Friday, July 29, 2016

Italian Immersion at Vine Brook Tavern

This month I'm taking you to a restaurant where I experienced a wonderful custom Italian food and wine pairing of multiple courses compliments of Tambone Associates and Vine Brook Tavern. Vine Brook Tavern is a hidden gem in the downtown area of Lexington center. It’s an American tavern owned and operated by Marcus Palmer and Brian Lesser with fantastic food prepared by Chef Chris Frothingham. Between the three of them there are over 20+ years of experience within the restaurant business including their previous experience at a number of fine dining establishments and it shows in what the Vine Brook Tavern has to offer.
Marcus Palmer owner of Vine Brook Tavern
Myself on left & Marcus Palmer on right
I was honored to be invited to attend a wine and food pairing dinner at this restaurant hosted by Marcus himself. A very warm and personable host whom offered a tour of the establishment prior to the commencement of the pairings. After experiencing that night it’s a shame that a restaurant like this is tucked away due to its caliber and quality of food that is served at there, but that’s why I’m sharing it with you today so you can all enjoy in the culinary pleasures of this hidden gem.

You can find Vine Brook Tavern nestled on one of the side streets of downtown Lexington, on Waltham Street, in a historical building itself that is the second oldest post office in town. The facade is nothing eye catching on the outside, but once you enter it's character is portrayed throughout the building with each of its four dining rooms and two bars displaying their own personality and charm with plenty of seating. Completed in a wooden architecture with a farmhouse feel and even painted in a “post office blue”, there is more being offered here than just the ambiance. The quality food and wine offered makes this stand out well above your average tavern.
Vine Brook Tavern Lexington, MA
Marcus and his waitstaff were very attentive throughout the meal and the presentation of the food and wine with a brief description of both was a great introduction to such an enjoyable dinner. Below was the mouth-watering dishes and wine pairings that I had the opportunity to experience.

First Course
Wine Pairing: Pieropan Soave Classico (Veneto region)
Food Pairing: Burata with sliced tomato, bruschetta and an aged balsamic vinegar
Bruschetto with Burata and aged balsamic vinegard
Second Course
Wine Pairing: Pio Cesare Cortese di Gavi (Piedmont region)
Food Pairing: Halibut served in a broth with hominy, sausage, kale and corn
Halibut with hominy, sausage, kale and corn
Third Course
Wine Pairing: Santo Stefano Barbera d'Alba (Piedmont region)
Food Pairing: Tortelli stuffed with braised short rib
Tortelli with braised short rib
Fourth Course
Wine Pairing: Allegrini Palazzo della Torre (Veneto region)
Food Pairing: Tenderloin in a brown butter sauce over sweet potatoes
Tenderloin in brown butter sauce
Even though the food at the Vine Brook Tavern is not considered an “Italian restaurant” per se and is more focused on American cuisine, you will find unique items on their menu that are Italian based such as braised rib with marscapone tortelli, tagliatelle bolognese and other menu items with an Italian flair. Plus, they can custom design a wine and food pairing meal such as what I experienced, if arrangements are made in advance. Personally I am looking forward to do this again with my whole family. Vine Brook Tavern will tailor it to whatever you are looking for whether it is Italian food and wine or not.

I found the wine menu to be reasonably priced and I appreciated their Italian wine selections than some of the typical low priced market wines that don't leave much satisfaction to the palate at other restaurants. Of course everyone wants a reasonably priced wine, but it is always a shame when you experience good food and the wine menu doesn't leave much to make an overall satisfying experience. All the Italian wines I enjoyed throughout my meal that night are also wines I know to be very accessible in the Boston wine market so you should be able to seek them out in your favorite wine shops if you enjoy them during your dining experience. Plus, the menu and wine list are changed seasonally leaving you wanting to go back for more. I even noticed on their promotions/specials board that they have monthly wine classes as well and it allows a different learning environment in a restaurant setting with folks that know the food and wine business very well, especially in offering their knowledge of pairings.

Marcus and his team's endeavors have obviously paid off and allowed his journey to bring him to open another restaurant in Littleton, MA called the Great Road Kitchen. Marcus was telling us that this restaurant will have a seafood flair and should be open soon if it's not open by the time this issue is published. In the meantime I hope you get an opportunity to experience the fine cuisine and wines that are offered at the Vine Brook Tavern. Cin cin!

You can find my monthly column, Italy Uncorked, in the Bostoniano magazine, Boston's Italian American voice where you'll find this and many other articles.  We appreciate your subscription and support. 


Friday, July 22, 2016

The Winemaking Challenges of the Cinque Terre

Right where the eastern coast of Liguria meets Tuscany is the beautiful, rugged coastline of the Cinque Terre along the Italian Riviera. Dotting the Ligurian Sea, the Cinque Terre is comprised of 5 seaside towns set along the cliffside: Manarola, Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Monterosso al Mare and Corniglia.  In total they make up another UNESCO World Heritage Site of Italy and National Park.

