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Wine Tasting: The Italian Style vs. The Napa Style
Exploring the wineries and countryside of the Napa Valley is a favorite pastime of mine, and the possibility of indulging in that pastime, but in Italy, was intriguing. How would the wine producing region of my home compare to one of the regions that so many winemakers are using today as a model for creating new wines?
As in California, Italy has a variety of wine producing regions, 20 in all. I targeted the centrally located region of Tuscany. I began my winetasting experience in Chianti, home of the most famous of Italy's wines. The region is designated by the Consorzio del Gallo Nero, or the black cockerel. This symbol appears bottles of true Chianti Classico wine, and on signs posted along the winding roads leading to the winery estates. Until recently, all Chianti Classico wines were comprised of the same four grape varietals (including Trebbiano, a white wine). It is now possible for winemakers to experiment with the traditional "recipe."
My home away from home was an apartment on the winery estate of Tenuta di Lilliano. I was living in the heart of the winemaking lifestyle, with the harvest close at hand. Like most wineries in Chianti, Lilliano produces olive oil in addition to its wines. The vineyards were interspersed amidst the olive groves. Not only was I able to taste the wines and the olive oil that the winery produced, but I was also able to witness, firsthand, the day-to-day operations of a winery.
Each day, new activities took place on the estate, from testing the grapes' sugar level, to painting the gondolas that would transport the grapes from the vineyards to the cantina for crushing. I was partaking in more than just a sampling of the finished product in this winetasting experience!
Winetasting in Chianti can be anything from tasting from the top of a wine barrel in an aging room, to trying glasses of wine in a beautifully designed tasting room, to sampling in an Enoteca. An Enoteca is a tasting room that represents either a single winery or several wineries; tasting is complementary and bottles of wine are available for purchase. In Castellina, in Chianti, there are several Enotecas in the central part of town. This was a marvelous way to acquaint myself with a variety of the wines of the region.
Tasting in Napa Valley typically occurs in a tasting room at the winery . These can range from a modestly designed room to an elaborately designed mansion. The tastings are hosted by a hospitality manager who will lead you through, describing the attributes of the various wines. In Italy, if you speak Italian fluently or have a guide who does, you could engage in a similar conversation.
Meandering through the magnificent countryside of Chianti led me to Vignamaggio, a winery estate with a breathtaking villa. This estate has quite a history: it was the home of Mona Lisa Gardini and the site where she and Leonardo Di Vinci met. The villa itself was depicted in the motion picture "Much Ado About Nothing." The tasting room was very similar to those of Napa wineries. The winery produced a Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserve and a Sangiovese.
Although Napa's history cannot compete with that of Italy, it does have its share of magnificent architecture and winery estates. On one end of the spectrum there is the beautiful Beringer Winery, one of the oldest wineries in Napa. Clos Pegase, a post modern example of architecture designed by Michael Graves, represents the opposite end of the spectrum.
Venturing beyond the Chianti region to the medieval town of Montepulciano, where Tuscan red is produced, I was greeted at the door of the Pulcino winery tasting room with a "buon giorno" and a plastic cup. The room was long and cavernous and pecorino cheese, salami, bread and paneforte were available for tasting. The bottles of wine sat on top of oak wine barrels. This was a do-it-yourself affair and it provided a unique opportunity to do a vertical tasting of the Vin Nobile de Montepulciano, 1987 through 1991.
Within a few hundred yards of the Pulcino winery tasting room is the very elegant Avignonesi winery. Each wine that is tasted here is poured into a sparkling glass, swirled to completely coat the interior of the glass, then discarded and the glass refilled. I viewed these wines in a completely different light. I inhaled deeply the rich aromas, held the crimson liquid up to the light and finally tasted the velvety potion. What an experience!
As I stood overlooking the rolling expanse of vineyards before me, I marveled at the mental image of Etruscans, in 1200 BC, tending vineyards in this exact location. The Napa valley cannot claim such history. But, if you stand on a hilltop overlooking the vineyards below, close your eyes and breath deeply, you might be transported to Tuscany.