Thursday, 25 February 2016

Booze Tourism: More from Lake Garda

Wine in the process of ageing at Tenuta San Leonardo

A bit later than intended, let’s return now to my tale of booze-related adventures around Lake Garda. We begin where we left off last time, on our way from the grappa village of Santa Massenza, up to Trento, for a winery tour.

Mezzacorona tour

We continued our drive north from Santa Massenza, and before long came to the town of Trento – just north of which lies the sprawling and modern Mezzacorona plant. After our satnav had sent us to the tradesman’s entrance and we were redirected round to the front, we were able to find the shop where you can buy multiple cases of wine, and the reception, where they were expecting me.

We were greeted by Veronica (not our friend of the same [pseudo] name), with whom I had arranged the visit in advance. It was nice to be expected after the day’s earlier activities – it meant I could relax while Veronica escorted us and an Italian couple around in two languages.

This tour was 5 euros each, and was focused specifically on the sparkling wine that Mezzacorona produces. I hadn’t planned for it to be that way, but it turns out we really didn’t know anything about how sparkling wine is made, so it was very informative in that sense.

Mezzacorona is a collective organisation, utilising the produce of 1500 growers to make [something like] 40 million bottles of still wine per year, and [something else like] 3 million bottles of sparkling wine. You’ll have to forgive my innacurracy around the numbers there; it was something like that, but I don’t recall exactly what we were told. It was a lot.

The modern technology employed allows the winery to control the temperature at every stage, and has even enabled them to automate the rotation process necessary in the production of sparkling wine, using a number of mechanised crates to each rotate 504 bottles at a time for a period of 12 days, where by hand it would take 40*.

It was a decent tour and we learned a lot. I don’t want to tell you any more as it might ruin it for a trip of your own. That, and my memory doesn’t permit me to write about it with too much clarity. I’ll just say, it’s worth a trip if you’re in the area. The scale of production here is staggering and, of course, you’ll get to try some wine at the end.

And that concluded our Tuesday grappa and wine excursion. A great time was had by all, I reckon. The drive back wasn’t as relaxing or pleasant as the drive up, as the satnav chose to take us on the motorway, so there was no scenery and it cost us around 10 euros in tolls, but presumably it saved us a lot of time and we were getting hungry.

*once again, please allow for my poor memory in terms of actual numbers.

Tenuta San Leonardo

lovely views at San Leonardo
The same source that led us to visiting Mezzacorona was also the one responsible for sending us over the mountains on Garda’s eastern side on the Friday for a visit to Tenuta San Leonardo. I remembered the source as saying that if you get a chance to visit, then you should. Though it doesn’t actually say that. I am saying it to you now though.

I think by the Friday morning, Mrs Cake and I were feeling a bit worn out after a stretch of protracted stressing over whether we’d be able to print out our return flight boarding passes, so I have to admit that when we awoke that morning, we weren’t even sure as to whether we would bother making the journey to Borghetto. I had made the necessary arrangements for a tour and packaged some literature up as part of Mrs Cake’s birthday present, but I made her aware that this one was optional. I hadn’t paid a deposit or anything, so if she didn’t feel up to it, that was fine. I’d just buy her something else.

That would have been a bit lame, so I went to the car to have the satnav tell me how long it would take that morning, and it was only going to be an hour and a half. The weather wasn’t great, so we thought we’d go for it.

What I didn’t realise when booking our tour, was that when they refer to San Leonardo as an estate, that’s exactly what they mean – in the noble sense. I won’t go into all the history, as I simply wouldn’t be able to do it justice, but believe me; there is a lot of it, and you can read a little more on their website.

We arrived at the gates, not really certain we’d reached our destination. The satnav said that’s where we should be, but there was no sign – just a small wine bar and some closed gates. We pulled in and awkwardly wondered what to do – eventually resulting in Mrs Cake heading into the wine bar to make enquiries. When she emerged, she motioned for me to follow. And that’s when we met the Marchese Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga. Yes, an actual Marchese, and a very friendly and incredibly well-dressed gentleman he was too. He offered us a coffee and, not realising who we were talking to, I assumed he was visiting too and so, asked him where he’d come from. He said Rome, but I thought he said Norway. At this point Mrs Cake looked over my shoulder to the wall and saw it was covered with pictures and press clippings, in all of which was the gentleman I was speaking to. What an idiot – me, not him. Anyway, it was lovely, and at this point Joseph, with whom I had been corresponding with regard to arranging this visit entered and removed any embarrassment by taking us inside to begin the tour.

I have to admit to being something of a novice when it comes to wine. I may even have been slightly disparaging about it in my youth – you know, way back when the blog started – but by now I’ve built up a bit of curiousity and have definitely been open to learning more. Nevertheless, I briefly felt I might be a bit out of my depth when we met Joseph and he told us that, not only was San Leonardo one of the foremost wine producers in Italy, but the gentleman we had just met was one of the great pioneers in Italian winemaking. In simple terms; this was kind of a big deal. And I had pretty much happened across it in the frenzied internet research I’d tried to squeeze in in the weeks prior to our holiday. Result.

So we went on a walk around the beautiful grounds of the estate, seeing vineyards, getting the history and, since the tour was just for the three of us, the chance to ask as many questions as we liked. Joseph must have clocked that we didn’t know too much early on, but we were having a great time and learning a lot – and not just about wine; also about Italy and the 2nd World War, making for a very rounded experience.

I won’t give you all the details as I think it’s important to retain a certain number of surprises should you choose to make the trip yourself. Among the highlights though, were of course the wine cellars. First was a number of concrete vats that were used during the fermentation phase, then the store of bottles of vintage wines that was complete with a hidden switch granting access to the barrels where the produce was undergoing the maturation process.

