Una Degustazione may make you pucker your lips, but it won’t be out of disgust. This is one of those ‘faux amis’ – words like fattoria, which looks like ‘factory’, but means ‘farm’. (A factory is una fabbrica.) Or libreria, the place where you go to buy, not borrow books. To borrow books you go to the biblioteca. It’s a minefield.
Degustazione comes from degustare, which comes from gusto (goo-stow), which, as you may have already guessed, means ‘taste’. The reason you want to know this word is that one of the most enjoyable ways of sampling Italy’s wines is to sign up for una visita con degustazione (tour with tasting).
If you’re more inclined to the whites, it is possible to find some very nice offerings in the Chianti region, or anywhere in Tuscany for that matter – especially around San Gimignano. But it’s the red wine lovers who will really enjoy the degustazione in this region.
After all, this is where some of Italy’s best vino rosso is made. And once you’ve had a glass or two of it, the fact that, unlike vino bianco which is made with l’uva bianca (white grapes), vino rosso is made with l’uva nera (black grapes), won’t seem so strange…
One of the first visita con degustazione I ever experienced was in the tiny medieval hamlet of Volpaia (vole-pie-uh).
When his daughter married in 1972, Raffaello Stianti was ready. In 1966 he had purchased the perfect wedding gift: the Castello di Volpaia winery along with most of the village.
The young couple was very grateful, but when it came time to bring the winery up to modern standards, they faced enormous challenges. Because the entire village is protected by heritage laws (which, unlike some other laws in Italy, are strictly enforced), the external structure of the village could not be altered.
Roofs were dismantled so that the huge modern vats could be lowered by crane into the medieval structures. A labyrinth of stainless steel pipes was laid out under the cobblestone alleys to connect the fermentation tanks in the upper part of the village to various cellars in the lower part. During construction of this ‘wineduct’, each stone had to be numbered, so that it could be returned to its original spot.
At the height of the wine-making season in October, red hoses snake through the narrow alleys to augment the underground pipes.
At Volpaia organic farming practices are strictly followed. When asked whether the olive oil was filtered – a highly controversial topic among olive oil producers – our guide replied that it was most definitely “Non filtrato!”
La Conca d’Oro means “Golden Valley”. It is a fairly small area in the heart of the Chianti region where Chianti Classico, the most prestigious Chianti wines are made. For some reason, (its shape?) in English it is known as “The Golden Triangle”.
The owner of the hotel I was staying at in Panzano (Villa Le Barone, which, by the way, is wonderful) had recommended Villa Cafaggio, so I called to arrange a tour. Along the dirt road leading to the villa were a dozen or so brightly painted beehives.
When I asked the guide whether the beehives were painted “per fantasia or scienza”, he laughed. “Forse un po’ dei due.” (Maybe a bit of both.) He said that bees have some degree of colour perception. I knew this – it’s part of a tour I occasionally lead at the Toronto Botanical Gardens in Toronto – but here in the middle of the Conca d’Oro it had completely slipped my mind.
Part of the tour script has to do with the way the horse chestnut tree had evolved to take advantage of the bee’s ability to detect colour – especially yellow. Those huge lilac-shaped blooms we see in May are actually made up of hundreds of tiny flowers – and in the centre of each is a spot, which is either yellow or red. When the flower, whose sole purpose in life is to get pollinated, starts off, this dot is yellow. As the bee, attracted by the yellow, rummages around in the flower gathering nectar, it pollinates the flower. This is where one of nature’s many tiny wonders comes into play.
In order to maximize the available “work force”, the pollinated flowers change their spots from yellow to red, so that the bees don’t waste any time going back to flowers that have already been pollinated. What I hadn’t known before – or maybe I just totally forgot – was that bees are extremely territorial. It’s game over for any intruder who strays into the wrong hive. The bright colours help them find their way safely back home.
On our way to the cantina we passed by a whimsical trio of cinghiali (wild boars). Someone must have a sense of humour or maybe has decided to taken a philosophical approach. The real thing is a big, ornery creature that can do serious damage in the vineyard.
