Crostoni di Uova alla Cacciatora – Hunter’s Eggs from Tuscany

uova-alla-cacciatora-above-private-walking-tours-italy_Our touring season in Italy is fast approaching, and we’ll be returning to Tuscany on a private walking tour, as well as our Bike the Wine Roads of Tuscany cycling tour in the fall. One venue I am really looking forward to returning to is Badia e Coltibuono, a place I visited first in 2003 with Chef Jody Adams.

badia-back-private-cycling-tours-tuscany_Badia a Coltibuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest) was founded in 1051 by the Benedictine monks of the Vallombrosan Order. They planted the first vineyards in the Upper Chianti area, and eventually extended their vast land holdings to include thousands of acres. In 1810, under Napoleonic rule, the monks were forced to leave Coltibuono and the monastery was secularized.

badia-courtyard-private-walking-tours-tuscany_In 1846, Coltibuono was bought by Guido Giuntini, a Florentine banker and great grandfather of Piero Stucchi-Prinetti, the present owner. Today the estate is run by Piero’s four children. Under the guidance of Piero and now his children, the estate continues to grow and build a solid reputation both in Italy and internationally for its wines and olive oils. It also operates a lovely agriturismo, cooking school, and restaurant.

badia-garden-private-cycling-tours-tuscany_The cooking school here at Badia was begun in 1980 by mother Lorenza deMedici. She is known world-wide for her many lovely cookbooks as well as her PBS television series The De’ Medici Kitchen. Today the cooking school features Benedetta Vitali, a Florentine chef, co-founder of “Cibreo” restaurant with Fabio Picchi, and then “Zibibbo” in 1999.

Coincidentally, the Stucchi family also has cycling in their DNA. In 1874, this same family founded one of the first bicycle factories in Italy. In 1918, the career of champion cyclist Girardengo seems to be coming to an end, but “Stucchi & C” believed in Girardengo and added him to their cycling team, and the cyclist went on to win the Giro d’Italia in 1919.

uova-alla-cacciatora-close-private-walking-tours-italy_Here is a recipe from Lorenza deMedici’s cookbook “Tuscany: The Beautiful Cookbook”. It is for Crostoni di Uova alla Cacciatora, or Hunter’s Eggs. To quote “These eggs are traditionally prepared for excursions to Monte Amiata, a tall mountain with an enormous cross on its summit. The area abounds in game and wild mushrooms.” We enjoy cycling and hiking in the countryside surrounding Monte Amiata during our tours in Tuscany.

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Cycling to St. Antimo monastery at foot of Monte Amiata

I’ve adapted this recipe in one way – the original calls for the bread to be deep fried in olive oil. Delicious, but a bit too much work in the morning for me! I’ve replaced it with toasted crostoni (large crostini).

Crostoni di Uova alla Cacciatora

12 slices dried porcini mushrooms
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion
1 can diced tomatoes
dash of hot red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 slices coarse country bread
6 eggs

Soak the mushrooms in warm water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze out any excess moisture; set aside.

In a saucepan over moderate heat,  warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and fry gently, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and mushrooms. Simmer over low heat until the liquid evaporates, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toast the bread, rub with a garlic clove and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

In a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat, warm the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Break the eggs into the skillet and fry sunny side up (without turning).

Arrange the bread on a serving plate. Place an egg on each slice, season with salt and pepper and cover with the tomato sauce. Serve immediately.

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Exploring Valpolicella – Bike or Hike to A Great Glass of Amarone

valpolicella-view-private-bike-tours-italyGood news for all you who enjoy toasting a great day in the outdoors with a special glass of vino. The most prestigious wine zone in the Veneto, the Valpolicella DOC, home to Amarone, and known as the “Pearl of Verona” offers a wide range of outdoor activities to interest all active adventurers. Travellers can enjoy cycling along bike paths that wind throughout the region, or challenging themselves among the lovely rolling hills. Hikers can trek the Lessini hills or along the ridge line of Monte Baldo just to the west, relishing the panoramic view of Lake Garda. Walk through miles of vineyards, or explore the history of the city of Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tom Robertson photo
Tom Robertson photo

