Friday, July 30, 2010

Wines I'm drinking: Cantina del Vermentino 2008 Vermentino di Gallura "Arakèna"

Last night I opened one of two bottles of the Arakèna bottling of Vermentino di Gallura I purchased at Cantina del Vermentino, in Monti, in Sardinia's premier wine-growing region of Gallura. In an earlier post I noted that the best Vermentino wine I encountered while in Sardinia was the Funtanaliras from the same cooperative. Arakèna is the Cantina's high-end vendemmia tardiva (late harvest) Vermentino, but this is fermented into a strong (14%) almost completely dry wine (there is just a hint of residual sugar).

Compared with the delicate, light  Funtanaliras, the Arakèna is weighty. Aged in oak (the Funtanaliras is made in stainless steel) and made from riper grapes, it's more perfumed on the nose and more substantial on the palate, but both wines are delicious. The pale gold color does not quite prepare you for the suite of scents coming out of the glass. Something suggested olive brine at first. There were hints of pears, candied fruit or fruit cake, cherries, and even something vaguely smoky. Later I started detecting roses, passion fruit, brown sugar, and a dried apricot scent that put me in mind of a fine Riesling from the Moselle.

On the palate, however, the wine was more suggestive of a good wine from Alsace in its combination of powerful scents and flavors in a dry style of winemaking. In fact, served blind, I'd bet that most experienced wine drinkers would fairly confidently call this a Gewürztraminer from Alsace. Long, concentrated, rich, and delicious, with just enough acidity to keep things fresh. I very much enjoyed the wine with grilled shrimp and pan-fried, breaded baby mackerel. Dry enough to pair with seafood, but with the presence to stand on its own as an aperitif wine. However you drink it, it's excellent. Highly recommended. I had the privilege of buying this directly from the producer for an exceedingly reasonable €11 euros or so (roughly $12). Various retailers in Europe are selling it for €15-25 a bottle, however, suggesting you might expect to pay around $30 for it in the US, if you can find it. It's worth looking for.

To see more wine reviews, use the "Wines I'm Drinking" label to the right at the top of the page.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Where Have All the Swifts Gone? (and Other Topics)

Back in France now, I've had time to consolidate various lists and notes made in haste while traveling. This seems a good time to look back at the bird watching I've done so far while in Europe. One thing I noticed immediately upon arriving back in Pouzolles is that the flocks of martins, swifts, and swallows have thinned tremendously. Where did they all go? There are still a fair number of house martins around, but the swallows and swifts are mostly gone. I had become used to their incessant screeching. Now it's relatively quiet. Last night, however, two Scops Owls were noisily exchanging calls. Their voices sound remarkably like submarine sonar pings--or at least like the sonar pings one hears in the movies.

Having arrived in London June 7, I've been in Europe for going on two months now, with three weeks to go. I had hoped to add 100 birds to my life list this summer, but so far have seen only 52 (see below). Birds have been relatively few and far between here--which is somewhat surprising. In habitats that would be rich with birds in Sonoma County, California (home) there is often little activity here-- notably, at the coast. Still, 52 isn't bad. I've averaged almost one new bird every day. The Camargue area and Sardinia have been the best sites, so far.

In total, I have seen 64 species I've been able to identify. I've seen about 10 more I've been unable to figure out. I'm working on another five or six from photographs I've taken--for example, the terns shown here. I'm pretty sure these are Common Terns, but I try never to add anything to my lists unless I'm certain.

[Update: I've now decided these are Common Terns, which raises my total of species identified in Europe to 65. Further update: On July 31, I added the Tree Pipit to my list for Europe, so now 66, of which 54 have been life birds. On August 4, added Yellow Wagtail, for totals of 67 and 55. On August 11, I added Green Woodpecker and Melodious Warbler (or possibly Icterine Warbler) for totals of 69 and 57.]

New birds (new to me, that is) I've identified so far: Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Squacco Heron, Gray Heron, Purple Heron, Greater fFamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Common Pochard, Eurasian Coot, Common Tern, Black-winged Stilt, Common Sandpiper, Black-headed Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull, Red-legged Partridge, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, Black Kite, Red Kite, Common Kestrel, Eleanora's Falcon, Wood Pigeon, Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo (heard only), Scops Owl (heard only), Common Swift, Alpine Swift, Spotted Flycatcher, Common House Martin, Hoopoe, European Bee Eater, European Roller, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Jay, Western Jackdaw, Hooded Crow, Common (Eurasian) Magpie, Rock Pipit, Tree Pipit, Spotless Starling, Black Redstart, Dartford Warbler, Cirl Bunting, Common (Eurasian) Blackbird, Spanish Sparrow, the Corsican race of the Spanish Sparrow, European Goldfinch, Linnet, Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, and Serin.

