The yearly production of wine in Chianti starts with the harvest in September. This is the time of year we chose to visit Italy for the very first time a couple of years ago. We visited many wineries in the towns of Greve, Gaiole, Radda and Castellina in Chianti, and had the chance to taste wines produced by each winery – always free of charge. It is now common to have to pay for your wine tastings in many other wine countries (and frankly, I think it’s fair if you’re not going to buy anything else), but Chianti’s artisans are exceptionally generous.
Wineries in the Chianti region are scattered around its steep valleys. We often had to drive on narrow gravel roads that allowed only one car at a time and climb abrupt hills to reach the coveted wineries. With the exception of only one or two wineries, the people who welcomed us were those working in the field or producing the wines, not employees hired just to smile and pitch us the story of the place. Don’t get me wrong; I love knowledgeable guides who are patient enough to have a discussion and answer all your questions, but how can that compare with a tour from a woman with her hair tied back, her sleeves rolled up and rubber boots on her feet? Because these people are workers, not tourist guides, their English is not perfect (and sometimes completely lacking, but this gave me the chance to practice my Italian, and they always have printed and detailed English descriptions of their wines) and they sometimes make it clear that they want to get on with their day, but if you’re looking for full-time staff and the chance to hang around a while, choose wineries that are accessible by luxury buses.
The Chianti Classico DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is made from at least 80% Sangiovese grapes; the other 20% can be a blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, etc. As with other protected designations, the way Chianti Classicos are made is strictly supervised: we heard that inspectors regularly walk through the vineyards to taste the grapes and they also collect bottles to sample the wines and verify the ratio of grapes used in the blends. It seems that an aerial surveillance system is even in place, helicopters and small planes taking pictures from the sky to make sure the quantity of vines cultivated from each variety correlates to the number of cases produced by a winery. For example, if a winery cultivates only a small amount of Sangiovese grapes, how could it produce 100,000 cases of Chianti Classico? Wineries can make other kinds of wines besides the lovely Chianti, but they are table wines which are sold more cheaply, so they are a lot less profitable to wineries.
In the Chianti region, we chose to stay at the Vignamaggio winery, an agrotourism estate. Agrotourist destinations often offer self-catering rooms or apartments, which was exactly what we were looking for: how can it be easier to find good food and a great bottle of wine to fix a delicious dinner? This kind of accommodation is run by multitasking employees. The guide that walked us on the Vignamaggio tour was also our server at the restaurant the day before and is part of the kitchen team that selects cheeses and ingredients to build its menus. This makes for very passionate guides who don’t spare us any explanations or stories about the place where they work. Sandro, our guide, explained with great passion how the Chianti wine industry works and how the winemakers make the most of their geographical location: they plant Sangiovese grapes – which need to gorge on sun – on southern hillsides, whereas they plant Cabernet and Merlot – which prefer shade – on northern and northwestern hillsides. This is a very simple strategy but it’s really the base of Italian wine crafting: making the most of your surroundings.
We were lucky enough to be there exactly during the vendanges (the grape harvest), and when we started our tour, a Sangiovese harvest had just been brought back from the hills to the first press where the grape bunches are put in whole: stems, seeds and all – these guys add a lot of taste to the wine. The resulting puree is then transferred to huge stainless steel barrels where it will rest for many days. This is the first stage of the Chianti Classico wine production.
Vignamaggio was also the place where we tasted one of our first Caprese salads. A bit tired after driving a couple of hours on Chianti’s very steep, narrow roads to reach the vineyard, we came out of the car and into the sun, stunned by the magnificent scenery unrolling in front of us. We sat on the terrasse and the cook came out, telling us she could fix us something. Settling for a simple Caprese with two glasses of the winery’s Chianti Classico, we were in heaven: thick slices of juicy tomatoes topped with equally thick slices of melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella di bufala, sprinkled with fresh basil and ornate with golden drops of Vignamaggio’s own olive oil. This magnificent salad was served with freshly baked bread, which we used to sop up every last drop of olive oil and mozzarella milk. This would become a classic which we would make again and again back home, every time we felt like indulging in a soft and fresh ball of mozzarella di bufala.
If you want to make a Caprese at home, please don’t skimp on the cheese: ordinary cow’s milk fresh mozzarella just won’t do. Once you try the di bufala variety, you’ll understand why people get head over heels for this cloud-like cheese. Simply cut thick slices of the best and freshest tomatoes you can find (I like vine varieties), top with slices of mozzarella, as much fresh basil as you like and the best olive oil you have (the one you don’t cook with!) at home. I like to sprinkle a bit of fleur de sel on my tomatoes and some freshly ground black pepper (not too much!) on the whole salad. Some people add drops of balsamic vinegar, but I find that the vinegar’s strong flavor overcomes the delicate texture of the cheese. Eat with an Italian ciabatta and a good bottle of Chianti wine. This is the ultimate summer lunch.
NOTE: This blog post was first published in September 2007 on my personal travel blog. I have updated and transferred it to Food Nouveau because of its food-related contents. I think these foodie travel tales can still be useful and interesting to my readers, today, on FoodNouveau.com.