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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Buying Wine in the Alsace

Buying Wine in the Alsace

If you’re driving to Alsace to buy wine, the first thing you’ll notice is it’s kinda sorta different from Germany and kinda not. Alsace is in France, n’est pas?  Sometimes even the French don’t know.  In 2011, the then President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, when speaking to a group of French farmers in Alsace, mentioned that he was in Germany and the farmers booed.   Good reason.

A field of rapeseed flowers
Read about the benefits of rapeseed oil:

Are you familiar with Alsace? Perhaps you remember from your high school modern European history class. Alsace and Lorraine ring any bells? Those two French provinces have bounced back and forth between France and Germany for the last hundred years and several wars: 

1870-71, the Franco-Prussian War.  This time France, under Napoleon III, attacked Prussia seeking an easy victory and renewal of his declining power.

Of course, as with all wars, this one was much more than the simple explanation I just gave you.

Result:  Prussia and a coalition of German states bloodied the French nez. Germans captured Paris. Bismarck rode on the back of this victory and was able to bring together a united Germany.  Germany annexed Alsace and half of Lorraine, along with the city of Metz.  Sacre Bleu!

1914-1918, World War I, The War to End All Wars. That would be funny except for the millions of military and civilians who were killed or left homeless.

The Result:  France got back the territory it lost in the Franco-Prussian War.  Merveilleux!

1939-1945, World War II. Germany overran France and conquered most of Europe, Alsace and Lorraine included.  German control lasted until the end of the war.  In 1947, Alsace voted to remain a part of France.  

Now you know why when you drive into the French province of Alsace on a bright sunny day, with nothing on your mind but satisfying your lust for the grape, you continue to see the names of towns that are definitely German:  Oberhausbergen, Bischheim, to name only a couple.  The people in Alsace not only speak French, but also Alsatian, a Germanic dialect.  And, it’s not difficult to also find German speakers. As some wits have put it, Alsace is not quite French and not quite German either.

But, on to wine! Vive le raisin!

A hint about Alsatian wine, with more to follow.  Riesling grapes are grown on both sides of the Mosel river, in Germany and France, yet the wines taste remarkably different.  Same with the Pinots.  Soil? Sun? Temperatures?  Those much smarter than I have unsuccessful tackled that conundrum. 

Years ago, while wandering off the beaten path, we happened upon a winery that turned out to be a lasting favorite.  As I’ve noted before, wine taste is personal, often depending on your age (yes, taste buds do change) and what appeals to your palate.  Not to overstate it, but a wine you swear by may not be a wine I would choose.  Magazines that rate wine?  Ignore them and taste for yourself.

The Metz Bleger vineyards produce a number of vintages: Pinot Noir (of various descriptions), Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Moscato, and Alsace’s sparkling wine, Crémant.

As I said, there are various qualities and styles of each, so when we began tasting, the tasting lasted for an hour or more.  This was an afternoon of “Yes, thanks, I will taste another,” which all too quickly devolved into “Jes tinks gimme a new grass….glass.”  You want to sell wine, take a lesson.  These folks loaded over 200 bottles in our trunk and backseat.  Fortunately, my companion took tiny sips, as though Queen Elizabeth had gently placed a white-gloved hand on her shoulder.

Such fortitude and iron will!

Ok, fine, you’re thinking, but what about the wine, aside from the obvious, that in a game of taste buds vs brain power, it’s checkmate by the taste buds every time.

In general, what I like most about Metz Bleger wines is their smoothness.  Most of the vintages subdue the harshness of heavy tannin, in favor of pure enjoyable flavor.  The range of sweetness is remarkable, from the dry, but still roundly finished Pinots, to dessert white wines.

My personal preference is the half dry.  I don’t like to lick my lips and then have to brush away the dust, but neither do I prefer wines that are too flavorfully light.  There are some dry whites that attract me, because in the French whites the tannin is almost always subdued.  And in the proper context, I can also relish a delightfully sweet desert wine….but only a glass.

Is it too much for us to suggest wines have personalities?  I’m thinking of a white that adds sparkle to the summer day as you sit by your garden and watch the flowers dance in the light breeze, or a pungent red that warms the heart as you sit by the fire on a frigid winter evening and gaze at the flickering flames.

