For those of you who love travel and appreciate the more off the beaten path and non-touristy experiences, I have decided to chronicle my cultural and culinary adventures around Italy as we search for all the special selections for our wine club members. The blog posts will feature wineries visited, short restaurant reviews, places and sights worth visiting and local traditions.
Our most recent trip in April found us in Abruzzo and the Marche, for a quiet and relaxing stay, with beaches nearly all to ourselves.
Work first, play later - whatever, it's all the same.
It might be the mastery of life - when work becomes play and play expands your knowledge at work. Traveling around to vineyards and discovering new wines is certainly a joyful part of this job. And drinking expensive and important wines to celebrate or to enjoy on a holiday aids to increase our understanding and knowledge of these wines for the high end tastings we do with collectors who like to discuss big names in wine serves as a nice excuse to splurge from time to time. (I'll spare you the stresses of the job, but assure you they do exist).
First up were two winery visits - De Fermo in Abruzzo and Valter Mattoni in the Marche. Wine club members will be getting a more detailed story about these producers but in short I can tell you that the wines of De Fermo were some of the most unique wines of the territory, with an reverberating undertone of Valentini in them. Anyone who knows the revered and distinct wines of Valentini can appreciate how this wine can stand proud on its own when up against even Grand Cru white Burgundies. Biodynamic, non filtered, non clarified, no temperature control, all indigenous yeasts (aka as natural as it gets), all the wines we tasted - Launegild, Le Cince, De Fermo and Prologo - were pure, provoking and persistent and excellent expressions of their natural philosophy.
Over to Valter Mattoni, nicknamed 'la Roccia' or the Rock, and you can immediately feel the raw integrity, passion and grit in this motorcycle-loving, antique-collecting, charismatic and comical farmer in the Marche. Often wines tend to resemble their owners, and these wines - Trebbien, Cose Cose, Rossobordò and Arshura - capture all the essence of Valter's spirit. Even if they don't fall into a category of 'biodynamic' or 'organic', these wines are made as naturally as possible with spontaneous fermentations, without temperature control, and minimal intervention. It's an honor to put both of these producers into our curated wine selections for the Summer quarter's shipment.
Moscioli - don't dare call them cozze!
Off to the Marche, Sirolo specifically, to indulge in the pink sands and delicacies of the seas. Here the local, non-breeding, spontaneously reproducing moscioli - locals may get offended if you call them cozze or simply mussels - are the protected specialty of the sea, growing on reefs in small quantities and only in the area of Pietralacorce (Ancona) and Sirolo. Locals typically will just savor them steamed with a dash of parsley and garlic, or for the true connoisseur, like Alessandro, literally hand-picked fresh out of the sea (possibly illegal), opened meanwhile I was paddling our kayak against the current, after an hour at the quaint, nestled away beach of Le Due Sorrelle - a quaint beach worth paddleboarding or kayaking to. So what makes them different? They are firmer and taste stronger, sea-like, and persistent on the palate. A highly localized treat available in only a couple of villages or the local fish market in Ancona.
Another dining experience that didn't disappoint was Il Clandestino in Portonovo. Owning up to its name, this clandestine location is tucked away on the beach, reminiscent of Moodshadows in Mailbu, CA, just instead on the quiet Mediterranean. Ask for a sample of their infused olive oils which feature flavors like bbq, mint and lemon - the bbq oil couldn't be a more perfect synthesis of Italian and American cuisine.
Fine dining and worth it
For those seeking something more formal than a hand-picked lunch on a kayak, a 2-star Michelin dining experience in Senigallia, Uliassi will have your taste buds swimming in a sea of heaven. We opted for the Uliassi Lab tasting menu featuring the specialties of the Mediterranean and struggled to select which Champagne to drink between a Cristal 2009 and a Fleury Sonate N.9. We splurged on the Cristal, but as it began to feel heavy, Alessandro had the idea to share the remaining bit with our neighbors and play a game with the Sonate to see which one our palate preferred - as they palate doesn't lie. Returning the favor, our neighbors offered some of their Jacques Selosse, and in 3 Little Bears style, we had Cristal with a round opulence out of the gates but slightly too heavy and fatiguing over time, Fleury Sonate N.9 much more pure in its fruit, but possibly lacking something for me in grandness (still a well-crafted Champagne) and Selosse that somehow won that night for me personally with its purity, elegance and balance. It was a really fun experiment to see which one your palate keeps returning to - try it with your California Cabernet against an Etna or Barolo.
The culinary creations will fascinate for their freshness, authenticity and creativity. The welcome dish - a fois gras 'hazelnut' wafer, 'olive' with raw meat with an almond inside, and crunchy toast with salted anchovy and truffle, accompanied by a Kirr Royal shot - a play on well known snack foods, gets the evening going. From there you will be dazzled by everything from the sweet red shrimp, homemade bread selections with oyster butter, to carpaccio of langoustine and amberjack done alla puttanesca and more. For the brave, Benvenuti al mare offers guests the chance to lap up a bowl of broth synthesizing all the flavors of the sea - salt, iodine, kelp, oysters, clams. An elegant culinary experience not to be missed if you want to understand what the creme de la creme of the Mediterranean Sea can be.
Some Champagnes are worlds apart. Others, distant universes.
Life's not so bad when you're the lucky beneficiary of a birthday gift that Alessandro decided to splurge on - a 1998 Krug Clos du Mesnil. Three days passed as we waited for this liability in our mini-fridge to call our names, but nothing - we just didn't want to drink it, waste it. Finally on the last night, there was no way we were not going back to Rome with that bottle and we would essentially 'force' ourselves to drink it. In a perfect unsophisticated manner, we grab picnic goodies and head to the beach for a moonlit, relaxed and romantic evening sipping under the stars. We found the only salumeria open in the village, grabbed whatever we could which amounted to truffle potato chips, some provolone, salami, bread and headed with the Bose speaker to the beach, found a table cloth to cover a plastic beach table and set up shop directly in front of a sea all for us.
Upon the first inhale, you knew this was going to be different from the complexity on the nose. Then a sip of this ethereal delight found me speechless - inside I was vibrating, outside I showed goosebumps. No description I can give you will give you even a a sliver of this magical, ineffable experience. Ironically, with zero desire to drink, we shamefully finished it too fast. And '98 isn't even considered the best vintage in Champagne. This Champagne really is another universe when compared to the others we drank that weekend, and for true wine collectors or enthusiasts, I would strongly recommend pairing this bottle with a special loved one or moment to be remembered. Savor this gift of the Gods slowly - the best sip by far was the last.
For me, the joy in wine has been experiencing the unexpected and being provoked, which often leave me in a moment of sheer wonder and even reverence. And these moments that leave you in awe stay with you forever, and help make this bizarre and sometimes non-sense life seem worth the wild ride.