Friday, March 29, 2013

Free wine tour nothing to whine about

Thursday, March 28, 2013
Martin Luther is attributed as saying, “Beer is made by men, wine by God.” I am not one who enjoys theological arguments, nor would I presume to refute one of history’s greatest religious scholars. So when given the chance to sample the goodness of God’s creation, I choose to jump at the chance. Lindsey and I spend much of our day on a wine and oil tour with Elena Benvenuti and some of her tour guide colleagues.

Yes, once again I get a free ride, with my only responsibility being to document my trip with photos and text. Elena thinks I am doing her a favor, but I came here to experience Italy and write about it anyway, so these little jaunts fit right into my plans and my budget. The tour is not typical, though, as the main purpose is for the tour guides to touch base with the farm management, and most of the conversations are in Italian about schedules, prices, group sizes and products the farms offer. Still, we get to see how the wine is made and we get to sample it, so we have absolutely no complaints.

Our first stop is not a winery, though, but at a bed and breakfast in Montecarlo whose new owners have put together a fantastic museum in their cellar. We are fed espresso rather than wine, and then we get a short tour of the historic Antica Dimora Patrizia, which dates its origins back to the 1300s. Alessandro and Norina bought the place last year and closed it down for some refurbishing, and now it looks very inviting. The furnishings are antique, but they are clean and shiny, so it retains the warm charm of times past without any touch of shabbiness.

The museo, though, is the highlight. Alessandro has put together an extensive collection of antique hand tools as well as old photos of men and women at work in some of the ancient trades and professions. As he explains how some of the tools were used, I can’t help but think of my dad and his brothers, uncles, cousins and nephews who were so handy and comfortable with tools. My eyes get a little misty as I picture Dad, Roy, Rudy and Claude all together in this room, absorbed in the amazing collection and all talking animatedly to each other at the same time.

The first vineyard we visit is the Fattoria del Teso, a 63-acre estate
Vinsanto and cantucci
that has documents proving it has been a wine-producing farm since at least the 12th century. We are shown the different steps in the process of making vinsanto, a dessert wine often served with cantucci. Clusters of grapes are set out to dry on straw or bamboo mats in a well-ventilated room that must be kept at the same temperature as the outside. This five-month process of essiccazione concentrates the sugars in the grapes, creating a sweeter wine with a higher than average alcohol level.

Check out the ceiling.
After drying, the grapes are pressed by a centuries-old method and allowed to ferment and age for 10 years in caratelli, which are small oak barrels. The Fattoria del Teso uses caratelli that came from Ireland, where they were formerly used for holding whiskey. After the proper amount of grape juice is poured into a caratello, the opening is sealed with concrete to prevent the introduction of oxygen. Fill a caratello too full, I am told, and you risk an explosion. “Has this every happened here?” I ask. Yes, four caratelli exploded in 2003, and when we enter the next room, I can see the remnants of this event documented on the ceiling. After 10 years, the caratelli are opened, the wine filtered and then it must be tested to see if it merits the coveted DOC label, which certifies it has been properly made.

We also explore the cellar, which is full wall-to-wall with 70 or 80 huge oak barrels. Sadly, a previous owner of the farm left the barrels empty, which allowed them to dry out, and they are no longer usable because they would leak if refilled. The cellar is now used to entertain groups of people, and the barrels add much to the ambiance, so they are not useless. In addition, they are gradually in the process of being restored, I am told, though I have little idea what that process entails.

Big barrels that serve only as ambiance now.
Now it is time to sample a variety of the farm’s offerings, which includes a white, Vermentino di Teso; a red, Anfidiamante Rosso; and Vinsanto del Teso. I am not good at describing the various tastes, but I can say they were all delicious and all quite different. The Anfidiamante is truly like no other wine I have ever tasted. I am told it has a strong, fruity taste because the vines bloom at the same time as the wild fruits and vegetables of the surrounding woods, and cross pollination by the bees contributes to the wine’s flavor. The vinsanto explodes with sweetness and that unmistakable odor of liquor, yet somehow it doesn’t taste sugary.

Now we’re on to the Fattoria del Buonamico, only five minutes away. This tenuta—estate—changed ownership in 2008, and the new owner has invested millions, maybe billions, in the most modern equipment available. It is packed full of shiny steel and aluminum tanks and machines replete with computers and control panels. There is a machine to pick the grapes, a machine to separate the stems and leaves from the grapes and then another for pressing the grapes—softly, at just the right impact and temperature, I am told. The fermentation process is also carefully controlled at the proper rate and temperature for each type of grape. Twelve types of wine are made, including a spumante, a sparkling rosé made with the Italian Charmat method. Elena tells me that finding spumante in Tuscany is kind of like “finding a white fly,” because spumante has typically only been made in France and Northern Italy.
Shiny, computer-controlled wine vats.

As we sample the wines here, it turns out the sparkling wine passes the demanding tastes of imported sommelier Lindsey Spadoni, who ends up buying a bottle. I ask for her expert analysis, and she explains: “It is a little more flavorful while still being light and champagne-like. I’ve never seen sparkling rosé before, so it seems quite unusual. And nothing says celebration like a bubbly drink.”

The last farm is the Fattoria La Torre, which is just below the hill of Montecarlo and has a best close-up view of the church tower. It is not only a farm but also a restaurant and agriturismo, and we peek inside one of the empty apartments, which is spacious, clean and very modern. Perhaps now that I have more experience tasting wine at the two previous farms, I can do a better job of describing the Syrah Toscana Esse that we taste. Here we go: “Aromas of tar, dark chocolate and meat follow through to a full body, with super soft velvety tannins and a long caressing finish. There’s lots of toasty oak, but this is delicious all the same. Best after 2009.”

Amazingly, I look at a poster on the wall and find this is word-for-word what one of the professional judges at a wine show said about it, proof positive that I have become an expert . . . plagiarist. Anyway, in my own words now, it was good wine, like all the other ones.

Elena Benvenuti is a tour guide who offers cooking classes and private personal tours of Lucca and the surrounding areas. For more information, see her web site: Discover Lucca with Elena.  
A fancy bottling machine first flips the bottles upside down and rinses them. Then it fills them (far right) . . .
then caps them, while two workers wait to remove the bottles and put them in cases and onto their truck.

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