Friday, January 30, 2015

Wine That Evokes Emotion

Imagine the feeling of falling so deeply in love that you can actually feel your heart radiating heat. This is no summer fling; it is a deep, soulful love that keeps you warm in the cold of winter. You are feeling romantic and even a bit lyrical as you sip on the rich and powerful wine in your glass and marvel at the vines that weave like braids up and down every curve of the landscape. You are in Piedmont, Italy. 
Have you ever experienced tasting a Barolo? Perhaps you've heard of this sought after wine of Piedmont but overlooked it after seeing the high price tag. Or maybe you've had the fortune of enjoying it on a special occasion at home or out to dinner. Have you, however, really experienced tasting a Barolo...among the grape vines that produced the powerful glass of wine in your hand?

Imagine this: It's a crisp, autumn day as you wind your way up and down the two lane road, painted like a brush stroke along the undulating hillsides. The land is strung with rows of vineyards that have created a colorful patchwork from the autumn foliage. You ascend your way up to the medieval villages of Barolo and then La Morra, perched high on the hill crests and towering over the vines. Upon entering each village you are greeted with mouth-watering aromas of roasting meats, wild mushroom risottos, pungent cheeses, fresh truffles and hazelnut tortes.

Wandering through La Morra, you follow your nose into a little restaurant, where you are seated in the small dining room that offers breath-taking views of the colorful valley. A simple menu is written on a chalk board that is leaning against a wine barrel. The wine list, on the other hand, is a thick, hard-bound book filled with nearly every wine produced in the area. This is just one of the many signs of how seriously the Piedmontese take their wine. You order the "pasta al tartufo" and a bottle of 2008 Barolo from Erbaluna, the modest winery you passed coming up the windy hill. After delivering and presenting the bottle of wine, your server brings out a plate of steaming, hand-rolled pasta to your table, along with a fresh white truffle that was recently foraged. For the next few weeks it is white truffle season in Piedmont, and every restaurant has fresh truffles on their menus.  Your server shaves a generous amount of the savory morsel atop your mound of pasta. You can smell the rich, earthiness of it as it falls like snowflakes down to your plate. He offers a friendly, "buon appetito!" and leaves you to the sensory overload which you are about to experience. 

The first bite is mesmerizing: So simple, rich and delicious. You close your eyes to allow your taste buds to enjoy it more thoroughly. You remember your wine and lift your glass to your nose and inhale. The intensity practically jumps out at you. Aromas of chocolate, violets, figs and tar take over. You take a sip and a symphony of flavors emerge as the wine grips your tongue and lingers on your palate. After taking another bite of the rich pasta, followed by another sip of wine, there is a complete harmony among the flavors. Your taste buds dance, your heart sings and suddenly you realize how poetic and sultry you are. 

There's something magical about the highly revered Borolo wines of Italy that, after one sip, may sweep you off your feet and bring out feelings of deep love and emotion. Perhaps it's the very uniqueness of the wines themselves. Barolo, known as "The king of wines and the wine of kings", has received the highest classification of Italian wines and bears the label "DOCG" (denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or Controlled Designation of Origin Guaranteed). By law, these wines are made with 100% Nebbiolo, a noble Italian grape variety that thrives no place else in the world. These precious grapes are so highly coveted that it is a $250 fine for illegally picking them. This may seem harsh, but imagine back to the 15th century when the penalty was getting an axe to your hand! These are some of the most difficult grapes to grow, with their thin, delicate skins and tendency to ripen late in the season. The farmers around Barolo have to be diligent when caring for these vines, and risk losing everything by waiting until the brink of winter to harvest. 
To be labeled a Barolo the DOCG laws regulate where the (Nebbiolo) grapes are grown, crop yield (pruning is required) and alcohol levels (a minimum of 13%). Once the grapes are harvested and fermented they must be aged for a minimum of 38 months, 18 of which must be in barrel (usually small french barriques). Barolo Riservas have even longer aging requirements with a total of 62 months. Many wineries will age their Barolo's for even longer than these minimums. As a Barolo ages, the tongue-drying tannins soften and the wine becomes more complex, displaying flavors of dark chocolate and earthy truffles. 

People often refer to Piedmont as the Burgundy of Italy. Like its French counterpart, Piedmont takes its wines very seriously. Most visitors travel to Piedmont exclusively for the wine, and they are not disappointed as they discover that this area practically breathes wine. Enotecas are found in every town, wine estates appear at every curve in the road, restaurants feature the local wines on their menus and conversations among local merchants tend to focus on the vines and wines.

It is said that a wine that speaks of its land displays good "terroir" (tear-waar). Barolo practically screams of its homeland, with powerful aromas characterized as mushrooms, truffles, forest floor, licorice, roses, chocolate, violets, tar, leather, prunes and figs. It's the kind of wine that takes you to the land from which it hails. Is it possible to experience the terroir of a wine without visiting its home? As someone who has studied and tasted many wines, visiting some regions and only imagining others, here is my confession: It can be done without a personal visit. It's possible to read about a wine region and imagine it as you sip the wine that reflects its terroir. You can still use all of your senses to understand the wine, and some may really speak to you and awaken feelings of love, euphoria, intrigue and excitement. Great wine has the potential to evoke all sorts of emotions. 