The Valpolicella wine zone is located in the province of Verona, east of Lake Garda, and north of the Adige River. The hills in this region are used for agriculture – predominately grapes for their wonderful wines, of course – as well as marble quarrying. The volcanic hills and alluvial valleys here in this region provided a variety of terroir for viticulture, each contributing a unique flavor profile, which the best and most experienced of producers appreciate and use to make their wines the best they can be.

valpolicella-vineyards-private-walking-tours-italyWinemaking in Valpolicella dates back to at least the times of the ancient Greeks. The Valpolicella and Amarone tradition of using dried grapes was known as the “Greek style” of wine production. Roman writers such as Cassiodorus refer to wines from this region, and during the Venetian trading period with the Byzantine Empire, one of the products regularly transported were wines from Valpolicella.

valpolicella-sign-private-cycling-tours-italyThe name itself, Valpolicella, is most commonly believed to be derived from Latin and Greek, “valley of many cellars”. Seven comuni compose Valpolicella: Pescantina, San Pietro in Cariano, Negrar, Marano di Valpolicella, Fumane, Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella and Sant’Anna d’Alfaedo. The historical “heart” of Valpolicella winemaking, known as the “classico” area, is in the Monti Lessini hills northwest of Verona. In 1968, in order to keep up with increased demand for their wines, the boundaries were extended east towards the Soave zone and south to the plains of the Po and Adige rivers. Today the economy of this region is centered on wine production.

valpolicella-rugolin-private-walking-tours-italyMost guided tours in this region focus on wineries that have facilities for larger group tours and tastings. These wineries are major producers with staff dedicated to wine tourists. They do a nice professional job, but I prefer to visit with smaller family producers. A bit more informal, and gathering around a kitchen table with three generations, tasting wines as they share their family story and their passion for their land, wines, and local traditions is truly unique. The occasional language barrier seems to disappear as we unite in appreciation of the wine and our shared experience. If traveling on your own, don’t miss an opportunity to visit at least one  – the lack of a professional looking storefront is intimidating, but these families love to share their wines with visitors, and are thrilled you stopped by.

valpolicella-monteleone-private-walking-tours-italyMany delightful dining options are found throughout the Valpolicella region. The area has a wonderful regional cuisine, the best dishes favoring seasonal local products – peaches and apples from orchards along the Adige, fresh olive oil from nearby Lake Garda, mushrooms, chestnuts and truffles from Monte Baldo and Lessini, Monte Veronese cheese. And look for many dishes made with the favorite wines – Beef braised in Amarone, Risotto di Amarone.

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valpolicella-polenta-dabepi-private-walking-tours-italyIn the heart of the Valpolicella zone, Antica Trattoria da Bepi is a nice spot for a casual meal where you can sample many of these local specialties. Try the antipasti platter with grilled polenta. Polenta is traditionally cooked for a long time over a wood fire, which introduces a smokiness to the dish that modern cook top versions lack. This is one of the few places where I’ve actually tasted that smoke in the polenta.

valpolicella-amarone-ruota-private-walking-tours-italyFor more refined dining while enjoying a panoramic view of the hills, visit Trattoria alla Ruota. Enjoy tortelli all’amarone “fatta in casa”, made in house, or with truffles when in season. Pork with apples, or a selection of local cheeses. An extensive wine cellar allows you to sample wines from a variety of local producers.

valpolicella-beef-ruota-private-walking-tours-italyAnother favorite of mine is the amazing Enoteca di Valpolicella in Fumane. I’ve shared details of my dining experience here on my blog. The wine cellar of the enoteca is quite impressive, with wines from over 100 local Valpolicella producers. They can design a wine tasting for a group with antipasti, or a multi-course dinner with wine pairings. I recommend just leaving yourself in the proprietor Ada’s hands, allowing her to recommend both food and wine, all beautifully prepared and paired.

