Tuesday
Jun242014

June 24. 2014

We awoke to yet another sun -filled morning with clear skies and chirping birds. With another delightful breakfast topped off with Cappuccino, we headed South to the famous little town of Barbaresco whose namesake wines are some of the biggest in the world. Here the temperamental Nebbiolo grape thrives like nowhere else on Earth. Aficionados often refer to this grape as “finicky,” while others call it a “hyper-sensitive prima donna of a grape,” but all agree that when the winds blow just right, the sun shines just right and the winter chill isn’t premature, this late developing grape raises more eyebrows of expert oenophiles than any in the world.

A short half hour drive brought us to downtown Barbaresco and we quickly identified the local Enoteca, more commonly known as a community wine tasting bar. Unlike Napa or Sonoma where individual wineries host tastings, here in the Piedmont tourism is significantly less prominent, so local producers pool their resources and supply a common tasting facility. In Barbaresco, the community producers selected a “deconsecrated” church to enlighten its “parishioners.” We learned that this church was dedicated to San Donato, a saint who is said to protect against hailstorms. And, miraculously, no hailstones have fallen since we arrived, much less rain. Says something, huh!

 

From its earliest days, Barbaresco and the surrounding rolling hills have been the subject of mythology. The Romans dedicated the region to Janus, the God who could see in all directions, just as we can see the vineyards in all directions from the many hillside hamlets. Even one of our favorite Romans, Pliny the Elder, traveled here and marveled at the fruit of the vine. With the decline of the Roman empire , the Goths and soon after the fierce Ligurian tribes destroyed all vestiges of the fruitful hillsides and thick forests reclaimed the area until Benedictine Monks reintroduced viticulture to the region.

Before heading out to Barbaresco, we stopped for a brief visit to a Grappa distillery. The Grappa was a bit strong for our taste (60% alcohol, 120 proof), so we opted to buy a lovely-shaped bottle of cream and hazel nut Grappa. It is delicious. Grappa is a by-product of wine, made by distilling the non-liquid parts of the grape i.e. the skins, pulp, seeds and stems (called “pomace”). Grappa is protected by the EU and must meet certain criteria. Unlike in wine production, the pomace is fermented with sugar-rich juice producing methanol, that must be carefully removed during distillation. Because of this danger, all winemakers are required to sell their pomace to grappa makers. No moonshine in Italy. Sorry, Virginians.

Got to go. We are off to a party at a neighboring cantina. Go Italy!!

Monday
Jun232014

June 22-23, 2014

Yesterday and today kind of blended together. Some might surmise the copious volumes of wine are to blame (sounds like a Jimmy Buffet type of excuse) but, no, our best guess is sensory overload that puts us in a dreamy state the moment we gaze out across the countryside. Since Gwen’s bag arrived, we have been dancing around the Bricco patio celebrating our naïve human nature and, of course, clean underwear.

These last two days have been spent driving the countryside marveling at the classic Piedmont architecture, wetting our wine whistle at the sight of the ubiquitous vineyards and tempting the cholesterol “Gods” with some of the best food we have ever eaten. Yesterday, we drove off without a plan, meandering through the vineyards and tiny hilltop hamlets aimlessly, until we spotted a little hole in the wall trattoria. We were welcomed with open arms, the chef apologizing for his poor English, while we are the ones who are truly, and justifiably, embarrassed by our non-existent Italian tongues. This was an authentic trattoria with only Italians attending. (We should point out that we have yet to see an American face in Piedmont.)

We ordered an Asti sparkling white wine made from the red Barbera grape. Before crushing the grapes, the red skins are separated from the grape’s pulp and then the rest of the fermenting process is typical of most sparkling wines. We also ordered 3 appetizers which were out of this world, then some cheese-filled ravioli and we finished with grappa.

The beauty of the GPS is that whatever corner of the world you get lost in, the trusty satellite will find you. While it seemed like we were far from home base, we were actually within 10 miles from Bricco.

Then, this morning, we set the GPS for the Coppo Vineyard. We had met one of the owners, Gianni Cope, in Cozumel last February, when Yvonne hosted a wine tasting at our favorite Cozumel restaurant -- Guidos. She invited Gianni Coppo to present his wines to us islanders and, I guess we expressed a bit of irrational exuberance and Gianni appreciated it. Aside from giving us a complimentary bottle of his premium wine which we and our friends drank, when told of our planto be in Piedmont, he invited us to visit him at the Canelli offices and cantina. Well, today we dropped in on him, he greeted us like family and we made arrangements to have a special tasting on Wednesday. More about that on Wednesday.

