The Eats & Drinks of Ummmmmbria, Italy!

With the world fixated on and fascinated by Tuscany, it's easy and unfortunate to miss the adjacent region of Umbria, with its equally picturesque landscape of rolling hills, forests, hilltop Medieval villages, Cyprus trees, and cobblestone villas. Tuscany has Florence and Sienna. But Umbria has charms (many epicurean) that Tuscany does not; and it is, literally, the epicenter of central Italy.

Umbria lies between Tuscany (to the west) and the Marches region (to the east.) It looks like it could be out of Game of Thrones...maybe a threesome of location shoots from Seville, Croatia, and Northern Ireland, and yet undeniably Italian. Rolling fields, olive groves & vineyards, feathered-lollipop shaped trees, orange-yellow-green-chartreuse-peach pastels, and requisite stone castles. Perugia is the capital city and home to the famous Perugina chocolate factory, neighbored by the town of Assisi featuring the Basilicata where St. Francis may have started PETA and the Green Movement, and Spoleto is Europe's destination for its famous opera-ballet-art-science Summer Festival (replicated by its American sorority sister-city, Charleston, South Carolina.) Over 100 saints were born in Umbria. It is oozing with the mystery of history.

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It also has outstanding food & wine specialties that absolutely differentiate it from its Tuscan neighbor.

1. WHITE WINE: Orvieto is a city in Umbria, but it's also a designated wine region devoted exclusively to white wine productions. When you buy an Orvieto white, you are getting a blend of its regional grapes: Trebbiano, Grechetto, Malvasia, and/or Canaiolo. 

The best Orvieto blends come from the "heartland" premier vineyards, and are labeled Classico (denotes some of the best agricultural real estate, hence the best grapes). Other than that, it's hard to know what blend you will get, but it always helps to know the characteristics of each grape:

            Trebbiano: a ubiquitous grape with no notable flavors except the classic citrus & green apple Hi-Fi acidity found in many Italian whites. However, it provides the crisp, lean, & clean base of the wine, which is the all-important lip-smack and vibrant tartness. And, to give it a little bit of dignity within this profile, it is highly resistant to grape-growing hazards & diseases, making it a very reliable and well respected work-horse crop.

            Grechetto: a thicker skinned grape that provides a more robust, focused juice, and brings a little more "tension" into the blend. Depending on how long they are left on the vines to ripen, it can also impart a slight almond character into the wine.

Very often, when a sweet style of Orvieto is made (labeled as ABBOCATO), Grechetto often takes the lead in the blend!

            Malvasia (Bianca): A perfect name for a character in Game of Thrones, and she would be a "shape-shifter" if George R.R. Martin were to write her in. This grape in Umbria is typically white, but Malvasia Nera (dark black skinned version) is an awesome red grape version in many of southern Italy's exciting red blends, especially from Apulia (the heel of Italy.) Malvasia is known for its pronounced bouquet of mixed cut flowers, tropical blossoms, and Greek-inspired lemony-peachy-herbal perfumes. While it can be produced with a variety of residual sweetness, the dry Malvasias are an adventurous journey of exotic sweet botanicals followed by a rainbow of dry acidity. When grown in New World places like California, they can even take on a thicker nectar-like texture. It also should be noted that this is the same grape grown in Portugal and the island of Madeira, where it is known as Malmsey and produces excellent white Ports and Madeira fortified wine.

            Canaiolo: rather neutral in flavor, but known for adding structure and giving the wine a bit more sturdiness so it doesn't just float all over the tongue.

At the end of the day, this is one of Umbria's (let alone Italy's) best known whites, and is the antidote to orchard fruited, oaky-woody, caramelized, viscous, or otherwise aged & conditioned whites. It's puckery, light to medium, and...interesting.

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2. RED WINE: If Orvieto is Umbria's flagship white, then Sagrantino is its champion red. To understand this red grape, you need to go back and understand Tuscan reds. In Tuscany, as well as many other central & southern parts of Italy, the #1 red grape in terms of planted vineyards, wine production, and omnipresent world popularity is the grape Sangiovese. "Sangio" is a strange little egg; named after 'blood' (think of words like Sanguine or Sangre), it has an inherent iron-rich flavor that (using two degrees of separation) can be compared to gamey raw red meat or beef, which leads to an association of the puddle of blood-juice that seeps out onto the butcher paper as it sits before grilling. Sangiovese tastes like blood, which tastes like meat, which tastes like leather.

