■ 26 June 2013 by James Martin
You ever think of smoking wine? The Romans did. I mean, they didn’t wrap it in paper and try to light it, they had a room built for smoking wine called a fumarium. The fumarium from the Roman town of Glanum outside of St. Remy de Provence in France is shown below.
They thought that putting amphorae of wine in a smoky chamber preserved the wine by acceleration the aging of it. It did add smokiness to a wine’s flavor, they say.
There’s not much written about smoked wine that I can tell. Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine is referenced in the Wikipedia article on the Fumarium.
2008 in California was a year of wildfires during the growing time, and winemakers battled to make wines without the smokiness that would have occurred naturally. Funny how tastes change.
Tonight I will leave my glass near the barbeque and pretend I am Roman.
Italy Travel Toolbox
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- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ 13 November 2012 by James Martin
There is a very good reason to brave the weather and go to Piemonte in November. Breakfast. Not a typical Italian breakfast, a fast industrial brioche and coffee. No, a contemplative breakfast. A breakfast befitting the season.
And this is the season for the white truffle. This is the season, in other words, when the “tuber magnatum pico, called “trifola” in piedmontese, is the most prestigious truffle.”
This is when you sit down to breakfast and your senses come alive, suddenly when the cold wind blows through the kitchen, bringing with it the deliriously sexy smell of truffles freshly prodded from Piemonte soil. You ask them to grate some over a fried egg, the best way to eat a truffle.
But that’s not all. Cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and aged until it cracks along the crystalline structure like a fine grana. Cheeses branded with a hot iron.
All this happened at a rather extraordinary bed and breakfast called Tra Arte & Querce, Between Art and Oak. Oaks being the primary tree the truffles are friendly with. You can’t go wrong with a room over a restaurant presided over by a truffle hunter. Not in November. Not when you’ve braved the wind and the legendary fog after which the main grape of the region, nebbiolo is named.
Tra Arte & Querce is located in Monchiero in the Cuneo province of Piemonte. It’s a very evocative little village. You must go.
In November. Risk it.
■ 20 September 2012 by James Martin
We took a little trip today out to a little-known wine country town between Lucca and Pistoia called Montecarlo. The sky was devilishly clear. The red brick of the castle, the cathedral, and the medieval city gates stood in stark contrast to that deep blue.
Color. Sometimes it’s what I like most about Italy. It’s why I lug this camera around.
It’s not just the brick and the color. It’s the texture of things. The texture, sometimes, of rotting old age and maybe 20 coats of thick paint.
And then there are those crazy plants that work their way between rocks and bricks and live happily in the mortar. You know them right? Capers, the little flash of taste you get in sauces.
Montecarlo is a little village with a couple of long streets and a long castle where the streets come together on the north end. There is one main street, lined with shops, restaurants and bars. The traffic is pretty nasty. Cars snake amongst the tables and chairs and exhibition of goods that make the street seem like a pedestrian street until you notice the diabolically driven cars lumbering toward you maliciously. Fact is, if you park on the north side of town where there is a nice parking area you have to go through town to exit, which explains why there seem to be two cars on the move for every resident.
Outside the village there are plenty of wineries to keep you busy. The Tenuta del Buonamico gives you that California wine experience with free tasting and fluent English (warning: loud elevator music and odd interactions on the site). What’s interesting is that they offer two Montecarlo red blends (mostly Sangiovese) in which one has no barrel aging and the other is exactly the same blend but the Sangiovese is barrel aged (separately from the other grapes, which don’t see a barrel at all). You can taste both to see what you think and compare the two.
The most celebrated wine from the region is white, but if you look around, the red seems to be the most popular, especially in cities like Lucca.
What’s interesting about the region is that Napoleon seems to have brought about the marriage of the Italian grapes to the French, Montecarlo bianco is made up of the Italian Trebbiano (40-60%) but must also contain Semillon, Pinot Gris and Pinot Bianco, Vermentino, Sauvignon, and Roussanne grapes. It makes for a tasty and interesting wine.
And the food! Yes, it’s good, as it usually is in a wine region. But that’s for another post.
