Friday, November 27, 2009

The Postal Service, Alcohol Levels & More: Being the 165th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

I have been writing. Quite a bit, it seems. The latest addition to the Italian Wine Review is a look at the 2009 Carmignano Vintage presentation, while the latest additions to Italian food are recipes, which I won't list, and new shots to the Fruit and Vegetables Gallery: we're up to 92 shots! I didn't expect it to get this big but I keep finding new things to add.

Turning to Cosa Bolle in Pentola, Bergamo's Valcalepio appellation is one of the more particular Italian appellations: rather than concentrate on autochthonous varietals, they decided to use the so-called Taglio Bordolese in their wines: 25-60% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Merlot for the reds, and 55-80% Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay, plus the remainder Pinot Grigio, for the whites. You might wonder why an Italian appellation would choose to work with French varietals, but the French varietals have long been grown in northern Italy, and the wines, especially the vini d'annata can be quite nice. With the red Riserve things are a little more uneven, with some people bulking up their wines more than I might like, at which point finesse gives way to lumbering qualities.

A few years ago they brought together all of the appellations that allow Merlot-Cabernet blends for a general tasting, and that was quite interesting. More recently, however, they have organized en event called Emozioni dal Mondo, a competition featuring Merlot-Cabernet blends from around the world (primarily Italian, though this year there were also Eastern European, South American, and South African wines). The tasting was held in the Palamonti, a gym dedicated to rock and mountain climbing run by the Sezione Bergamo of CAI (Club Alpino Italiano). A beautiful, and frankly unique setting for a tasting; should you want to go climbing in the Alps, or anywhere else, it would also be an excellent place to train.

One Grand Gold Medal was awarded, to a wine from the Abruzzo -- the Azienda Masciarelli's Merlot Marina Cvetic IGT Colli Aprutini 2006, followed by a great many Gold Medals. No Silver, because the OIV regulations organizers followed say no more than a certain percentage of the wines entered into a tasting can be awarded medals. Here the average quality was high enough that the percentage was reached before silver medals could be awarded. A very interesting event, and if you want to see the list of award-winning wines, check the Emozioni Dal Mondo's Elenco Premiati.

Cornello dei Tasso, and The Postal System

After the tasting, some of the judges boarded a minibus to go visit a few wineries. The rest of us boarded a much larger bus and rode up into the Alps behind Bergamo; the initial few km of the Val Brembana (formed by the Brembo River) were decidedly nondescript, with an abundance of relatively recent construction jumbled together on the valley floor, but after going through a few tunnels the construction started to thin, and in the space of a few more km (and more tunnels) we were at the bottom of a V, with mountains climbing all around us.

At Camerata Cornello we tuned off the main road and climbed through a series of switchbacks. The bus let us off by a steeply sloping meadow, and we walked down the modern paved road to where it stopped at a parking garage built for the residents of Cornello dei Tassi, who live a little further on, down the old Via Mercatorum, the medieval commercial route (a wide, well packed trail) that followed the flank of the valley due to an impassable gorge on the valley floor. The Via Mercatorum passes literally through Cornello -- the ground floors of the buildings on its path are porticoed, allowing people to pass under them -- and as a result Cornello was an important stopping point where merchants could rest their animals and themselves, and if the weather was bad enjoy some shelter. They could also trade, and talk, and we will return to this.

The town of Cornello can easily be seen in the space of an hour -- the porticoed section is about a hundred yards long, and the other major local attraction is the parish church, a XII Century Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Cornelio and Cipriano. To reach it, go through the porticoed section, turn right, and climb to a parallel lane. The church's façade is simple rather sever stone work, and you'll note that the tower is slightly out of kilter. Inside there are many frescoes dating to the XV-XVI centuries depicting people of all walks of life. Some are quite nice, but the one that really caught my eye is to the left as you enter: Sant'Elvio, the patron saint of Maniscalchi, or blacksmiths, who -- since he is saintly -- simply removes the horse's foreleg, to affix the shoe to the hoof without worrying about what the animal is doing. A miracle, and then he reattaches the leg when he has finished. Beautiful.