In addition to the beef flavor, and the tangy-ness you know when sucking on a deep papercut, and the beef jerky permutations, the grape is known for its prolific tart cherry flavor, and undeniable cheek-sucking acidity. In a nutshell, how Sangiovese (via straw-casked Chianti bottles) became America's original "Wine by the glass" choice in a restaurant (or Apres work) still mystifies me; it is harsh; it is savory; it is sour; it is sharp.

It is also one of the BEST food wines on our planet! The #1 ingredient in Tuscan cooking is the tomato (i.e. tomato sauce.) Tomatoes are incredibly acidic, and with such evidence, irritate your skin when in prolonged contact. Tomato based cuisine begs for, and is complimented by, a wine with equal prowess. When you put high-acid wine next to high-acid food on your palate, they quell each other, and they become a harmony of equals.

Now, the story continues. As Sangiovese (and any other grape for that matter) is grown in all different regions and conditions, over time it may slightly alter in characteristics. It is classic adaptation to the environment, but it also gives you different 'mutations' (think of "styles") of the same genetic varietal. Case in point, within Tuscany is the famous sub-region of Montalcino. Here, the Sangiovese grape has adapted and evolved to grow much thicker skins; this version of the grape is called Sangiovese Grosso, a.k.a Brunello. Brunello from (di) Montalcino is revered and collected as one of the most muscular, structured, beefy, Harley Davidson, butch wines (which is a call to fame in and of itself) that you can age in a wine cellar for decades. Why? Because you MUST have tannins in order to properly age a wine. Tannins are antioxidants, and they protect the wine from rapid oxidation, which can lead to vinegar. Thicker skins have more tannins than thinner skins.

By having high tannins, there is a shield to slow down oxygen (preventing vinegar), but still allowing it to break down the wine's components, at a controlled pace, resulting in the glorious metamorphosis of flavor & texture we simplify into the word "aging."

Sangiovese, in all its versions, either has a prestigious level of tannins already, or it gains more of it through osmosis since tannins are extracted from wood barrels during fermentation and/or barrel aging. In either case, we see many bottlings of Sangiovese that are food bolsters, and may be age-worthy, therefore epicurean-worthy.

However, there are three red wines from Umbria that could punish the wines of Tuscany in a hypothetical WWF bout.

 

            Torgiano Rosso: This is the first of only two DOCG wines in Umbria. What is DOCG? Well, all wines that come from a recognized region of unique growing conditions, correlating grape varietals, and permitted wine-making techniques are labeled as DOC (similar to, and emulating the AOC designations on French wine labels.) "DOCG" is an additional elevated ranking, indicating a "guaranteed" level of the highest quality. They are the penthouse apartments of Italian wine.

 

Torgianos are similar to Tuscan blends: 50-70% Sangiovese, with a blend of fruitier & softer red & white grapes. But the vineyards are at higher elevations, where colder temperatures lead to more pronounced acidity & more pronounced red flower potpourri aromas. Acidity is king to the food queen. These are your upscale & complex spaghetti/pasta wines. It gets very engaging when you get a "Riserva" level Torgiano, which requires a minimum of 3 years of aging, adding in beefy tannins and the complexity of "marination" flavors such as coffee bean, resin, dark chocolate, & prune.

 

            Montefalco Sagrantino: The second "DOCG" designate, and 4 out of 5 dentists call the "enamel stripping wine gremlin". In this specific DOC portion of the village of Montefalco, the rule of law is that 100% of the wine is made from a grape called Sagrantino. UMPH. This grape has uber-thick skins, homesite to rugged, grippy, & punchy tannic acid. Tannins are found primarily in skins, but also seeds and stems (a.k.a. tree trunks which are cut down to make wine barrels.)

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Sagrantino may in fact be the most tannic grape in the world, and as such, it can be aged in a cellar for 30-40 years or more....easily.

 

If you drink a Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG wine that is young (let's say, less than 10 years old) be prepared for a fish-face: the tannins will strip your palate of all things, including your saliva, resulting in the inward collapse of your cheeks. This sounds unpleasant, if not for the fact that much of the cuisine in Umbria matches beautifully with tannins: high protein & high Umami foods such as beans, hard intense cheeses, roasted game, & bitter greens need tannins to step up on the palate, otherwise, the food will squash & kill the flavor of the wine. (Side note: if you find a bottle that is more than 10 years old, then watch out for a knee-buckling, sock-knocking drinking experience.)

