Travels & Traditions: A Tuscan Harvest, Italy - #708

BURT WOLF: About 3,000 years ago a people known as the Etruscans migrated from Eastern Europe to central Italy and set up a federation of 12 city states.

Today, their old neighborhood is known as Tuscany, and its cities are some of the most famous in Italy. Florence, Pisa and Siena are Tuscan cities.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Etruscans had a highly developed society. Great art and architecture. They also had a strong fleet that traded with the Syrians and the Greeks. They traded in Africa and in Spain. Etruscan tin and copper went out; ivory, precious jewels and textiles came in. But by the beginning of the third century the Roman legions had become so strong that they were able to crush the Etruscans and eventually incorporated all of Etruscan society into the Roman Empire.

BURT WOLF: However, the great cultural traditions of the Etruscans remained in place. It was the citizens of Tuscany who triggered the rebirth of art and architecture that we call the Renaissance. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael---everybody who was anybody in the Renaissance was working in Tuscany. Tuscany is still home to artists and writers who find inspiration in the magnificent landscape and the unusual light.

During the 9th century, the Tuscan hill town of Siena became a major stopping point on the road between Paris and Rome. By the beginning of the 12th century it was a bustling city, producing some of the best wool in Italy, developing a clothing industry and exploiting a small silver mine.

By the end of the 12th century Siena was a commercial and financial center and her growing economic success began to challenge the city of Florence which was only 30 miles to the north. An emotional competition developed between the two cities which eventually led to the Battle of Montaperti in 1260.

Siena won the battle and entered a period of extraordinary power---power which rested in the hands of a small group of influential families. One way the families showed their new-found wealth and influence was the construction of magnificent fortified palaces.

The city’s location on the road to Rome gave it a commercial advantage but it also made it a resting place for pilgrims. If you were on your way to the Vatican from virtually any part of Europe you made a stop in Siena.

The city began building a series of outstanding churches, towers and public squares. And since most of the modern construction has taken place outside the old city, Siena’s character remains relatively unspoiled. Narrow winding streets and ancient buildings give Siena a distinct medieval feeling.

During the past 3,000 years dozens of different ethnic groups have immigrated to the peninsula that is presently called Italy.

And each immigration made a contribution to the cooking of the land but there were three groups that set the foundation which eventually became what we now call Italian cooking.

The three groups were the Greeks, the Saracens, and the Etruscans. The Greeks arrived over 2,000 years ago and set the base for all southern cooking. The Saracens popped in around 700 A.D. and superimposed a whole bunch of ideas on top of the Greek base. The Greeks and the Saracens were the primary influences on the cooking of the south. The north was controlled by the Etruscans and the center of the area which they controlled eventually became known as Tuscany.

When it comes to food, Siena has all of the traditional dishes of Tuscany, but its greatest strength is in its sweets. The Saracens brought sugar to Italy and about ten minutes later, Siena had a sweet tooth.

Its most famous sweet is Panforte, which means “strong bread.” Panforte is a medieval spiced bread made from candied orange peel, lemons, almonds, hazelnuts, sugar and honey. It is made by a number of bakeries in Siena and shipped to Italian communities throughout the world. Perhaps the most famous baker of panforte is Nannini, who also has a number of retail shops throughout the town. Wherever there is an Italian community, there is Panforte. And right next to the Panforte are Ricciarelli, little cookies that are made from almonds, egg whites and sugar.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Starting in the year 1000, Europe saw an enormous increase in its population. And people started moving into the cities. The hot towns were Milan, Venice and Florence. And as more and more people moved into the cities the merchants became wealthier and wealthier. Suddenly there was a large group of people interested in buying good stuff and at the top of their shopping list was wine.

BURT WOLF: By the early 1300's each resident of Florence was on average knocking off a gallon of wine per week with much of that wine coming from the nearby vineyards in Tuscany and the word Chianti was already being used to describe the land between Florence and Siena.

For most of its history Italy was made up of small independent states. Each had its own approach to business with separate currencies, weights and measures. That, plus a mind boggling system of import and export duties made it impossible for Italy to develop an international or even a national market for its wines. And the quality of the wine remained uneven at best.