As I said, the traders who stopped in Cornello also talked, and it didn't take long for the scions of the Tasso Family, one of the leading local families, to wonder if those who were talking might also want the services of a courier to send missives forward or back. So, in the XIII Century Odone De Taxo set up such a service. It proved successful, but one can only have so much success if one works from a town in an Alpine valley. So part of the family moved to Venice, and managed to become the Official Couriers for the Venetian Republic. They did well, and one branch of the family moved to Rome, where they became Maestri delle Poste Papali -- the Papal Postmasters.

Others instead entered into the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and again did well: In 1512 the Emperor Maximillian bestowed a title upon the family, with a coat of arms featuring a badger (tasso) and a postal bugle, enriched by the Imperial Eagle. They also worked for Maxiimillian's cousins, the Kings of Spain, and for several centuries various branches of the Tasso Family (part of the German branch became Princes of Thurn and Taxis) ran the postal system throughout much of Europe, establishing routes between hundreds of cities and precise schedules.

They became fabulously wealthy, and continued to provide postal services throughout Europe until well into the 19th century, by which time the various European governments had realized that government-controlled national postal systems were perhaps a good idea. Indeed, when the European governments met in the 1850s to discuss postal matters, the Tasso Family joined them at the table, and subsequently issued stamps for its routes, which continued to function until 1866, when the Prussians unified Germany and nationalized the German postal system. At this point the Tasso family ceded its operations to the various national postal systems and turned its attentions to other ventures.

Not bad for a family that started out sending packets up and down an Alpine valley! And they are well remembered in Cornello, which changed its name to Cornello Dei Tassi, and hosts a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Tasso family and the postal system they established, with stamps, letters, portraits of royal sponsors, and much more.

And why is Cornello now served by a mule track rather than a paved road, you wonder? Because in 1592 the Venetians, who ruled Bergamo at the time, overcame the obstacles on the valley floor and built a new, easier to travel road called the Via Priula. Cornello became isolated, and while this did mean hardships for generations of its inhabitants (an Abbot who visited in 1899 spoke of poor mountaineers who spent their summers working in France, to earn enough to survive the winters), because of the isolation the town remains unchanged, and is one of the best preserved Alpine trading villages anywhere. And well worth a visit.

Alcohol Levels in Wines
Moving in a very different direction, I recently went to a presentation of the current (2007) Chianti Colli Fiorentini Vini d'Annata, or vintage wines. As is always the case at presentations of this sort some wines were better than others, but there were several that were quite good. However, there was also a problem: A vino d'annata, or vintage wine, is a wine that's made to be drunk upon release, or fairly soon thereafter - though some of them can and do age quite well, they're wines intended primarily to be set out and drunk. Only thing is, here, with one exception, they were all 13.5% or more alcohol. This is a strong wine, and not the sort of thing one would usually think of quaffing with maccheroni alla bolognese or a burger.

In their defense they were nicely balanced, and the alcohol wasn't that evident, but it was there. In vintage wines. Why? While people do talk about global warming raising the sugar levels of grapes (higher temperatures make for riper grapes with more sugar, which in turn makes for wines with more alcohol), 2007 wasn't a particularly hot summer. Yes, there were hot spells, but it was nothing like 2003, when the thermometer stayed pegged above 99 (38 C) from late May through September. So what is the answer?

I think it's something called maturazione polifenolica, or polyphenolic ripening, which has become all the rage with Italian winemakers over the past few years. You might think a ripe grape is a ripe grape, and while this may have been true in the past, it isn't quite as easy any more. There are two ways to judge grape ripeness: Sugar level, and the ripeness of the tannins contained in the skins and seeds.

