Around here the best (and most economical) way to buy wine, from ordinary table wine to the posh stuff, is to buy it from a ‘cantina’ (cellar or winery). You can buy it by the bottle, and in many cases you can also buy it ‘sfuso’ or loose. A visit to one of these places is a treat in itself, especially if it’s one near the wine heaven, Montepulciano.
There is something rarified about this noble little town, high on it’s ridge, midway between Florence and Rome. Flurries of classical music escaping from the Accademia della Musica echo through the alleyways and the air is diffused with the aroma of fermentation as thousands of barrels ‘cook’ gently in the vast cellars below the streets.
I grew up around wine. My dad was a wine importer and it was both his business and his pleasure. Most of our family holidays were based around the wine regions that interested him, be they France, Spain or Italy. It was normal for us, as children, to play ‘catch’ amongst the vines or hide-and-seek down in the musty cellars. I remember my sister and I giggling and lunging at each other from behind the barrels as my mum and dad talked earnestly with wine producers, sniffing and slurping, dad taking notes and swapping cards, loading the samples and freebies into the back of the car. Later, as surly teenagers, we were allowed to join in those exquisite tastings, a privilege that was always guaranteed to lighten the mood.
The smell and atmosphere of a wine cellar, whether full of ageing oak or shiny stainless steel is intrinsically woven through my memories of my father. As with so many things, I wish I had listened more intently and asked more questions. My knowledge of wine is now, sadly, missing my ‘personal expert’ but my enthusiasm, which I inherited from him, remains undimmed.
One of the things my dad was best at was sniffing out a good affordable wine. He wasn’t a wine snob, he loved it all. During the 60’s and 70’s it was buyers like my father who expanded the English palate for wine by importing drinkable, but inexpensive, table wines from France, Spain and Italy and gradually pushed the ubiquitous sweet German white wines to the back of the supermarket shelves. He liked to buy wine from small, creative, independent producers who grew wines with ‘personalities’ imparted by a combination of climate, soil and grape variety. “Wine”, he liked to say, “is alive”. One of the only things we can consume after 200 years, still changing and evolving, waiting for the pull of the cork. In one sense it’s just a drink, and yet it is capable of engaging our senses and imagination, it’s depths and complexities can communicate something intense and beautiful.
The ‘cantina’ that we visited was Ercolani located just outside the walls of Montepulciano. We tried some wonderfully plush vintages of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano before opting for the youngest (and cheapest) one which we bought ‘sfuso’ in large 5 litre demijohns. We also tried their deliciously sticky Vin Santo and some mind-bending Grappa, but that’s another story.