The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Sting Operation

Every little thing he does is magic in Toscana

Sting and wife Trudie Styler

Whenever celebrities start making their own wine, I tend to roll my eyes. It’s as if their oversaturated egos have merely found another outlet, for they rarely deliver on the quality. I admit that this gut reaction is not always warranted; Francis Ford Coppola has made some great Riservas, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan is gaining quite a cult status with his Arizona wines, Caduceus, and adult film star Savannah Samson has turned out some seriously respectable reds, Sogno Uno. Therefore, when I heard that legendary rocker Sting and wife Trudie Styler opened a food and wine shop at their Toscana estate, Tenuta Il Palagio, I did anything but shrug.

The couple moved to Italy in 1997 and have been growing produce and making their own wine for many years straight from their 900-acre estate, which dates back to the 16th century, in the town of Figline Valdarno, nearly 20 miles south of Florence. It turns out that Sting’s playing the gentleman farmer isn’t just a passing phase.

Since they started cultivating their lands, the couple has sold to a handful of outlets in the US and Britain, including London’s luxury department store Harrod’s. However, now their products will be directly available from the farm doors. The new shop will sell olive oil, acacia honey, vegetables, salami made from local boars, and other food grown by the couple on their land. Most interestingly, Sting’s wine will be available at the boutique shop.

Some of the Il Palagio offerings

The rocker’s biodynamic wine, produced on the property, includes a Sangiovese blend with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2007 vintage, and he also produced a 2008 Chianti. Sting recently told a local Toscana newspaper, Corriere della Sera, “If I don’t eat well, I can’t sing.”

I know how he feels, although I don’t think I’m a great singer.

Cheese, Please

The skinny on some of IWM’s favorite Italian cheeses

La Tur

As a server for the IWM Vintage Tasting Room and our Studio del Gusto events, as well as being a sales associate in the store, I’m required to learn the ins and outs of each cheese and wine pairing, which couldn’t be a more enjoyable work requirement. In the spirit of sharing this delicious knowledge, I’m giving you a thumbnail sketch of some of my invaluable on-the-job cheese knowledge.

First, here are a few common terms to remember as you venture into Italian cheese territory:

Fresco—fresh

Tenero—tender

Dolce—sweet

Duro—hard

Stagionato—aged/matured

Vecchio—old

Stravecchio—very old

Toma: this soft- to semi-hard cow‘s milk cheese comes from the high Alps of Valle d’Aosta and Piemonte regions of Italy.  It ripens like Brie to create a thick rind with a pale to golden yellow sweet paste on the inside. One of Piemonte’s traditional cheeses, it works especially well with Chianti, as well as local Valle d’Aosta wines such as Torrette and Piemonte’s Dolcetto and Barbaresco.

Bra

Caprino: derived from the word, “capra,” which means “goat,” this cheese is made from whole or skim goat’s milk. It can be made in the fresco (fresh) or stagionato (seasoned) styles. The Fresco only ages for three to five days, and therefore maintains a soft, creamy texture. Fiano, Falanghina and Asti Spumante are white wines that serve this cheese well, as do reds like Barbaresco and Beaujolais.

Bra: originating in northern Italy in the Piemonte town of Bra, this cheese is made with pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’s milk. The unpasteurized version is the traditional hard style that ripens for three to six months. During this time, the color darkens and the flavor intensifies. The other type, which is pasteurized, is sold after only 45 days of aging while the paste is still soft.

Robiola: deriving from the word “rubeole (ruddy) due to the hue of its seasoned rind, Robiola is made from a mixture of cow, goat and sheep’s milk and is a soft-ripened cheese from the Stracchino cheese family (Stracca means “tired”; cheeses from the Stracchino family are made with the milk of tired cows since it’s richer in fats and more acidic).  Robiola is tangy and has an intense aroma with subtle creamy flavors to compensate. Robiolas can be aged alone or wrapped in different kinds of leaves to absorb the flavors of the leaves, imparting complex flavors.