Sugar level, which is what was traditionally measured, is straight forward: the wine maker keeps track of sugar levels, which rise as the grapes ripen, and when they reach the level necessary to yield a certain percentage of alcohol in the wine, say 12%, starts to harvest.

In polyphenolic ripeness, what is measured is the ripeness of the compounds that give wine its color and structure, with special emphasis on how smooth and sweet the tannins are; the idea is to obtain a wine with sweeter smoother tannins that is also richer and more concentrated. And on paper it seems like a very nice idea. However, polyphenolic ripening tends to lag behind sugar ripening. As a result, while the winemaker waits for the tannins to smooth and soften sugar levels increase enough to yield a wine with 14 or more % alcohol. And at the same time, grape acidity, which decreases with increasing ripeness, falls through the floor, while the flavor cast of the fruit shifts away from red berry fruit such as cherries, strawberries, red currants, and such, and more towards prune and plum.

The end result of polyphenolic ripeness is wines that do have smoother softer tannins, and more concentration, but are also much less acidic, more settled (prune and plum are more settled than red berry fruit, at least for me), and much (much) more alcoholic.

In short, they're not as pleasant to drink, if not difficult to drink, the sort of wines that people swish and swirl while saying vaguely complementary things about ("nice concentration, silky smooth" and so on) but then leave in the glass. And, because they tend to seem fairly sweet, due to the ripeness of the fruit, the lack of acidity, and the high alcohol levels (which are perceived as sweetness) they are much more difficult to pair with foods than less alcoholic, zestier wines.

By way of comparison, wines made from grapes harvested when the sugar levels translate to 12% or so alcohol tend to be much brighter, with livelier acidities, tannins that are a bit more aggressive, and fruit that is brighter. In short, they are fresher, and I find them much more inviting to drink.

Because of this, I am eagerly waiting for the infatuation a great many Italian winemakers have with the concept of polyphenolic ripening to end. The result will be wines that are fresher, more enjoyable, and easier to pair with foods.

Returning to the Chianti Colli Fiorentini presentation, the wine we found to be the freshest? It was the Azienda di Uggiano's La Casa di Dante Alighieri Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2007. A wine made from grapes harvested with an eye more on sugar levels than polyphenolic ripeness: The fruit was lively, with red berries, the acidity was brisk, and the alcohol content was 12%.

This time's proverb is Pugliese: La bbona ngudene rombe u martiidde, A good anvil will break a hammer.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find them on the IWR site, through

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Olive Oil, Stuffed Birds & More: Being the 164th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Olive Oil, Stuffed Birds & More: Being the 164th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

This has been a busy several weeks, and I am also dealing with Dread Swine Flu, which isn't an excuse for tardiness though it does provide some sort of explanation. To begin with, a number of additions to the Italian Wine Review: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gavi, and Bolgheri. All sorts of wines, some of which are well suited to the upcoming Thanksgiving for those living in the US.

On Italian food, instead, I have continued to work on the Galleria delle Verdure (we're up to 84 shots as of today) and have also done a quick article on white and red cabbage, what Italians call Cavolo Cappuccio. And posted a number of recipes. In short, lots of writing since last time.

And now, for something I haven't done before: A reprint. During the period between when I stopped posting issues of Cosa Bolle on Italian food and started posting them on the Cosa Bolle blog, I wrote a long piece on olive oil that seems quite apropos now, seeing that we're in the midst of the olive harvest in Tuscany, and those with olive groves (or even just trees in their yards) are spreading parachutes under the trees and picking them prior to carting them off to the presses. So here we go:

Olive Oil: Tasting and Thoughts on Quality
The Fattoria di Morello is a pretty estate on the flank of Monte Morello, the mountain northwest of Florence that Florentines use as an impromptu weather service (Se Monte Morello Mette il Cappello, Fiorentin Prende L'Ombrello, If Monte Morello Dons his Hat, The Florentine grabs his Umbrella). Rather than make wine, they have about 15,000 olive trees and make an excellent oil eagerly sought out by connoisseurs the world over. A few years ago they held a conference entitled Incontro con l'Olio Nuovo, Meeting the New Oil, which examined the relationships between terroir and technological advancements in the production of quality olive oil.

