes. (Dip them for 5 seconds in boiling water, immediately chill, and pierce with a sharp knife. The tomatoes pop whole from the skins.) We drank a Contado Castaldi 2010 Sàten. The “silky” style, unique to Franciacorta, emphasizes tiny pinpoint bubbles. By DOC regulations, that’s a wine made only from white grapes. This was all Chardonnay. It has a lot of acidic backbone, so it held up well with the tart fresh tomatoes. Several years of bottle aging on the lees gave it a toasty nose and faintly bitter aftertaste that complemented the food nicely. The yeasty nose was a perfect counterpoint to the spicy, floral notes of the just-picked basil.

For more about Franciacorta, see our post from last September: “Franciacorta: effervescent joy from Italy.”

24

08 2016