I like to think of the wines of Metz Bleger, as the beauty of sunshine and a comfort on cold winter nights.  That must be why we keep going back!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

There are few cities like Matera, Italy

There are few cities like Matera.  

I’ve visited many of the famous and grand cities of Europe and written copiously. So, what makes Matera, Italy, in the province of Puglia so special? It is the third oldest city in the world, after Aleppo, Syria and Jericho.  Jericho is in the West Bank, taken by Israel in the six-day war, but later given back to Palestinian control.

Sassi di Matera has had a tumultuous history, with wars and conquests over centuries.  I could give you a list, but the thing that really stands out is that Sassi di Matera – the old part of the city - has been inhabited by humans for perhaps 9000 years.  The first folk were stone-age troglodytes, meaning they lived in multitudinous caves lining the sides of a river, which is now a stream at the bottom of a deep gorge.

But, since few of us can identify with troglodytes, the more modern history of the city goes like this.

With modernity came improvements.  Cisterns to collect rainwater are under many of the houses that were built into and around the caves.  Today in Sassi di Matera, it’s no longer possible to actually visualize that caves are there.  White colored stones held together by mortar frame the caves, providing more comfort and obscuring what lies beneath.  Streets paved with stones run everywhere. In some ways, walking the streets, with the odd alleys and steep stairs leading to upper levels, the Sassi seems more like a warren than a city.

We found one home that is a museum cave-house and shows how people lived right up until the early 1950s. It was a peasant community, with most work done in the fields as laborers and shepherds.

The museum interested me because of the extent of the cave and how different hollows expressed the division of labor.  Improved cave homes were in many ways small and private factories, with rooms where leather was tanned and medicine was made and food was cooked.  Other rooms had spinning wheels and looms, or blacksmith equipment.

The Catholic Church held much of the town’s real estate.  You can still see hewn stone over many of the doorways that once signified church property.

Poverty was also rampant, possibly because the rulers at the time established a law benefiting large landowners. Property was left to the eldest son, and prevented him from dividing it and selling off smaller chunks.  This was unlike the north of Italy where large estates could be broken up, leading to arable land being more equitably divided.  

By the 1950s, poverty was an epidemic in Matera and in 1952, the Italian government, in an effort to deal with what was then considered dire living conditions, forcibly moved upwards of 16,000 residents to other places.  With the city deserted, brigands and smugglers moved in to bring back the banditry that had existed a century before.

Italy as a united country has existed a relatively short time, hence the peculiarities and differences of older laws in the north, south, and central areas.  Here is an interesting, progressive map that show how Italy slowly united from 1829 onward.

Click on the colorful map on the right hand side, about half way down.

What was life like in the ‘Sassi’ in the more recent past?  Antonio Niccoleti’s father lived there and had strong memories of the place he called home.

“My father has some very dark memories of the Sassi.  But he also has nostalgia for its social life. People lived outside in their vicinato,  or courtyard, which was like a tiny piazza.  There would be children playing, men gossiping, and women shelling peas with their neighbors.  They helped each other in every difficulty.”

But as with many other places in Italy, Sassi di Matera’s age and history eventually saved it.  Little by little, men with foresight saw the future as a tourist opportunity, and moved in to rehabilitate the old city. Now the old section, Sassi di Matera is once again populated and seems to be thriving, with the old section of Sassi connected to the new city of Matera.

Wander the streets of the old city and you’ll find shops and homes and all the things that make a city live and breath.  Stroll farther, to the cliff overlooking the stream and you’ll have a distant glimpse of many of the caves used as home thousands of years ago.

Just yesterday, I watched birds pecking for food in our garden and it occurred to me that humans were once just like the birds, with their days spend searching for food, and the difference between life and death a precarious, day to day struggle.

Sometimes we need to look back, not only to the times we lived through, but to how our forefathers lived and even beyond the time of written history.  By looking backward, we suddenly appreciate how far humans have come from the days of the troglodytes, when everyday living was a simple struggle for survival.

For me, Matera was a wonderful place to take that backward glance. And afterwards, when I sat in a comfortable seat on a train taking us back to Bari, I reflected on the relative luxury of our modern world.  The struggle for living is for many of us, not the struggle of our ancestors.  I won’t step off the train in Bari, knowing I’ll have to sharpen my stone tipped spear if I want supper, or trek up and down a steep hillside for a drink of water.

