November 09, 2011

Traditional Olive Oil Press in the Val D'Orcia

I set out recently to explore a traditional stone olive mill with the final pressing on fiber discs. This ancient style of olive production is a dying breed. Most modern mills utilize mechanized presses in stainless steel foregoing the stone mill and fiber discs completely. The mill I wanted to check out was at Belladonna farms, and I was shown around by Ilaria at her family’s mill in the Orcia Valley. The farm and mill have been in her family for nearly 300 years, and she mills both her and her neighbors’ olives. Ilaria emphasizes that she will only press olives of growers she knows personally; reminding me that Tuscan olive oil needs to come from Tuscan olives. Too often growers from other regions press their olives in Tuscany to trick the consumer. Tuscan olive oil still draws the highest price, and unfortunately there some producers who cheat. 

Her family’s main reason for maintaining the traditional method of pressing, she stated, was “it’s the only true way to get a 100% cold pressed olive oil.” She explained that the modern presses today don’t need to heat up the olive paste to create heat. The steel mechanisms, she insisted, inside the modern presses create heat on their own as they move. This small increase in heat is enough, she figures, to change the chemical structure of the olive oil for the worse, creating a slightly less quality product.

The traditional milling process starts much as the modern methods with the harvest in late October or early November depending on the season. The pre-ripe olives must be hand harvested and will go from the field to the mill ideally within 24-48 hours max. The olives are then cleaned of any remaining leaves and sent to the mill (pits and all). The traditional stone press requires a keen eye to understand the right consistency of the paste. Once the right consistency is reached, the paste is sent to the dosage machine which spreads the paste on the fiber discs. These are stacked up roughly 2 meters high and then slowly pressed. The almost syrupy liquid which comes out is a mix of water, oil and pulp. This thick juice is then sent to a centrifuge which separates the oil from the water and remaining solid materials. Utilizing this process, Ilaria is able to press about 250 pounds of olive paste every 2 and a half hours. This is significantly more labor intensive than the modern presses, which can press roughly 1000 pounds in roughly an hour.

It’s fantastic to see Ilaria’s family continuing to use a traditional mill and her olive oil is definitely up there with some of the finest I’ve tasted. I won’t completely write off using modern presses as I have tasted many a great oil coming from these as well. And, just to remind readers, there are several factors which determine the quality of extra virgin olive oil. Some of the main factors are the species of olive (there are nearly 500 in Italy), where you grow them (north facing slopes in temperate climate zones), at what point you harvest (olives should be harvested prior to fully ripening for higher quality oil), and finally how fast you get them to the press (ideally less than 24 hours within the harvest). These higher quality oils are typically used raw as condiments, and not for cooking. Cooking destroys some of the health benefits as well as ruins the flavor, so I suggest using a grocery store extra virgin oil for your cooking. It’s high time I go make a fett’unta (or Tuscan Bruschetta). Happy Eating!

May 16, 2011

Comprehending Italian Wine Classifications

Italy produces nearly a quarter of the world’s wine, and is home to the richest diversity of grape varietals and wine production methods anywhere. It’s simply impossible to get bored as a wine consumer here. But, understanding the wines and how they’re classified is frustrating at best, even for wine professionals. Let’s start with a simple fact. Italians are a creative people, easily associated with art or design (at least, by those of us who go beyond the stereotypes of pizza, pasta and the mafia). Beyond the arts, Italy is often cutting edge in engineering, architecture, and the sciences. Their creative capacity typically excels in niche industries where they can naturally think outside the box. They actually abhor the box. The box is Swiss or German, practically unnatural. Unfortunately, the Italian wine classification system is a box superimposed on a creative web of Italian traditions. In and of itself, it can be misleading and confusing. Italians will label and classify their wines both as the French might, according to region and traditional zone, and as New World producers might, selling wine by varietal type. To complicate (Italians rarely tend to simplify), they also invent fantasy names for their wines. We see wines given marketing names, place names, family names etc., but the label may never tell us what’s in the bottle. Yet, few deny the wines here warrant the seemingly herculean feat of understanding them and how they’re organized.  

