Green Harvest

Saturday promised to be sunny and hot as we were driven to the La Spinetta Campe winery near the town of Grinzane Cavour in the Piemonte region of Italy. We were going to La Spinetta to participate in the green harvest. Gathering in the tasting room with about 18 others from Switzerland, Denmark, and Belgium we were welcomed by Anja Cramer, (responsible for marketing), Giorgio Rivetti (the wine maker and co-owner), Giovanna (Giorgio’s sister, vineyard supervisor and cook), and Manuela Rivetti (Italian sales and winery visits). We were given background on La Spinetta, a family owned and run winery (http://www.la-spinetta.com/index.htm). The work we would be doing that morning was some of the most important work done in the vineyards and involves cutting off almost half of the clusters of green grapes from the vines. This work is done before the grapes start to turn color and is done so that the plant provides all of its energy to fewer grapes. It reduces the quantity of wine produced significantly but increases the quality. La Spinetta is all about the quality where as other commercial wineries are more concerned on the volume of wine produced.

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We were given aprons and cutters and headed for the vineyard. There we met the part of the field crew that works for La Spinetta for harvest, pruning, thinning, and green harvest. They are all very skilled at what they do and are supervised by Giovanna.

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Divided into groups of 5 or 6 we were assigned to one or two of these workers. Giovanna showed how they wanted to have about 5 or 6 grape clusters remaining on each vine, though it depended on the age of the vine and the size of the clusters. Some of the clusters were long and we were to cut them shorter so that the remaining grapes would do better.

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The thinning had the functions of making fewer clusters so that each received more nourishment but also to create space between clusters so that they would stay dry. If clusters are too close together and it rains they do not dry well and then mold forms and ruins the grapes. After the demonstrations we were ready to work under the watchful eye of the skilled workers. When we would have a question about whether or not to cut off a cluster we would say, “Questo? (this one)” and get a “si” or “no” or “corto” (shoren it). It was a little unnerving to think that each cluster cut would be less wine, Barolo in this case, made.

 

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Our group would move down the row each taking a vine to harvest and then when done moving past the last one down the row to select another vine. There is another vineyard between two of La Spinetta’s properties that is not owned by them. The owner is not a winemaker and sell the grapes to other winemakers. He does not do green harvest and you could see the vines thick with green grape clusters. For this grower it is all about production of a lot of grapes. Giorgio said that the winemakers who buy these grapes are not farmers and by not being farmers they don’t understand that the quality of the wine begins in the vineyard.

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Just when it seemed we were getting the hang of it we stopped for lunch. Lunch was served at the ciabót, a little hut or house in the vineyards where the vignaioli used to store their tools and take their breaks in the heat of the day. Lunch was simple, but delicious “finger food” prepared by Giovanna accompanied by La Spinetta wines (of course!).

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It was a good time to relax, eat, drink wine, meet and talk with the other people there and to enjoy the lush green view across Barolo wine country.

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Then it was back down the hill to the winery to turn in our cutters and back to the hotel to clean up and rest before dinner.

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Dinner was in Canelli at the Contratto winery. Contratto is a very old sparkling winery that was acquired by La Spinetta very recently. The winery is built into the side of a large hill and consists of multilevel tunnels dug into the hill. The winery was built over a 100 years ago without the machinery or technology we have now and it is very impressive to see how well it was constructed. I forgot to bring my camera in the evening so I cannot show you just how beautiful the facility is. They still use the manual process for “riddling” (getting the yeast into the neck of the bottle so it can be expelled before the final bottling.) All of the large sparkling wine companies have machines that do that now. We had a demonstration of riddling from a man that has worked there for 30 years. There soon will not be anyone with those skills around.

We had aperitivos in a underground tasting room (with some Contratto sparking wine, of course). Then we returned above ground to what was once a restaurant on part of the winery where we had a lovely meal prepared by Giovanna accompanied by several La Spinetta wines.

We were fortunate of be sitting by Giorgio and were treated to many stories. It is clear that they are passionate about their wine making and they work very hard to product the best wines that they can. One of the other guests told us that a La Spinetta had been rated the second best Barolo in Italy and was ranked among the best wines in the world. The evening ended with a 2004 Barolo Reserve and it couldn’t have ended better.

Ciao!