Many flock to this area for the famous walks/hikes between towns ranging from easy to more difficult as you progress.  Some go for some rest and relaxation within the towns themselves watching the local fisherman at work under the Mediterranean sun along the pebbled beaches and crystal blue waters. 
Wineries in the Cinque Terre
Terraced vineyards of the Cinque Terre by An Mai
Potential damage and future of the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre over time has suffered from landslides and erosion and the terraced structures somewhat help save the structure of the land from further damage.  Tourists are playing a role also in the damage to this area.  According to the Smithsonian Magazine, in 2015 2.5 million tourists visited the Cinque Terre, which is a tremendous amount for not such a large area.  In upcoming years the Italian government plans to limit the amount of visitors to around 1.5 million by having visitors purchase tickets to visit the area.  I'm all for preserving a piece of our earth whether it's land, animals, etc. so if this will help the area recover, so be it!   

What's unique about the Cinque Terre?
What some may not think of when they think of the Cinque Terre are the unique wines themselves and what makes this area so special for wine production. You actually have the opportunity to stroll through some of these vineyards as you make the journey from one village to the next.

By supporting the winemakers of this region and drinking the wines of the Cinque Terre you're doing good not by your own personal gratification of the wonderful wines produced here, but also you are contributing to support a piece of history from the years of winemaking in this area and protection of the land and National Park.

Winemaking challenges in the Cinque Terre
The challenge to winemaking in this area of the Ligurian region is the makeup of the landscapes. Known for it's steep, terraced walls, this is what provides the greatest challenge to wineries as the grapes need to be handled manually. When it's time to harvest a monorail system helps haul the basket of grapes from the vineyards down the steep terraces to be loaded onto trucks and then hauled off to the production facilities.
grape harvesting in the cinque terre
Grape harvesting by Christine Und Hagen Graf
What wines are produced in the Cinque Terre
White grapes such as bosco, vermentino and albarola are the main varieties here. These grapes produce still wines, but also a special dessert wine of the area known schiacchetra, pronounced shak-eh-tra. This is a wine where the grapes are dried out on mats and shriveled more like raisins resulting in wines that have more concentration and are full-bodied with flavors of honey and dried fruits. 

The white wines of this area are a perfect accompaniment to the fresh seafood pulled right out of the Ligurian Sea or maybe even the specialty, pesto alla genovese, over pasta of which this area is known for.  Plus lots more Ligurian recipes can be found from our Italian Food, Wine & Travel's group when we featured Liguria.
Why don't we see this wine in the United States and around the world? It's mainly because much of the work in the vineyards are conducted by an older population and production is small and limited as well as a small amount of wineries. So it's so important if you visit this area or have an opportunity to try not only the schiacchetra, but any of the wines of the Cinque Terre, that you partake in a piece of history within your glass.


Friday, July 15, 2016

A Taste of Dolcetto in Liguria with Ormeasco di Pornassio

As we all soak up the summer rays we can also dream of doing the same on the Italian Riveria. If you're not familiar with where exactly the Italian Riviera is, it's actually located in the region of Liguria in the top northwestern part of Italy, right before you cross into the French Riviera, la Costa d'Azzurro. You'll find it located in the Imperia province in the Arroscia Valley on the slopes where it gets influences from the Ligurian Alps and the Gulf of Genova.

Oneglia in the province of Imperia
Oneglia in the Imperia province by Giancarlo Scola

The Red Wines of Liguria
Of course many of us think of sipping on something chilled and cold in the midst of the heat, but this region also has some red grapes that it's known for, one being rossese from the Rossese di Dolceacqua DOC and the other red grape we're talking about today, ormeasco, from the Ormeasco di Pornassio DOC. Previously, the ormeasco wines fell under the Riviera di Ponente DOC since it comes from the western part of Liguria in the Ponente. The Ormeasco di Pornassio DOC includes the red Ormeasco as well as Ormeasco Superiore and the rose' Sciac-tra.

What is Ormeasco?
Ormeasco is the brother/sister grape of dolcetto that you may be more familiar with just north of Liguria in the region of Piedmont. It's believed it was brought over to Liguria by the Saracens. But why would I want to drink a red in the hot sun? Well ormeasco is used also to produce a rose' called sciac-tra. In previous articles speaking of wines and grapes from Liguria you may have remembered me sharing a wine from this region known as sciacchetra, but it's not the same wine as you can see from the spelling.

Ramoino Ormeasco di Pornassio
Courtesy of 365 Magazine & AIS Liguria

The Sciac-tra rose typically will show bright fruit of cherries and raspberries and is best served slightly chilled. So grab a glass, kick your feet up and cin cin to ormeasco!