In addition to these, I've seen the following birds familiar from the US: House Sparrow, European Starling, Barn Swallow, Ring-necked Pheasant, Herring Gull, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Moorhen*, (winter) Wren, Mute Swan, Whimbrel, and Cattle Egret. Many of these, of course, are imports from Europe. Pied Wagtails were common in England, but I had seen these before in Japan--assuming this is the same species.

[Update: I checked on the wagtail. They appear to be considered different races of the same species, with those resident in England called Motacilla alba yarrellii and those resident in Japan and elsewhere in Asia called Motacilla alba lugens. Isn't the Internet wonderful?]

[*Further update: The European moorhen, or Common Moorhen, and our Moorhen, now called Common Gallinule, were split in 2011 into separate species, so, technically, that added a species to my total of new birds on this European trip.]

Sunday, July 25, 2010

On the Road (Europe 2010): Barbaresco and Barolo

I wanted to see the area around Barbaresco and Barolo, to get a feel for the place. I had expected just to drive through on the way back to France, nothing more, but we ended up staying a night in the town of Barolo, right in the middle of the small but rather prosperous-looking town.

On the way in, passed through the towns of Barbaresco and Nieve, both perched on hills. The latter has some picturesque older buildings. Nieve is the home of Bruno Giacosa, maker of excellent Roero Arneis, among other things. In Barbaresco, I saw the Gaja headquarters, but everything was shut up. Back in the days when I was writing and publishing Tokyo Wine News, I once found myself standing next to Angelo Gaja in the wine section of one of Tokyo's major department stores. We chatted a bit. He gave me his card and said to look him up if I'm ever in his part of Italy. He didn't seem to be home....

I was completely unprepared for the beauty of the area. The low hills and triangular valleys are covered almost entirely in grapes. Here and there a patch of bare land being readied for replanting, a small olive orchard, or a clump of trees creates some contrast, but grapes cover virtually every bit of usable land.  Imagine a series of contiguous amphitheaters with rows of vines for seats.... This may be the prettiest wine country I've ever seen--and I've seen just about every major wine-producing area there is to see--in North America and Western Europe, at least.

Had a simple but good dinner at Locanda della Posta di Barolo, one of the small restaurants in the center of town. Washed down the food with a good Langhe Arneis, but then began to feel silly not drinking Barolo in Barolo, so ordered a glass after dinner, the 2004 Fratelli Barale Borolo, which was surprisingly approachable at only six years old. I wish I had a month or two to explore the wines here.

The Museo dei Cavatappi (The Corkscrew Museum) at the base of the castle in Barolo looks touristy with its large gift shop (the museum is in the back), but it's actually very good. There is a substantial collection of corkscrews (several hundred) and Champagne taps from the late 1700s to the present. The layout is clear and attractive. The signage--in Italian, English, and German--is informative. Well worth the €4 entrance fee.

Wines I'm drinking: Cinque Terre

Having decided to stay in Riomaggiore, we found an inexpensive yet spacious apartment for a night. Had a good dinner at restaurant Dau Cila, right at the marina in Riomaggiore. There is a terrace with a view of the sea (reservations more or less required). The interior is attractively decorated and comfortable if you can't get a place outside. Not great food, but very good food, and there is an excellent selection of Cinque Terre wines by the glass. Dau Cila turned out to be a perfect place to get a feel for the local wines.

I knew very little about the Cinque Terre wines, having only heard of the sweet wine made here, known as Schiacchetrà (which I did not taste), as a rarity of the wine world. The Cinque Terre also make dry white wines that simply bear that name--Cinque Terre (granted DOC status in 1973). Both these and the sweet wines are made mostly from three grapes, Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino blended. The wines must contain at least 40% Bosco. Up to 20% can be other white grapes approved for winemaking in the area more generally, besides these three. The vines are grown high on steep, terraced hills that recall the vineyards on the Duoro river that make port or some of the steep plantings along the Moselle and elsewhere in Germany. The vines are trained high and flat--almost espaliered.

