Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ciao Porky! Part IV: TOSCANA

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Bright and early the next morning, we woke up and loaded into the bus. We drove west, away from the Adriatic, over the rolling mountains of Umbria and into Tuscany. “Tuscany,” said my friend Tim when he prepared me for the trip “…is one of those places where my expectation was here (holds hand pretty high), because you hear so much. And when I got there, the reality was like here (holds hand as high as it can humanly go).” I got the idea. But I didn’t know, until I knew. Looking back at my trip journal I used the word ‘insane’ four times in one paragraph when writing about our ride through Umbria into Tuscany. It truly is that beautiful; or, as I put in my chicken scratch “the Tuscan countryside is so insanely beautiful it’s almost weird.” Now I live in New England. So I roll through beautiful landscapes on the regular; but Tuscany, like the Grand Canyon, is so mind blowingly picturesque that you feel like you could snap the cord at the bottom of the screen and the picture will roll up like a map, only to expose a dusty studio lot in the San Fernando Valley somewhere. It’s the kind of beauty where reality is so pretty it feels like fiction. So much so that I rolled through the hills with a lump in my throat, trying not to cry, because I felt so sublimely happy that my life had taken me here. How did I get so lucky?

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We weaved down to the southwest corner of Tuscany to a region known as Maremma, the DOC zone is Montecucco and the wines produced there have the benefit of cool breezes rolling up from the sea and the steep rises and valleys of the hills and mountains dotting the area. We drove through a teeny tiny town perched on the side of a hill where Bruno threaded a giant passenger bus around a corner which could not have accommodated two fiats at the same time. Now normally on the bus the volume level always rose and lowered in waves. Early morning was quiet, long stretches of drive, also relatively quiet, as we closed in on a destination everyone would perk up and chat, music would play and Vesce would get on the microphone reminding us to wear our name tags, introduce ourselves properly and other normal human behaviors that any adult would regularly perform without coaching, lest we forget. Feeling super stimulated by our gorgeous surroundings and anticipated arrival at Colle Massari, we were at like an 8 out of 10 on the volume knob. As Bruno slowly, carefully, with LIT-rally 4 inches on either side to spare, wheeled us around a hair pin turn surrounded on either side by buildings and more buildings, everyone grew quiet, then silent and then promptly burst into applause and cheers when he cleared the corner. Of course he did! As I mention in my first post: he’s a bus driving machine.

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Our stop in Maremma was Colle Massari, a high altitude, high powered, up and coming winery with legendary Tuscan winemaker Maurizio Castelli at the helm of their ship. They are serious business. The owner, Claudio Tipa’s home, which he and his wife graciously let us briefly visit, is a meticulously restored 12th century castle perched on the top of a hill overlooking their 600 acres of vineyards. I want to know what this guy majored in when he went to college, because I really could have used his academic advisor. The drive up to the castle was crazy picturesque. Golden sunlight beat down, hawks soared overhead, Jess tried not to cry a little bit more so as not to be The Weirdo that Cried on the Bus, and we passed miles and miles of verdant green vineyards. Following a quick and truncated tour of the castle we headed “across the street” (i.e. back down a small mountain and around the side of a vineyard) to their winemaking facility.

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Juxtaposed against the green Tuscan hills, it cuts a striking figure in the landscape: all clean lines and concrete. It is a stunning spot and the jewel in its crown has to be their award-winning cellar. Open segments of the wall expose the ragged rock that it was drilled into. Along the ceiling they had arching cedar planks to keep any damp funkiness out and periodically, pufts of steam would spurt out of vents made for maintaining perfect humidity. Oh, and there was also a waterfall to spit into, because why not? We got to drink straight from the cask (before you picture keg stands, it wasn’t like that, they used a pitcher) and then spit into said waterfall before we headed upstairs for our seminar, tasting and lunch.