La Tur: my most favorite cheese on the planet, it is a bloomy, pasteurized mix of cow, goat and sheep‘s milk. It stands about two inches high and about two inches wide, cakey in texture, yet oozing towards the rim. It’s fresh but also tantalizingly funky. I love pairing this cheese with unusual, obscure varietals such as Frappato, Grignolino and Freisa.

Fontina: a cow’s milk cheese made in the Alps of the Aosta valley since the twelfth century, this cheese has stood the test of time and is one of the most popular and easy to distinguish Italian cheeses. Also made in Sweden and France, the Aosta valley stands as this cheese’s original hometown. Fontina is well known for its earthy and mushroom flavors, which pair perfectly with braised meats and shaved truffles.

Taleggio: a washed-rind cheese, this is another one of my favorites with its buttery texture, pungency and fruity flavors. This cheese goes best with young Nebbiolo wines and fluffy Italian loaf.

Toma

Pecorino Romano: produced primarily in Sardegna and very popular in the States, this cheese is made completely from ewe’s milk. Showing a slight sweetness with a buttery and nutty aspect, Pecorino is usually aged for eight months, making the texture just right—not too hard, not too soft. This flexible cheese goes superbly with most Italian wines, especially Chianti Riserva.

Gorgonzola Cremificato: Also known as “Gorgonzola Dolce,” this gorgonzola is creamier and sweeter than most other blues and a lovely complement to sliced pears. If serving it as an after-dinner treat, don’t forget to pair it with every blue cheese’s favorite dessert wine, Sauternes.

Callu de Cabreddu: also known as Cabrettu, this unusual cheese dates back 6,000 years. A Sardinian goat’s milk cheese that is ripened in a baby goat’s stomach, the flavors of Callu de Cabreddu are extremely strong and explosive.  It’s tough to pair this cheese with wine, because it’s so intense; I prefer this cheese on its own with some warm, Italian ciabatta bread.

As with the vast majority of Italian food, the adage “if it grows together, it goes together” works with wine and cheese as well. Check out the region, and if possible the township where your wine and your cheese originate. Chances are you’ll be on the right track. Or ask any of the IWM sales associates. We love to share our cheese expertise.

Meat and Potatoes, Choucroute-Style

Good choucroute, like a favorite wine, comes down to what your tastes best on your palate.

Choucroute, you say it like this: “shoo-croot.” The word, meaning “sauerkraut” in French, is a typical dish throughout Germany. Essentially, choucroute is a mélange of meats—pork, sausages and cured meats—cooked with potatoes and covering a lavish foundation of sauerkraut. Since its inception in Germany when the first barrels of cabbage made their way into Magdeburg in the eighteenth century, the dish has slowly made its way into neighboring Alsace, France, into regions of Eastern Europe, as well as into Italy. It’s hearty, flexible, delicious and fairly healthy.

Today’s Alsace chefs make their choucroute garni of sauerkraut topped with meats, potatoes, and juniper berries. The French prepare it with goose or other gamey meats, while Hungarians add stuffed cabbage leaves to the dish. Regional chefs add their own interpretations to the dish and create a variety of different choucroute. In Italy and France, scallops, mussels, salmon, shrimp and other seafood make an appearance on top of the ever-present sauerkraut.

Regardless of where the chef resides, or what spin he or she puts on the dish, no choucroute is complete without white wine, the perfect pairing to this hearty dish—and an easy-to-find element in Germany, Alsace and throughout Italy. Try a rich, spicy Gewürztraminer or a fruity, steely Riesling, both of which can match the acidity and zestiness of the sauerkraut and balance the rich meats. Grab a glass of Zind Humbrecht or Joh. Jos. Prum or any other regional white when dining on this piquant dish. And if you have one open in the fridge, you can even use a touch of Riesling or Sylvaner to cook the sauerkraut.

The beauty of choucroute is that there are no rules. Choucroute doesn’t require any age-old recipe. There are no specific measurements or ingredients—other than the sauerkraut. In the end, good choucroute, like a favorite wine, comes down to what your tastes best on your palate.

Exploring Basilicata Cuisine and Wine

The more I learn about Italian wine and food, the more I realize the close tie between regional cuisine and the indigenous wines throughout Italy.

