Wine, wine, wine
In the quilt-work that is the Italian countryside, Tuscany’s well-worn Chianti Hills are so often billed as the most beautiful patch. But if your heart skips a beat there, pack your nitroglycerin and head for the preternatural Umbrian landscape around the high village of Castelluccio.
As we drove in our little Alfa Romeo through the Piano Grande, or Great Plain, on our way to that enchanted hilltop town, the scenery abruptly switched from quaint vineyards and roadside farmstands to a vista that seemed more Montana than Italia. At more fertile times of the year, dizzying sprays of wildflowers bloom in the plateau, igniting the panorama with a fierce color stretching as far as the eye can see. In the fall, the great plain changes like a chameleon, becoming a monochromatic blanket of green velvet.
Tiny Castelluccio itself feels more Alpine than Umbrian, with steep mountain roads and fare on the menus that tends toward hearty lentil stews and ragu of wild boar. We let out our inner pigs, dining on all of the above before hitting the local delis — places that I’m convinced every Italian American will shop in as if they’ve never seen food before — to stock up on truffle sausages, biscotti and dried beans to take home.
But this is Italy, and you want wine. Or at least I did, and two days later, we were pulling up at the vineyards of Arnaldo Caprai. Situated at the end of a regal driveway lined with rows of needle-shaped cypresses, the estate boasts a hilly panorama that’s an impressionist painting in autumn, with burnt siennas and mustardy yellows peppering the green of the vine rows. Located in the shadow of the Umbrian city of Montefalco, this is Sagrantino country.
“Be patient, my friend, be patient,” counseled Marco Caprai, son of Arnaldo and overlord of the cellars here. In the cool interior of the winery, in front of vast rows of aging wines, he had tempted us first with a series of fermenting whites that will eventually form part of his 2013 vintage. But I came for the Sagrantino, a red so big and bold, it could take on a Rioja and a Bordeaux in a bar fight and still win with two hands tied behind its back.
Finally, a grinning Caprai, whose family helped refine and reinvent the once humble Sagrantino grape in the 1970s, produced an inviting quarter-glass of the ruby liquid.
“Drink,” he commanded.
Ah, wine tasting. Finally, something I’m good at!
I drank. And in the flavor, I could taste Umbria. The bursting, comforting, warm heart of Italy.
Drinking it made me hungry, and 90 minutes later, we’d climbed out of the cellars and into the kitchen for a “cooking class” with the vineyard’s singing chef, Salvatore Denaro. Within moments, he was bouncing from sink to oven to cutting board like a hyperactive Italian pinball, all the while sprinkling around little pearls of cooking wisdom like pixie dust. A local legend in these parts, the Sicilian transplant to Umbria is known for belting out an impromptu aria while cooking. Though Placido Domingo’s job may be safe, Denaro could certainly teach Le Cordon Bleu a thing or two.
The vineyard calls this a cooking class, but in truth it’s more of a cooking show, with you backstage to observe the master at work before you sit down to gorge on his food. One second, he’s draining his own chicken stock to cook his pasta, finished al dente with a creamy concoction of butter and shaved white truffles. The next, he’s reducing a sweet wine into a delicate pudding for dessert, bringing it out to a joyous table as he belts out a tune called “Vino, Vino, Vino” — “Wine, Wine, Wine.”
And in every bite of this food, in every sip of this wine, in every laugh at this table, a reality sinks in.
If this is the poor man’s Tuscany, maybe it’s better to be broke.