Popular These Days
■ 28 August 2011 by James Martin
One of the things I like about Italy is the reasonable and quite drinkable wine you can get at a much lower price than in the US. Of course, well-aged, famous wines like Barolo and Brunello will set you back a bundle—yet fresh, crisp, local wines can be had for little, especially if you purchase them in the way many Italians do, as vini sfusi, wines you buy by bulk and take from the store in your own recycled bottles.
It’s easy. You enter the store advertising Vini Sfusi with your bottles, peruse the selection, noting the alcohol and the types of grapes used, and then, if possible, taste what you think you might want to buy. After than you just hand your bottles over and the rest is done by the shopkeeper. Prices in our part of Tuscany range from 1.20 to 2.50 Euros per liter.
You’ll notice that the higher alcohol wines are usually the most expensive. The alcohol level can be an indicator of quality. It’s not that people are looking for the highest alcohol for the best kick, it’s usually because the grapes are harvested a bit earlier than optimal in rural wine regions like ours if rain is on the horizon that might cause the grapes to rot before they’re picked. This can produce low sugar levels, and thus low alcohol and generally astringent wines which are best avoided. Too much alcohol, on the other hand, makes the wine “fat” and less attractive with food.
When we decided to try the vino sfuso in our region, we first brought our own bottles from wine we had purchased previously at the supermarket. When we found that the wine was quite good, especially for the price, we bought a spiffy 6-bottle holder for 3 Euros and 6, 1 liter re-sealable bottles for a Euro each. When they’re filled, we’re all set with at least a week’s worth of wine that won’t set us back more than 15 Euros for 6 liters of grape squeezings.
In the video below we offer a peek at some stores selling vino sfuso in Italy, the first in Piemonte, my favorite wine region in Italy, and the second in my neighborhood in La Lunigiana, a wine shop in the town of Terrarossa, near the castle.
Cantine Lunae in Ortonovo is one of our favorite places for bottled wine and also offers vino sfuso. There is also a new shop in Rometta that offers it.
■ 11 August 2011 by James Martin
Lots of ink as well as millions of digital bits have been spilled over the controversial phrase that appears repeatedly in Homer in reference to the waters of the Mediterranean, in which Homer speaks of “The wine-dark sea.” People claim never to have seen it, so therefore Homer must have been smoking something…or he was just “one of those, you know, poets.”
However, I can assure you, Martha and I have sat placidly with a glass of red wine (for reference, you understand) on rickety chairs on our hotel terrace watching the ferries pour into the port of Bastia, Corsica, plying the wine-dark sea you see below.
You can’t deny the wine darkness of it. Sure, you can split grapes; perhaps it’s Pinot Noir, or Cabernet, or even the island’s own Patrimonio. But if what you see below is not (generically) wine-dark, well then, you need glasses.
(The full sized picture has some beautiful detail that doesn’t show here. I mean, if the Corsica Ferry people want a brochure shot, believe me, this is it. I can let the negative go for way less than a million. Really.)
If beautiful sunRISE pictures float your boat, see one from the same vantage point: Corsican Sunrise.
■ 15 April 2011 by James Martin
Imagine if you had a modest place in the rolling hills of Tuscany’s Chianti Classico region that had been in your family since 1141 and came with this view. (Yes, it would probably have been paid for by now I hear you say.) In any case, this is the view from Brolio Castle in Gaiole in Chianti.
While the castle remains in private hands, you can visit the gardens and the tower, in which there is a small museum of artifacts mostly from the time of the “Iron Baron” Bettino Ricasoli, who actually invented the formula for Chianti Wine.
Then, of course, you can head over to the tasting room and taste the current fruits of those labors. As someone who has taken a plethora of wine tours and been quite bored with some of them, I’d say a visit to the Castle, gardens and to the Baron Ricasoli tasting room is well worth your time. They’ve done a bang-up job on the hospitality side of the business, something often overlooked by wineries in Italy.
More later, including the details of a fine lunch at the Osteria del Castello.
