Italian wine is known all over the world and is one of the things most people look forward to when they visit Italy. I pity the traveler who doesn’t want to try this wine. Even if you aren’t a drinker, you should sample this wine on its own soil, paired with its own food. It’s an experience that will reveal to you what wine is meant to be – an enhancement to whatever it is you are doing. This is especially true when it comes to food. In the hands of a skilled sommelier, you will understand not only how wine is made, but also how it develops into something that touches your senses and connects you to the earth, the sun, and the air. If this sounds like a religious experience, you’re getting the picture.
The Wine of Arezzo
Chianti Classico is an area in Tuscany that is probably one of the best known wine areas in Italy. Almost everyone has heard of it and has some vague knowledge of straw wrapped bottles, often used as candle holders in 1970s pizza restaurants. Chianti Classico has evolved over the years into something quite lovely, but it is only one area of a huge wine producing region that is as varied as it beautiful.
We had lunch at a restaurant in Arezzo recently and had a glass of local wine. We didn’t know much about wine from the area around Arezzo, but we loved this wine. We set out on a quest to learn more about the wine here. What better way to do that than to visit a winery and see it firsthand?
Agricola Fabbriche Palma
We have several friends coming over the next few months and some of them want to visit wineries. Being the thoughtful hosts that we are, we decided to do a little recon to make sure that the winery experience was worthwhile. The sacrifices we make to ensure that our friends have a great trip is admirable.
As with so many things in which fate involves itself, I randomly picked a winery based on its proximity to us and the fact that they responded immediately when I emailed for information. Agricola Fabbriche Palma is near Lucignano, a beautiful hill town that we have visited before.
Our tour was set for 10:30 a.m. and was to include lunch and a tasting. As it turned out, the two of us were the sum total of our group, so we got a private tour and tasting with Sommelier Andrea Baccheschi. I am a sucker for a good story of finding your passion in life and Andrea was living proof that happiness lies at the end of that sometimes circuitous path. An electrical engineer, he soon realized that was not making him happy. He turned to his passion, wine, and became a sommelier. This is a five-year process and is not inexpensive, so I can imagine the leap of faith he and his family must have undertaken to make this happen.
Andrea possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of wine and wine making, but has an easy, relaxed style that makes it easy for regular old people like us to understand. I’ve taken wine classes and been on tours where the guide was so technical and dry that I couldn’t wait for the tasting at the end as a reward for the guide making me feel so ignorant. This was different. I’m sure he dumbed it down for us, but I actually understood everything – from the importance of the soil to the shape and make-up of the cork.
The Palma family, the current owners of the villa and the winery, have lived here for about 40 years. The buildings date back to the 1700s, relatively new by Italian standards. Then it was a small community, where the owners lived in the main house and the tenants lived in the out buildings. The grounds are beautiful, with a formal Italian garden overlooking the valley with the lovely Lucignano perched on a hill in the distance. There’s even a chapel behind the main villa and one of the biggest oak trees I’ve seen. I imagine that tree was planted by the original owner of the villa to shade the yard next to the house. It may even predate the villa, giving inspiration to the layout of the property. How many children have played around this tree? How many meals have been eaten in the shade of this tree? How many armies has this tree seen? This tree is a witness to history and stands as a reminder that politics, religion, customs, and people come and go but the environment sustains us through it all. Take care of it, please.
The Valdichiana, the valley surrounding the Chiana river, near Lucignano, was once a swampland. Attempts to drain it date back to the Etruscans, and include a famous design in the 1500s by Leonardo. The now drained land has layers of rich minerals and tufa atop a clay base, which holds the precious rain water. Vineyards cannot legally be watered, so the right soil composition is crucial for making sure that water can be reached by the roots. This porous top layer of tufa and sandstone allow the water to penetrate down to the clay underneath, where it is stored. Anyone who has ever tried to plant anything in the red clay of Georgia knows how dense and moist it is. The clay holding the water deep down below the earth teases the grape roots to reach it. This primal search for water makes the plants strong and sturdy. As Andrea explained, they must suffer to become strong.
The vineyards are reached through the cypress lined alley leading from the main villa. Andrea explained to us that their philosophy is quality over quantity and tradition with innovation. The traditional part is the Sangiovese grape, the primary grape in Chianti. By law, Chianti wine must be at least 80% Sangiovese. When hand harvesting the grapes, the pickers have two baskets – one for the best and one for the second best. The rest are used as compost and treats for the birds. The best of the best is used for their showcase wine, the Carmagi, which is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot. Also their Chianti Superiore, which is a Sangiovese and Canaiolo blend. The second best is used for other wines and the boxed wine loved by locals.
Lunch and Italian Wine Tasting
After our tour of the facilities, the grounds, and the vineyards, it was time to taste some of the wine. Andrea had a spread of local salami, porchetta, cheese, crackers with tartufo (truffles), tomatoes, and bruschetta with olive oil. We entered the grand tasting room – the centerpiece of which was an enormous pine table with benches along each side. Designed for groups, we felt downright regal as the only guests at this magnificent table. The table sits in front of a huge fireplace and the ceiling is a typical Tuscan beamed and tiled ceiling. Old terra cotta tiles on the floor. It was grand.
As we munched on our Tuscan treats, Andrea poured us their white wine, which is a blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia. It was crisp and clean with a wonderful peach aroma which fooled you into thinking it would be sweet. I can imagine drinking this on a spring or summer afternoon, sitting on the terrace and taking in the view. In fact, I’ll be doing that soon since we brought a case of it home with us.
The next wine was a Chianti Superiore, the Sangiovese and Canaiolo blend. It was everything I love about a Chianti – beautiful ruby red color, smooth tanins, and velvety finish. This we tried with no food first on a clean palate. Then we had a bite of cheese or salami and tasted again. Remarkable difference. Tuscan food tends to be high in fat and flavor and this wine was made to stand up to that and smooth it in your mouth. Next was the Carmagi, their signature wine. This wine is a Super Tuscan, meaning that it is a blend of grapes that does not fit into one of the designated categories. It was wonderful. Strong with a deep jammy smell mixed with the earth.
We also got to try the Vin Santo, or holy wine, that is traditionally served with biscotti, or cantucci, for dessert in Tuscany. The traditional way to eat it is to dip your cantucci in the glass and eat it covered in the sweet wine. I’ve never been a big Vin Santo fan. It’s a little sweet and heavy for my tastes. But this was good. It had the traditional Vin Santo characteristics, but was much smoother and not as sweet.
I could go into much more detail about our day with Andrea, but then that would spoil it for when you come take your own tour with him. I’ll just say that we learned so much, had a lovely time, and spent the day in a beautiful Italian villa drinking wine that was produced from the soil we walked on. Days like this are to be savored and appreciated for the joy they bring us and for the connections we make. This day we connected with a wonderful spirit, Andrea, and the alluvial soil of the Valdichiana valley. Soil that was buried for centuries under a marsh so that it could one day give life to wine. The cycle of life is truly astounding.