We were given a fair number of statistics, for example that 90% of the world's olive groves are in the Mediterranean Basin, primarily in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Tunisia, and that 60% of all olive oil produced is of European origin. The per capita consumption in Greece is 20 kilos (this is about 20 liters), in Italy it's 12, though more oil is consumed because the population is higher, and Spain is catching up with Italy; in other parts of the world consumption is considerably lower -- 400 g/person -- but increasing: per capita consumption has doubled worldwide, and tripled in the US, Japan, and Northern Europe.

It also turns out that much of what the rest of the world consumes is funneled through Italian olive oil processing plants that procure from a variety of sources, mix, and resell. Unfortunately, a huge percentage of this oil is extravirgin, in other words, its acidity is less than 1% and it has been tasted by a panel of experts who (presumably) say it's free from obvious defects.

I use the words "unfortunately" and "presumably" because though extravirgin oil is supposed to be the best, it varies tremendously in price, from 3 to 30 Euros/liter (in Italian supermarkets), and it's quite obvious that what costs 3 Euros is going to be very different from what costs 30. The former will be made primarily from imported oils, cut as an industrialist sees fit, and will likely be quite bland, whereas the latter will, one hopes, be made from olives picked in an individual grove somewhere in Italy -- most likely Tuscany, though Umbria, Liguria, and Lake Garda are also famed for their oils, and likely be quite flavorful.

Something is seriously amiss when two very different products are being sold with the same name, and the obvious solution would be to tighten the criteria an oil need meet to qualify as extravirgin -- there would be a lot more virgin oil (which is perfectly adequate for cooking) and only what really is superior (and is best used as a condiment) would be extravirgin.

Alas, any attempt to demote the cheap extravirgin oil to virgin status would meat with tremendous political resistance on a pan-European scale, and therefore the more practical solution would likely be to create something superior to Extravirgin, along the lines of the Laudemio consortium that many of the top Tuscan olive oil makers belong to. Its requirements are more stringent than those for Extravirgin oil; oils that qualify have the word Laudemio on the label, and are bottled in a distinctively shaped bottle that does stand out.

The statistics were interesting, and they do trace a path one hopes the legislature will follow to help producers differentiate and define their products.

The most interesting, and most sobering part of the conference, was Marco Mugelli's speech. He's a world-renowned expert on olive management and olive oil production, and began by saying that as a whole olive oil extraction is a low-yield proposition: The best one can do is about 18% (a kilo of olives yield 180 g of oil), and this with techniques that allow oxidation of the oil during the pressing -- a significant part of the oil in an olive is trapped between membranes composed of sugars, and to free it the olive presser oxidizes the sugars, and as a result exposes the oil to oxidation.

There is another technique that doesn't collect this "trapped" oil; since there's no oxidation the resulting oil is distinctly superior (Mr. Mugelli says the two kinds are not comparable), but the yield is so much lower that the technique is not used.

The problem with the high production philosophy, Mr. Mugelli says, is that though the oil can be of high quality if the olives were picked and handled with care and carefully pressed, the technique masks the differences attributable to different production areas and cultivars.

In other words, high quality oils now being made in various parts of the world, for example Chile, Tuscany, and Greece, closely resemble each other. To drive the point home, the organizers of the conference called a recess during which they set up a blind tasting featuring oils from Tuscany (Fattoria di Morello), Sardinia, Spain, Puglia, Greece, Chile, California, and Argentina. One was slightly off, but I found the rest to be quite good and quite similar, to the point that I would have been guessing had I tried to say where they were from. I am not a trained oil taster, so this is perhaps not a complete surprise, but a number of the participants at the conference (primarily journalists and agronomists) do specialize in olive oil, and they had a tough time too -- one guy identified Tuscany, Sicily, and Sardegna, and then stopped, while Mr. Mugelli also identified Spain because he consults for the producer and recognized the cultivar.