(for more pictures go to:  http://gallery.me.com/doughiza/100175)

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Homework — Field trip to La Morra

It was a long weekend as there wasn’t school on Monday because of…well, I don’t know, Mother’s Day? June is taking Italian lessons and her instructor had recommended some places to see around Bra, one of which is the town of La Morra. La Morra is a very small town that has some old stuff to look at, but not much because most has been lost to time and battles. It has two principal draws: 1) the view from the town across the wine area surrounding it is stunning, and 2) wine. It is located in the midst of the growing area for Barberas, Barberescos, Docettos, and Barolos. June wanted to visit so she went to the tourist office in Bra to see if they had any information on the town. They did. The brochure that grabbed my attention was “La Morra — Visite alle Cantine.” From April through June La Morra is having wine visits and tastings at the various wineries surrounding the town over the weekends. On Saturday there were schedule to be 6 wineries to tour. To get there is a little problematic if, like us, you don’t have a car. The train doesn’t go there. There is a bus from Bra to La Morra but its Saturday schedule was a mystery to the tourist office. So we took a cab which wasn’t that expensive.

La Morra is a beautiful little town sitting on a hill.

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The taxi dropped us off at the tourist office which is next to one of the scenic overlooks. The tourist office was very helpful but we found that there were only two wineries within walking distance that were open that day. The others would have been quite a walk and were better by car. She also gave us a few restaurant suggestions as it was time for pranzo and everything is closed for that until around 2:30. I chose the restaurant the furthest away (we are talking a VERY small town here) and so we made our way to Il Laghetto ( http://www.illaghettolamorra.it/ ) which was a small place by a pond with great outdoor seating. We had a delightful meal there. I couldn’t resist the snails from Cherasco as we had so recently learned so much about them. They were deep fried in a lightly seasoned thin crust and served with fried onion rings. They were really very good.

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We followed the map to the first winery and found the address but it appeared to be closed. We knocked on the door and telephoned the number with no response. As we were walking away a man offered his assistance and we told him we wanted to visit the winery but it was closed. He said just to ring the bell. We decided that with knocking and telephoning that we had done enough. He pointed down a narrow alley and said that winery was open and gave us instructions including, “ring the bell.”

The winery was Enzo Boglietti ( http://www.enzoboglietti.com/ ) and after ringing the bell we were admitted by a man who didn’t speak English. We managed to let him know we’d like to try the wines and he pointed to a table and said we could try anything opened. There were about 15 wines opened. This is when I remembered two things that we had learned in wine tasting class. Taste and smell as much as you can because that is how you learn. And it is a strong recommendation that we spit and not swallow when tasting if we want to learn/remember anything about the wines. He began to pour and we began to taste. It actually was a little bit of work remembering all that I was to look for and recording my perceptions. I tasted  Dolcetto D’Alba DOC 2010 “Tiglineri”, Barbera D’Alba DOC 2010, Barbera D’Alba DOC 2009 “Roscaleto”, Langhe DOC Nebbiolo 2009, Langhe DOC BUIO 2009 (80% Nebbiolo + 20% Barbera), Barolo DOCG “Fossate” 2007, Barolo DOCG “Case Nere” 2007, Barolo DOCG “Arione” 2007, Barolo DOCG “Brunate” 2007 and Barolo DOCG “Riserva” 2004 (a very good year). I spit all but the last. I could not bring myself to spit a 2004 Barolo DOCG Riserva. It was an amazing experience tasting the differences in all of those wines and I was already appreciating what I had learned at school about what to look for. Here’s our host and a photo of a Swiss couple that come to the area about every 2 years and take home about 30 boxes of wine. They enjoy the Enzo Boglietti wines. We bought three bottles to take home with us.

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We walked by the second winery without stopping because of the other thing the woman in the tourist office told us. The other part of the weekend of wine tasting occurs at the Cantina Comunale di La Morra, a central tasting room and enoteca which today was having a tasting of Barberas. She told us that for the price of a glass of wine there were about 20 Barberas one could taste. We grabbed a coffee and headed up the hill as it was getting close to closing time.

As we were walking we came to one of the businesses she recommended visiting. Mulino Sobrino ( http://www.ilmulinosobrino.it/ita/index.asp ) is a grain mill that uses only organic grain and has an old grind stone. She said that they make very good products and recommended their corn meal for pollenta. We stopped and had a look around. The woman there said that it is more interesting when they are grinding which would be on Wednesday of next week but she showed us the original grinding stone which is over 100 years old as well as the new grinders they use.

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We bought some oatmeal with several other grains mixed in and some corn meal and continued on to the Cantina Comunale.

At Cantina Comunale, as we were told, we could pay 5 euro for a glass and taste as many of the Barberas that they had there, all from the area surrounding La Morra and there were, indeed, about 20 of them.