 

            Montefalco Rosso: In the designated area (DOC) of Montefalco, you may get a non-Sagrantino dominant red. With 60-70% Sangiovese, and only a 10-15% allowance of Sagrantino, this is like a Tuscan wine with some extra 'tude. The Sagrantino gives a bit more color, plumpness, grip, and "shag carpet" to the edgy & tangy Sangiovese. Other grapes in the blend may even soften or add more ripe fruit to the final recipe, so these wines can be enjoyed when you see them in a store....no need to throw them down into a cave (or Urban wine fridge) for years.

 

3. TRUFFLES: Now children, this brings us to the last part of the story. Umbrian cuisine.

Pigeon, dove, wild boar, rabbit, wild cherry, wild mushroom, pork belly, porchetta, hard cheeses, goat cheese, cold pressed olive oil, bacon & cheese bread (Lumachelle), homemade pastas, anise, salami, bruschetta, crostini, garlic, prosciutto, chestnuts, chickpeas, liver, sausage.....blah, blah, blah...ALL FABULOUS. Duh. You're in Central Italy.

 

But it's the famous truffle that belongs to the not-as-famous Umbria. Truffles are a fungus-related Tuber. People often call them a mushroom, but they are more similar to a potato or Yucca in density and texture. Truffles from Umbria are called "U-Tubers". Kidding---I just made that up.

 

There are white & black truffles. Black ones that are 1-2 ounces in weight will cost around $30-$70. I'm told a large (rare) three-pounder black truffle has sold for approximately $2000-$2500, while white truffles (hailing primarily from Northwest Italy in the region of Alba) can command $6000-$10,000 per pound.  I read somewhere that a European two-pounder sold for $300,000. Truffles grow inside & around live tree roots (specifically beech, birch, hazel, hornbeam, oak, pine, and poplar), so you can't really produce them. You have to find them.

 

The white truffles are compared more to nutty earthen roasted garlic, and are pungent in initial aroma that quickly fades, while the black truffles are more "stanky" and linger in smells from everything you would ever imagine to be decomposing in an ancient forest floor, from Narnia to Westeros to The Shire. Its odor is magical & glorious. Umbria produces both black & white truffles, and it is an integral ingredient in their cuisine; the wines of the region match perfectly, of course. As mother nature (and wine makers) intended.

 

Truffle pigs and truffle dogs can detect the aromas from as far as 100 yards away, or as deep as 3 feet underground. It is called "edible gold". It is rumored that the pleasure-based utterance "Ummmmmmmmm" came from a truffle eating Umbrian, and the region's name bore his expression. (I started the rumor.)

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WHISKEY 101

SUPER QUICK LESSON!
WHAT EXACTLY IS WHISKEY?

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·       All liquor made from Malted Grain (i.e. Malted means roasted & caramelized; grains can include barley, corn, rye, wheat, oats, wheat, millet, etc) are whiskies; whiskies have different flavors based on the grain or mix of grains, how they were malted, and the ULTIMATE style of flavor depends on where they are from:

                ►Scotch: From Scotland! Mostly famous for using PEAT (bricks of dead, compacted leaves) to smoke the grains during the malting process. Scotch is typically (but not always) smokey, sometimes with notes of leather, game meat, or even sausage/chorizo! Not all Scotch is peated, and some that are made from coastal grains are also famous for picking up IODINE from the ocean's seaweed. Iodine gives a brilliant smell of new leather, fresh paint, nailpolish, or a newly opened can of tennis balls!

                ►Irish: famous for lightly roasting the grain, so the color & taste of them tends to be light golden vanilla & honey. They are known to be the easiest drinking whiskies.

                ►Bourbon: made mostly from corn, so tend to be a bit sweeter & thicker than other whiskies (think of corn syrup...with notes of toffee, caramel, & butterscotch.) Most Bourbons are kept inside heavily charred wood barrels, so they can also pick up a spicy-campfire-hot cinnamon flavor too. The most famous Bourbons are from Kentucky, but they can be made in any part of the world.

                ►Rye: made from a very peppery type of grass (Rye Grass) so whiskies made from Rye are very pungent & spicy, and are sharper and leaner than the corn-based Bourbon. Because they are less sweet than corn-heavy Bourbons, they also tend to showcase more wooden/resin/forest elements. They can be made in any part of the world, but are well known from Canada and parts of the U.S.

SINGLE MALT vs BLENDS: in general, single malts are made from one grain (Barley) from ONE parcel of land that is farmed, harvested, and malted by the landowner/distillery. They are  made from a single grain but can be a blend from different barrels, but all from ONE distillery. The significance of one "controlled" parcel is that the grains grown there will be highly unique in flavor, specific to that one and only parcel in the world. Then, the influence of craftsmanship (from the distiller) is also highly unique due to the ONE artisan who is carrying out the final "recipe". Blends do not follow this protocol, AND, they may be a combination of both malted and un-malted grains.

