Tag Archives: tuscany

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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2005 Melini Vigneti La Selvanella Chianti Classico Riserva

2005 Melini La Selvanella Chianti Classico Riserva

2005 Melini La Selvanella Chianti Classico Riserva

Sometimes, you luck out in liquor stores. And sometimes you don’t. But I have learned that it is worth trying it out. And with this find, the 2005 Melini Vigneti La Selvanella Chianti Classico Riserva, I definitely lucked out. According to Wine Searcher, the wine retails for $25 and up. I found this lone bottle on the sales shelf for $12. There is always a good chance that an older vintage wine sold in a liquor store (instead of a professional wine store) has gone bad because of poor storage conditions etc. But it is sometimes worth a try, and it all depends on what discount the store is giving you.

Some of you know that I have made Melini’s 2010 Chianti Borghi d’Elsa my go to, everyday Chianti. It is nicely affordable and delivers refreshing, light wines. When bought in the magnum bottle, which are available at Costco, it is hard to beat price wise for a good dinner companion.

Cantine Melini is a big Italian wine producer. The winery was established in 1705 and today covers over 550 hectares of land in Chianti and Chianti Classico. The vineyards reportedly cover 136 hectares divided in 5 farms. While the Borghi d’Elsa is an everyday wine, La Selvanella is on the other end of Melini’s spectrum: It is their top notch wine which has garnered attention by Italy’s leading wine guide, the Gambero Rosso (the 2006 La Selvanella got the coveted 3 glass rating). This vintage received 2 glasses in Gambero Rosso and 4 grapes in the Duemilavini guide. The 2005 vintage was rather difficult as far as the weather was concerned (lots of rain and low temperatures from June to August), but the grapes are said to have ripened enough. The wine is made with 100% Sangiovese grosso grapes which come from 49 hectares around Radda in Chianti, one of the top villages in Chianti. The grapes were harvested in October and after 20 days of maceration it ripened 30 months in French oak. It has 13.2% ABV and the winery gives it 10 to 12 years of ageing potential. (All this information can be found on the winery’s website)

We decanted the wine for about an hour. It poured as a darker red wine with very slight browning on the edges. In the nose, I got raisins, lots of plum and some sweetness as well as herbal aromas. The medium bodied wine showed mostly plums and prunes on the palate, with good acidity and medium tannins which were nicely round. There was some spice going on and it had a medium length finish. The wine was still very, very fresh, which surprised me. It is by far not nearing its end yet.

I really enjoyed this wine. At the price I bought it, it was a steal. It also paired great with the Pecorino Toscano (a young Pecorino with delicate flavors that has none of the ripened Pecorino’s saltiness which I don’t enjoy much) I was able to secure in San Antonio and awesome different, thinly sliced bacons from my favorite sausage maker in town, Biercamp (which is right around the corner). It transported me right back into Tuscany, on a warm fall day afternoon, sitting outside, munching on Pecorino Toscano, prosciutto and panini and having a glass of wine…there is no better compliment I can make a wine.

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Sunday read: 2012 Harvest Snapshots

This Sunday, my suggested read offers insight into what has been on my mind ever since fall started: How is the harvest going in Europe? It is the first time I am not around for harvest season, and I have to say I miss it tremendously. Last year, I had the chance to work a day in the Ürziger Würzgarten with Stefan Erbes and his crew. The excitement and intense labor involved was quite an experience to have…

So, how is 2012 going to be? The weather was crazy throughout spring and summer. From what I have been gathering in Germany, the last days have been gorgeous and rewarded the winemakers with sun and changes in aroma in the grapes (thanks to Matthias Meierer for that info!)…what’s it like in other areas?

Gregory Dal Piaz over at Snooth gives us an idea, and a forecast on the vintage…

Have a great Sunday!

2012 Harvest Snapshots

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