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I needed to learn some of the differences that exist among Barberas so I ended up tasting five. At that point, although I was really amazed how different the same grape from the same region could taste from vineyard to vineyard and wine maker to wine maker, I felt it was time to stop. My taste memory was fatiguing.

I took some pictures of the view from the overlook and although the haze of morning had faded it was still hazy. Here are some shots.

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If you have a weekend free before the end of June and you want to sharpen your wine tasting skills in a delightful town visit La Morra. I’ll join you. I need more practice. …homework, you know!

Ciao!

Southeast Asian Food, Oil, Wine & Cheese (aka Week in Review)

I’ve been struggling, a little, in writing this posting. It is not that there isn’t a lot to write about. It is more a matter of trying to explain this week in such a way that my readership will understand how difficult much of the week was and not lapse into thinking, “Poor baby living the dream life and trying to make believe that it is work.” I will try to establish the case for the effort involved in my new undertaking.

Okay, Monday morning was more of a treat but it was very educational, too. Two of the previous Master students, who are just finishing their program, gave us a talk on Southeast Asian cuisine. Pan is from Thailand and Rae is from The Philippines. They thought that our mostly Western and mostly European food education should be balanced with some understanding of other very different food cultures and the faculty apparently agreed.

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– photo by Nathalie Stevens

I learned a lot from their presentation on the food of their region and how it related to climate and historical population shifts in their areas. They approached it in a very gastronomic way discussing the taste profiles of their food, their cultural traditions around food, meals and eating, and they showed the contrasts with the Western food attitudes and culture. During the presentation the served us examples of their traditional dishes which were delicious.

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– photo by Nathalie Stevens

It was very educational, entertaining and it left a good taste in our mouth, literally and figuratively.

That afternoon we began learning about oil production from Paolo Bondioli, a researcher and world expert on oil production. As you would expect, I’m not talking about petroleum. Most of the lecture was on olive oil production and it was quite technical but I found it fascinating. I had several misconceptions concerning olive oil and the way that it is graded and how it is best used. There are very strict E.U. standards as to what can be called Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The technical definition is that it is a “superior category of olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means.” There can be no use of solvents nor biochemical action (enzymes) nor any refining. It must pass two tests: 1) Chemical analysis, the most important of which is the acidity (specifically free Oleic acid) must be less than or equal to 0.8%, and 2) it must meet organoleptic evaluation standards. Organoleptic standards are those relating to odor and taste and are determined by a trained panel of tasters. There are something like 22 things that are looked for to certify an olive oil as Extra Virgin which mostly consists of the lack of defects but also it must include positive attributes. It makes no difference what mechanical means was used to press the oil, the Extra Virgin designation is the result of the evaluation. I used to think there were two pressings (or more) and that the first was where extra virgin came from. Apparently that used to be mostly true but it is not the case now. Virtually all olives are pressed once. If it doesn’t meet the Extra Virgin standard then the resulting oils are called Virgin if it has acidity from 0.8 – 2.0% and/or defects present, or Lampante if it doesn’t meet the Virgin criteria. Virgin and Lampante oils are not sold to consumers. Those oils are sold to refineries which use chemical and/or heat processes to remove defects (and the healthy things) and make a oil suitable for use. One product of that is oil that would be labeled “Olive Oil.” Olive oil is colorless and flavorless but some companies blend in small amounts of Extra Virgin oil to add color and some flavor. There are different qualities of Extra Virgin olive oil but there is not any regulated way to distinguish that on the label. Some producers voluntarily add more information than is required hoping to influence customers.

We had about 5 hours of lecture on olive oil production and standards and another one hour on other types of food oils (grain, nut and fruit oils). The last part was rushed but the basic principles were the same for these other oils.

The following day we began wine tasting under the tutelage of Sandro Bosticco, and expert in wine and olive oil tasting. Here’s a video of him in another role ( http://www.vimeo.com/2464560 ).