Friday, July 8, 2016

The difference between Frizzante and Spumante

Last week I discussed the difference between two of the popular methods for producing Italian sparkling wines, the charmat method and the metodo classico. This week I wanted to share some of the classifications when it comes to sparkling wines of Italy, sprumante and frizzante.

Differences between Frizzante and Spumante
So what's the difference between spumante and frizzante sparkling wines of Italy? In simplest terms the biggest difference between them are the levels of efferescense or bubbles produced in each bottle. Technically speaking, spumante wines are fully sparkling wines over 3 bars of pressure where frizzante wines are semi-sparkling wines between 1-2.5 bars of pressure.

Often you'll find prosecco as a popular type of frizzante wine produced in the Veneto region. Prosecco is produced from the glera grape, but beware of some of the cheaper versions of prosecco. Some of the best expressions of Prosecco hail from the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. You'll also find other frizzante wines in Piedmont including Moscato d'Asti, Brachetto d'Acqui, Lambrusco and pignoletto of the Emilia Romagna region.
Frizzante vs spumante
Photo by Fabio Bruna
Of course one of the most popular types of spumante wines known on the market is Asti Spumante, but when we talk about quality there are those of the Trento DOC of the Trentino-Alto Adige and Franciacorta of Lombardy.
I've never been one to choose a sparkling wine unless I'm at a tasting and it's offered I'll always give everything a shot. For me personally, I'm not one for effervescence and I believe that's the reason why, but when I sample a high quality sparkling wine with beautifully soft, integrated bubbles with the other elements of the wine, it provides a harmonious sparkling experience. What are your favorite sparkling wines?


Saturday, July 2, 2016

There are Red and White, but Orange Wines Too?

We have officially circled all 20 regions of Italy and are back for our 2nd tour around with a little twist.  Our Italian Food, Wine & Travel group this month discovers the orange wines of Italy as well as some food and/or travel to some orange wine regions like Sicily and Friuli.  A big thank you to Jeff of Food Wine Click for organizing this month while I await the arrival of my little one within the next few days. 

We all have our favorites whether we enjoy red, white or pink wine, but what about orange wine? Does it exist? Absolutely, and it doesn't mean a wine has gone bad. You'll find orange wines, or skin-fermented wines, in some of our favorite wine regions of Italy.

So exactly what is an orange wine?

Just as rose' wines are made from the juice being in contact with the skins for a short maceration time, the same goes with orange wines. They are basically white wines where the juice is left in contact with the skins and seeds for a certain period of time. It's a very natural process. Usually these wines have a distinct taste from the oxidation that they go through. The intensity of the result depends on how long the winemaker chooses to leave the juice in contact with the skins and seeds which affects the extraction of color, bitterness, tannins, etc.

How an orange wine is made
During fermentation @ Radikon

What do orange wines taste like?

These wines will typically have a rustic nature with nuttiness, honeyed notes, some sourness and are dry, full bodied wines. Some people love them or hate them. As with all wine it's just a matter of personal preference and that's ok, but it's all about putting yourself out there and trying new things.

What is an orange wine?

Where are orange wines produced?

The first winemaker to undertake this orange winemaking experiment was Josko Gravner back in 1997. In Italy orange wines are most commonly found in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region primarily made from the ribolla giallo grape.  A couple popular producers in Friuli are Gravner and Radikon.  In Sicily you'll find Azienda Agricola Cos making orange wines with the grecanico grape. You will also find some versions of orange wines in the Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Umbria and others. They're are also produced in other countries outside of Italy like Slovenia and Georgia.

Let me know if you've had the opportunity to try orange wines. I'm curious what your thoughts were and if you liked them.

Preview of What's to Come Join us this Saturday, July 2 at 11am EST on Twitter at ‪#‎ItalianFWT‬ to chat about skin-fermented white wines from Italy. Here is a preview of what's to come from our Italian blogging group: 

  • David at Cooking Chat shares “Bressan Pinot Grigio: Tasting an Orange Wine
  • Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog shares “Caspri Luna Blu and Grilled Moroccan Chicken
  • Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Piattino di Polpo e Patate with Skerk’s Malvasia
  • Mike at Undiscovered Italy shares “Gray Matters
  • Jill at L’Occasion shares “What Your Madre Never Told You About Orange Wine
  • Christy at Confessions of a Culinary Diva shares “The Aperitivo Hour with Orange Wine & Walnut Pesto
  • Michelle at Rockin Red Blog shares “What Color is Your Wine? Mine May Be Orange
  • Li at The Wining Hour shares “The Road to Orange Wine in Umbria
  • Jeff at FoodWineClick shares “Orange Duck, Orange Wine"

    Next month on Saturday August 5th, hosted by The Wining Hour, we'll discover the rose' wines of Italy as well as food and travel to Tuscany or Puglia.  If you'd like to be part of our group please reach out to me, vinotravels at!

    All pictures compliments of Radikon, a popular producer of orange wines.