No, I’ll simply go to a nice bistro, order a variety of dishes, sip some delicious wine, pay the check and go back to my very comfortable hotel.

As I said, sometimes to appreciate today, you have to look back…sometimes thousands of years back. Matera.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Hope in Every Sunrise

The Hope in Every Sunrise

Slowly, slowly do I wake, sunlight in my eyes.
Awash in glassy daydreams, alive with wispy sighs.
Shall I amuse with tales today of travels in the mist,
Or relive my vanished youth of girls I longed to kiss?

Or plant a garden, bushy green, adorned with April flowers,
Or splash some colors with a brush and while away the hours?
Perhaps I'll read a thrilling book and fly from page to page,
Discover lands I never knew and dance upon life's stage.

Beauty, beauty everywhere and I can sleep no more.
I must arise, abandon sleep, adventures to explore.
My morning swirls in fantasy, flooding through my mind,
A day to treasure happily the pleasures that I find.

My every day begins anew, with every sunny blast,
A chance to silence yesterday before today is cast.
No need to brood or scoff, or step aside the fray,
For until tomorrow's dawn, my future is today.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Bari to Alberobello

The train trip from Bari to Alberobello takes about 1hour and 40 minutes.  The trick is, finding the right ticket office.

Alberobello seemed like a good destination to slosh down some wine and see the trulli, those pointy roofed houses found only in this part of the world and one of the main tourist attractions in the Bari area. Alberobello is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Good news.  Trains leave every hour. 

Tried the main train station. Uhhhhh…no.  A kind ticket clerk sent us across the way to another ticket office.

High hopes, but this was also a losing lottery ticket.  Another kind ticket clerk sent us next door to a café. Really?  Yep, you go through the café, down a hallway and a small office on the right sells the tickets. The ticket seller also told us platform 11 was the one we needed.  We purchased round trips, just in case there were two or three ticket offices at the other end.

More trouble.  We walked the entire length of the hallway, with stairs clearly marked for each platform. No platform 11.  Was this to be like Platform 9 ¾ from King’s Cross Station to Hogwarts?

Wait a sec, there’s a stairway at the end of the hallway that leads outside.  We took the stairs to the right.  Nothing, but a sidewalk and a busy city street.

Let’s try the stairway on the left.  Presto. Kinda.  With blind luck we walked up the stairs to the outside and found another open doorway that lead to platform 11. Nothing marked, but everyone else seemed to be headed that way.  Not only safety in numbers, but truth in numbers.

But, was this the correct train?  Perplexity so close to success is no more comforting than almost passing a final exam.  Several Italian passengers seemed as perplexed as we. For the record, one of our company was fluent in Italian. We milled about.  We stepped toward the train, then backed away. Finally, a pretty young woman assured us this was the correct train to Alberobello.  Audible sighs of relief.  A herd of equally perplexed folk boarded with us.

Ah, the sweet bliss of discovery, the comfort of the lost and confused being rescued.

The train was clean and comfortable.   We chatted and waited for the conductor to grab our tickets. Never happened.  Like the London subway system, tickets are checked at automatic turnstiles at the end of the journey.

It was nearing lunchtime when we hit the pavement at Alberobello, but despite our eagerness to find the trulli, we stopped for wine.  But, some broke ranks and went for gelato.

As we sat and sipped or licked, we noticed a tall tourist pulling out one of the stones from the roof of a trullo.  “What the……..????  Has he lost his mind?”  Apparently he had.  He replaced the stone and pulled it out again…and again.  Then his equally mentally decrepit wife showed up and he couldn’t wait to show off his new talent.  Just as all four of us were about to race over and make a citizens arrest, he and the wife wandered off, possibly to find another roof. 

Trullo or trulli requires a bit of explanation.  Trullo is singular. Trulli is the plural.  But, due to Tourist ignorance and the abundance of these dwellings, the whole place is often referred to as Trulli.

As we noticed, gazing out the windows of the train, this is rocky county.  Lots of low stonewalls, with white rocks scattered like popcorn in the vast open fields.

As you might imagine, the trulli are also constructed of stone, mostly round, but the occasional four sided abodes, but all with conical roofs.