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Now the fun begins, right? Well, the answer to that is yes and no. Over the next 3 days we tasted 11 wines with a brief half-day interlude to taste olive oils. The main struggle for most of us was distinguishing smells and being able to describe them. He kept reminding us that this was the most important thing to be able to do and insisted that one of our primary jobs as gastronomy students was to smell everything. By everything he means everything! To be able to describe an odor to another person you have to relate it to some smell memory that you associate with that odor. That seems somewhat simple but someone would say they smell “sweet” and he would say “No. Sweet is a taste (one of the 5). What does it smell like that reminds you of sweet? Honey? …or…? ” This was a very difficult concept for many of us to understand. He was also quite forgiving in that if someone smelled something in a wine he would accept that they had smelled something that reminded them of that odor even if he didn’t find that. With some wines the smell can be simple and somewhat generic like “floral” or “tropical fruit” while others are more complex and made of of dozens of odors. He emphasized that while there are 5 tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami) there are thousands of odors and the detection of those odors by the nose is very complex. He said, “This is hard (referring to describing smells).” That is understatement. We would spend about an hour and a half “tasting” two wines. Then another hour and a half of tasting another 3 or 4. After a day of that one truly is fatigued but excited at the same time.

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When we tasted 7 olive oils for a half day in the middle of the 3 days of wine tasting we found the job was no easier. The same things are evaluated: clarity, color, aroma, and taste. The aromas are often complex, especially with quality extra virgin oils. The tasting technique is different in that you have to spray the oil in your mouth by “slurping” so that the oil reaches the back of the palate. He kept saying, “You have to make noise when you taste olive oil. If you visiting a producer and taste without making noise they will be disappointed.” The best olive oils have tastes that are fruity, bitter and spicy. We tasted some Tuscan olive oils that were strongly “grassy” and almost overpowering but very good. He reminded us that we had to think about their taste with food as people don’t generally sit around and drink olive oil as they do wine.

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The week ended Friday afternoon with the first of our classes on cheese tasting. Finally a break from the difficult work of identifying the subtle smells in wine and oil and a chance to enjoy some cheese. Right? Wrong! This was a most difficult and discouraging class for me. The class is taught by Cristiano De Riccardis. I was told by some in another Master course that he was a great teacher…their favorite.

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-Photo by Kunal Chandra

We have more classes taught by him so I will see how things go. I thought that the description of the technical aspect of cheese tasting, visual evaluation, olfactory evaluation and gustatory/olfactory evaluation were presented too quickly and not in a fashion that was easy to follow or remember. The visual was easiest. What is the shape of the cheese. What is the appearance of the external surface? What is the color. Describe the “nail” (the part of the cheese just inside of the rind). What is the color of the paste (the middle of the cheese)? Describe the eyes (holes in the cheese: round, irregular, almond shaped, evenly dispersed…).  But when it came to Olfactory evaluation and, for that matter, gustatory/olfactory evaluation as they blend into one another it was a completely different matter. What is the intensity? Check. Describe the olfactory sensations perceived. Hummmm…

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– Photo of classmate Chris smelling cheese (“barn yard?”) by Kunal Chandra

We were back to the thousands of odors that needed to be perceived but in this case Professor De Riccardis was more concrete. One student would say, “I smell <this>.” To which he would sometimes say, “No! There is no <this> smell in this cheese.” It did not appear to be a matter of basing what we were smelling on our own experience as it was for wine, but rather it seemed to be a matter of some set classification of odors to which we have not yet been exposed. The same held true for taste. For when you taste you chew the cheese with your mouth closed and breathe out through your nose so that the aroma can be perceived by the olfactory receptors in the back of the nose. So you have the 5 tastes plus all the possible acceptable cheese odors to classify. Some examples of common odors are yeast, cow shed, apple, caramel, brioch, black pepper, beef stock, leather, toffee, toasted nuts, etc.

This was discouraging for me because I had a difficult time pulling out as many smells as he wanted. He said we should be able to find more than 5 or 6 in a cheese. I often couldn’t. The cheeses we tasted, on the other hand, were amazing! We had a Bitto which is a difficult cheese to find as it is produced in only a small area in very limited production. We had a nice Fontina which is more common. The last cheese we had was a Losa which is very rare.

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– photo of Losa cheese by Kunal Chandra

It is produced in our region of Italy but there are only 3 or 4 people who make it now days. It is a goat cheese and the original breed of goat disappeared after the war because it was more economical to raise cows for milk. Another breed of goat was reintroduced and is used now. Those goats are fed some rose petals and violets and some of those odors were detected in the cheese by someone in our class (obviously a super-nose).

After class I found that I wasn’t the only one who had difficulty with the cheeses. Many thought it was very difficult and were exhausted by the process. A couple of them said, “Barn yard!?! I live in the city I have no idea what a barn yard smells like!” I thought this was interesting for two reasons. First it reinforced what we learned in wine to smell everything (and remember what you smell). The other reason I was amused was because on our Piemonte stage we visited a dairy farm. We were most definitely exposed to barn yard smell. Smell everything and…remember what you smell.

Ciao!