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Paarlbrot – Traditional Bread from the Venosta Valley

paarlbrot-private-bike-tours-italyThe first few days of our Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige tour is spent in the lovely Val Venosta, or Vinschgau Valley. This is the upper part of the Adige river valley, running west to east from the Reschen Pass to Merano. A well-maintained bike path follows this valley, winding through apple orchards, vineyards, and berry fields, with spectacular mountains on either side. A great cycling destination for all levels of cyclists, offering tranquil flat bike paths to the start of the ascent of Passo Stelvio.

val-venosta-path-private-bike-tours-italySudtirol was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire until after WWI, and the region today still strongly reflects its germanic roots, with German being used as frequently as Italian. The cuisine too reflects these same roots, one example being the breads you find – the mountain farmers here have always preferred whole wheat and rye based breads over the white bread you find in most of Italy. I find the best and most interesting varieties of breads in all of Italy here in Sudtirol.

paarlbrot-close-private-bike-tours-italyThe enviable climate of the Vinschgau, with very mild temperatures for the elevation is optimum for the cultivation of wheat and rye. The best rye flour is cultivated at higher elevations, and with over 300 days of sunshine a year, the rye has sufficient time to fully ripen.

Paarlbrot is the oldest type of bread from Venosta Valley. This Vinschger Paarl, “pair bread” after its two-lobed shape, was first baked in the ovens of Monte Maria Benedictine Abbey in the town of Burgusio/Burgeis in the 13th century. At that time, this “monastery bread”, as it is also called, was made at most four times a year, so it was essential that they last for the long winter months. The flat loaves of Paarlbrot and other breads were stored on racks, and were broken with a special tool called a “grammel”, then soaked in milk, coffer or soup.
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Today you find many local bakeries producing fresh paarlbrot every day, so it no longer needs a long soak to be enjoyed. The original recipes begin with a sourdough type starter, 70% or so rye flour, and using milk rather than water – milk inhibits the gluten structure resulting in a flatter breads, but the fat in milk holds moisture so the bread doesn’t dry out as quickly, beneficial when these were expected to last for several month. The Paarl bread has a very distinctive flavor due to both the use of the sourdough, as well as the inclusion of cumin, fennel and fenugreek, all cultivated in the gardens of Sudtirol peasants.
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Enjoy with cheese, local smoked sausages and speck, and a glass of good local red wine like a Schiava, or a local apple juice.

This version of Paarlbrot is not authentic, but does include the traditional flavorings – beginning with a sourdough, rye flour, cumin, fennel and fenugreek. I recently purchased the cookbook “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” by Jeff Hertzberg MD and Zoe Francois, and have been baking a LOT more bread recently, thanks to their minimalist approach (no kneading!!). So I adapted their technique using the traditional ingredients of Paarlbrot, and enjoying a panini with speck and cheese for lunch each day this week.

paarlbrot-speck-private-bike-tours-italyPaarlbrot

1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk (100°F or below)
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
10 ounces all-purpose flour
6 ounces rye flour

Pour the warm milk into a 6-quart bowl or a lidded food container. Add the yeast, salt, and seeds. Mix in the flour, do not knead. You will have a dough that is wet and loose enough to form to the shape of the container.

Cover with a lid, leaving it cracked open so it is not airtight, or loosely with plastic wrap. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse, or at least flattens on top, about 2 hours. Then refrigerate and use over the next 14 days. You can use the dough anytime after this first 2 hour rise, but the flavor will be more complex if you allow it to sit overnight or longer in the refrigerator.

When ready to bake, turn on your oven to 450°F. If you have a pizza or baking stone, place this in the oven on a top shelf. Place an empty heavy duty metal (not glass, it may shatter )roasting pan on a shelf below.

If you have a pizza peel, prepare it by sprinkling with cornmeal or covering with parchment paper so the loaves will not stick. If you don’t have a peel, you can use the back of a sheet pan. Or you can just bake on a sheet pan if you don’t have a baking stone.

Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off about a cup of the dough, about 1/8th of the entire dough mass. Form into a flat oval and place on the peel or sheet pan. You want to do this quickly and handle the dough as lightly as possible; irregular shape is preferred. Remove a second ball of dough the same size as the first; shape in the same way and place on peel or pan next to first, touching for 2 inches or so along one side to make the characteristic ‘pair’ or ‘paarl’ shape. Repeat three more times to make 4 total paarl loaves.

Allow the dough to rest for 40 minutes.

When ready to bake, slide the parchment paper with the loaves onto the preheated stone. Quickly pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the empty roasting pan below the stone and close the oven door.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the crust is richly browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool.

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Exploring Merano – The “City of Flowers” Tucked Away in the Mountains

merano-mountain-view-private-hiking-tours-italyA favorite destination on our Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige tour is the town of Merano, or Meran in German. It’s stunning location within a basin at the entrance of the Passeier Valley and the Val Venosta, surrounded by mountains topping out at over 3000 meters, offers a plethora of outdoor activities to keep us busy – cycling along the Val Venosta bike path, hiking along the Merano High Mountain Trail in the Texel Mountain group, climbing, and in the winter five different ski areas to explore. Afternoons bring us ample opportunity to explore the culture, history and cuisine of this vibrant town.

merano-cycling-tour-5The enviable climate of Merano (over 300 days of sunshine a year) and its thermal springs have made it a prime vacation destination for many years, attracting luminaries such as Franz Kafka and Ezra Pound. Settled initially as a road station for the Romans in 15 BC, Merano was elevated to the status of a city during the 13th century and made the capital of Tyrol. In 1420, the Duke of Austria, Frederick moved the Tyrolean court to Innsbruck. Though Meran remained the official capital until 1848, it lost its predominant economic position, but its popularity as tourist destination especially for Germans and Italians, remains strong.

merano-gardens-view-private-hiking-tours-italyThanks to its’ unique topology, Merano boasts the mildest winters in the entire central European area. The mild climate allows plants from Mediterranean areas to flourish alongside those from Alpine areas. This amazing diversity of flora can be admired in Merano’s beautiful gardens, including the botanical garden of Trauttmansdorff Castle, as well as the Kranzel Labrinth Gardens, ranking among some of loveliest gardens in the world, and giving Merano its monikeru of the “City of Flowers.”

val-venosta-path-15-castelbelloSudtirol is also the European region with the highest number of castles, with over 800 castles, manor houses, and ruins. The oldest manors date to the early Middle Ages while the most recent date from the late Baroque period. One of the most important is Tyrol Castle, dating from the eleventh century, which now is home to the South Tyrol Museum of History and Culture. The densest concentration of castles and palaces in area can be found in two villages just south Merano, Tisens and Prissian, often referred to as ‘castle villages’, where many aristocratic families constructed summer homes here. There are seven castles here, making it a lovely spot for a walking tour or well worth a short detour from the bike path traveling from Merano to Bolzano.

Merano is also known as the “beautiful fruit garden of the Alps”, where you can find apples, pears, apricots and many types of berries cultivated nearby. Honey, herbs, breads based on rye and other whole grains, Sudtirol speck and mountain cheese, spirits and brandies, beer. Here is where the Central European culinary tradition and alpine flavors meet the cuisine of the Mediterranean. Dine on traditional rich Tyrolean dishes, or enjoy more sophisticated versions reflecting inspiration from the south.

merano-market-private-hiking-tours-italyIn this area of Italy, there are no over-sized shopping malls: local producers offer their wares and fresh seasonal products at markets year round. In Merano there is a large traditional Friday market, as well as several smaller farmers’ markets throughout the week. My favorite to visit before we start a tour is the market held Saturday mornings from 9.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m on the upper Corso Liberta. Another great place to buy local products from speck to chestnut pasta and apples, a wide selection of local cheese and wines and freshly baked bread is Pur, at Corso della Liberta, 35. Enjoy a freshly made panini on their outdoor patio.

forst-brewery-private-hiking-tours-italyTerraced vineyards surround Merano, where a nice variety of both local and international varietals are cultivated, thanks again to the region’s mild Alpine-Mediterranean climate. The best way to discover this region is to taste a glass of one of the original indigenous varietals: try the traditional Vernatsch (Schiava in Italian), the intense Lagrein, or a St. Magdalena, a blend of both. White varietals that originally hail from this region are Gewurztraminer and Moscato Rosa. International varietals that flourish here include Pinot Nero/Noir, Sylvaner, Sauvignon, and Riesling, just to name a few. Northern climates in Italy also provide the barley and fresh mountain water perfect for brewing beer, so one last stop at Forst brewery for a crisp cold beer is a great way to end our ride.