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Our visit to Tuscany was one of the biggest marathon days of our trip. It was also a study in contrasts in the best possible way. We loaded up after lunch and rolled 2 hours north straight into the heart of Chianti Classico to Vignamaggio. Picture this if you will: we leave Colle Massari’s slick, stark, futuristic building where the presentation was led by their polished and well heeled Dutch export manager and Maurizio, who is an intimidating figure in designer glasses, up to a burnt orange, rambling villa that’s so old that it’s shape softly leans into the hillside where we were greeted by two regular looking dudes in dusty jeans and soccer shoes. To say they were different is a bit of an understatement. But together, these two visits painted a perfect picture of winemaking in Tuscany: vital, deeply rooted in history and centuries of tradition, but forward-looking, constantly evolving and hugely successful. Wine trends come and go, but as long as the Sangiovese vines keep growing, Tuscany’s popularity as a place and producing region will go nowhere.

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Vignamaggio’s winemaking facility is located within a 14th century villa, which just so happens to be the home where Monna Lisa was born. It is also the place where she lived while her famed portrait was painted over the course of several years by Da Vinci; in fact, the view from the front terrace, our host pointed out, was the original background for the work. Sandro, our main host, was not only adept at pointing out all the wonderful unique things about the property itself, but also had the added bonus of being completely hilarious. He had so many perfect one liners and such boundless energy that I pretty much ran out of room in my notes to include all the gems he was spurting out. My personal favorite though was when he was speaking about being careful not to kill their wines with too much oak aging and he said "We believe that a wine should be tasting of a fruit, not of a chair."

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Their wines however, are no joke: refined and focused, they are a perfect example of why Chianti Classicos are so very popular. Elegant, balanced and food friendly, Vignamaggio's portofolio showcases of course a few top notch Chiantis, but also illustrates the success that they've had working with different types of grapes, most notably, their knockout Cabernet Franc. The vintage we tasted was everything a red wine should be: lush, layered, inviting and complex, perfectly in balance and ready to drink now, or several years down the road. Now at the end of a marathon day, driving hours in hot, sunny weather, such as we were, it can feel "tough" (I'm using the term with sarcastic quotations around it on purpose, because I know it's ridiculous to even hint at. I'm sure you a feeling a ton of empathy for my 'tough' day, riding through the countryside drinking wine; but I only mean that at 5 p.m. on a hot sunny day you probably want some water, maybe a beer, but instead you will taste red wine and several of them, because this is your job. i.e.: not tough at all) to saddle up to a table filled with red wines to taste; but Vignamaggio's offerings, being what they are, and Sandro, possessing that particular type of infectious energy of a man that truly loves what he does, brightened us right up and enthused, we happily slurped away. It also helps when wines are out of sight good, which these were.

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After our tasting we toured the rest of the grounds and facility, wandering through the intact Renaissance style gardens, down through their fermentation and barrel rooms into their cellar, which was really something else. At 700 years old, I am guessing it may be the oldest cellar I will ever set foot in, and certainly was the oldest that we saw on our trip. It still looks majestic and regal and apperpo to be storing such terrific wines, albeit, a little bit spider-webbed, which only added to its charm. The estate felt almost frozen in time from the outside, with its meticulously maintained gardens and sweeping views from every terrace; and hidden underneath was a facility just as modern as any seen on the trip. But further down still was the cellar, the heart and soul, untouched, unspoiled and a perfectly preserved piece of history. At one point during his presentation, Sandro spoke of wine making in Tuscany and said "In Tuscany wine is not a job, it's our life." Taking a look out at the rows of vines stretching in every direction, breathing in the sweetly perfumed air and sipping wine just steps away from where it was grown, I thought to myself that it's got to be a good life surrounded by beauty like this. As the sun dipped further down in the sky, we packed back up into the bus and eased our way down the hill on to the road towards Florence. Tuscany is a place that not only lives up to its hype it surpasses far beyond it, a beautiful place filled with beautiful people living a very good life. It is a place worth seeing again and again. I can't wait to go back.

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For more on my trip, see parts I, II and III.

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