Some people identified others, but nobody got them all. It was a sobering experience, and provides a fine argument for adopting the low-yield technique for the best oils, which would therefore be much richer and more distinctive. One would have to establish a new classification to distinguish them from the current extravirgin oils, but it would be worth it.

Establishing a new high-quality oil is something for the future. What does this tasting mean now, for the average consumer? Buy olive oil with care, and remember that you get what you pay for. The cheap stuff that comes in a 5-liter screw-cap can is going to be uninspiring, and though you may want to cook with it, you will likely not want to drizzle it over your soup or salad because it won't contribute those wonderful olive oil aromas and flavors one gets from better oils. In terms of quality oil don't overlook a (relatively) conveniently priced local olive oil if you live in an area where oil is produced -- if it was properly made, our tasting showed that it will rival just about anything imported. And if you live in a non-producing area, don't feel you must buy the most expensive European import to enjoy olive oil. Taste the various possibilities with an open mind, and you may find yourself preferring something from a less renowned area that's less expensive.

Never tasted olive oil?
You'll not want to taste more than 6-8 oils at a sitting because palate fatigue sets in quickly, and you'll want a glass of cool water to sip between samples. The glasses we were given were clear glass and small, about half again larger than a shot glass, and each contained a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.

You begin with the color: Intensity, hue, which varies from green to gold, and transparency, which varies from cloudy (not necessarily a defect) to quite clear. And you continue with the aromas, gently shaking the glasses and sniffing deeply. As is the case with evaluating a wine, you identify the primary aromas and then concentrate on the secondary aromas that emerge as you continue to sniff; in tasting an olive oil, I was told, the aromas play a greater part than they do in a wine, and I tend to agree.

Once you are done sniffing, you taste -- just a drop, initially on the tip of the tongue, and you work it around the rest of your palate, analyzing the tastes and textures you perceive. A sip of water to clear the palate, and on to the next oil.

So what are you looking for?

According to the key we were given, olive oil can display three positive attributes:
  • Fruity -- olive fruit aromas and flavors
  • Bitterness -- characteristic of oil from green (unripe) olives
  • Spiciness -- Pepper, specifically, and characteristic of oil made from olives picked at the beginning of the harvest

There are many more defects; these are the major ones:
  • Riscaldo (heated) -- characteristic of olives that began to ferment before they were pressed
  • Mold/dampness -- moldy aromas and flavors from olives that were stored where it was damp, and got moldy.
  • Muck -- a flavor characteristic of oils that remained in contact with the olive pulp after pressing
  • Winey/Acidic -- The oil has overtones reminiscent of wine or vinegar. This happens when the olives fermented before pressing, forming acetic acid.
  • Metallic -- A metallic taste derived form the oil's being in contact with metal surfaces too long during the production phases.
  • Rancid -- Characteristic aromas and tastes caused by oxidation
And these are minor:
  • Cooked -- this happens when the olives or olive paste were overheated during pressing.
  • Grass or wood -- characteristic of olives that were dried out (this is a lot of grass; a little is all right).
  • Coarse -- a dense, chewy sensation found in some oils.
  • Lubricant -- when the oil brings to mind motor oil or diesel fuel.
  • Vegetation water -- a flavor the oil acquires if it's not separated from the water component soon enough after pressing.
  • Briny -- brings to mind olives that were preserved in brine
  • Dirt -- earthiness from olives that sat on the ground
  • Wormy -- from olives that were infected with the larvae of the olive fly
  • Cucumber -- typical of oils that have been stored too long, especially in cans

In short, there are lots of problems to look out for, and many are more common than you might think. Indeed, I once attended a comparison of artisinal and mass-produced commercial oils, and the master taster found defects, in particular brininess, in almost all the commercial oils.

