I wait in a group of twenty anxiously shuffling our feet as the hot Tuscan sun bears down on our shoulders.
A single buzzard, its wings spread wide floats in the warm air high above our heads. I watch as it leans first to one side then the other, arcing its body in a perfect circle. A slight breeze ruffles the tops of stately cypress, but its effect doesn’t reach us on lower ground. Away to the right and left, I see glimpses of green tufted hills and rust colored tiles peeking out from their heights.
I have been invited to a family owned vineyard in the famed Chianti region of Tuscany, Italy arranged by our effervescent guide Stefania. She, always ebullient, waxes enthusiastic about the family we are about to meet, about the perfection of their wines, and the sumptuous meal being prepared at that very moment for our delight. After several days of epic five course meals and endless carafes of house wines, I am not sure how different this experience will be, but I nod and smile patiently. The heavy metal door opens and a portly old man, his face a mass of smiling wrinkles spreads his arms wide. Stefania grins back and hurriedly ushers the waiting group in with her classic command of “Andiamo, andiamo!”
Through The Grapevine
As we trudge into the cool interior, casks and bottles of wine meet my gaze. A gargantuan kitchen and hallway of closed doors rushes past as we get shepherded out to the back of the winery. Here is where the real magic happens, the old man exclaims, laughing heartily. Acres and acres of grapes greet us in a never-ending swath of leafy vines. Despite the heat, the soil is rich and moist, a heavy cinnamon color that contrasts picturesquely with the jade green climbers. I hunch over as the vineyard owner points to boughs hanging heavy with dusky purple grapes, their roundness velvety to the touch. The old man pops one in his mouth and offers one to the guest next to me. We all watch as they chew thoughtfully, then a look of surprise appears on the visitor’s face as he turns towards the Tuscan. Knowingly the elder man nods and smiles. “Va bene!” he exclaims, laughing throatily.
As the group moves on, I surreptitiously pull one of the grapes off and bite into it. I, too, must have the same look of surprise, because I am overcome by the unexpected burst of sweetness that coats my tongue and slides down my throat. A few chews and only the hard skin remains, a leathery consistency that I must either swallow or spit out. I choose the later as I run to catch up with the group before Stefania admonishes me.
From the vine to the press we traipse. Here, large earthen vats half sunk into the ground brim with red and green grapes, some with a mixture of both. Several old men armed with four pronged rakes are busy sifting and maneuvering the grapes into unseen underground presses. The vineyard owner begins a complex explanation of the grape pressing and fermentation process, but my thoughts wander. I am distracted by the sight of so many multicolored grapes, and I watch as they are deftly managed without bruising or breaking them. My fellow visitors walk away and I hurry after them, wondering what is next.
Cask of Flavor
We follow steep stone steps down into a chilled cellar where in the dark, shapes loom out from both sides of a narrow corridor. A small electric lamp is turned on and the shapes turn out to be oak barrels in various sizes perched on their sides. Tiny chalkboards hang from them filled with names and numbers meaningless to me. This is where the wine ages, some for several months, others for several years as the wine variety requires. Despite the darkness, the rooms fill with a homely ambience and the curious smell of licorice pervades the air. Our friendly vineyard owner asks us if we have ever barrel tasted. I am fervently hoping this means something other than licking the damp oak surrounding us, when the old man unplugs a round bole from a hole on top of the cask near him. The area around the opening is stained deep burgundy, as if the barrel was bleeding. He carefully inserts a long tube and instantly the same deep color seeps up into the tube. The owner expertly drains it sideways into a goblet and hands it to the closest visitor: me.
He nods, winks, and smiles all at the same time so I pretend to know what I am doing and take a sniff of the liquid. In the silence I watch the almost purple wine drag its way back down the lip of the glass. Stefania leans in and whispers to me to swirl the glass gently and sniff again. When I do, I imagine plum trees, the pungency of tobacco, and the sharp bite of acid. While the rest of the group receives their glasses, I take a small, slow sip of mine. A hundred different flavors come into my head, but in the end I can only confess to realizing one: the sour sweetness of plum fills my palate. This wine feels heady and raw to me with a pungency that takes me back to the taste of the grape upon the vine. Our vineyard owner asks that we remember the flavors in this glass so that we can compare it with those we will be sampling later on.
As I wonder when the “later on” will come, we climb stairs out of the murky cellars into the hallway of a house. Stefania and the old man lead us all the way to the back of the house where a spacious covered porch overlooks a regiment of stately cypresses and the ubiquitous vines, golden in their late afternoon glow. Several sets of long benches and tables have been set out here and Stefania commands us to take seats. The entire group is starting to buzz with real excitement now because we all know what this means. It’s the grand finale of our vineyard tour: the taste test. One tall fluted glass stands in front of each of our place settings.
The first group of waiters arrive with decanters of red wine which they pour onto the goblet. As I was instructed to in the cellar, I take the goblet stem, sniff, swirl, and sip. The sunlight brings out glints of deep color, similar to those of a pomegranate, in the glass. As the aromas waft up from the glass, I imagine again plum trees and tobacco. My first sip has the tartness of berries but also a heady dulcet taste that coats my tongue and warms my throat. The vineyard owner wanders among us and asks if we notice anything different in this glass than the one we drank in the cellar. All I can taste is perfection. What I savor is the hard work and passion that goes into making a complex bottle of excellent Tuscan wine, an authentic taste of Italy. I am eager for more culinary adventures like this as I continue my travels through Italy and beyond.
BESPOKE TRAVELER TIP #6
“Tasting local flavors gives the traveler an immersive view on a destination.”
For more Tuscan gastronomy, check out Bespoke Traveler Journal: At The Table.