The web page is very informative as well: Baron Ricasoli
■ 5 October 2010 by James Martin
If you’re following our newsletter, and you should be (sign up below or see our newsletter page for more info) you’ll know that I’ve enjoyed my time at Masseria Mita, where Vincenzo Imperatrice quit his job to be close to the land and to put out the best of what the earth in Puglia would yield. He’s done quite well, I can report.
I particularly like the natural, sparkling Riesling he’s producing. It’s called “Bo?” He also has a 900 year old olive tree—which you see on the right—on his pristine property, a family masseria built in 1700 as a Trappist monastery. This single tree produces a ton of olives every two years or so. I mean it. He reports 4-500 kilos of olives come off it every picking season, and they pick each tree every two years. Do you know why there appear to be two “lobes” on the tree? Well, as Vincenzo explained, it’s important that the air get to pass through the center of the tree, so that mold doesn’t form in the wet season. You’ll see this all over Puglia.
Next year, if it all goes right, you’ll be able to picnic under the generous branches of this old fella. And if you’ve planned right, you’ll have purchased one of his wines to go with your picnic food.
Vincenzo produces very fine wines from his estate. You might want to see a short video we made while we were there. Believe me, the sparkler was a hit. With everyone who tasted it. Remember the name, “Bo?” and you’ll be fine.
■ 3 October 2010 by James Martin
They’re building a winery over at Tenuta del Barco that will produce around 800,000 bottles of fine Pugliese wine when it’s all up and running to capacity.
Puglia, you must understand, is a place in southern Italy where water is precious. You need a lot of water to make wine the modern, hygienic way, especially in the four months around harvest time—which is now. Add to these facts the restrictions set by law in Puglia; you can’t just start a winery and hook into the water supply and pump in as much as you want until the folks on the other side of town cry “uncle.” Industries like large scale wineries are forced to seek a real, long term solution.
What do you do? You can have enormous amounts of water delivered by trucks—which you’d still need to store—or, better yet, when you build your winery, you can collect the water off the rooftop and from the surface of the parking lot, then build cisterns to store it, like the Romans did. After some processing, you can use the collected water to clean the barrels, tanks and floors of the winery. The later solution is cheaper in the long run.
But what if you build some huge cisterns and it’s still not enough water to keep your winery operation going during the peak periods?
The answer is in the picture below. It is, in fact, an ancient Egyptian solution.
Stumped? Picture look like a weedy plot with sewer pipe sticking from it? Ah, you’ve missed the point.
It’s a water purification system that uses papyrus to clean the water. It allows the winery to re-use the water they’ve used for cleaning the tanks and the floors.
How does it work? Well, they’ve dug a big hole, lined it with industrial plastic sheeting, filled it with volcanic rock from Vesuvius to help filter the particulates, then added just enough soil to support the Papyrus plants you see on top. They pump in used water, it gets filtered, and the papyrus—well known even in antiquity for its ability to remove or transform all kinds if organic and inorganic contamination such like ammonium, nitrites, nitrates, and phosphates—does the rest of the purification. At the end of the chain is an inspection point where officials can take a test sample to determine adequate purity. After a positive result, the water is ready to be pumped back into the winery.
And those orange pipes? Well, each one is a sort of reverse periscope, allowing the crew to look below to see if there’s enough water in the system to keep the papyrus healthy enough for another round of processing.
Pure genius, eh? A solution driven by regulation which protects the public water supply while encouraging industries to solve the water resource problem through research they can afford to undertake. As I read about the wineries near my home in Lake County California emptying the wells of local residents during the harvest, then thumbing their collective noses at the people they’ve left high and very dry, I wonder why we Americans insist on letting corporations steal the basic elements of life as if they had the right to do so. And what’s to like about our idiotic, collective insistence that innovation is driven by a lack of restrictions or regulation; it’s not, real innovation is driven by identifying problems to solve in such a way as to make life better for all. What’s stopping us from wanting to live a better life?
(The Tenuta del Barco is a fabulous place to stay, a Masseria near the coast with its own private beach. The weather in September and October is nearly ideal, and this is grape harvest time. To find out more or to book a stay, see: Tenuta del Barco)