Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Pentecost in Chianti
It is one thing to taste a wine at a walk-around tasting – events that are conducted yearly or even semi-annually by foreign governmental export-promotion entities, producer’s consortia and wine importers, where you “taste and spit” numerous wines. It is quite another thing to be at the winery, see the vineyards and talk to the agronomists and winemakers, then taste the wines en situ with the people that create them, especially at a meal where the product i.e. the wine, is had with compatible food, the way wine is meant to be drunk.
I just returned from a visit to the Chianti Classico area in Italy, the region of Tuscany between Florence and Siena, as a guest of the Chianti Classico Consortium. The towns and villages of Chianti are precariously perched on hillsides amongst forests, vineyards, wheat and barley fields, small lakes and rivers; they are unbelievably picturesque and seem not to have changed much since the times of the Etruscans.
We were invited to celebrate with the wine producers the fête of the Pentecost, a combination religious and social event, where current bottlings of past-year vintages are opened and tasted by civic fathers and common citizens alike in a festive atmosphere. Celebrations take place from the beginning of the last week in May to the end of the first week of June in practically every small town in Chianti. Especially well known is the dinner with the Chianti Classico producers of Castellina, where wines from 30 Chianti Classico wineries from the southern part of the territory are tasted.
This is Sangiovese country and every wine is at least 80% sangiovese (a requirement to be allowed the Chianti Classico DOCG designation). Most of the better ones are 100% sangiovese, and after a while you can very easily tell which bottle has a blend and which is 100% of the varietal, though some of the blends were also outstanding.
Another notable celebration was at San Casciano Val di Pesa’s “Gallo Nero and Street Food Festival” in the central square of the town, where street food from all over Italy - and this year also Argentinean beef - was paired with Chianti Classico wines from Barberino Val d’Elsa, Tavarnelle and San Casciano Val di Pesa.
Both events were eagerly attended by the locals where, for a minimal fee, they could taste high quality regional wines that are normally reserved mostly for export. Many of the farms and vineyards in Chianti also organized special events and wine tastings during those weeks.
The Homemaker’s trophy was a cook-off amongst “Queens of the House” housewives of Castellina, Greve, Gaiole and Rada – four of the major Chianti towns. Part of it took place at Ristorante da Verrazanno (on Greve’s Piazza Matteotti, a central square that on that particular day also featured the weekly farmer’s market) and we were amongst the judges that decided on the winners. Of course, we had to taste all the dishes for lunch, and wash them down with plenty of Chianti Classico. As you can imagine, a very difficult job because all the dishes were superb and no one wanted to disappoint all these beaming housewives slaving in the restaurant’s kitchen… but someone had to do it!
The Chianti Classico consortium has 570 members; many of them belong to the local aristocracy, with titles and estates going back to the Middle Ages, and there are records of them farming and growing grapes in the region since the 10th century. Most also cultivate olive trees -- a lot less labor intensive than grapes -- so olive oil and wine are the major agricultural products of the area. There are other exceptional agricultural products from the Chianti region, cheeses for example; there is high demand for the region’s cheeses from importers around the world.
Finally, there was one exceptional dinner at a restaurant that belongs to a world-famous local butcher. Talk about overdosing on dazzlingly luscious beef. I have heard of people who plan their vacation around the beefsteak-intensive events at the butcher-shop in Panzano.
The name of the butcher-shop is “Antica Macelleria Cecchini”, in Panzano, Florence (Via XX Luglio, 11 Panzano in Chianti, Firenze, +39 055 852020). The restaurant is called “Officina della Bistecca” and is reached by passing through the white-tiled macelleria, up a flight of stairs, into a beautiful - though narrow - indoor dining hall on top of the butcher shop which incorporates the adjacent terrace. For €50 you get all the grass-fed beef you ever wanted to eat, much in cuts that are particular to Tuscany. It is all about the best beef! There are 5 courses, starting with Chianti Crudo (beef tartar seasoned with Tuscan olive oil, sea salt, and a squeeze of lemon), through Brustico (the tartar beef, seared), Costata alla Fiorentina (bone-in rib eye), Bistecca Panzanese (a tender cut taken from the rump), and ending with cuts from giant 4–inch-thick porterhouse steaks, flavored with a touch of fennel and rosemary; plus sides of garden-fresh vegetables (pinzimonio di verdure), Tuscan beans in olive oil, baked potato, delicious Tuscan bread and “butter” (actually whipped lard infused with herbs), and a young red Chianti pored from traditional straw-covered bottles. You end the meal with a good-sized shot of grappa. Fortunately, our hosts had brought bottles of Chianti Classico Vintage and Reservas that were much better than what the restaurant was pouring (which was very young and not that bad, all things considered).
Some of the beef is raised by a local organic/biodynamic winery in Panzano (we visited it to taste the wines, and we saw our T-bones on the hoof, grazing on the side of one of the vineyards) and is also imported from an organic farm in Catalunia.
Dario Cecchini – the owner - is a showman of great talent, but is also an exceptional butcher who knows beef like few other professionals I have met.
If you ever find yourself in Chianti and you’re not a vegetarian, make sure to have a meal at this beef heaven. You can bring your own wine; and I recommend that, especially if you like older Reserva or Grand Reserva vintages that will pair well with Dario’s beef. The steaks, cooked to your taste, are worth every euro. Reservations are advised for most days (Monday and Wednesday the restaurant closes) and are mandatory for the weekend.
© July 2012 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.