But during the middle of the 19th century things began to change. The city states became a single nation. Well, at least in theory. The wine producers of Tuscany introduced quality standards and soon developed an international reputation.

Michael Yurch is the president of Sherry-Lehmann in New York City. It’s considered to be one of the world’s great wine stores. He’s also a leading authority on the wines of Italy. I asked Michael to come with me to Tuscany and share his expertise.

MICHAEL YURCH ON CAMERA: Government regulations on wine are both good and bad. It’s a good thing that it guarantees what the wine is made out of. It guarantees where it’s from. How it’s made. And sometimes regulations are bad because I mean if you can imagine a government regulation if you equate wine making with art, if you can imagine a law that told the painter what color to paint with, that’s sort of what we have here in making wine.

This is why 20 or so years ago, some wine makers just totally broke with the government regulations and said we’re going to paint with the colors we want. We’re going to make wine with the grapes that we want. And we’re going to make great wine. And if you don’t want to officially sanction it for us, well, that’s too bad. We’ll just call it table wine, vino de tabla, but we’re going to make the best wine in Italy. And we’re going to show that the government regulations aren’t the be all and end all on how to make wine. And of course. The proof of wine is in the glass, not on the label. Although from a consumer standpoint, the wine regulations do offer a good degree of protection.

BURT WOLF: During the 1970s, Italian winemakers were more interested in quantity than quality. They hit the bottom of the barrel.

MICHAEL YURCH ON CAMERA: Back in the bad old days, these folks are getting 20 or 30 or 40 tons per hectare in some instances. And now, eight is more typical for a good quality table wine, especially here in Italy. The concept of less is more has taken hold to where it’s not good to have so many tons per hectare.

During the summer, the workers come through and examine all the clusters, and they only pick the best ones, and leave the best ones on the vine. This one didn’t make the cut, or literally did make the cut. It’s called “dropping fruit” and what it does… concentrates the grapes that are left. It gives the vine more vigor to pump into the grapes that are remaining.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How are they?

MICHAEL YURCH ON CAMERA: They’re pretty sweet. Sweet?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ready for picking. Call me as soon as it’s time to drink.

BURT WOLF: The most important of the traditional grape varieties in Tuscany is the sangiovese. The word comes from a Roman phrase that means the blood of Jupiter.

They also planted grape varieties that were traditional to France like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The winemakers concentrated on the quality of the grapes. And they blended the wine that came from the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot with the wine that came from the sangiovese.

MICHAEL YURCH: Sangiovese been around longer than the Romans and probably longer than the Etruscans. It is the most widely planted red grape in Italy. But here it makes a wine that is firm in acidity, cherry flavors, tea flavors, but most important, it’s a grape that makes a wine that goes well with food.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The old giant Slavonian oak tanks that were used for hundreds of years in Italy were replaced by smaller French oak barrels. Winemakers took the best of the traditional Tuscan techniques for winemaking and added the things they had learned from wine-makers all over the world. The result was a series of wines known as the “Super-Tuscans”. World class wines at world class prices.


BURT WOLF: Today, one of the new and most forward looking producers of wine in Tuscany is Pierluigi Tolaini, who likes to be called Louie. His vineyard is in the south-west corner of the most important grape growing area in Tuscany.

PIERLUIGI TOLAINI ON CAMERA: We were very poor. The war was over and poverty was everywhere. I was 19 and beginning to see what was ahead for me. So I decided to immigrate to Canada. And then I got a job working on oil rigs as a laborer.

Then I bought a truck to haul water for the drilling rig. I was making money and all I thought I died and gone to heaven. So I bought this little trucking company and I started hauling general freight. And now we are the largest private trucking company in Canada.

So when I left my father had been getting up. As I was walking away I knew he was at the window looking for me. He wanted me to turn around to say goodbye but I never did you know because you know I was thinking you know. I felt sorry for me but I felt sorry for him too. The only son going away with a one way ticket. You know so I kept saying to myself I’ll never be poor again. I’ll never eat polenta again; I’ll never drink bad wine again. And some day I’ll make my own wine.

The trucking business is doing well so I thought that it would be a good time to slow down a bit. And come to Italy and spend more time in Italy and pursue some of the hobbies that I always had.