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Buckwheat canederli at Restaurant Sigmund

There are also plenty of wonderful restaurants where we can experience these great products and unique blend of cuisines found in this region. We often celebrate our first night on tour at Restaurant Sigmund on Corso Liberta, which offers typical Tyrolean cuisine with more modern, Mediterranean touch. A lovely spot to dine outdoors in the heart of Merano. A bit outside the town center is Restaurant Roberts Stube, a Slow Food restaurant of only a few tables tucked in an ancient cave. Their menu changes with the season, incorporating local products from white asparagus in the spring to chestnuts in the fall. Laubenkeller is an old school traditional restaurant with good solid food. Kallmunz offers more modern style cuisine, in an elegant room in an old castle on Piazza Duomo. For something sweet, Gelaterie Sabine has been making artisanal gelato in Merano for 40 years.

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Restaurant Robert’s Stube

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Avignonesi – Exploring the Wines of Montepulciano

view-avignonesi-walking-tours-tuscanyOur cycling excursions and walking tours through Tuscany visit many of this lovely regions more prestigious wine zones. One of our favorite destinations – both for its stunning hilltop location, and the picturesque vineyards that surround it, is Montepulciano. The wine produced in these vineyards, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or “the noble wine from Montepulciano”, obtained Italy’s highest quality designation, DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita; Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) status in 1980.

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First cyclist arrives

Like many Tuscan wines, Vine Nobile is made primarily from Sangiovese. Sangiovese is Italy’s most widely planted grape varietal, and it is far and away the dominant varietal in central Italy. But Sangiovese varies from area to area – in actuality, there are a myriad of clones of the Sangiovese varietal which possess different characteristics and flourish in different climates. The wines of Montepulciano showcase the local clone of Sangiovese, Prugnolo gentile. This Prugnolo Sangiovese can be the only varietal used, or it can be blended with Canaiolo Nero and small amounts of other local varieties such as Mammolo. The wine is aged in oak barrels for 2 years; it earns riserva designation if it is aged for three years.

history-walking-tours-tuscany
Vernon orients us to our location

One of our favorite stops to learn more about Vino Nobile (and taste, of course) is the winery of Avignonesi. The winery, first established in 1974, is named after the Avignonesi family, the founders of the original estate. In 2009, Avignonesi was acquired by Virginie Saverys who has since introduced organic and biodynamic farming methods to produced distinctive wines that reflect the true character of the local grapes, and the region’s terroir. She has also acquired additional vineyards and invested in a state-of-the-art winemaking facility in Montepulciano.

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Montepulciano

“We believe that the life force of the earth and the uniqueness of our terroir are at the heart of our brand. Avignonesi is reborn from the soil of our vineyards with each vintage in wines that mirror the subtle flavors of the site and the special traits of each year. Our wines express the richness and beauty of the Montepulciano territory. We respect the heritage of Montepulciano, where Sangiovese wines have been produced for centuries, and we wish to contribute to its future by being the finest representative of its heritage that we can be.”

cantina-avignonesi-walking-tours-tuscanyAvignonesi is currently using sustainable farming methods in all 200 hectares of vineyards., and is on track to be granted full organic certification in 2106. But their dedication to natural cultivation does not stop there, they now employ biodynamic farming that integrates local flora and fauna and biodiversity to protect the vine through strengthening its natural defense system and making its growing habitat as healthy and nourishing as possible. “Green” manure is grown in the rows between the vines, including plants like mustard, vetch, rocket, field beans, and grasses, which are eventually mulched into the soil. While growing, the network of roots loosens the soil, aerating it, making it looser and protecting it against erosion. This biodiversity of flora encourages the proliferation of insects and microorganisms that help the vines to thrive.
In addition, Avignonesi employs two biodynamic preparations that they produce to nourish their vines, one cow manure based, the other ground quartz, both of which are matured for several months in cow horns buried underground. No shortcuts taken here!

