eating and drinking my way around Italy by bicycle
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Perched on a hill overlooking the Chianti region of Tuscany, Podere Ciona is in a dramatic setting. Once I saw the aerial photo on the website, I knew I was in for tough ride up to this little hamlet but that I would likely be rewarded by another unique opportunity to hear the story behind this vineyard's origin. Before I dive into the wine, the warmth of Franco and Franca, and another one of my fondest days in Italy, I'd like to give you some background on the region and Podere Ciona. Il Chianti is the region of Tuscany between Firenze (Florence) and Siena. The landscape, cuisine, and wine is probably what many Americans think of when Italy comes to mind. This is not by accident, but rather amazing marketing of the region. I've spent a fair amount of time cycling through the Chianti region and so I can tell you first-hand that there is a vineyard around every hairpin turn (and there are a lot of those). Because so much wine is produced in the area and its so popular around the world, quality can suffer. I think most people would agree that small businesses, restaurants, or vineyards allow for greater quality and consistency. So, I was very excited when I arranged visits through Small Vineyards, which is an importer of Italian and Spanish wine based in Seattle. Podere Ciona is a vineyard with about 100 acres of land, of which 10 acres are used to grow grapes (about 2.5 hectares). The vineyard is about 7 km north of Gaiole in Chianti. Gaiole is famous for a cycling event that takes place every October, L'Eroica. The ride involes dressing in vintage cycling attire and riding around Chianti on a vintage bike, drinking wine and enjoying the mutual love of bikes and wine. Sounds fabulous... I think I will have to return.
Let me refocus.. the land of Podere Ciona was purchased by Franco and Franca Gatteschi in the 70's. They spent 3 years restoring the estate and then planted vines. The first wines released was the 1997 Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG. So, it took about 15 years to produce wine for release after the purchase of the estate. Since then, Franco has kept yields to a minimum of about 1 bottle per plant to insure consistency of his wine.
For my visit, I was to arrive at noon on Monday, the 15th. The vineyard was about a 40 km ride from Siena. Franca had sent me directions that includes descriptions such as "look for a stone under a Madona shrine with 'Ciona' written on it." Hmmm, I dutifully copied all the notes directions into my journal and hoped for teh best. Actually, the directions were spot on and I arrived promptly a few minutes before noon. I was greeted by Franco and the two family dogs. Franco was much kinder than the dogs and invited me into his home to talk and rest before the tour. The house was warm with beautiful views overlooking Gaiole in Chianti with Siena in the distance. I was not the typical guest to Ciona as I was arriving on bike and also, as Franco told me, they were expecting someone much older. I told him my age, whch was a surprise, and then explained why I was in Italy (Franco and Franca both speak perfect English so our dialogue was able to be in-depth). I told Franco I was wanting to identify small wine producers, learn their story, and share this experience and his wines with my community. I explained and related mu knowledge of wines produced by small vineyards, and how they've been some of the best I've had. I knew I was successful in making my point as Franco replied, "Ah, this is very good" and thus the tour began.
Franco took me to the tasting room, the cellars, the bottling area, and around the vines. He told me which vinese were which grapes, the history of his time here, the history of Chianti wine, and of L'Eroica, the vintage-cycling event. During the tour I asked about how he handles the grapes during the different stages (e.g. harvest, grape selection, fermentation, aging). I also learned that his son works with Small Vineyards in New York and always returns home to help with the harvest and that the concept of the US importer all started here at Ciona. In short, I learned a lot about how Ciona came to be through the work of Franco and Franca. Towards the end of the tour, Franca returned from town and the markets:
"Ah, Caleb, so glad you are here. You must stay and have lunch."
"Great, I brought some bread and cheese for us to have with the tasting."
Well, little did I know that Franca is a professional cook and hosts cooking classes all over the world. Tutti a Tavola is her business name. Check it out, they have a nice website. My bread and cheese would be returning to Siena with me that night. Its the thought that counts, right?
We finished the tour and headed back into their house for the tasting and lunch. Franca was busy in the kitchen and we chatted about her travels, the local Tuscan cuisine, and her business. I talked about pizza in the US, Pizzicletta, and my travels. It was another great moment of connecting with someone very passionate about their own work. For lunch, we would have gorgonzola ravioli drizzled with butter and Gran Padona, pugliese-style brea with a selection of about 7-8 cheeses, Franca's homemade gelato topped with her homemade lemoncillo, and caffe to finish. Oh, and let us not forget the wines. I was seriously beginning to wonder if I'd be making it back to Siena tonight or if I need to ask for a room in their agriturismo.
So onto the wines. We tasted four wines and I made heavy use of the spitoon (Siena was still 40 km away and the sun was on its descent). I started with the '09 Rose I.G.T. Its 100% Sangiovese. Sound familiar? Yes, I'd had a similar Rose at Sesti. Roses are growing in popularity here, and to a lesser extent, in the US.This one was nice and refreshing with a tang of acidity to finish. Next, was the Vino da Tavola. This unlabeled bottle was 100% Sangiovese. Transparent, medium bodied, and with a bit more tannins that the wines I'd had at Sesti. I believe this too was the everyday wine here at Ciona.
Then I moved up to the '06 Chianti Classico DOCG. Its 95% Sangiovese, 4% Merlot, and 1% Alicante Bouschet. Its fermented in medium-sized French oak barrels and aged for 18 months in French oak and 1 year in the bottle. With all the oak, I thought the vanilla flavor would dominate but it was nice and balanced with the full flavor of Sangiovese still present.
Finally, I had the '05 Le Diacce I.G.T. This is Ciona's flagship wine. Its 90% Merlot and 10% Alicante Bouschet. Again, fermented in medium-sized French oak but aged in French barriques. This was a big one with the Merlot coming right out at you. Strong tanins and the wine was nearly opaque. A wine that kind of felt like a meal on its own.
We spent well over an hour tasting and having lunch, during which time there were no quiet moments. I felt very honored to share this meal and their wine in such an intimate setting. Truly, this trip has allowed me to meet amazing people and has taught me a lot about how creating partnerships. One thing I think I've learned is how important sharing a meal together can be. In America, we often meet to discuss business, relationships, travels, etc. over coffee. Here in Italy, you break bread together. Perhaps this is a natural outcome when a country places such a high value on their food. Whatever the reason, its one I will adopt myself.