One I was racing cars and the other was making wine. So first I bought a car, fast car, and I took lessons, how to drive on a track. I enter a couple of races and then I realized that you know at 200 miles an hour my reflexes are not what they used to be. So I decided that if I wanted to die in bed that I should go farming.

So I thought, plant your plants, your trees, your vines, watch them grow, drink wine be with friends.

BURT WOLF: Simple dream.


Yea it was a simple dream. I choose this area because look at it. That’s one of the best areas. See all those valleys you know they have the sun from sunset to sunrise. And then the heat in this valley stays there. The rocks keep the heat for the night. So this is one of the best zones.

BURT WOLF: Albert Einstein once said that imagination was more important than knowledge. When Louie decided to start a vineyard his winemaking knowledge was almost non-existent, but his imagination was in top form and he kept imagining new ways to do things.

He noticed that bending down to work on the vines exhausted his crews so he invented a tractor that makes their life easer and their work faster.

PIERLUIGI TOLAINI ON CAMERA: The guys they gotta get down here and they’re bend like this all day. So I said what are we gonna do here? So I thought about this thing here. And you know it’s a tractor, a diesel engine. It's all electrostatic. It’s all controlled with the feet so the hands are free to work. What the best thing is they’re sitting down. And they don’t use their backs. So when you’re picking or you are pruning you’re here and the biggest bend you do is this. See? And the productivity is increased about 30%.

BURT WOLF: He also produced a special container that protected the grapes from damage as they were moved from the vineyards to the winery. It also made them easier to move.

When the grapes come in from the fields they go onto a selection table. Any grapes that are not perfect are taken out. Then the stems are removed and they go onto a second selection table. The entire Tolaini family are involved in the sorting of the grapes and they are compulsive about using only the best, and that just one of their many compulsions. The grapes are kept whole which prevents the juices from interacting with the air and that gives the wine a much better flavor. The grapes continue their journey up and into a row of oak fermenting tanks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The key process in making wine is called fermentation. There is a natural yeast on the outside of the grape. When that yeast comes in contact with the sugar in the grape juice it turns it into carbon dioxide gas which escapes into the air and alcohol which mixes with the juice. The more sugar in the grape, the more alcohol in the wine.

PIERLUIGI TOLAINI ON CAMERA: Taste it. It tastes like a sweet grape juice. Now when it ferments the sweetness go away and become alcohol.

BURT WOLF: The winemaker decides when there has been enough fermentation, at which point the wine goes into oak barrels to age.

After about two years the wine from different barrels are blended together and bottled.

New bottles are placed onto the bottling line. They’re washed and dried and filled with wine. Then the air above the wine is pulled out of the bottle. The cork goes in. The bottle is capped and sealed and labeled. At that point some wines are ready for shipment.

But others continue to gently age in the bottle for another two years. Right after I turned 50 I decided that gentle aging was extremely important.

The history of Tuscan wine has always been about deciding which grape varieties to plant, and how to grow them. Cabernet and merlot are traditional French grape varieties but when they are planted in Tuscany, like so many long term residents of the area, they develop a distinct Tuscan accent.

The consulting wine maker at Tolaini is Michel Rolland, who is one of the world leading authorities on the subject.

MICHAEL ROLLAND ON CAMERA: I’m just giving advices from the vineyard to the cellar, aging, bottling and sometimes drinking. Good grapes are absolutely necessary to make good wine.


MICHAEL ROLLAND ON CAMERA: In fact, there is not a good winemaker, it is mostly good grapes. I began in Bordeaux, in the lab doing mostly analysis not really giving advices and step by step I change my mind, because the lab was a little bit boring.

At the beginning the enologist was not really tasting the wines, because people was not asking to taste they were making wine like the father was doing wine, and the grandfather was doing wine, and they were asking us to taste only when they can’t think they have a problem in the wine. And so I began to taste the wine and I began to speak and to make a change with the owners and step by step we arrive as the consulting.

BURT WOLF: Pierluigi’s daughter Lia and her sister founded one of the most successful private wine retailers, she also helps her father and she owns a national wine importing company called Banville and Jones. And she makes her own wine.

LIA TOLAINI ON CAMERA: Donna Laura is my winery and I wanted to import a very good Chianti Classico and I couldn’t find one that I believed in that had the right price, so I made one. I buy the fruit from my father and I rent some property nearby here and I use his winery.