Apart from the beautiful scenery and the immense satisfaction you feel when you manage to find your way – or the fun of getting lost – visiting the wineries is immensely enjoyable and interesting because, for one thing, they are all so different and secondly, the tours are so well done. On all the tours I’ve taken – and that’s quite a few (not all in one trip!) – the guides have been extremely welcoming, knowledgeable, entertaining, and obviously enjoy and care a great deal about what they do.
Castello di Verrazzano is a huge operation, which is reflected in how they organize their tours. I had booked from their very efficient and comprehensive website. I always try to take a tour in Italian, but wasn’t surprised, given that this was the birthplace of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the same Verrazzano who discovered New York Harbour and the island of Manhattan, to find out that English tours dominated the offerings. It was also clear that big tour groups were welcome. I’m not a fan of the big group thing, so I was a little skeptical about how things were going to go. I needn’t have worried.
While we were milling around waiting for our tour to begin, I asked the guide what the bright red fruits were. I got “that” look again. Maybe, I thought, it would be comparable to a tourist visiting Ontario in the fall asking what an apple was. “Sono cacchi” (ka–key). The only problem was that when I went closer to take this shot I could see that the fruit looked a lot more like melograno (pomegranates) than persimmon. Not a good start.
Fortunately, while he may not have known his fruit trees, he did know about wine-making.
In addition to Chianti Classico, at Castello Verrrazzano they also make Tuscany’s ‘wine of friendship’ – Vin Santo. Carefully selected bunches of grapes, usually white, are hung in a rather grand, shed-like building. Narrow slits in the walls let in fresh air, which prevents rot and helps in the slow process of gently drying the grapes over the next few months. When the grapes are partially dried, they are pressed into a gloopy mass called mosto, which is then lugged up to the attic and poured into caratelli, small oak barrels especially made for aging the saintly wine.
Then comes the strangest part. Instead of carefully controlling the temperature, which is what you usually do if you want something decent (hint to home wine makers), the vintners practice a kind of benign neglect. They leave the mosto up there, all on its own, exposed to huge temperature swings as the seasons change throughout the years. Somehow, long ago, it was discovered that, as the wine ages, those shifting temperatures helped develop a unique flavour. My guess is that somebody forgot about a batch of the stuff and when they stumbled across it…Salute!
What is this unique flavour like? As someone who essentially failed a workshop which the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) promised would develop my palate, reveal the complexities of various wines to me, as well as broaden my wine vocabulary, the best I can offer is that it’s somewhere between sherry and Icewine, is a dark amber colour, can be sweet, but is usually dry and has a high alcohol content – usually around 17 percent. Also – I did much better on this part – it is often served at the end of a meal as a digestivo, presumably to help digest all the food and wine you have just consumed. And the biscotti that usually come with it? They’re for dunking. Just look around. Everybody does it.
As far as where the name comes from, there are lots of theories. Its use during mass? The time of pressing, which usually takes place around All Saints’ Day? My personal favourite comes from the 15th century.
In 1438 the Roman Catholic Church had established an Ecumenical Council in Ferrara. The purpose of the council was to try and reach some kind of agreement on the doctrinal differences that had led to the schism between the Latin and Greek Churches. But barely a year into the council’s discussions, Ferrara was struck by plague (a portent of what would turn out to be a short-lived accord?) and they all fled to Florence, which was presumably considered relatively safe, having already been ravaged by a plague immortalized by Boccaccio in ‘The Decameron’ a century before.
One day, during a break from the heated discussions on topics such as Purgatory and the primacy of the Pope, one of the Greek bishops was offered a glass of the aged amber wine. It apparently was to his liking, as he declared it just like the wine of Xantos, where he lived. To the Italians his words sounded like ‘Vin Santo’.
Since the tour started at 11 am, I had decided to go for the visita con degustazione e pranzo (lunch). A good choice. Salute e buon appetito!