Tag Archives: Le Marche

It’s locals that are key to travels

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This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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#WineStudio XIII: Spotlight on Le Marche Wine Importer ZGR

One of the things I love most about wines, is meeting the people behind them. Most of all, naturally, meeting the winemakers themselves. But there are more people involved in the wine trade than winemakers: importers, distributors, and retailers.

Sometimes these guys are in it to our chagrin, when prices seem out of control due to middlemen and all sorts of weird dealings, but sometimes also to our delight, because it is these folks that enable us to get wines in the U.S. or elsewhere that are new on the international wine map, or are simply really hard to get.

Enter #WineStudio, a series of Twitter tastings organized and hosted by Protocol Wine Studio. I have sung their praises in the past, but I need to reiterate this: I find it amazing what Tina and Guy have been pulling off there. An atmosphere of curiosity and total non-snobbiness, banter as well as enlightening conversation, even if you don’t have the actual wines to taste along. #WineStudio usually happens as a series of several Twitter meetings at 9pm ET on Tuesdays, and then there is the weekly changing #WineChat which is also worth checking out.

I love the format of #WineStudio because it gives you a chance to dive deeper into a region or a portfolio, and since you do this over the course of several weeks, you really feel like you get a better grip on it (check out my awesome experience with Wine Studio XII which focused on lesser known German varietals).

#WineStudio XIII, which I was fortunate to participate in, took place from late April to mid-May, and it focused on Le Marche region on Italy’s Eastern coast. The center of the region is Ancona, and for the longest time, winemakers there have sold their grapes to cooperatives that used to make streamlined, rather boring wines. Over the last ten years, however, things have been changing, with growers wanting to produce their own wine, a more focused look at indigenous grapes like Lacrima di Morro d’Alba (a personal favorite of mine), and what seems like huge leaps in quality assurance. Le Marche still seems very much off the grid when it comes to Italian wines, and most people are not very familiar with the region in general (myself included)…

The wines we got taste and experience during the three sessions were provided by ZGR Imports, founded and run by mid-20s Jonathan Zeiger. Jonathan embodies what I love about wine and people engaged in wine: Enthusiastic about the wines and regions he cares about, curious and always looking for new ways to share what he is fond of, engaging and personable, just a really, really likable guy. He pretty much stumbled on his business, when he was backpacking through Europe and hit up one of the wineries in Le Marche. When the owners, whom he befriended, told him they were looking for an importer, he started his own business…if that isn’t enthusiasm and can-do attitude, I don’t know what is. Check out his website, it’s pretty neat, you can buy his wines directly from him, and his story is even better told in his own words…Guy also did an interview with him that is worth your time (see here).

Any distributor or importer that wants to show his portfolio faces the dilemma of how to present the wines: Do you want to do comparative tastings of wines made by the same grape, or do you want to focus on one producer in detail? Many things influence these decisions, and it is often an early indication if that person really knows what they are doing. When I received my tasting order sheet, I was scratching my head: Jonathan had selected to go with portfolio tastings, trying a Rosso Piceno and a Pecorino wine from one winery one week, and then the same wines from another winery. My gut was telling me I would have liked to try the Rosso Piceno wines against each other, and then the Pecorino wines. But as it turned out, Jonathan had done everything right: The winemaking styles of the two wineries were drastically different, so it would have been really difficult to compare the wines against each other…well done, Jonathan!

We started with wines from the family-run winery Centanni, which is located in  Montefiore dell’Aso. The winery is organically certified.

Centanni 2012 Pecorino

Centanni 2012 Pecorino

The first wine started us off on an incredible trajectory: Centanni 2012 Offida Pecorino. The color was golden yellow, and the nose showed some rubbery aromas, but was quite fresh. I didn’t detect many aromas in the nose. On the palate however, this was a stunner: very fresh, aromas of pear, orange rinds, some cream with a spicy, and later even tickly finish. While the wine was heavier with its 13% ABV, the alcohol didn’t show itself as overbearing, mainly because of the great acidity. The nice thing about this wine was its play between heavy and light. I am usually not a big fan of higher alcohol whites, plus I am VERY partial to Rieslings, but this one did work for me. According to Jonathan, Italians say it’s a white that acts like a red, and that was so right. For many in the group, it was the first Pecorino they ever had, but I had tried one in Rome two summers ago. This one was miles better. Really strong showing and it retails for $29 (which I would consider a bit pricey).

Centanni Rosso di Forca

Centanni Rosso di Forca

Next up was the Centanni 2012 Rosso di Forca which is from the Rosso Piceno DOC. Rosso Piceno is a unique blend of the region, consisting of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese grapes. As it turns out, that is genius pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines can be dark and brooding and spicy, while Sangiovese is lighter and less rustic. This representation of the blend (50% Sangiovese, 50% Montepulciano) really impressed me: The color was of a purplish red, and the nose showed mineralic and flower aromas, some wood, some liquorice. Really intriguing. On the palate, the wine was chewy, yet feeling quite light. There were cherry, some berry and vanilla aromas, also cedar wood and good tannins. The finish didn’t contain a hint of bitterness and was long lasting. While the wine contained enough fruit, it was more these forest aromas that impressed me. I returned to it again and again. Nina commented it combined the lightness of a Pinot Noir with the boldness of a Cabernet Sauvignon…for $17, this is a steal.

The following week, we tried the wines from Rio Maggio, located in the heart of Le Marche in Montegranaro. The winery was founded by Graziano Santucci in 1976 and his son Simone took over operations in 1996 when his father passed away.

