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In preparation for a planned trip to Tuscany this summer (with all of the obvious COVID uncertainties and caveats in the forefront of my psyche), I’ve been reminiscing about prior trips to Italy and the food and wine experiences I’ve enjoyed.
My wife and I have fond memories of a simple meal, on a patio alongside a narrow two-lane road in Tuscany, quaffing from an unlabeled bottle, taking in the fragrances at the table and in the air, relaxing in our seats and enjoying the camaraderie of the local patrons sitting nearby. We’ve forever captured the experience of a thousand-year-old lifestyle and a cuisine married to the land on which we tread.
As much as we’ve explored the food and wine of Italy in the United States, experiencing the cuisine at its historical source is dramatically different. The ingredients seem fresher. Not in terms of the harvesting moment, but rather in the crunchiness of a pepper, the pungent aroma of basil and rosemary and the distinctive texture of the cheeses.
And the wine. Why does it seem so refreshing, so simple yet satisfying? The house wines, rarely bearing a bottle label, were likely produced at a winery just a few kilometers from our table at the local trattoria. We’ve enjoyed Italian wines many times at home, but the wines produced locally, which may never reach American shores, influence our senses and our memories.
Why is this?
- The locally grown grapes, those nurtured by the local Mom and Pop winemakers, are influenced more by their locale than their counterparts that are exported to the United States. Many of these winemakers cater to local restaurants and wine bars. They are not concerned with pleasing consumers in international markets or the aging potential of their wines. However, other local winemakers may craft their wines for export, to satisfy American or British palates, which typically have a broader cuisine-focused palate.
- The wines taste fresher to some. In many cases, they are. Local wines tend to be from the most recent vintage. Their exported counterparts seem more complex due in part to their longer aging cycle. What the local wines may lack in complexity and silky tannins is offset by their youthful vibrancy.
- A number of indigenous grapes are not widely produced for export. I’ve enjoyed Falanghina in Campania, Vernaccia in the walled Tuscan town of San Gimignano and Trebbiano in the ancient city of Orvieto, all white wines that are best drunk young and have aromas and flavors that pair well with a number of Italian dishes.
- Many of the local, artisanal wines that tourists enjoy have been produced without herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or chemical additives for generations. While a number of Italian wines are produced organically, others continue to be subjected to chemicals in order to preserve and enhance yields. I believe organic wines have distinctive aroma and taste profiles that a trained palate is able to sense from the first sniff.
- Wine is not a very stable product. Oxidation and spoilage are threats to its stability as it ages. The primary agent for preserving wine is sulfur dioxide. If drunk young, this is not a major concern. Seemingly counterintuitive, sulfites are added to wine to preserve its freshness (shelf life), yet wine without sulfites tastes fresher when consumed young.
- It’s in our heads, not in the glass. Enjoying wine is a sensual experience, influenced by our surroundings and the “in the moment” impression. Our memories vividly capture the combined elements of our experience. It’s never as good as the first time; enjoying a wine in that Tuscan trattoria is unique, not readily duplicated anywhere else.
When we next travel to Tuscany – and other Western European towns – we will once again savor the moments of our dining experiences. Then cherish them for a lifetime. I encourage you to do the same.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.