How do you make sense of it all? All these generic classification styles seen on the labels of Italian wines actually fall into one of four legal categories. These four categories form a pyramid, which as you move up each level, less wines are produced and the governmental restrictions imposed upon the wine makers (in terms of how the wine must be made, classified and sold) become much more stringent. Every wine in Italy falls into one of these four categories and they must be clearly defined on the label (without exception and even if purchased outside of Italy). Moving up from the base, the categories are Vino da Tavola (or just “Vino”), IGT wines, DOC wines and DOCG wines. Why do we need to know these categories? Simply put, we don’t. Need is a strong word. However, for those who hope to understand Italian wine, the pyramid is your foundation. It is your reference point to go back and study each wine you try. Don’t study the wine zones and their classifications from a text, then go looking for certain wines you think you might like. It would be dull and it takes all the fun out of the learning process. Instead, work backwards. Pick up an Italian wine, any Italian wine and try it. As you’re drinking, look at the label and identify the category of the wine. Think about this in relation to the descriptions of the categories below. Knowing what you’ll soon know about the categories, make mental notes (real notes work even better!) as to whether the wine made a strong impression on you (negative or positive). If the wine impressed you, look up the classification online. In seconds you will have all the information you need about the zone or region that wine came from. Continue this process with every Italian wine you try, and with time, you’ll understand the Italian wines like a pro. Below are the categories, the rest is up to you!

As the pyramid’s base, Vino da Tavola, is simply translated as “table wine.” The category is designed for wines which are, technically speaking, not of high quality. The only dictate is these wines be fermented grape juice, or simply put, wine. There is very little else determining the contents of these bottles, boxes or jugs. A producer technically doesn’t even need to grow their grapes in Italy to produce them. However, a few laws do define this category. They’re mostly laws designed to eliminate qualitative designations on the label. For example, Vino da Tavola, can only be nominated “Vino” with a generic descriptive tag. For example, we would call a wine Vino Rosso Italiano-Italian red wine, or Vino Bianco Italiano-Italian white wine. Bottle qualifiers such as harvest date, the region where the grapes are grown, or the varietal are not allowed to be designated. With a Vino da Tavola, one assumes generic or bulk wine production. This is mostly true, but not always the case. Outstanding and interesting champions exist in this category because some producers may not legally be able to use other designations or simply don’t want to pay higher taxes  for moving up the pyramid. So occasionally you’ll see very interesting and wonderful wines with this designation. But in general, these are simple wines, grape juice with a kick if you will. They are good for light, day to day consumption, but they rarely wow the consumer.

I.G.T. Indicazione Geografica Tipica
When translated into English these become Typical Geographic Indication wines. The denomination is somewhat misleading because, as a newcomer to the scene, IGT wines are often more modern and sometimes not very traditional or typical in style. Created as a needed response to the more restrictive DOC and DOCG categories we’ll discuss next, IGT wines appear on the scene in 1992. To keep things simple, the IGT label was developed because Italian wine producers became creative with new, non-traditional wines starting in the 1970’s. In the early days, these new wines, by law, had to be sold as Vino da Tavola. Many were phenomenal wines, receiving international notoriety (think “Super Tuscans” here in Tuscany), but legally they were classified at the bottom. In response, and to get these higher end wines out of the table wine category, the IGT was born. The critical distinguisher from table wines, is all the grapes must come from a single region, say Tuscany or Umbria. If you see a wine sold as an IGT Toscana, you at least know all the grapes producing it were grown in that single region. It’s in the IGT category we often see more creative marketing labels. Wines are sold by grape type and marketing/fantasy name in this category. Consumers find a broad range of price and quality here as well. This is a classification which at first confuses the consumer, but with experience and the knowledge of which region tends to produce what wine style better, the IGT can be somewhat useful. Otherwise, if an IGT wine doesn’t earn cult status or international notoriety, they remain somewhat obscure to the consumer.