Schiacchetrà is made from the same blend, but it is a passito wine. Essentially, some of the harvest is reserved and allowed to raisin in the sun (typically on straw mats; these wines are sometimes known as "straw wines") or hung in the rafters of buildings until partially dehydrated, which greatly increases the sugar content, allowing a powerful dry wine or production of sweet, concentrated wines like Schiacchetrà or Recioto della Valpolicella, the sweet wine made around Verona, of which Amarone is the better known dry version.

How have I missed these to date? I had no idea such interesting wines were made here. The only logical explanation is that production is so small (the entire producing area is only 200 acres), that they rarely make it far from home. I feel lucky to have had a taste. I understand that most of the wine labeled Cinque Terre DOC is made at a cooperative, but there are bottlings by individual producers as well. All four of the wines I tasted were of the latter type. They are likely to be unavailable outside of the Cinque Terre. Indeed, searching on WineSearcher yields nothing available for purchase from the Cinque Terre DOC at all*.

I tried four wines. I didn't take extensive notes, but a few comments based on the notes I did take will serve to give some sense of what these wines are like. I had the 2009 Cantina Litàn Casata dei Beghee Cinque Terre (from Riomaggiore), with an intriguing smoky, bacon fat scent. It was bone dry, but richly flavored and very long on the finish. I had the 2008 Luciano Capellini Cinque Terre (from Volastra), which was interesting for its lemon rind scent and extremely dry, slightly bitter character--but again tempered by an intense richness. All the wines were remarkable for seeming very rich and lush yet extremely dry at the same time. This was a more alcoholic, headier wine. The 2008 Agricola Campogrande Cinque Terre smelled of honey, anise, and watermelon. It was similarly intense, yet dry. The 2008 Walter de Batté Cinque Terre was one of those wines that just keeps on going on the palate, lingering a minute or more. Perfumed, rich, giving the impression of sweetness and opulence without being sweet at all. It had a deep, brandy-like color. All the wines were the tawny hue of an old white wine, but they were fresh and crisp, despite the concentration of their flavors. Excellent. What a shame they are so hard to come by!

*More recently searching WineSearcher I see that some of these wines are, in fact, available. They are worth trying.

On the road (Europe 2010): The truth about the Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are usually described as isolated fishing villages on the Italian Riviera, clinging to steep cliffs and left behind by time. That's a half-truth. They are isolated. The villages (from south to north, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) do cling precariously to steep cliffs. It's as natural to park a boat in the street here as it is to park a car--more natural, actually. But time has not stopped. The underground walkways that link the train stations of the five villages are dark, dirty, covered with graffiti, and smell of urine, like the worst of such subterranean walkways in Tokyo. The streets are crowded with tourists. At night, some of the café and bar terraces are noisy with people that have had too much to drink. There is a surprising amount of litter. The waste of the towns is collected from large, unsightly plastic dumpsters in the narrow alleys that smell of garbage. The architecture of the buildings is undistinguished--mostly plain, brightly colored plaster facades. The quaintness of the steep narrow stairways that link the streets quickly fades. The steep passages become tiring and tiresome. Finally, if you want to walk the paths that connect the five main towns, you have to pay a €5 fee (although I have some sympathy here; this is technically a fee to enter the Cinque Terre National Park. €5 gives you all-day access to the trails).

Having said that, the setting is undeniably dramatic. The cliffs plunge straight into the sea. I went swimming in the harbor at Manarola, one of the five main towns, where it's possible to dive directly into the ocean from rocks a few yards from dry land. Five feet out, the water is 50 feet deep. Fishermen still tend their boats and nets in the streets. The vineyards are beautiful. They are on terraced slopes--certainly among the steepest man has ever tamed to nurture grapes on--, the dry white wines are wonderful (see next post), and good seafood is abundant, fresh from the fishing boats. The Cingue Terre are both beautiful and ugly. The place is certainly worth a visit, but don't expect to walk back into time.

On the Road (Europe 2010): Pisa

From Florence, heading back to France, Pisa is a natural stop. Given the fame of the place and the throng of tourists around it, parking was surprisingly easy and inexpensive. There is a good parking lot walking distance from the tower, the cathedral, and baptistery that costs only €0.60 an hour. Food is another matter. Avoid the obvious places near the tower.

Yes, the tower really leans--a lot. But I was expecting that. What impressed me more was the dazzlingly white marble of the tower, the cathedral, and the baptistery. Both the tower and church have inscriptions and carvings at random positions. Some of the inscriptions set into the church walls are incomplete and upside down. Clearly stones were recycled from other buildings--evidently by illiterate craftsman. A good example is a pair of stones near the bottom of the tower with a bear, dragon, and ram (pictured). The effect is rather charming. The bright marble contrasts sharply with the broad green lawns that surround the buildings.