So Bramosia is the Chianti Classico. And I had an artist do Venus, Baachus and Cupid on the label together. And this is Ali. Ali is Sangiovese de Toscana and this is named after my daughter. And I have a Chianti coming out this year. I have two boys so I had to do a third wine, an Alteo.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I have to tell you something. Lia and her father are extraordinarily competitive and her father will not even allow her wines in the house, which is why we’re filming down here secretly in the basement.


BURT WOLF: The harvest is always celebrated with a great meal --- often it’s a family feast on the Sunday after the harvest has been completed.

The idea of having a holy day once a week goes back for thousands of years. It was an Old Testament tradition that was adopted by Christian and Islamic cultures. After spending six days creating the earth and the heavens God rested on the seventh and advised his people that they should do the same. In western societies, Sunday is usually a day of rest, but it can also be a feast day when family and friends come together for a special meal.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The foods that are served at an important family meal must be different from those foods that are considered “everyday” foods. Very often the recipes revolve around something that’s considered a family heirloom. Today, the Tolaini’s are preparing for a big deal meal. And all of the dishes are traditionally Tuscan.

BURT WOLF: The great cooks of Tuscany are devoted to a rustic approach to food. They claim that they are merely adapting and refining traditional farm recipes. But since the farm cooks produce some of the world’s finest bread, oil, beans, cheese and mushrooms, they’ve got a lot to work with.

Julian Niccolini is one of the owners of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City, which is considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the world. We brought Julian to Tuscany so he could help with the family meal.

JULIAN NICCOLINI ON CAMERA: Here we have bruscetta made with fresh tomato, wonderful garlic, basil and stale bread, but superb olive oil. Next we have another different type of bruscetta, made with fresh herbs, specially basil, parsley, garlic and also some anchovy. Very important, Tuscan olive oil and stale bread.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I like this segment. Julian talks and I eat.

JULIAN NICCOLINI ON CAMERA: Next course we have a wonderful bifstek-a-la-Farentina. Bifstek-a-la-Farentina is basically the best part of the Canina cow which is locally grown in this particular area. We just cook it ten minutes on each side. Just some rosemary, garlic and touch of olive oil and that’s it. That’s the best piece of steak you’re going to have in this particular part of the world.

We always try to grill some wonderful sausages, these are pork sausages, you just grill very simply, again, touch of olive oil, some sage on top, some peppernacino and you’re done. We have a wonderful soup, which is made with faro, olive oil, potato and some mushroom.


JULIAN NICCOLINI ON CAMERA: And this is the famous grain that this particular faro is made out of. And it is a staple food of any Tuscan cuisine.

BURT WOLF: People coming together to prepare for a meal can be as important as coming together to eat.

MAN ON CAMERA: Thank you very much.

BURT WOLF: It puts them in a relaxed and informal space. And it lets everyone make a contribution to the meal.

A special meal served at home, always contains symbols of togetherness and separation. Single placemats may be the norm for weekday meals, but a special meal always gets one big tablecloth. And on that tablecloth, which holds everything and everyone together on one field, there are individual place settings, individual dishes, individual glasses, knives, forks and spoons---individual but clearly part of a group.

The family table reinforces the idea of being together in a group, but at the same time it can separate. It gives everyone an opportunity to show that they are a unique individual within the family.

The sharing of wine at a family table is a symbolic act. Since ancient times wine has been presented separately from other food and drink. Even when everything else comes to the table as a single serving, the wine comes in a bottle or a decanter, and it's divided in front of the family, reminding everyone of their common starting point.

PIERLUIGI TOLIANI ON CAMERA: Today is a special occasion and welcome to everybody and thank you for coming.

BURT WOLF: Since many of the members of the Tolaini family are involved in the wine business it is a particularly important part of the meal.

The family meal puts young children in a situation that makes it easier for them to understand how language is used. They see people ask for things and get them. The children begin to understand the raw power of a phrase like, “grandpa, can I please have another cookie?”

The meal started in late afternoon when the sun was strong. It ended as the sun was setting. A reminder of how fast time passes and how important it is to enjoy the warmth of the occasion.

For Travels and Traditions I’m Burt Wolf.