A tasting event in a beautiful corner of Milan; and an example of Italian wine communication
A rustic, old farmhouse sits in the middle of tall apartment buildings and palazzi in what is perhaps Italy’s most industrial city, Milano; it creates an island of tranquility with rows of vegetables and patches of grass inside its plastered walls. Cascina Cuccagna (“Cascina” means “farmhouse”) has a small bottega, or shop, with organic produce and other food products, and a small trattoria with organic, seasonal dishes. It was in this farmhouse that the wine tasting & fair, Vini di Vignaioli, was held. because Vini di Vignaioli showcases organic, biodynamic, and natural wines.
The event was upstairs in the cascina, and once I climbed the stairs with wine glass in hand, I was confronted with packed-together groups of people surrounding long tables of wine behind which stood their respective producers. I chose a room at random in the maze-like layout. The producers from Piemonte were: Tenuto Grillo, Saccoletto, La msòira e’l rastel Fabio Gea, Cascina Zerbetta, Bera, Cascina Fornace, Andrea Scovero, San Fereolo, Cascina Tavijin, Giuseppe Rinaldi, and Tenuto Antica*; and winemakers hailed from Liguria, Tuscany, Sicily, Umbria, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Lazio, Sardegna, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, and Friuli, as well (here's the whole list).
*I tried not to leave anyone out; if you notice someone's missing, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!
It was crowded from the beginning. At one point, a man warned me, “Better get wine now, it’ll just get more crowded later,” and disappeared, leaving me standing there wondering how he knew I speak English because I hadn’t said a word. I must have the look. But he was right: in the late afternoon around 5:30 pm, there was a line of 25 or more people waiting to get in, reminding me of the lines at a discoteca – just one hour earlier, there was no line at all. Do they never learn?
I spoke with several winemakers about their practices, from biodynamic Demeter to biodynamic Vini Biodinamici (another certifying entity, arguably better-suited for wines because that is what it was created for, as opposed to Demeter, created for all agriculture); and from organic producers who also made great olive oil to a Franciacorta producer who did intense experimenting with each of their wines before deciding what to bottle that year.
I finished my day by tasting the selections of passito. I began with Vin Santo from Tuscany. Actually, “Vin Santo” wasn’t written on the bottle, so I asked if it was simply a passito. He replied, “Passito is what’s written on the bottle, but it is really a Vin Santo,” and explained the difference between the two. For one, Vin Santo can only be made in specific regions of Italy, including Tuscany, Umbria, Veneto, and Trentino. Each specific Vin Santo, such as Vin Santo di Montepulciano or del Chianti Classico, undergoes its own production regulations. A passito, on the other hand, is the term for a wine made from dried grapes.
This producer didn’t want to label of Vin Santo because, as far as I understood, the Consortia that defines the regulations sets rules he didn’t want to follow, for one reason or another. He said, “However, if you read the label, you understand immediately that it’s a Vin Santo.” I must have said something along the lines of, “Well, yes, if you know exactly how Vin Santo versus Passito is produced,” because his reply was that, clearly, everyone in Tuscany knows. I refrained from asking, “Are you only selling to Tuscans?”
However his communications style might have been, his passito was fantastic – and then I got to taste something really special, a passito in pianta. A passito is made from grapes that are partially dried laid out on straw in a well-ventilated room. Passito in pianta means dried on the vine. The weather conditions are favorable for this type of drying only once in 4 or 5 years, and he makes only around 500 bottles. The aromas and flavors were incredibly concentrated, like the essence of one of his normal passito wines compressed three-fold in the bottle.
Finally, the last passito of the day was very unique. It was made from Barbera grapes! How is that different? In the mouth, as wonderful as a passito tastes, many leave a syrupy feeling at the end. I find it pleasant, but imagine after the elegant meal that such a passito may call for, it tends to be cloying. The passito di Barbera, rosy red, had an initial sweetness that was wiped clean away by a dry, tannic, acidity in the end. It was actually a refreshing passito that would be perfect for aperitivo. Drinking it was like beginning with a passito and ending with a red wine, the transformation taking place right on my tastebuds.
The event was hugely popular and, while it was a little bit too crowded, the venue couldn’t have been more perfect. One producer admitted that even though all the interest that such a large crowd attests to is welcome, fewer people is less stressful, makes it easier to speak with wine lovers, and is more profitable. Imagine this: If your glass is filled as you hand it over the heads of two people who are trying to talk to the next table’s producer, and a few drops spill discreetly on the woman’s shirt as you back yourself into the corner, you are not likely going to buy the wine later or even remember the name of it (or see the face of the producer handing it to you!). If, on the other hand, you have the chance to chat up the winemaker about his work of art, get to know him, and connect with him, then you are much more likely to have garnered a memorable experience and several bottles of wine in hand by the end of the day.
I love Piemonte’s food and wine, the city of Turin, and my proximity to the Alps! My goal and challenge is to see as much of the region as possible using public transportation, but if you have a car I’d appreciate the ride. My intro to wine was at the Univ. of Gastronomic Sciences, and I love visiting family wineries, plus discovering Piemonte's craft beer scene. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite wine, but Nebbiolo never disappoints (from Barbaresco to Ghemme). As for beer, the Birrificio San Michele makes an incredible beechwood smoked brew.