That is my confession but here is my advice: Start planning your trip! Create a full and memorable experience using all of your senses. In Piedmont, wind your way up and down the hills, walk around the villages, take in the aromas, visit the vineyards and touch the grapes (but don't pick them!). Dine at the restaurants (they are all fantastic) and of course, sip the famous Barolo wines (they are much less expensive in Piedmont, by the way). After your trip, when you return home, you will get swept away to the very place you visited every time you open a bottle of Barolo. You will recall personal memories, rather than descriptions you read from a book (or even this article). Create your own sensory overload and you too, may find your inner poet and sultry self.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Photo Tour Through Liguria: The Italian Riviera

I can't remember when I first heard of the Cinque Terre (the Five lands) in Liguria, Italy. Perhaps I read about it in one of the many coffee table travel books in my living room, or maybe I saw it on a Rick Steve's episode. Regardless, I've often pictured myself hiking along the coastal paths connecting each of the quaint hillside villages that can only be visited by foot, train or boat.

When Jarrod arrived in Florence, we rented a Fiat Panda and headed towards the coast, eager to experience what we had only before read about, heard about and imagined.

We stayed in the somewhat ugly (but cheap) city of La Spezia and caught a morning train north to Monterosso. From there we began our hike to each little town, ending in Riomaggiore, where we caught the late night train back to La Spezia.
Although these villages see many tourists, they have remained (for the most part) free of commercialization and corporate development. Their proximity along the rugged cliffs hugging the sea have kept them isolated from vehicle traffic. They all have their own charm and families who have lived here for generations continue to fish, grow grapes and hang their laundry on the lines.
The start of our hike from Monterosso

Looking back on Monterosso

Looking down on Vernazza

A street in Vernazza

Mainstreet, Vernazza

Boat parking, Vernazza


Vernazza: Castle tower on the edge of town

Hillside cafe

Village #3: Corniglia

Church in Corniglia
 The Cinque Terre is a big tourist destination, but hiking from village to village isn't for the faint-hearted. The paths hug the rugged coastline and climb up and down the steep hillsides. The floods and mudslides in October of 2011 wiped out a section of the trail that went right along the coast, and currently the only way to continue hiking south past Corniglia is to take the high route, which adds quite a bit more elevation gain, but also beautiful views. (The trail along the coast from Manorolo to Riomaggiore - Via dell'amore - is scheduled to re-open this year.)

Leaving Corniglia, taking the 'high route'

It's stunning to see grapes growing on these steep hillsides, so close to the sea
A pulley system is used to collect grapes since the hills are so steep

Many of the grape vines are trained to grown as a canopy to ensure that they absorb as much sunlight as possible

Our 'high route' led us between the terraces of vines. (If you look closely you can see people walking along the terrace)

Hiking down to village #4: Manarola

Looking at the Via dell'amore trail that was wiped out by floods and mudslides in 2011

Steep decent into Manarola

Steep, steep, steep steps!

Train tracks connect each of the five villages

Manarola with vineyards in the backdrop

Kids playing on a mosaic

Manarola is a vibrant, colorful fishing village 
We found a great spot to have a bite to eat and watch the sunset (with some wine from the area that was served in ceramic mugs)

The most photographed Cinque Terre village (and it's clear to see why), Manarola

The view became even more stunning as the sun set and illuminated the rocks and buildings.

Catching the very last drop of the sunset
 After the sun went down in Manorola, we decided it was time to catch the train to the last village, Riomaggiore and find a place to have dinner. Riomaggiore is the southernmost village of the Cinque Terre. We read that many people only visit Riomaggiore, as it is the first stop that the train makes. and highly recommended by Rick Steves. We found Riomaggiore to be very pricey, touristy with far less allure than the other villages. We opted to catch the train back to La Spezia and find a little hole in the wall restaurant that cost a fraction of the price for pasta and wine. 
What a day!

The next day we decided to take our little Panda to visit the village on the peninsula south of La Spezia: Portovenere. It was spectacular!

Another fishing village full of charm

Next, we decided to drive north along the coast to soak up more of the Italian Riviera beauty. We found a nice little apartment with two rooftop patios (yes, TWO!!). We paid 90 Euros to stay here and saved some money by cooking in (well, technically we were cooking outside on the patio).  
The small jewel of a town, Sori

Nice sunset watching from our rooftop patio

Our room with a killer view

Enjoying some wine by candlelight

Our outdoor kitchen (I'm making a Spanish tortilla for our breakfast)

Sori in the daytime

Looking up towards our apartment from the dock
It was sad to say goodbye to Liguria and the Italian Riviera, but our appetites were wet for the land of deliciously rich food and bold, tantalizing wine...A place called Piedmont!