D.O.C. Denominazione di Origine Controllata
Romance languages dictate  reversing sentence order to create some logic, and so here we’d have Controlled Denomination of Origin. The “denomination of origin is a physical geographic area, literally some place on a map (sometimes a small valley for example), where traditions hold that certain types of wines from certain types of grapes are produced. The DOC wine classification is also a DOC wine zone. The zone and its history dictate the laws, and the laws are enforced by the government. The grapes in DOC wines must be grown in that DOC zones, and the producer’s fields must be registered and licensed for DOC wine production. The zone will typically determine the recipe of the wine (what grapes can or cannot be used). The zone will also determine how the wine be made; for example, zones dictate that a wine must be a dry red wine, a white, a late harvest or a sparkling wine depending on what zone you’re in. Many zones even go so far as to prescribe minimum alcohol levels, minimum aging time prior to market release, agricultural and harvesting methods, and others. The point is this classification is restrictive, but it’s based on local traditions, so we’re sort of OK with it. There are a little over 300 DOC wine zones in Italy today. Some of the zones can be tiny, and home to just 2 wineries, while others might have nearly 2000 wineries. It is important to emphasize that there is an incredibly broad range of price and quality in this classification. [Note that exceptions are the rule in Italy, and there exist a couple DOC zones which act more like an IGT classification.]

D.O.C.G. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita
Stated in English this is, Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin. Like the DOC, these are based on traditional wine making areas. Producers again must follow restrictive rules governing everything from the grapes used and how they’re grown to how the wine is produced in the cellars. In general, these zones tend to be more important, whether it be politically, economically, and/or historically, and hence the Guarantee in the title. They also require a bit more scrutiny. Before these wines can be released to the public (every harvest by every producer) the wines must be reviewed by the government. A special division in the Commerce House does a chemical analysis and a taste test to make certain each vintage meets minimum standards for that DOCG classification.

The idea that these wines undergo more rigorous standards, the fact there are less of them and the fact they cap the pyramid, leads consumers to believe they are getting a better wine. In fact, many Italians will recommend this or that DOCG because of the simple fact that it’s “guaranteed.” This was probably the idea when this category was first created. However, it doesn’t work (and I’d imagine much to the chagrin of the government and many producers here). The “Guaranteed” is not a guarantee of a better wine, but a guarantee of authenticity and a guarantee of a minimum level of quality. Due to this, consumers will see again a broad range of price and quality among the DOCG wines. A great example is Chianti. Chianti is always a DOCG wine coming from a restricted area. Shopping the local supermarkets in Florence, I can easily find a Chianti for 3 euro. There are table wines that will cost more, and be much more interesting. But I have also seen a Chianti for nearly 300 euro. Point being, at the top of the pyramid, the laws are tougher and the traditions often older, but it’s no guarantee the wine is better. It often can be, but by no means has to be!

Turning back to the point of this blog, what does all this mean to Average-Joe or Average-Jane Wine Consumer? First, it means it’s very difficult to generalize about Italian wines. Second it means, the approach to understanding Italian wines is different than both understanding French wines (learning all of the regions and famed 1er crus), and New World wines (learning the regions best associated with certain varietals and finding the best producers). The approach to Italian wine and my best recommendation to anyone wanting to know more about them, is simply drink them. Drink them with an open mind, and little by little try to plug them into the above categories. By working backwards, one begins to create a knowledge base. It’s important to do this as your drinking the wine. Read what category it falls into, get online and figure out what that category entails, read who produces it, and make a mental or written note (especially if the wine made an impression on you). Little by little you will start to break down stereotypes about the Italian wines, you’ll move past generalizations, and little by little you’ll be an expert. Best of all, it’s fun. Enjoy your studies!!

April 05, 2011

Benvenuta Primavera!!

Spring may have officially started over a week ago, but here in Florence, it wasn’t until this past weekend that we actually felt it. It's time to head to the hills and enjoy spring's first fruits and say goodbye to the last traces of winter. Heading east of Florence, there is an area locally known as Casentino. With its two medium-sized mountain ranges, Casentino is home to the headwaters of the Arno river. It is also home to one of Tuscany's largest national parks. Casentino's western most ridgeline, and the one closest to Florence, is capped by the peak Pratomagno ("great meadow").

Birch forest in the Vallombrosa

These hills are a naturalist's paradise, and it's a great place to see the season's first wildflower blooms. Leaving Florence, my wife and I take the long way out to Pratomagno, climbing through the Vallombrosa (“shady valley”). Throughout most of the year, this valley lives up to its name. It's often dark, and much colder than the surrounding area. In the summer, Vallombrosa becomes somewhat of a retreat for Florentines trying to escape the city's heat. The upper part of the valley is covered in a dense birch forest, also shaded much of the year. Now the birch, still without their leaves, stand motionless as the spring light dances between them. Spiritual, and it leaves no wonder why Vallombrosa's Benedictine monks built their impressive monastery here, nearly 1000 years ago. The monastery is impressive and you can still visit it today, but my wife and I have other objectives. 
Bucaneve at the base of Pratomagno

