March 1st and March 13, 2010...those are the dates when I will write, perform and orally discuss wine with a panel of Italian Sommeliers, who will judge whether or not I get to enter their club. They will decide if I am worthy of that shiny bling..the tastevin on a chain. Though I am an Italian citizen, I am greatly disadvantaged in comparison to my classmates as they have lived here all their lives and have been weened on Italian wine and food. I, on the other hand, having lived in Canada for over 40 years, where I thought I was Italian , realized only upon moving here, that I was not quite as Italian as I thought. Now, I have to try to convince a panel of Italian sommeliers, using my foreigner's Italian, that I am worthy to serve, talk about, judge Italian wine, and perform the most difficult task of all, pair it with Italian dishes and specialties. I'm not sure that you realize the grandiose task that I have set for myself here: first of all, this will not only demand a level of Italian that will require me to describe the wine beyond "bianco" and "rosso", but also a knowledge of the geography and the terrain of Italy, a knowledge of the hundreds of different grapes used and where they belong on that map of Italy, but the most daunting for me, is the knowledge of Italian specialty foods, what their made of and where, once again, they belong in that Italian geography. Because if you have ever travelled to Italy, and have had a conversation with any Italian about food, they can tell you what the local specialties are, how they're made, where you can buy them and where you shouldn't buy them, because to them, one is real, and one is not, even if they're both made the same way with the only exception being that one is made outside of the zone. Then, I'm afraid it's not to be trusted. No matter how hard I may try to make a particular dish authentic-tasting, it will never happen; it never can, because, well, I guess, I'm just not authentic. There seems to be more to it than following the recipe.
Yes...I've taken this task on, and I am trying to make sense of it all...making charts, making notes, memorizing, tasting, and I have finally come to the conclusion that I need a tutor. But who could I find who will be understanding enough to know what I need to know. Who would care enough to help a foreigner learn about his sacred trade. Who would be strict enough with me to make me seem polished, and help me shine come exam time. I think I found that and more in Angelo Di Costanzo, Sommelier and winner of the Sommelier awards for the Campania region and co-owner, with his wife Lilli of L'Arcante Enoteca in Pozzuoli. I had heard about Angelo for the past year from an American friend of mine who settles for nothing but the best in wine and food. Angelo has a healthy clientelle of Italians and foreigners in his store and in his work as sommelier, so he was not put off by working with a foreigner.
Angelo knew just where to start...the presentation and the opening of the bottle with finesse and confidence. The bottle is presented to the left of the diner, while the sommelier denotes the name, the winery and the year. Then the bottle is brought back to the sommelier's table where the show begins: the removal of the capsule which is placed in a plate, then the careful removal of the cork without making a "pop" sound and without of course placing the bottle between your knees! The sommelier smells the cork, removes it from the opener with a white cloth , smells it for the mouldy corked smell, then places it on a separate plate to bring to the diner's table later on. If it is an older bottle of wine that needs to be decanted, the sommelier pours a small amount into his glass and smells it to make sure once again that it is not corked. He then pours that small bit of wine in the decanter to season it and get it ready to receive the wine. However, during today's lesson, there was no decanting. The sommelier first tastes the wine, then approaches the table this time on the diner's right. With a definitive hold on the bottom of the bottle in your right hand, and your left hand holding a napkin held behind your back, a small amount is poured; quick turn of the spout, napkin from left hand is ready to catch the drip before removing the bottle. Then step back to allow the diner to taste the wine. If all is good, then the ladies are served eldest first, and then the men, and finally, the person who ordered the wine.
It was like watching a ballet, and this is why I want to be a sommelier. Not only do I find it gratifying to be able to share my knowledge which is something that I have always done as a teacher, but I get to perform this show which must be done with confidence, finesse and humility.
My next test with Angelo was a blind taste test of two wines which he brought to the table covered in foil. The first wine was a deep red pomegranate-coloured wine, with legs that suggest a wine with body. The nose immediately offered ripe, red berries "sotto spirito", though initally I said jammy fruit, it later revealed a liquoricy note and finally a little damp earth smell. It was dry, and beautifully smooth, and warm. It was more spicy than acidic though it remained fresh and young.
The second wine was not as young looking in the glass--it was that same pomegranate colour, but with some orange tones. It revealed itself to be more complex in the glass, richer, and more austere. It offered up a bouquet of spice, fruit, nuts, toast. The spicyness followed through to the taste, with the tannins, the mineral, acidity taking a slight precedence over the smoothness of the wine, but not enough to be overpowering.
The bottles were undressed of their wrapping and while I thought they were so very different they turned out to both be made from Sangiovese grapes and both were from Toscana, another deft lesson from Angelo. The first wine was a Morellino di Scansano 2006, Fattoria Le Puppelle 70% Sangiovese with Alicante and Malvasia Nera, and the second was a 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico, unlike other Chianti's I have tasted, this one was refined and elegant. Both wines were 2006.
I like to think of my wine education as my "vinification" the process of making me knowledgeable about wine. But now under the tutelage of Angelo Di Costanzo, I hope to pull off the the refining stage of my three-year preparation to becoming a sommelier...this is the aging in oak, the final touches that season me to be able to dance like a sommelier.
Here is a link to Angelo's blog and a facebook link for any of you who speak Italian: