October 1997

Montescudaio, Tuscany 7 October 1997 An invitation to attend the Sagra del Vino in Montescudaio, a medieval wine town off the Tuscan seaboard below Pisa and to take part in a round table discussion on wine tourism gave me the most welcome opportunity to escape into the wine country. Though only early October, the harvest was nearly over, and the wine producers here and from the neighbouring zones of Bolgheri and Val di Cornia were unaninimous that 1997 looks set to be one of the great vintages of the century (many are comparing it with the mythical 1947!).
Of course, it is always a joy to be in the wine country at this time of year -- there is a heady, almost intoxicating atmosphere about, brought on in part from the beautiful scent of fermenting grape must and the anticipation of the creation of new wines as the old year begins to draw to a close. I had the chance to visit some exciting estates which should certainly be watched. Sorbaiano is located near the Etruscan town of Volterra, and produces both fine white and red wines: best were Lucestraia, a rather exotic Chardonnay/Riesling blend and the dense yet elegant Rosse delle Miniere, a fitting partner to a wild boar stew we enjoyed for lunch on the estate. Tenuta del Terricio is another high-profile new wave estate in this still relatively little known Montescudaio DOC zone. Outstanding wines include Rondinaia, a luscious Chardonnay/Sauvignon/Gewurztraminer blend packed with creamy, round fruit, and Lupicaia, a Cabernet/Merlot blockbuster which demonstrates how these French varieties transplant so successfully to the Tuscan seaboard to produce wines with great concentration and fruit; there is plenty of tanin and extract, yet the wine remains utterly charming and approachable, with an underlying velvety character and roundness that is astounding. Finally, to the south of Bolgheri, just outside the medieval borgoof Suvereto, the tiny estate of Tua Rita, located in the Val di Cornia, is also producing wines of the highest quality that need to be tried to be believed. Giusto di Notri is another weighty and serious Cab/Merlot blend, but most remarkable and rare of all is Redigaffe, a pure Merlot that in sheer weight and intensity allied with elegance and sweet soft tannis is one of the most remarkable wines that I've ever been privileged to taste.
And so, with great wines such as these, what to eat? In Tuscany, as always, it is the simple country foods that continue to satisfy above all, for its cucina is based above all on Tuscan bread, outstanding extra-virgin olive oil, and the freshest seasonal vegetables, plus game, meat and whatever is available from the sea. Try some of the new wave wines of Montescudaio, Bolgheri and Val di Cornia with the simplest of appetizers, perhaps just a platter of fettunta, chewy sourdough Tuscan bread, first toasted over a fire, then rubbed with garlic and soaked in extra virgin olive oil, or with some crostini misti, bread appetizers topped with chicken liver spread, or cavolo nero or other greens stewed in olive oil and garlic. Or why not make this outstanding and filling vegetable and bread soup that is a Tuscan classic, la ribollita.

La Ribollita

Tuscan Vegetable and Bread Soup

Our great friend Giampaolo Pacini, winemaker and food historian, conjectures that Tuscan bread soups date back to the days when unleavened breads were used for plates. Afterwards, they were discarded or given away to the poor or to the servants, who, being crafty and thrifty perforce, devised any number of ways of making delicious soups with the well-flavored, meat-soaked left-over. Pacini himself actually tried this once, inviting friends over to enjoy a traditional meal served on flat breads instead of crockery. Then afterwards, he collected the plates soaked with flavorsome foods, and the next day made a bread soup from the remains. The result? "Ottimo!", he assured me.
Ribollita is basically a hearty vegetable and bean minestrone, all the better for being left over, to be "reboiled" the next day with the addition of stale bread to pad it out. How simple, how humble: yet when well-made how delicious! Giampaolo showed us how.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small red onion, peeled and chopped

2 legs celery, chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced

Handful flat-leaved parsley, finely chopped

1 large can chopped tomatoes

Salt and black pepper

1 cup dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight and boiled until tender (reserve the cooking liquid)

1 large potato, peeled and diced

1 lb zucchini, sliced

1/2 lb green beans, cut into 1inch segments

1/2 small cabbage or winter kale or other spring or winter greens such as purple sprouting or sprout tops or sprouting broccoli (about 1 lb)

About 8-10 cups water or broth

1 large loaf (about 1 lb) of 4 or 5 day old country bread, cut into thin slices

Extra-virgin olive oil

Heat the olive oil in a large pot and gently fry the red onion, celery, carrot, garlic and parsley. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, purée about two-thirds of the boiled cannellini beans together with their cooking liquid. Add the puréed beans and liquid to the pot together with the potato, zucchini, green beans, cabbage and other winter greens, and the reserved whole beans. Add sufficient water or broth to cover and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about a half hour. Adjust seasoning.
In a large terracotta pot, layer slices of stale bread in the bottom, and sprinkle with extra-virgin olive oil. Add a few ladles of soup, then another layer of bread, sprinkling with extra-virgin olive oil each time. Continue in layers until the pot is full. The ribollita can be prepared to this stage, then either reheated in an oven, adding more water or broth if necessary. Or else, it can be slowly reheated over the stove and mixed well before serving.
Serve in bowls, with a dribble of fragrant extra-virgin olive oil on top.

Wine Suggestion: Ribollita cries out for a full, flavourful Sangiovese-based red. Try Avignonesi's classy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Altesino's stylish Rosso di Montalcino, or for a real treat Le Volte, the second wine of the high profile Ornellaia estate in Bolgheri

Copyright © Marc Millon 2000


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