However, when it all works, and what you find is positive, the next step is to break out the bread to make bruschetta, together with a bowl of freshly sliced vegetables for pinzimonio (give each guest a dipping bowl to fill with oil, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, and include bell peppers, artichoke hearts, celery, carrots, and whatever else you like that's firm enough to be dipped among the vegetables). Follow the antipasto with a bowl of minestrone or pasta e fagioli drizzled with a little more oil, and follow the first course with grilled spare ribs, served with plain white beans and chickpeas, both drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Who could ask for more?

Actually, since we're coming to the Season For Stuffed Birds, one could ask for one of those, and here are a couple of ideas:

Pollo Ripeno alle Noci, Chicken Stuffed with Walnuts
This stuffed chicken recipe is from Trentino Alto Adige, and will be quite nice in the fall, when freshly harvested walnuts come to market. Unlike many Italian chicken stuffings, this one does not contain meat. To serve 4-6:

  • A chicken weighing 2 1/5 pounds, with its giblets
  • The numeats from 12 walnuts, skins removed and chopped
  • 1/3 pound (150 g) stale bread - in terms of volume, this should be close to 3 cups
  • 1/3 cup (30 g) pine nuts, chopped
  • 1/2 cup (25 g) freshly grated Parmigiano
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/5 cup (150 ml) meat broth; unsalted canned bouillon will also work
  • A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by setting a pot of water big enough to contain the chicken to boil.

Next, clean the gizzard and simmer it in boiling water for 15 minutes.

While it's cooking, crumble the bread into a bowl and sprinkle the broth over it.

Squeeze the excess moisture from the bread and return it to the bowl.

Chop the chicken liver and the gizzard. Add them to the bread, together with the walnut meats, pine nuts, and grated Parmigiano. Add a pinch of grated nutmeg and the eggs. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.

Fill the chicken with the stuffing and sew the cavity shut with string.

Salt the boiling water, and simmer the chicken for an hour. Drain it well, cut it, and arrange the pieces and the stuffing on a platter. Serve the chicken with the stuffing and vegetables of choice.

In terms of a wine, since the recipe is from the high Northeast, I might go with a Lagrein.

Pollo Ripieno al Pistacchio, Chicken Stuffed with pistachio Nuts
The above is boiled, and is something North Americans are less used to than Italians, for whom boiled Capon is one of the standard Christmas dishes. Here is a recipe for a roast stuffed chicken with pistachios and rice in the filling, which has a rather south Italian feel to it. To serve 4:

  • A chicken, weighing about 3 pounds (1.3 k), cleaned, and with its giblets
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) shelled pistachio nuts, peeled too
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and crumbed with a fork
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup (50 g) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup plumped sultana raisins
  • 1/2 cup broth overtones unsalted bouillon
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) heavy cream
  • Paprika
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Flame the bird to remove stray pinfeathers, if need be, and season it inside and out with salt and pepper.

Clean and chop the giblets. Drain the raisins.

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

Heat the butter in a saucepan and sauté the chopped onions and giblets for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. When the time is up, combine them in a bowl with the pistachios, rice, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, and parsley. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper and use it to fill the chicken, sewing the cavity shut when you have finished.

Rub a little paprika into the chicken's skin, and put it in an oven pan that can also go over a burner. Add the olive oil too and brown the chicken for about 5 minutes over a brisk flame, turning it this way and that. When the 5 minutes has passed, transfer it to the oven and roast it for about 45 minutes or until done, basting it often, at first with a little hot broth, and later with pan drippings.

About 5 minutes before the chicken is done, pour the cream over it and return it to the oven. If your roasting pan is elegant, serve it directly in the pan. If it is less so, transfer it to a platter and serve.

The wine? Red, and I might be tempted by an Aglianico del Taburno here.

This has gone on longer than I expected. This time's proverb is Sicilian: Aceddru `nta la aggia `un canta p`amuri, ma pi raggia - A caged bird doesn't sing out of love, but out of rage.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find them on the IWR site, through