We enjoyed the opportunity to appreciate the fruits of their careful labor on a recent cycling tour. Our tasting include four of their most impressive wines, all of which are hard to come by in the US.

grandi-annati-cycling-tours-tuscanyGrandi Annati Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Vino Nobile Grandi Annate is the finest expression of Sangiovese from Avignonesi’s Montepulciano vineyards. This wine is produced only in the very best years, when the climate and growing conditions are optimum, and the grapes can express all the complexity of the terroir. This is a wine that is rich in character with the stamina to age for many years.

Grandi Annati is 100% Sangiovese, aged for 18 months in French barriques and tonneaux, 20% of this time in new new oak, 80% older oak.

“Medium ruby red color. The elegant bouquet opens with notes of wild roses, plums, and a variety of red fruits, underlined by intriguing scents of sandalwood, myrrh and delicate hints of cloves. The Grandi Annate 2012 is full-bodied yet delicate and round with a fresh acidity and a savory finish that lingers on the palate.”

50&50-cycling-tours-tuscany50&50

A few years ago the winemakers at Avignonesi enjoyed a high-spirited evening with the winemakers from Capannelle, a Chianti producer. No doubt a fair amount of wine was consumed, with much friendly competitive banter, the outcome being an agreement to collaborate. The result is 50&50, a blend of 50% Sangiovese from Capanelle with 50% Merlot from Avignonesi holding in the nearby Cortona zone.

“The 50&50 2011 has a deep, ruby, red color. Aromas of blackcurrant and black cherry are complemented by notes of sandalwood, sweet spices, and menthol. The rich and velvety palate has a fruit-flavored core with subtle complexities from the long aging in oak. Long-lingering  and elegant, this is a wine suitable for long aging in the bottle.”

vin-santo-cycling-tours-tuscanyVin Santo di Montepulciano 2000 and Occhio di Pernice 2000

Vin Santo is a sweet wine with a long history of production in Tuscany.  Once called the “wine of hospitality”, it was used to warm up a passing stranger on his way down from the hills, celebrate some happy event, or make a toast on a Sunday after a special meal.

There are three distinct designations for Vin Santo in this region: Vin Santo di Montepulciano, Vin Santo di Montepulciano – Riserva, Vin Santo di Montepulciano – Occhio di Pernice. The Avignonesi Vin Santo is a blend of Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano toscano grapes. The “Occhio di Pernice” is a sweet wine made in the Vin Santo style, using instead red grapes, in this case 100% Sangiovese

The traditional fermentation method employed for Vin Santo wines is very typical: the harvested grapes are sorted and hung to dry in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms. Drying concentrates the sugars, obtaining the hogh sugar levels necessary to make this sweet dessert wine. According to the specifications, the grapes must be pressed from December 1 for Vin Santo di Montepulciano and January 1 for the other two, then they are aged in small 25-liter oaks barrels (caratelli) for 10 years, with an additional 1 year minimum in the bottle. In the case of the Occhio di Pernice, the barrel aging includes contact with a “madre”, or mother, similar to that used in the production of vinegar or sourdough, which is the property of Avignonesi.

The Avignonesi Vin Santo is “Intense and full-bodied with a rich texture and an intriguingly sweet and spicy bouquet of candied citrus fruits, figs, honey and aromatic herbs.” The Occhio di Pernice “Rich and concentrated with enveloping aromas of Mediterranean herbs, citron, plums, fruit cake, star anise and a long-lingering, nutty finish. “ Both were a real treat to end the tasting, with the Occhio di Pernice a unique wine to experience, very rare to come across outside of this corner of Tuscany.

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