True to our insatiable natures, we stopped at another trattoria suggested by Kristina at Bricco where, of course, we drank another bottle of bubbly, this time Coppo’s sparkling Brut. We dined on fabulous octopus Carpaccio. Many of you know how much we love Guido’s fish Carpaccio, well, this octopus even eclipsed that delicacy. The pasta course was a dream come true -- homemade Caserecci (a hollow-centered double noodle) with shrimp smothered in a large dollop of cream infused with coffee beans and garnished with olive oil, tiny tomatoes and parsley. For our friends and family -- don’t expect Caserecci at our home -- it ain’t happening. Dick has declared it impossible.  A delicious dish of huge fried sage leaveswas on the house and we finished with tiramisu.

After our sumptuous meal, we returned home and joined our new friends from Holland to watch the Dutch soccer team defeat Chile. Our Dishnet sling box performed perfectly. This Dutch win was particularly exciting since Matthijs, Tremmie’s significant other, flew down to San Paolo to watch his team. We kept a keen eye out, looking for him on the sidelines, but the color orange simply made that impossible. Nevertheless, Matthijs, congratulations.

Well, that’s about it for now. Tomorrow is another day. Good night. D&G    NOTE:  now that we have picture capability, we have added a few pics to our earlier posts.

 

Saturday
Jun212014

June 21, 2014

This morning we again awoke to busy song birds tending their fledglings while the music of the working vineyard echoed throughout the valley. You can also hear the tractors motoring up and down the rows of vines applying a copper substance in spray form to keep insects from decimating the crop, and, through the use of special fans, drying the dew from the leaves that otherwise could develop a crop- threatening fungus. Later in the day the trucks are also seen pruning the vines to maximize the exposure to sunlight later in the ripening stage. The pruning also reduces the yield of each vine so the energy of the plant is devoted to the optimal yield of fine grapes.

Virtually every hillside is occupied by vines, while the flat valley bottoms are planted with corn and other food producing crops.

The region of the Piedmont near Asti and parts East produces more than 100 million bottles of wine a year. About 30% of all Piedmont production. There are three predominant red grapes grown here including the Barbera, the Dolcetto and the well known Nebiollo. Among the white are Chardonnay, the Cortese and of course, the Moscato.

As always, the quality of the harvest is directly dependent on the complex intersection of climate, soil and terrain. This is what separates the Piedmont from most other environs. The typical weather patterns keep it relatively dry here, The moderately hot days during the growing season combined with the cool evenings is perfect. Add the hilly terrain and the soil that has been prepared by its having been the floor of a bygone ocean and the benefits of subsequent volcanic activity and you have the makings of a fine bottle of wine.

Today’s adventure took us East to Acqui Terme which was founded by the Romans between the first and second centuries. It is famous for its geothermal heated baths. The natural hot water rises out of two artesian wells one of which is located in the center of the town. There were no tourists and few cars so we could meander across any of the cobble stone streets without looking both ways. We sat outside at a little bar in the lovely town square across from one of the hot springs, sipping Prosecco and nibbling on sublime Italian olives.

 The drive there and back was breath-taking. Tiny towns perched atop the myriad hills, each surrounded by picturesque fields of vines for as far as the eye can see. Many of the country roads we traversed were less than one and a half lanes wide, so oncoming traffic, of which there was little, quickly made you forget the dramatic landscape scenes.

We returned to Bricco to sip another glass of vino while discussing the great issues of the day with four guests from Sweden and two from what is becoming our favorite Kingdom, the Netherlands.

We enjoyed a five course dinner prepared by our Swedish buddies who took a cooking class today. First course, sweet, vine ripened cantaloupe grown by a neighbor, topped with slices of prosciutto; followed by a zucchini frittata. After that a lasagna was served, followed by a tender piece of pan fried veal with sautéed vegetables, also grown by the neighbor. The fifth and final course was a fabulous panna cotta.

GOOD NEWS.  OUR BAG SHOWED UP HERE AT BRICCO AT 6:00 TONIGHT.   Good night.