Rio Maggio Pecorino

Rio Maggio Pecorino

We started with the Rio Maggio Colle Monteverde 2012, a wine made with 100% Pecorino grapes. The first thing I noticed was a very wet cork that also disintegrated as I pulled it out of the bottle. I don’t think it tainted the wine, but it sure was surprising for such a young wine. The color was a golden yellow and the nose was fun with butter popcorn aromas and some pear. However, on the palate, while the mouthfeel was nicely heavy, this heaviness translated into the flavors as well. There was a lack of acidity that made the wine less enjoyable than Centanni’s. Aromas of pear consisted throughout, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the wine seemed more brooding than refreshing (which I do consider a key quality in white wine). No faults really with the wine, but just not my type. Retail: $24

Rio Maggio Rosso Piceno

Rio Maggio Rosso Piceno

Next up was the Rio Maggio Contrada Vallone 2010, their Rosso Piceno. The color of this wine was dark, with slight brick color. On the nose I got an awesome combination of rhubarb pie, plum, green tea and some mushroom aromas. WHAT A NOSE!! I just didn’t want to withdraw my nose from the glass. Really weird combination, but I LOVED it. On the palate, this wine showed rather strong wood aromas and was quite restrained, almost austere. There was good acidity, but the tannins threw it a bit off for me and it felt like the alcohol was a bit out of control. But as you know, I am quite sensitive to this. Most other tasters had no issues with this. Retail: $24.

As we discussed the differences between the two wineries, Jonathan explained that Centanni makes more “modern” expressions of the two wines, while Rio Maggio is a more traditional showing of Rosso Piceno and Pecorino. I definitely preferred the more modern approach, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the aromas exuding from both Rio Maggio wines. What an experience…

I will be spending a few days in Le Marche in July, and am already giddy with excitement!

 

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Can’t believe summer is just around the corner, again…

It’s been a long winter in Michigan this year. There was a time, when I thought spring would never come. Then it came, and two days later we had the humid heat sweeping in that I associate with Michigan summers…I am not a fan of that, which is why we tend to spend the summers elsewhere. Like last year in South East Asia. Granted, the heat was also pretty humid over there, but there was so much to make it bearable: gorgeous beaches, awesome food, and even an awesome winery

The vineyards of GranMonte Winery

The vineyards of GranMonte Winery

Pretty much as soon as we got back from that trip, I put my foot down and declared that the summer of 2014 had to be spent in Europe. Non-negotiable. As much as I like living in the US for various reasons (and I do, despite the fact that I seem to constantly bitch about it), I have been missing Europe a lot: The close proximity of awesome places, affordable and great wine, the familiarity of things. Add in that my exchange brother from Burgundy (he now lives in Morey-St-Denis, for those familiar with the area) and I are celebrating knowing each other for 25 years this year. Our Silver Anniversary! Wow.

So we began making plans and it soon became clear that we would want to have at least two months, if not three. In the end, it all boiled down to available flights, and so I will now be across the ocean from May 27 until August 16. As we kept mailing with friends and family to figure out what to do, another thing emerged in our head: We have not been back to Africa since 2011 when we visited Kenya and Zanzibar. Given that we met in Botswana, we were beginning to dream of going to Southern Africa again…right as we were considering this, we found insanely cheap flights to Johannesburg, and ended up booking them even before we had our flights to Europe! Three weeks in Southern Africa had joined our itinerary.

I’ll spend about 10 days with my family around Mainz, and then will head to the UK to meet up with Nina and friends. We’ll spend about a week with friends in Oxford and then fly to Johannesburg.

It should be interesting, visiting Botswana again after all these years. I keep saying that that’s the way to ruin your relationship: Go back to the place where you met, and then realize how much “better” things were in those early days…;) Nah, I think we’ll be fine. The craziest thing is that we will be going to the pub where we met (aptly named Linga-Longa), and the night we arrive Germany will be playing Portugal in the World Cup. That’s crazy because the first time we really talked was when Germany was playing Portugal in the Euro Cup 2008…

Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

From Bots we’ll head to Namibia to visit a friend for a few days, then down South to Cape Town. As soon as I knew we’d be going to Cape Town, I did some research on Stellenbosch and found the Stellenbosch Wine Routes association, a coordinated network of more than 148 wineries in the area. I reached out to them, and they have been incredibly helpful in putting together an itinerary for us that will include a bunch of winery visits and talks with winemakers as well as a vertical Pinotage tasting at Kanonkop, which is arguably one of the benchmarks of Pinotage. To say that we are excited is an understatement!

After a few more days in Cape Town, we will head back North, will take a detour into Lesotho, and then fly to Milan. We’ll have three weeks in Italy (a first for Nina, who, except for 24 hours in Rome, has not made it there), will visit wineries in Le Marche, Tuscany and the Campania region, and then will fly back to Germany just in time for my home village’s Weinfest (aka wine festival). After two more weeks in Germany, which we’ll spend considerable time of at the Mosel, we’ll head into Burgundy for a week: to celebrate with my exchange brother, and to explore the region more. Did I mention that my home village’s sister city is Pommard, and we already did a tasting with its mayor in the past?

In the Mayor of Pommard's cellars, Summer 2010

In the Mayor of Pommard’s cellars, Summer 2010

And then it is time to say good-bye to Europe, and head back to Michigan where we will move into a new apartment… Unlike last year, I decided not to start a guest blogging series despite the huge success it was. Mainly not to stretch my fellow writers’ good will more than necessary, but also because I hope to be blogging from Europe and Africa.

In any case, this should be an exciting summer.

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