The more I learn about Italian wine and food, the more I realize the close tie between regional cuisine and the indigenous wines throughout Italy. For example, in eastern Italy, the bean soup known as Jota, Montasio, a cow’s milk cheese, and  the seafood along the Adriatic coast are all perfect pairings for Friuli’s distinct, white wines like Ribolla, Pinot Grigio or Pinot Bianco. Travel west toward Piemonte, and you’ll find heavier meat dishes topped with truffles or rich cheese sauces. These foods all complement the mighty Barolos and Barbarescos produced there.

Also on the hearty side is one region I knew little about: Basilicata. Nestled in the southern part of the boot in Campania within the provinces of Matera and Potenza, Basilicata has some serious gastronomic treasures, including the region’s traditional lamb-based dishes. Usually slow-cooked in a pot to create a stew called Pignata, lamb, and fish, stews are common dishes of Basilicata. Families would cook out in the open field, throwing the vegetables and meat that were close at hand into a big pot and choosing bread from Matera or local Potenza cheeses to accompany their meals.  Along with the hearty stews, bread and cheeses, the people of Basilicata served wines of equal depth like Aglianco.

Aglianico, the name of both the wine and the varietal, tends toward the full-bodied end of the spectrum and is marked by firm tannins and jaunty acidity. The wine’s intensity is a perfect match for Basilicata meats, especially the region’s trademark lamb. In addition to acting as a solo varietal, producers in Campania often blend Aglianco with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grape is known for its deep earthy aromas, which works to bring out the best in the region’s cuisine. Basilicata once had really infertile soils that meant very little space for sustained agriculture. Farmers grew what they could—like lamb—and thus the region’s cuisine is defined by heavier meat dishes as well as really good wine.

The adage is, was, and always has been “what grows together goes together.” It’s a truism that remains amazingly valid—especially in these days of fast food, frozen dinners and fusion cuisine. The wonder of Italian food and wine is not in proving the rule; it’s rediscovering it, region by region, dish by dish and wine by wine.

A Look at Risotto

There are several types of risotto rice, but not all of them can be found in the US. Two of the most common are Arborio and Carnaroli.

One of the most misunderstood dishes, risotto is definitely one of my favorites. Some people think that risotto’s wonderful creamy texture comes from the addition of cream and butter, but really it’s just the natural composition of the rice itself. Starch, the main component of rice, is composed of amylopectin and amylose, and different kinds of rice have different percentages of these two starches. The rice used in risotto is short-grain rice and this type has a higher percentage of amylopectin, which is the sticky starch that results in the creamy texture. Medium-to-long grain rice, such as Jasmine and Basmati, has a higher percentage of amylase, which is why they seem to be fluffier. There are several types of risotto rice, but not all of them can be found in the US. Two of the most common are Arborio and Carnaroli.

Arborio rice gets its name after the town where it was originally grown in northern Italy’s Po Valley. Arborio is the easiest to find in the US because it’s now being grown in parts of California and Texas. It has a relatively low percentage of amylose for a risotto rice, which means it takes longer to cook because absorbs liquid less efficiently, and it will make a starchy and sticky risotto. Since it does not absorb liquid quickly, Arborio requires careful tending because it will go from undercooked to overdone very suddenly.  Anyone who has eaten mushy risotto will attest to its unpleasantness.

Carnaroli, known as the “king of rice,” is the most common type of Risotto used in Italy and originates from the Piemonte towns of Novara and Vercelli. Of all the risotto rice, Carnaroli has the highest percentage of amylose, which makes it absorb a lot of liquid and makes it less likely to overcook quickly and get mushy. Carnoli is usually designated “superfine” to indicate its high ratio of length to width, though it can also be labeled “semifinos” to show that the grain is rounder. Carnaroli is harder to find in the US, but you can locate it in most specialty stores.

The biochemical composition of the rice helps explain the ineffable connection between risotto’s raw ingredients and the fragrant, gleaming pool of risotto lounging on the plate in front of you. With this knowledge, you may understand risotto a little better—and appreciate this mysterious, beautiful and delicious dish even more.

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