Ode to the Grape

(October 2008)

September is grape harvesting season here in Tuscany. Since there are many events here dedicated to the grape and its most divine form, wine, Melanie and I decided to wait until we had attended all of the wine events and festivals before telling you about them. We attended three distinct events in three different locations, and enjoyed each one for different reasons.

The first one was the Slow Food Firenze Wine Championship held in Fiesole, which looks down on Florence from its perch atop a hill north of the city. Fiesole was founded by the Etruscans long before Florence was a glimmer in the eye of Caesar, or Caesar was the glimmer in his mother’s eye for that matter. We took a fifteen-minute bus trip up the hill to the town, toured the sites (a church, a museum full of Della Robbia terra cotta pieces) before entering the archeological park where the wine championship was to be held. There we toured the various museums and ruins (including Roman baths), had lunch in a Roman amphitheatre still used today for concerts, and bought our wine glasses.

Despite the name of the event (Slow Food Firenze Wine Championship), we had nothing to do with the judging of wines, or even the viewing of the judging of wines. That took place in an enclosed area far from the rest of the activities. No matter. We came to sample some wine, and got much more. There were butchers and bakers (but no candlestick makers), as well as makers of cheese, chocolate, olive oil and wine. For six euros you got a wine glass that allowed you unlimited tastings of wine. In addition, all but the chocolatier were giving away food samples for free.

Without going into too much detail, the Slow Food Movement promotes seasonal, regional cuisine made from traditional methods. All the producers at this event used Slow Food practices, and came to market their gastronomic wares to their philosophical brethren, people like us. In addition to some excellent wines we sampled cheese, olive oil, sausages and Melanie’s new favorite cookie, cantucci from a baker called Il Cantuccio.

We also learned some basics about Tuscan wine. The Sangiovese grape is the dominant grape of the region, and is used to make all sorts of wine. Chianti (from the Chianti region of course) can be Classico or Riserva (reserve). The Riserva is typically better quality than the regular, and contains a higher percentage of the Sangiovese grape. Super Tuscans are a heavier wine because to make them vintners mix Sangiovese grapes with Cabernet grapes. The top wines in Tuscany are called Brunello di Montalcino, which also have a high percentage of the Sangiovese grape. After several glasses they all start tasting the same, but they all taste good so it doesn’t matter.

Mostly Americans and other English speakers attended this event, which was somewhat disappointing although not surprising. Wine tourism has become big here, and local vintners are taking advantage of the increased interest through events like this one. Still, it was a little sad to watch one of the men who was pouring wine. He kept asking everyone if they were Tuscan, and when they said no he looked disheartened. Hopefully the locals will realize what Americans already know: drinking wine in Tuscany is fun.

The event in Fiesole helped prepare for the next one, the wine festival in Greve in Chianti. Greve in Chianti is a small town south of Florence in the heart of the Chianti region, and every year it holds the Chianti Classico, afestival dedicated to wines of the region. This took place on the weekend of the big storm that swept across our section of Italy, but by the time we went there on Sunday the showers were intermittent. That allowed us to taste wines in a relative state of dryness.

And boy was there wine. This event was much bigger than the one in Fiesole. After a half-hour bus ride south, we walked from the bus stop down a street lined with food vendors. We took mental notes of what we would eat later as we headed toward the wine. The whole thing was set up in the main piazza of the town, the triangular Piazza Matteotti.In it there was a large tasting bar with over a hundred wines to choose from, plus booths set up by individual wine makers. For ten euros you got a glass (much bigger and nicer than the ones at the wine championship) and a card that gave you twelve tastings. Melanie and I bought two glasses and headed to the maker booths first, and continued to “educate” ourselves about Tuscan wine. (Translation: We were here to drink.) It was fun to talk to vintners about growing grapes, types of grape, making wine, and how things like weather affect the process.

Most people working the event spoke English, although we did get to practice some Italian. Almost everyone attending the event seemed to speak English, and most of those were Americans. Seeing these people made us realize how fortunate we are. The people traveled thousands of miles to tour and taste Tuscany for a few days; we get to spend a whole year here going to events like this.

The last event we went to was in Impruneta, a town south of Florence but closer than Greve in Chianti. It was called the Festa dell’Uva, or grape festival. It was different from the other two events for several reasons. First, we were accompanied by my parents who had come to spend a week with us. Second, although this festival was dedicated to the grape, very little wine drinking actually took place. There were only a couple booths selling wine, usually along with whatever food they were selling. And third, while the other events were dominated by Americans, this was truly Italian.

Every year on the last weekend in September Impruneta hosts the Festa dell’Uva. Throughout the weekend people sell all kinds of food from booths set up in a park. While many people sold Tuscan cuisine, others sold things from other regions such as Puglia or provinces farther south. We sampled porchetta sandwiches and various Italian torte (cakes) including apple, chocolate, walnut, and our personal favorite, torta di nonna, which is a custard-filled cake. Yummmmmmy! After getting our fill we headed to the main drag to get a good seat for the parade.

Now, I’ll be honest. You know that saying “everybody loves a parade”? Well, I don’t. That is, I didn’t until this one. I used to think nothing could be duller than watching a bunch of slow-moving floats covered with slowly moving people slowly waving to the crowd. Maybe I still think so, but this parade was nothing like that. There are four neighborhoods in Impruneta. In Italian they are called Rione. They are Sante Marie, Sant’Antonio, Pallò and Le Fornaci. For the parade each neighborhood builds its own float and stages its own production with the residents of each neighborhood.

At its infancy this event may have been a small affair, with neighborhoods engaging in friendly competition for the best floats and performances. The competition is still friendly, but if it was ever small it certainly isn’t now. Giant floats thirty feet tall are painstakingly constructed and decorated. Some of them had mechanical moving parts. All of them used tons of grapes, either in bunches or individually placed. We wondered at the amount of work that must have gone into the grape application alone, especially considering they would rot quickly. We estimated many of the people had an early morning the day of the parade.

The parade had two stages. The first, where we were, was the smaller performance piece. People of all ages danced and acted out the stages of wine production in front of judges. The second stage was a bigger production involving the floats and a stage. We couldn’t see that part very well since you needed a ticket for a seat in that area. We liked our seats better anyway, since it allowed us an up close view of locals celebrating life in Italy.

The first neighborhood was Le Fornaci. Every neighborhood seemed to have its strengths, and Le Fornaci’s was the performance. They went for the cute factor as well, incorporating many kids into the performance. Melanie especially liked the ant and bee costumes with big butts that on the smallest kids dragged on the ground. This performance took us through the whole cycle of nature and how it affects grape growth and harvesting. People represented sunlight, plants, rain, wind and wine, with all the process acted out to music.

The next neighborhood was Pallò, and its strength was float construction. Their performance wasn’t quite as good (or as cute), but did feature scarecrows on stilts encircled by flying crepe paper crows, and fifteen-feet-high Grape Queens with fifty-foot fabric trains flowing from their skirts to represent wine being poured. Even more amazing was their stage production that included floats with giant moving parts. Like I said, this was no small production. Keep in mind, this is a small town of a few thousand people.

And that’s what we liked about this whole day. This was a local affair on a beautiful day in a small town nestled in the hills of Tuscany. While much of Florence and the surrounding area feels inundated with tourists, this event was refreshingly native. Don’t get me wrong; I know we are tourists ourselves, albeit slightly more permanent ones. Still, it was good to see something that hasn’t been influenced too much by outsiders, an event created by Italians for Italians. Next time you drink a glass of Italian wine, know that it was prepared with care by people who love their region. Better yet, come visit and see for yourselves.


Copyright Axel Schwarz


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