Unlike the modern Mezzacorona plant, San Leonardo don’t utilise any modern climate control techniques beyond opening a window if it gets too hot, or shutting the door if it gets too cold. It was truly fascinating to see how scales and practices can vary so significantly, and how important each variation is to the product.

Well, pretty soon it was time to head back to the small wine bar for the tasting. We’d been having such a good time, we were almost sad to have reached the end of the tour. It’s all about the wine though, isn’t it? More or less. And even though I’m no wine connoisseur, I’ve still experienced quite a bit of it, and this stuff was excellent – across the whole range from the entry level white and red (Vette and Terre respectively) up to the vintage bottlings, San Leonardo and Villa Gresti. It is worth noting that, on their website they have a vintage guide letting you know when your bottle is ready for drinking. Mrs Cake opted for a Villa Gresti, so it will be worth keeping an eye on that guide (though I actually can’t find it now). If you want my opinion, while the Gresti was excellent, I do think the San Leonardo was even better, but at over 40 euros, and in spite of it being an investment, the more affordable option was probably the better choice.

Of course, I was also pleased to find that, as  seems to be the case with all Italian wineries, they also make their own grappa – though not on the estate, as such. They actually transport the marc fresh from fermentation to a small scale local producer (Bruno Franceschini) who distils the two expressions Grappa San Leonardo (white) and Grappa Stravecchia San Leonardo (aged 5 years in barrels that had previously aged the San Leonardo wine).

While Mezzacorona also produced a couple of grappas, there I resisted temptation due to already having fulfilled my purchase quota. This time though, Mrs Cake positively insisted I get another one and, after discussing whether we would have room or even weight allowance in our luggage, I just decided to go ahead.

Both varieties are presented in fancy crystal decanter type bottles that, we were told, are based on a bottle the Marchese found in the attic of the manor house. It would certainly look good centre stage on our new liquor cabinet.

I had a couple of good tastes, but couldn’t decide which of the two to buy. The Marchese said he preferred the white, as that is in the traditional style but in the end I went for the Stravecchia because I thought its flavour profile would help me to convert whisky loving friends to the grappa cause – should any of them be lucky enough to be allowed to try it. To be honest, very few are proving themselves worthy.

The white grappa was 24 euros and the Stravecchia 41 euros (for 50cl) – so quite a bit more expensive than anything else I’d picked up, but at least now I knew I’d gotten my “special” bottle.

I can’t really come close to doing justice to how special this place was. You can use the word “estate” in any way you want, but this was a real noble style estate with all the relics and exotic memorabilia you can’t even imagine. It was just full of highlights, with surprises around every corner. A real personal experience that you won’t get from any tour companies. 35 euros per person might seem a little steep for a winery visit – especially compared to the 5 euros at Mezzacorona, and I’m sure a number would show you around for free – but this is remarkable value and an excellent opportunity to learn something and try some excellent wine.

Last day

Well those were the main booze-related experiences of our trip to the area around Lake Garda. We did other things too, but there’s no room for them here. What I will tell you, is that with all that booze to get home (four bottles of grappa and five bottles of wine), we had to buy extra hold baggage for the way back. Then there was a whole load of booze to finish off before we went. The Grappa di Pinot Franciacorta went down very well, though somehow I managed to spill two entire glasses along the way.

Also on one of the days we’d been able to call at the ManerbaMicrobrewery and pick up one bottle of each of the brews they made – 9 in total, all big and all strong. I’d like to tell you a bit more about them, but by the time we got there we were tired and I just wanted to get a carry out. The beers were good though, and ideal for your own Distinct Beers Challenge.
the Manerba Microbrewery line-up

I hope all this has proved interesting an useful to you, should you wish to plan your own booze tour of the region. There’s just time now to mention a couple of things that we missed due to lack of time, though I’ll certainly be pencilling these into my itinerary if we ever get the chance to go back.

Things we missed

As I mentioned way back in the introduction to last week’s post, there’s the Museo della Grappa in Bassano del Grappa, which is free to visit and contains five “suggestive” rooms as well as another site in Schiavon which contains the largest known collection of grappa bottles in Italy. No doubt there will also be a few distilleries in the area.

Finally, long after we actually returned from our excursion, I found something else that looks like it would be well worth a visit, the ForumAquavitae, a centre for research on distillates where they do research on spirits. That one is somewhere between Bergamo and Garda.

Next time I think we’ll drive the whole way – it’s only just over 1000 miles, right? Should take about 17 hours, but we’ll be able to bring more home (as long as there’s room next to all the baby stuff, and there hasn’t been a referendum on Europe that decides we’re out and no longer eligible for beneficial alcohol privileges), and we might be able to make some interesting stops along the way.

all present and correct and home at last
Well, it turns out that that bellend David Cameron has decided to appease the eurosceptics within his party and the small minded little Englanders with a euro referendum the day after we go back to the area. I’ll definitely be using a postal vote to keep us in, but what does this mean for next time you visit an interesting destination and want to bring back some special grog? Well, it’ll probably mean you can only bring back a litre of spirits. Luckily for me, I’ll be able to use Mrs Cakes allowance, and since grappa is usually bottled at 50cl, that still means I could bring back four bottles. There’ll be no more booze cruises over to France though. Do people even do that, still?

Anyway, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and mine is that we’d be better off staying in Europe – it’s the only thing protecting our workers’ rights, and keeping us from slavery to the political elite and greedy corporations. You’re entitled to your opinion too of course, but if you’re going to wade in in the comments, keep it civil, eh?

Until next time, enjoy yer booze.

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