Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Last night's class was all about Italian wines. Of course it was amazing and Chef Matthews proved himself yet again to not only be an eternal font of knowledge but also a very gifted teacher. In a matter of 3 hours I learned (and retained) information that would allow me to accurately pair Italian wines with food, down to specific producers and regions. The difficult part of doing this was that Italy has no system of identification, like France (regional system) or California (varietal system), making it hard to teach and even harder to learn. Chef broke it down into what he calls "generations." Now, this does not relate specifically to age but rather character or personality, if you will. Turn on your imagination and I'll try to explain a little...

First, the 75 year old. This is a crotchety old man sitting by the fire complaining about all the whipper snappers. He doesn't care what anybody thinks about him. He knows what he knows and who gives a hoot what you think? He's been around a long time. He has experience, wisdom, history, etc. He's got stories like you wouldn't believe but he's not particularly friendly so it's going to take some coaxing and some listening before you get to hear them. This characterizes the wines of Piedmonte. They've been doing it the longest and the wines in Piedmonte are the most complex and have the most to them, but you can't just walk right in and understand them. They are going to take some studying and coaxing before you can really get into them. There's a further breakdown of Piedmonte because of how complicated their wines are, but I won't get into that now.

Next, you have the 55 year old mad scientist. This is "Doc" from Back to the Future. He's older, he has some experience and wisdom, but he's also crazy. He still has some energy and is just a complete wacko - but also a genius. No one knows why or how he does the things he does but the results are always spectacular. This characterizes the wines of Veneto. Take for example the very city of Venice. It's a city built on the water! Why did anybody even consider building a city on water when there was plenty of available land all around them? The answer - because they could. It's crazy but it's also genius. It's one of the world's most visited cities for its beauty and grandeur. The same is true of the wines from Veneto (the region that Venice is capital of). The early producers needed to figure out a way to ship their wines around the world. The wine needed to withstand the voyage, wherever it was going, without turning to vinegar. So what does a mad scientist do? He experiments and he plays with the chemical aspects of the wine. They left the grapes on the vine a little longer, then they took them in racks into their barns or wherever to let them raisinate, and THEN made wine with them. Doing this made an extremely potent and acidic wine that could withstand trips all around the world. This wine is Amarone. It was originally a very bitter wine because of this process, which they have since refined a great deal. So the base wine they were making was Valpolicello, which they then casked and aged to make Amarone. The first was cheap and simple while the latter was expensive (due to the process) and strong. They wanted something inbetween so again the mad scientist kicks in and says "let's take the cheap stuff and age it in the casks we used for the good stuff." The result is Ripassa, and let me asure you that if you have not already had a Ripassa, you should. It is fantastic and much more affordable than an Amarone.

The third generation is the 35 year old suave lover. This guy is at the top of his game. He's had enough experience and time in life to build some resources and obtain some success. He's got all the latest and greatest technology. He uses his skills in marketing and business to be the best, because he also loves to party. He's that rich and successful guy speeding down the highway in his convertible with the music blasting, sunshades on, and a pretty girl riding shotgun. This is Tuscany. The tuscans are the best at what they do and they know it. They use all the latest technology. They break down wine with a scientific approach, but not like the mad scientist would, this is all business. He wants to know: what sells, what works, what doesn't work, why does it work, how can I make it work better, how can I be more successful? All the wine in Tuscany starts with the Sangiovese grape, which is now grown in many other parts of the world. But, Sagniovese that is made in Tuscany is Chianti. Centralize it further into Tuscany and age it 9 to 12 months and you have Chianti Classico. Take the Classico and age it another 3 years (at least) in oak and you have Chianti Classico Reserva, which is a remarkable wine. And its no wonder that Chianti is the most popular wine in America. The genius behind its production and marketing has made it so. But the business man is never satisfied. Success only brings a desire for more success. The 35 year old suave lover knows that Chianti is good, but it isn't great. It isn't bold and huge like some other wines. So what do they do? They makes deals and bring in grapes from California and other places. They mix the wine: 90% Sangiovese and 10% California Cabernet. And how does it do? It sells like crazy. So next crop they take it further: 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet. Again - genius; they make a fortune. They keep going and experimenting and this is how we have Super Tuscans.

Obviously there is much more than this. We did not even discuss the 4th generation: the 15 year old kids. This is the category chef gave to southern Italian wines (everything south of Tuscany). As you might imagine, these wines aren't complicated. They are refreshing and crisp because the kids are closer to the meridian and they just want to get out to the beach and play.

And Piedmonte? There are six wines from Piedmonte that we discussed in class and I might go into that later, but this post is long enough already and I should get back to work. Let me just say this: they are worth looking into. They are the best of Italy. The oldest, the most complex, and also the hardest to understand. "King" Barolo? I certainly don't understand him... not yet anyway.

But it's a great way to learn isn't it? Now, instead of memorizing regions and names you have ideas of characters. It's easy to remember and envision. It also gives you a better grasp of a culture that is slippery at best. The Italians are all about passion and character. You have a system for defining my wine? Screw you! My family has made this for x number of years and I say what it is! Hehe, okay so that's a bit much. But it's kind of true. Consider how they name their wines. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with where it's from, what grape was used, or even who made it. It reflects their character and they name it whatever the heck they want.

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