The tower is not unique either for leaning or for being round (although round bell towers appear to be rare), but it certainly is unique for the degree of its lean. The spiral staircase leading up the tower is surprisingly wide, and the steps are of generous size. It would be an easy climb if not for the effects of the inclination. As there are no windows, there is no horizon to use as a reference. The result is a sort of pulsation of gravity. Walking into the lean, there is an impression of lightness. You get the feeling of crossing a flat surface or even descending as you the walk up the stairs all the while feeling not quite upright--which is disorienting. Gradually the height and inclination of the stairs seems to grow as you begin to walk against the lean--as if someone has "turned up" gravity. The effect repeats as you go around and around the building. From the top is a panoramic view of the cathedral, baptistery, adjoining cemetery, and the countryside beyond. Pisa today is about 8 miles from the sea. In its heyday it was nearer the coast. The river Arno has deposited much silt at its mouth over the centuries.

The cathedral deserves more attention than it gets. It gives an impression of both richness and restraint. I didn't realize how old the building is. It was begun in 1063, before the Battle of Hastings, and fully a century before the start of construction on the campanile--the famous leaning tower (begun in 1173), making the church nearly 1,000 years old. Something about the place immediately put me in mind of buildings I've seen in southern Spain and in Istanbul. There is something vaguely Islamic about the numerous columns, the use of alternating bands of white and colored marble in the interior, and in the heavy use of abstract inlays. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, given Pisa's history as a maritime republic.

The architectural highlight of the interior is usually said to be the elaborately carved stone pulpit (1302-1310), the work of Giovanni Pisano, son of Nicola Pisano, creator of the earlier pulpit in the baptistery (1260, also considered a masterpiece of medieval carving). Both are remarkably animated considering how early they are. Columns are supported by lions that have just downed prey. Some of the panels showing scenes from the bible, crowded with many figures, have a riotous look not typical of Romanesque statuary, which is usually very plain, solid, and stable-looking. My photo here shows a figure on one of the supporting columns from the pulpit in the cathedral that anticipates renaissance sculpture. There is also a 13th century mosaic in the apse that recalls some of those at St. Mark's, in Venice, and reminded me also of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul.

The ceiling is covered with richly carved and guilded (in some areas polychromed) panels of wood. All in all, a beautiful building. Gallileo is said to have been inspired to think about the physics of the pendulum by observing the motion of the large hanging lantern here, but that story requires an anachronism. Gallileo does appear to have used the neighboring tower to do experiments on gravity and acceleration. There is a stone tablet to that effect set into the wall near the exit of the tower.

The Baptistery is a round building and the largest baptistery in Italy. It's impressively spacious, but notably bland inside--with very little decoration and a completely plain dome (although a guard told me that at least part of the interior of the dome was once painted sky blue). The building dates to 1152, when construction began to replace an older baptistery on the site. A plaque somewhere noted that the remains of an even older one were found in 1936 under one of the big lawns.

The outside, however, is comparatively ornate. Gothic features were added to the original Romanesque design in the 13th and 14th century. One half of the dome is covered with what look like terra cotta tiles. The other half is plain, giving the dome a somewhat unfinished look. I could find no information about this, but one guard speculated that it was done to protect the building from salty sea air, which is plausible; the baptistery is the building closest to the sea, the tiles are on the seaward side, and the sea at the time was many miles closer. The acoustics of the very big space are notable. Once every 30 minutes a guard walks into the center of the building and sings a few notes to demonstrate the echo and sustain. The design of the building is attributed to Diotisalvi. His name and the date 1153 (corresponding to 1152 by today's reckoning) are inscribed on a pillar, but I learned that after leaving the place. The large round interior columns are made of stone from Sardinia and Elba.

In 1257 a hospital and in 1277 the cemetery (the Camposanto) that complete the complex as we know it today were added. Today the hospital houses the Museo delle Sinopie, which preserves detached and restored sinopie (preparatory drawings) from the frescoes of the Camposanto. Gravestones from all around the cathedral complex were moved to the cemetery. The cemetery was built as a cloister with a central lawn. The gothic accents in the archways around the cloister were added in the 14th century. Long ago roman and other classical sculpture and sarcophagi were brought here for display. Many of these are still in place along the walls. Hundreds of carved tombstones are set into the pavement, including stones honoring people buried as recently as a few years ago, but most are very old. I particularly liked one with an image of scissors and clippers--perhaps the grave of a metalworker? The date in Roman numerals looks like 1377.