Whiskey Protocol:

Customers may ask for no ice (Neat), ice (Rocks), or they may even specify just 1 or 2 cubes. This is based on the concept that if you add a small amount of water to whiskey (even in the form of melted ice), it breaks up the aromatic molecules and then increases & enhances smell & flavor; but, too much water dilutes the whiskey. So each customer will have a distinct preference. A very large ice ball or chunk is now the "popular" way to serve whiskey on the rocks (rock!) because the larger the ice, the slower it melts!

Even ONE DROP of water added into your pour can completely enhance the flavor!!

A DOZEN Things You Should Know About ROSES (Pink wine, not the flower!)

 

A lot of people mistakenly believe that rose wine is sweet, girly, and low-quality. It's this sugary thing you find listed on that laminated table tent next to the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Wines for $4.00 a glass. And how could it range from the color of cotton candy to candied cherries, and NOT be sweet?? Here's all you need to know---and fall in love with this extraordinary wine that feels like a cold white, but tastes like a red!

1. First, PLEASE do not think that White ("pink") Zinfandel represents ALL roses!!! While this is a sweeter style of wine, which some find wickedly yummy, it is really the anti-christ to all the other global rosés. White Zin, often known as "Blush", is most definitely the mass-produced "fruit bomb" out of a world of other brilliant pink wines that actually have very high merit and distinction ....and are most often very DRY!

2. Rosés are made by crushing red grapes (the pulp and juice inside is white, even inside a red grape) and then removing the skins only after a small amount of red ink has seeped into the juice. Therefore, you can make rosé from ANY red grape.

3. Do not let the color fool you! Even dark red rosé may be totally dry (i.e., not fruity.)

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4. But, do not ignore the color! There is a correlation between flavor adjectives and the color: a light salmon pink usually will taste more of raspberry/strawberry/watermelon/lavender wisps, while dark red rosés do tend to have flavor profiles of cherry/cranberry/lingonberry/pomegranate splashes. At the end of the day, though, the biggest thing to remember is that wine can change literally through EACH sip; it can start with a short burst of fruit, then finish totally tart/dry, as it goes from the tip of your tongue to the back of your throat. We call this "fruit forward, but with a dry finish" (a VERY impressive comment to make at your next cocktail party!)

5. Some of the most famous rosés come from the south of France…but there are major differences among the southeast sub-regions:
           a. From Bandol: rosés are typically made from Mourvedre grape, and they usually have a pulpy, meaty, rich, weighty, creamy texture that is super-savory with equally strong flavors of  herbs, leaves, mulch, & tea along with mixed undertones of dried BLACK/PURPLE berry fruit.
           b. From Tavel: rosés are dark, and start off super fruity for a big hot second (big up-front flavors of cherry, watermelon, & maraschino), but then completely changes and finishes tart & dry
           c. From Provence: almost always light-pink salmon color, with a plummy, powdery, richer texture of melon nectar (and sometimes a 'pixie dust' feel similar to finely crushed Pez.) Classic tart raspberry & strawberry, lemon, & rose petal flavors derive most often from the Grenache grape, or sometimes another lead grape like Cinsault or Syrah. Most Provence Pinks are blends, and multi-grapes provide a complexity of multi-flavors.

6. Rosés are one of the most food friendly wines in the world; because they have the flavor of red wine, but the acid pucker & chilled temperature of whites, and lighter tannic "grip" or "muscle" (because removing the skins removes the source of the ink and most of the tannins), they can be matched with everything from salads with vinaigrette, to BBQ, salami, sausages, and steak tartare!

7. If you're a Dude, don't be afraid to order a rosé in a restaurant; it is essentially a red wine, after all! (SEE #2)

8. If you DO prefer a fruitier or sweeter rosé, check the alcohol content. If under 11%, it will probably be relatively fruity to lightly sweet because the winemaker stopped fermentation, which would leave grape juice sugar behind (residual sugar) instead of continuing to convert it into alcohol via yeast during the fermentation process.

9. Read the back label! Often a winery will tell you if the wine is unfiltered or not; if unfiltered, that means they leave the yeast in the juice, which will give the wine a smell, flavor, and texture of bread dough or donuts/scones/biscuits (among the fruit, flower, & herb flavors.) If you prefer this "creamier, cloudier" profile, buy this wine!

