By Celia Strong
This is going to be a fun week with another new wine (of course!) that has a great name, great flavors, great possibilities.
So, we return to Italy, Tuscany to be precise. Geographically, Tuscany is on the front side of the Italian boot — that means the Mediterranean, Western side, of the peninsula, just above the knee cap, of the boot.
I thought, for fun, we could go off our usual serious path and look at several personalities from history. Not really wine-related personalities, but close enough that we can look and learn.
We’ll start with Catherine de Medici, who was born in 1519. (As most of you know, the Medicis were a well known, powerful Tuscan family.) Raised by a cousin, the future Pope Clement VII, after her parents died, Catherine was married to Henri Duke of Orléans and became the Queen of France when Henri became the King. Despite being overshadowed by Henri’s mistress (maybe mistresses), Catherine is credited now with bringing Italian fine cooking and art to France. (Foods like small peas, artichokes, pasta, ice cream. And, too, eating with a fork.) Also, some reports claim, and I want to believe them, she brought back to Tuscany some of the French wine grapes. In particular, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which we need for this week’s wine. Thanks, Catherine!
A later relative of Catherine’s, Cosimo III de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was involved in Tuscan wines in the 18th century. His home was near Carmignano, a city about 10 miles northwest of Florence. In 1716, he declared four areas of Tuscany to be superior wine producers, including Carmignano. In the 18th century, winemakers here were already making better wines by blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon. This blending made the wines of Carmignano distinctly different than those of Chianti. Unfortunately, these early Cabernet vines in Tuscany were wiped out by the spread of phylloxera through Europe, and brought back in the 20th century.
In 1975, Carmignano was the first DOC wine that was officially allowed to use Cabernet Sauvignon in their wines. Suppose there’s any chance, being close to Chianti like Carmignano is, that this might have prodded Chianti winemakers into their innovations to make what became known as “Super Tuscans?” (Copycats?)
We now have some tidbits of history related to this week’s wine, so next let’s look at our three grape varieties.
Sangiovese is the main and great red variety of Tuscany, and the most widely planted red in the whole country of Italy. Sangiovese is a thin-skinned grape and produces rich, alcoholic wines that can be aged. These wines are fruity and naturally acidic making them great matches for tomatoes and other acidic foods including garlic, citrus fruits and fresh herbs. This acidity also lets Sangiovese wine go well with rich meats like rabbit and duck. (Yes, rich means fatty, but the acidity cuts through that type of fat.) Sangiovese’s flavors include lots of cherries, not sweet, plums, herbs and a bit of bitterness and earthiness.
The second grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, is a thicker skinned grape, so it brings much more color to its wines, and more potential tannins too. These tannins also make Cabernet wines well suited to barrel aging, where they pick up vanilla and baking spice flavors. (Start thinking now about cherries with vanilla and cinnamon on top!) This grape brings chocolate, mint and tobacco to its wines, and a lot more texture too — texture that makes them go well with creamier cheeses, smoked meats and richer meats.
And, grape number three is Merlot. Like Cabernet, this variety is more often thought of as a Bordeaux wine grape. In Tuscany, it is used, often in small percentages, as a blending grape. Merlot is not as thick skinned as Cabernet, so it is able to ripen earlier and do well in slightly cooler climates. It also makes full-bodied wines and has bright, black fruit flavors (blackberries, plums) and chocolate and violet notes like Cabernet. It pairs well with heavy seafoods and smoked meats. (And you should still being thinking about cherries, with vanilla and cinnamon and, now, chocolate sprinkles.)
Our wine, finally, this week comes from a new winery for us called La Maialina. (my-ah-leen-ah). Founded in 2009, it’s not the oldest winery but it is already rich with history and traditions. The rolling hillsides of Tuscany where the winery is located provide a home that is perfect for the growing of Sangiovese. The area was settled first by the Etruscans, and then by the Romans. The earliest documentation of wines from Chianti dates back to the 13th century. Writings talk of a Chianti wine that flourished in the “Chianti Mountains” around Florence.
The name, La Maialina means “little pig.” It refers to the Cinta Senese heirloom breed of little pigs that originated near Siena, another nearby Tuscan town. These little pigs date back to the 14th century. Today, they are the only breed of native Tuscan pig that still survives. The “La Maialina” winery is right next door to where they live, at the pig farm. And, I’ve been told, they help the winery maintain their sustainable growing practices by donating all natural fertilizer for the vines. (This little piggy stayed home.)
Our featured wine this week is La Maialina Gertrude. Gertrude is the little pink pig on the label. Because it does not follow the guidelines for a DOCG Chianti wine, although La Maialina does also make Chiantis, Gertrude is an IGT level wine. Not a problem, though, because we remember when “Super Tuscans” were first made they were a lower level than this. Gertrude is about 45 percent Sangiovese, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Merlot. Each grape variety is fermented separately at cool temperatures to augment fruit flavors in each of their wines, and in concrete vats to let the grapes do what they can. After blending, the wine is then aged in French oak for about 10 months. Aging it as a finished wine allows them to get us just the right amount of vanilla and cinnamon and chocolate sprinkles we need on top of our cherries. And, truly, that describes this wine. A bowl full of liquid cherries with seasonings. )Oops, I mean a glassful!)
And, for those who don’t always love the dry, earthy nuances of some Chiantis, don’t worry, no sign of that here. Gertrude is rich and smooth textured, full flavored but has some subtleties if you sip it slowly enough. So far, I haven’t managed slowly. But I do love this wine. For $13.99, too. And just in time for summer. It pairs well with seafood and poultry, grilled, broiled, whatever. And, next fall, Gertrude will be great with duck with cherry sauce, salmon with blackberry sauce or dry-rubbed pork tenderloins.
This little piggy filled her glass and drank it all! Enjoy.