 

Saturday
Jun212014

June 20, 2014

After much needed sleep after 36 hours of semiconscious existence, we arose to the sweet sound of chirping birds and bright sunshine beaming in our open shuttered windows. But, before we tell you about today’s adventures, our dinner here at Bricco last night was superb. We started with a sublime piece of prosciutto rolled with a creamy cheese inside, followed by a leek souffle with a creamy cheese sauce. Then they served mini raviolis stuffed with rabbit, veal and chicken with a rich red wine ragu sauce. The next course was a thin piece of veal with another red wine sauce. The dessert was a chocolate moosse with tiny dark chocolate chunks. The wine of the day was a fruity Barbera d Asti grown and bottled here on the property.

After that was digested over night, we dined on a very Italian breakfast including salami, cheeses, fruits, scrambled eggs and cappuccino. We then struggled fruitlessly to insert some of the day’s photos on this blog. Hopefully, that struggle will cease soon. We’ll see.

Then, with her inimitable persuasiveness, Gwen declared she needed a clean pair of underwear! Who in their right mind would dispute such a request. We headed to Asti to solve the dilemma and quickly found a welcome sense of peace and tranquility. Then, off to Asti where we went to an Enoteca where we tasted a number of Barbera and Nebiollo reds. Working up a modest appetite, walking back from the square where the famous Palio horse races have been held since the Twelfth Century, we stopped on the street for a bubbly Proseco and some classic Italian tapas.

Then, looking for a genuine Italian experience and wisely taking the good advice and counsel of our friend and compatriot, Matthijs Schuring, we headed to a big screen bar in Asti called the Red and Black, hopefully to watch Italy win their World Cup Football match with Costa Rica. Well, you know how that ended, but the highlight of the evening was meeting Alberto and his family who invited us to share their table. If it weren’t for Alberto, we doubt that we would have had such a complete experience. You see, he spoke excellent English and was our interpreter for a fun filled discussion about everything but football. Instead of a purely Italian experience, you should know that Alberto is a Cuban who lived most of his life in Argentina before moving to Asti to join his Mother and sister. Anyway, we drank Italian wines, spoke emphatically with our hands, since our Spanish is pathetic and our mastery of Italian has yet to arise. So, while Team Italy was unsuccessful, we succeeded in spending 3 hours of laughter filled miscommunication.

We returned to Bricco to finish off a bottle of Italian Chardonnay while nibbling on some goat cheese and dry Italian sausage. Time for bed. “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!”

Friday
Jun202014

June 19, 2014

We finally, after more than a year’s planning, arrived here at this lovely Agriturismo just outside of Asri , called Bricco San Giovanni. But, before we smelled the heavenly scents on the flower-lined terrace overlooking verdant hillsides of vineyards, we had some excitement in the “process” of getting here. Our flights from Washington Dulles to New York’s JFK on Delta then on to Milan via Alitalia were uneventful, albeit a bit cramped in spite of upgrading to “premium economy.” We parked ourselves at the baggage claim conveyor and excitedly awaited our only checked bag that contained all of Gwen’s belongings. One by one, our fellow travelers made their rightful claims until we were the only people standing there. Yup, the dreadful reality sunk-in when the conveyor came to a jaw-dropping halt. The betrayal was etched sadly on both of our faces, but, particularly on Gwen’s since she had spilled chocolate sauce from the breakfast croissant on her white pants (her only pants) and was looking forward to a change.

We have every hope, naively, that Gwen’s bag will quickly catch up with our itinerary. So, after filling out the requisite paperwork on the lost bag, we headed to the car rental booth conveniently located in Milan’s Malpensa airport. Expeditiously, we picked up our car, a brand new Peugeot 6-speed diesel. As planned, we quickly connected our Garmin GPS armed with a newly-installed European chip and programmed with all our major stops throughout Piedmont, thus not needing directions. We thought of everything on this trip, planning to minimize the number of wrong turns. What we didn’t contemplate was a GPS that just kept “calculating” a route and never delivering one. We watched in disbelief as that little flywheel icon ground out nothing but the silent message: “you better have a map because I have no idea where I am.”

But, fortunately, we did pack a map that luckily was in Dick’s carryon. So we dusted off our ancient cartographer skills and arrived at our current GPS coordinates. Ironically, the Garmin finally discovered its whereabouts just as we were pulling into the B&B entrance 2 hours later.

Tonight, we will have dinner here at Bricco with some other guests from Sweden. We are looking forward to the authentic Italian dinner and the Barbera d’ Asti wine from grapes grown on the Bricco estate. 

See you tomorrow. D & G