10. Rosés are meant to drink young; when they are released each Spring into the marketplace, drink 'em! Or, hold them for 6 to 12 months MAX  if you want to allow just a wee little bit of aging (basically, let oxygen deteriorate and diminish some of the fruit sugar over time and bring out more earthen/savory tones) and enjoy the rosé the next year. Best bet, drink roses that are no more than 3 years old…after too much time, they can lose too much fruit to the oxygen, and taste flabby or dull at some point after 3 years.

11. Don't miss pairing your rosés with any version of goat cheese, or cheeses that have fruit directly in them or mashed into the rind!

12. The words "rosé", "rosato", "Vin Gris", and "blush" all mean the same thing: pink wines! But, "Vin Gris" is typically the very quick pressing of a red grape where the tiniest bit of ink leakage causes a grey-ish ("gris") light barely-pink color, and the wine is typically super-duper tart & bone dry. Conversely, the word "blush" was developed in California, and may indicate a very fruity (possibly verging to "sweet") style. So there are some hidden messages to the wine words on the label that are there to help give you clues!

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Why Do I Hate My Favorite Wine?

Did you ever notice that when you find a wine you love, you'll drink it several times (much to your pleasure), and then all of a sudden on the next try it doesn't taste that good anymore?

Sometimes, you may even hate it. It seems like it radically changes, and where you would seemingly rely on that bottle as a guaranteed good choice, it can turn on you. So the question is, why does this happen?

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Here are some possibilities:

1. That particular bottle is "corked"—this is a condition where the bacteria inside the cork can become active, and when in contact with the juice (while a bottle is resting on its side), can alter the wine's chemistry, often leaving a wet cardboard/wet dog/mildew wet laundry musky stank on the wine. Some people are actually not that sensitive to this smell, while others can detect it the second they pop the cork out; but, in either case, the wine can have a bitter taste and leave a lingering warmth, or "burn" on the throat. Or simply, the wine just is knocked off course and just has an unpleasant "awkwardness". This is a random occurrence and may be isolated to that one bottle in the batch. And it's quite a different experience versus just drinking a bottle of wine that simply isn't that great and never quite satisfies your palate.

A corked wine will be weird...and, well, a little smelly in a not-good-wine-smell way. (Of course, if the bottle has a screw-cap, then it can't be "Corked", so don't show off to your friends making this declaration when your bottle has inert metal that can't house bacteria!) Oh...one last thing! DON'T read this whole paragraph, and then project this new-fangled fancy word onto a bottle that has a moldy, crystalized, syrup residued, or crusty cork----this would NOT be a "corked" bottle, but simply one where there was some sort of temporary leakage or compromise. A truly "corked" bottle basically has a B.O. issue!

2. Your palate changes depending on what you ATE that day. Seriously, the meal you had five minutes ago, or for breakfast, can set up different flavors on your palate that interact differently with the wine that day.

3. Your palate changes based on the WEATHER outside!! Your taste buds, body chemistry, and MOOD changes when it's either 95 degrees and muggy, or crisp & chilly, or snowing outside.

4. THE MOON CHANGES YOUR WINE. I am so not joking! It is widely believed that the lunar phases provide different gravitational pulls on plant cells & molecules, and that the sugars & acids inside grape juice will literally settle in the glass into different layers depending on the gravity pull and their densities. So if you drink your favorite bottle during different weeks, it literally may be altered! This is the same concept that drives many farmers (grape or otherwise) to harvest the fruit on specific days when the moon phase "enhances" the acid-sugar complex within the grape-skin, even before it hits your glass! While there is no hard "proof", there is a good deal of evidence. Biodynamic farming specifically and diligently uses lunar & celestial tracking throughout the agricultural process.

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5. THE COMPANY YOU KEEP changes your wine—again, think body chemistry meets psychology. When you're laughing along with a gregarious group, or with a Debbie Downer, your wine will be perceived and remembered differently.

6. WHERE YOU DRINK is so significant–notice when you are actually at The Amalfi Coast, your pizza never tasted so good, an ordinary olive seems magical, and that glass of wine in your hand is the best thing you ever had! Ever visited Napa or Sonoma? Seems like each wine gets better than the last, but could very well have been the same bottle you only mildly enjoyed some random weekend long ago in your hometown.

Is it your mood, or does the AIR around you and the MATCHING LOCAL FOOD pair with and ENHANCE the chemistry of the grapes?

The old phrase, "What Grows Together, Goes Together" is so true! Air, soil, sun, wind, moon, & technique all matches when food and wine are from the same origin.

So if your favorite wine is not tasting like its usual self, try it again another time; it probably still is your favorite wine, but is just going "through a phase", or waiting for you to get out of YOURS!