Also eye-catching was a more modern tomb topped by an incongruously comely lass. A little searching on the Internet turned up a few facts. This is the tomb of Ottaviano-Fabrizio Mossotti, who died in 1863. He was an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist. He chose exile in the early 1820s following the political disturbances at around that time. He moved to Argentina (after periods in Switzerland and London), where he taught astronomy and physics. He was the Chair of Experimental Physics in Buenos Aires between 1827 and 1835. He eventually returned to Italy. In 1841, he took the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Pisa University and later took on responsibility for teaching celestial mechanics and geodesy there. He eventually became a senator, in1861, two years before his death, in Pisa. As for the comely lass, notice that she is leaning on a stack of thick books. Call her a personification of science, and her presence here makes more sense.

On the road (Europe 2010): Florence (continued)

Having been out of touch with the Internet the past few days, I've been unable to update things. A little catching up is in order. First, more about Florence.

Spent two days in Florence visiting some familiar sites and going to a few new ones as well. Saw the Uffizzi again. Buying an advance ticket costs an extra €4, but it was well worth it to avoid the lines. Even so, it was crowded--and hot. I have never visited Florence in the heat of summer before. I was surprised to see how poorly the museum is ventilated. It was as hot in some of the galleries as it was outside. Still, it was good to see the place again. I enjoyed seeing the Botticellis, but also the wonderful Hugo van der Goes Portinari Triptych in the large Botticelli room that houses Venus and Primavera. To me, it's just as good as the Botticellis, but most people turn their backs to it, adoring Venus. There are several wonderful Bronzino portraits, and so much more--but no one needs me to catalog the wonders of the Uffizzi....

Took a quick look at Orsanmichelle. It's an interesting building, even knowing that the distinctive collection of sculptures in niches all around its exterior consists entirely of copies. The originals are in the Orsanmichele museum and a couple of other museums around the city. The building was originally a grain warehouse and market. It was turned into a church around the end of the 14th century. It became the chapel of Florence's trade and craft guilds. The statues on the facade were commissioned by the guilds, which competed with each other to impress. It has a very ornate tabernacle with a madonna and child by Bernardo Daddi, dating to around 1346. The ceiling is heavily decorated as well. You can still see large iron rings set into the ceiling that once were used to support ropes for moving heavy bags of grain (look closely at my photo here; the left-hand figure painted on the ceiling has one of these approximately at her belly button).

Saw some of the Church of San Lorenzo and its appendages. Because of the timing of closings (and more restoration work), I missed seeing the connected Laurentian Library, with its idiosyncratic staircase. I really don't understand why these places--visited by millions annually from all over the world--should close at all. The administrators charge an arm and a leg to let you see them. Surely the funds are available to pay staff to keep things going for a full day, rather than closing at odd hours like 11:30.

The Medici tombs in the Cappella dei Principi were half covered by scaffolding, but the huge space decorated in pietra dura (elaborately cut and fitted stone) was dazzling nevertheless. I'd forgotten how big and imposing the place is. The visitor does not leave without knowing very clearly how powerful and wealthy the Medici family was.

The New Sacristy (also connected to San Lorenzo) is interesting for what is and isn't in it. It was left unfinished when Michelangelo left Florence for Rome in 1534. I wonder why they never got someone else to finish at least the architectural elements, if not the sculptures? There are places on the blank walls that have been partitioned in pencil in preparation for installation of pilasters and other decoration that never materialized. Michelangelo's famous tomb sculptures--Day and Night and Dawn and Dusk are here. As is often pointed out, the figures are beautifully carved, but design is emphasized at the expense of anatomical and architectural sense--Day, the male figure to the right  in the photo, has impossibly small feet  (his face was left unfinished as well) and the pilasters on either side of the central figure support nothing. This is the tomb of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Opposite (adorned with Dawn and Dusk) is the tomb of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, Grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent. From Florence, we began the long drive west, back to France, stopping off at Pisa, the Cinque Terre, Barbaresco and Barolo in the Piemonte wine country, and then made a final mad dash back to Pouzolles on the freeways through Monaco, Nice, Marseilles, Nîmes, and Montpellier (seeing none of these latter).
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