As we near Pratomagno, the flora and fauna change significantly. Near the peak in the higher elevations, the bucaneve flower (or literally “the one that puts holes in the snow”) bloom in sunny patches where the snow has receded. The air up here is much lighter and cleaner than down in the Valdarno ("Arno Valley"). Not only is the air cleaner, the water here is pure, potable and some of the lightest and best tasting I have ever had. There are several springs that flow as Artesian wells, tapped directly from the mountainside by the locals. Many often come from the valleys below, always with empty jugs. 
Viola Mammola

As we continue to descend the eastern ridgeline, the forest changes. Pine, oak, and chestnut now dominate. Dotting the understory are patches of small violet flowers (viola mammola). The flowers themselves were often used in local medicines, mostly to calm nerves as a sedative. Be warned, they also have purging and laxative effects. Dosage is everything!!
Tuscans exclaim how these little flowers puzzano (“stink”)! They do stink. They stink like a horse's stall. However, smelling them also reminds me instantly of some of the strong floral scents in some sangiovese wines. Don’t misinterpret my meaning. I love the local sangiovese based wines and their aromas. Anyone who knows me, would never argue my conviction to and love of this grape. But, it's important to understand aromas in wines "remind us" of other compounds in nature. Sometimes these compounds may not be something we associate with pleasing aromas, but the wine itself is pleasing nonetheless (with or without its stink!). So, much like the Sauvignon Blanc/cat pee association, the aroma of a horse’s stall coming from your sangiovese wine may not be a bad thing!

Descending the mountain further, we spot the long wispy plants, which subconsciously may be the grail of our hike. With its woody vine, and spiky, almost pine needle-like leaf, the wild asparagus plant is hard to mistake. The mixed forests at these lower elevations abound with it this time of year. The wild version is much thinner and generally more tender than its think, domesticated cousin; however, the flavor of the wild asparagus tend to be incredibly more intense. At this point, hiking is secondary. My wife and I spend the next hour or so foraging.

Ciuchino on the farm
Heading back to Florence, we make one last pit-stop. We visit a local farmer we know, and grab some fresh eggs, home made ricotta, and fresh baked bread. The eggs seem the size of tennis balls and their yolk is more orange than the sun. What this mountain air does to these hens is beyond explanation, but I'm happy it happens (even if I can't explain it). The fresh ricotta we pick up is from local sheep, and produced with a technique most haven't seen for 40 years. Frittata with fresh wild asparagus is on the menu tonight! Mmmm ... spring is finally here!

March 17, 2011

Happy Birthday Italy!!

In over 9 years of living in Italy, I think I have seen Italians pull out and wave the “Tri-colore” only twice. The first was in 2006 when Italy beat France in the World Cup, and, the second, in these last couple of days to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification. You must first understand, Italians are not a particularly nationalistic people. Due to a long history of city-state control on the peninsula, they are generally more loyal to their local town than the nation as a whole (a concept know here as Campanilismo or loyalty only to one’s own bell tower or small town). So flag waving doesn't run in Italians’ veins like the Stars and Stripes might in America or the Union Jack in England.

A positive effect of Campanilismo is all of the wonderful faces of Italian diversity we see in culture, architecture, cuisine, linguistics and the phenotype of the people as one travels north to south or east to west within Italy. A negative effect of Campanilismo is a sense of me-ne-freghismo (or the “I don’t give a damn” attitude), which too often infiltrates the Italians’ dealings with one another. Some of Italy’s current problems including the Mafia, tax evasion, nepotism, lack of trust, and vandalism can stem, at least in part, from the too often inability to think of the greater good. A small dose of nationalism might be just what the ideological doctor ordered. A small dose people! We all know what happens when Europe gets too nationalistic.

Last night, Florentines celebrated the anniversary throughout its Piazzas in the historic center. Museums were kept open much later, and various activities and festivities took place throughout the city. It was great to see and experience. Even joining in the national spirit, Piaggio, the makers of Vespa created a special “Tricolore” edition of the classic scooter, with matching helmet. I have to admit, although this small bit of nationalism is rare, it’s nice to see, and I for one hope this trend continues!!