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July 6, 2014

GRAPE SENSE: Exploring everything a new wine region has to offer

SIENA, ITALY — From the lush green countryside of Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the majesty and golden valleys of Tuscany, a common refrain connects wine lovers. There’s nothing better than good food and good wine.

Grape Sense’s first private wine tour, a five-day exploration of Oregon, was followed by a 10-day excursion in Italy’s Siena, Florence, and Rome. The first trip was private and wine/food focused while the current trip is about education. But in Italy there is no escaping the wine and food. And, who would want to do that any way?

In Italy the gracious ristorante and trattoria owners offer smiles, warmth and endless platters of great food. A mid-week drive through the heart of Tuscany was time for a short lesson on Italian wine. The travel group of 20 seems to enjoy wine but wanted to understand Tuscany for its wine as well as its art and history. The college professor leading the tour handed me the touring coach microphone for a quick lesson.

It occurred to me as we resumed the ride, it’s a lesson that needs repeated.

The not-so-difficult hurdle to understanding Italian, for that matter French, wine is to understand geography. The Old World wine countries identifiy wines by region and not grape. If you’re having steak and want a nice big California Cabernet, you head to the wine shop and buy a Cabernet. But in Italy you might buy a Super Tuscan or Brunello — neither of those wines are a grape. But each are made from Sangiovese — the grape most identified with Europe’s boot.

Sangiovese dominates Tuscany and makes the Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Brunello wines. Sangiovese is usually blended with Cabernet, and sometimes a bit of Merlot or even Syrah, in the Super Tuscan wines.

In Italy’s Trattorias (think small restaurant) to the nice ristorantes the Rosso flows freely from the jug or pitcher. A Rosso is essentially a table wine and almost always Sangiovese. It’s not fair to over generalize Sangiovese as bottom of the barrel wine production, but who ever said we’d be fair.

The Rosso wines are pleasant enough and usually lighter than a Chianti with less acidity and less of the full dark cherry flavor of most Chianti wines. The quality varies greatly but it’s satisfying enough for the average tourist palate.

Our travel group enjoyed an unique picnic in Montalcino, a hilltop town in the very heart of Brunello — Sangiovese’s shining-moment wine.

We had a huge spread of crusty bread, salami, and Italy’s wonderful prosciutto and smoked prosciutto. We bought three different Brunello wines and a white to show our friends the difference between Italy’s entry-level Rosso and its biggest star.

It was a big hit. Many had come to Italy expecting great wine at each meal and were slightly disappointed they had not found that. But now they’re spoiled and my work is complete!

But on a more serious note, there is nothing better than exploring everything a new wine region — whether it’s a state or country — has to offer. And when the opportunity arises, explore that wine region from its least to its best.

Chianti wines are widely available from the supermarket to wine shops. I always suggest trying the Chianti Classico, which offers softer tannins and richer fruit for just a few dollars more. Great Classicos can be found at under $25. Brunello is kind of the Tuscan mountains but substantially more expensive, starting at twice the per bottle cost of a good Classico.

We’re off to Florence as this is written and then Rome — more great wild boar sauce, pasta, beef, veal and Sangiovese await.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes every other week about wine for more than 20 Midwestern newspapers. Read his wine blog at: www.howardhewitt.net.

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