How in the world did this get started?  Well, back in the bad old days of the 15thCentury, when King of Naples dictated that any new settlement was to be taxed, the peasants of this area…who may have been poor, but not stupid…..began building houses that could be quickly disassembled.   Stacked stonewalls, without mortar, and roofs that were also stacked. The interior layer of the roof was built using voussoir technique and an outer shell of stacked sandstone, pointed slightly downward, much like stone shingles.  As the tourist so kindly demonstrated, the roof tiles are not mortared either.

Now, I suppose you are dying to know what voussoir means. Wedge shaped stones that when properly fitted together to form a dome, press on each other and do not collapse.  The Romans used the same technique on bridges and aqueducts. (see illustration).

At the top of the a trullo roof ,the builder almost always put a carved bit of sandstone, as a capstone and also as a bit of advertising.  The trullis do not normally have windows, but there is a vent on the roof.

You’ll notice the white walls are now smooth.  In follow-on centuries, when life was a bit more certain, trulli began to have the walls, inside and out, plastered and painted. All the trulli we saw in Alberobello were painted white and also had Christian symbols painted on the roofs.

However in the countryside those trulli, that served for livestock or grain storage, were still bare stone.

Some people still live in the Alberobello trulli.  You can tell by the newly installed windows and doors.  Other trulli have been converted to shops that sell trinkets, ceramics, baskets, and hand woven table linens, as well as paintings and statues.

One thing we all noticed, the people of Alberobello are cordial and friendly.  I’m not just talking about the merchants, but everyone.

Makes for a nice visit. And by the way, the wine was delicious. We trulli enjoyed ourselves.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Il Rusticone in Matera, Italy

Il Rusticone

Appreciate serendipity? Walk down the street with me in the scenic city of Matera, Italy.  Let’s pop into a sidewalk café and find joyous folks who love what they do and do it well and …and turn your afternoon into a pleasure.

Think it can’t happen. Read on…

Found one!  Il Rusticone, near the old part of Matera.  We got off the train, knowing little about Matera except it’s a national treasure of a town (Sassi di Matera), with a Troglodyte (cave dwellers) heritage that goes back possibly 6000 years.  Plenty of time to write about that later.

Right now let’s stick to eating and drinking and counting ourselves lucky to have found some fabulous street food at Il Rusticone.  Step through the door and Veronica greets you with a smile as bright as the Italian sun, even with a drenching rain making the old stone pedestrian street shine like glass.

You don’t have to speak a word of Italian to know you’ve come to the right place.  It’s almost as if Veronica were welcoming guests to her home.

Although Il Ructicone offers a variety of selections, the four of us opt for sandwiches, with puccia, the local flat bread, toasted to a wonderful crustiness and filled with locally produced, naturally cured ham and bacon, cheeses and vegetables.  Huge portions, which alone is not important, but when the bread and fillings grab your taste buds, they don’t let go. Conversation comes to a halt.

By the way, puccia is sandwich bread made from pizza dough.

But in Italy, lunch, even a street food lunch, is simply not eaten without wine.  Of course we picked a local vintage.  Veronica offered others, but her face lit up when we went local.

Super choice!  The wine was rich and dark, with a fruity nose and such a round, romantic finish!  So you may well ask, what the hell is a romantic finish?

Well, you see, counting Veronica, I was surrounded by four beautiful women, all of us drinking this nectar from the vineyard.  We laughed, we joked. I asked if they wanted more wine.  They all said, “Hell, yes!”  See these four were not only beautiful, but also earthy.  Only Veronica didn’t drink, but she had to do the pouring, which she did with such a wonderful flourish, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the round, fully formed goblets.  Ah, wine goblets!

She couldn’t stop speaking with us and although I could barely understand, her smiles and laughter were the real things.  Fortunately, two of my companions, the English mother and daughter I wrote of earlier, speak Italian, the mother fluently.

When it was time to visit the Troglodyte (and younger) parts of the city, we had to talk each other out of staying right were we were.  After all, it was drizzling outside and Veronica clearly had more wine….

Should you ever get to Matera, whether it’s raining or not, drop in on Veronica at Il Rusticone to treat your inner Italian to the puccia and the luscious local wine!

What’s that?  You can’t make it?  Well, as an alternative, hop on the web site and eat your heart out!

A quick note on the wine:  Made from Aglianico grapes grown on the eastern slope at the foot of the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture. The Tenute D'Auria vineyard is only about 25 acres, 10 hectares.  Not sure if it's available in the U.S.  Such a small vineyard!