Our cooking schedule for the week is Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. At first I thought it was ridiculous to randomly have Wednesdays off —- why not give us the long weekend to travel? I now realize the wisdom of the school's schedule: after two days of intense cooking and heavy eating, a day off is actually a welcome respite that I think will help me enjoy Thursday and Friday's classes even more.

And what better way to take a break from food than by wine tasting? It's a rough life I'm leading here. The first stop for me was Montalcino, home of the famous Brunello wine and its more modest sister, Rosso di Montalcino.

Montalcino is a beautiful small town set in the clouds overlooking the rolling hills of some of the most fertile wine-growing land in Tuscany.

View from Montalcino: clouds rolling in over the Tuscan landscape

With the quiet of the cobblestone streets punctuated only by birds chirping, the town exuded calm. The architecture hasn't changed in hundreds of years and small piazzas and narrow streets host wood-paneled wine shops and rustic enotecas.

Strolling through idyllic Montalcino

One of many bell towers in the town

Portico off of the town square

The famous Brunello di Montalcino

After working up an appetite climbing up the hills of the town, I stopped at Osteria Osticcio, which had been recommended by a local. At first the architecture seemed traditional – wood beams supporting the brick ceiling and dark wood shelves groaning under the weight of countless wine bottles – but once you walk down the stairs the whole restaurant is bathed in sunlight from floor to ceiling picture windows that open up a 180 degree view of the countryside. It was breathtaking.

Traditional interior of the restaurant

Amazing view from my table

Enjoying the view from the balcony

I started with a plate of parmesan cheese, pears, grapes and walnuts, artfully presented with grape leaves on the plate.

Simple ingredients, beautifully presented

I ordered spaghetti alla carbonara for my main meal, a dish so decadent I could only handle it on a non-cooking day. Tastefully presented and delicious, it was rich without being overwhelming.

Rich and delicious: spaghetti alla carbonara

Alongside the meal I did a tasting of three different Brunellos. I just finished taking an “Intro to Wine” class at UCLA extension and learned a ton, so I found it particularly interesting and enjoyable to taste the wines and try to understand their differences. The first was made in the traditional style, which means aged in big tanks rather than small oak barrels in order to preserve a focus on the flavors of the fruit. The second was made in the modern style, meaning aged in French oak barrels which impart flavor to the wine – in this case some black pepper and vanilla. By law, Brunellos have to be aged for two years in tanks / barrels and another two years in the bottle before they can be released to the market. My tasting was of 2007 wines, the newest ones on the market and apparently a particularly good vintage.

After lunch I headed to a vineyard a few kilometers from the town called Siro Pacenti. My wine teacher from UCLA, who is Italian, had given me the email address of the foreign distributor of the vineyard, and she happened to be in town and was kind enough to be willing to give me a private tour of the vineyard.

The vineyard and surrounding landscape were beautiful and the facilities tasteful and sophisticated. I learned that the owner and winemaker Giancarlo Pacenti uses a modern approach to creating wines that taste traditional. In his case, that means using conical steel tanks for fermentation then aging in French oak. He blends grapes from two different plots of land that he owns, one on the north side of the Montalcino area, which has a moderate temperature and produces subtle and complex flavors, and the other on the south side of the area, which has more extreme temperatures and produces wine that is bolder and more intense. The wines were incredibly smooth and complex (which I learned in my class means that you can discern multiple scents when analyzing the wine) and the flavor was very much that of the grapes rather than the barrel. I had a chance to try a Rosso (which is aged for a year in the barrel and then a year in the model) as well as a Brunello and they were both some of the best wines I've tasted (and better than the ones I had tried at lunch!)

In further proof that the world is a very small place, I had actually been sitting at the table next to the winemaker at lunch and the restaurant owner had introduced me to him when I mentioned that the vineyard was my next stop. Overall, it was an incredibly beautiful and memorable day, and it was so nice to have had the personal connection to really be able to understand more about wine making in the region.

View of the fermentation room and vineyards

Tasting the wonderful Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino

View from the winery

Additional information:
Osteria Osticcio
Via MAtteotti, 23
53024 Montalcino (SI)


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