Monthly Archives: April 2013

Red Red Wine

Vines at Arnaldo Caprai's Winery, Montefalco

Vines at Arnaldo Caprai’s Winery, Montefalco

In 1955, Arnaldo Caprai set up a textile business which became one of the largest and most successful in Italy. A native of Umbria, in 1971 he bought a vineyard near Montefalco to fulfil his dream of reviving the fortunes of wine production in the area. Arnaldo’s son, Marco Caprai, took over the management of the Winery in 1988 and he has modernised production methods without losing sight of the traditional values and techniques. He also collaborates with Milan University on research and experimentation to ensure a sustainable future in an ever-changing climate.

Of the varieties of grapes cultivated here, the most revered is the Sagrantino, a variety that has been traced back 500 years and the one that produces the very finest of the Caprai wines. It has been said that the Caprai family has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the indigenous Sagrantino grape variety.

Today the vineyards under cultivation extend to 137 hectares and the Winery produces 700,000 bottles each year. Surely some of them could be ours? To ensure that this was the case (no pun intended!), off we went for a tour and wine tasting. The knowledgeable, patient and English-speaking Vivianne showed us around the fields and the production facility, explaining the history and cultivation methods.

Vats - Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Vats – Arnaldo Caprai Winery

French Oak Wine Barrels, Arnaldo Caprai Winery

French Oak Wine Barrels, Arnaldo Caprai Winery

There are around 20,000 barrels in use, mostly made of French oak. Not all of the wines are matured in oak barrels: it depends on what properties are required in the finished product. The bottling plant can produce 3000 bottles per hour, although it does not operate daily; the schedule is dependent on time of year (for example the period before Christmas is very busy) and the extent of orders. Although the Winery has continued production throughout the financial crisis of recent (and current) years, sales in Italy have shown a decrease, particularly for wines in the medium price range, but this has been somewhat mitigated by improved overseas sales.

That says it all. Arnaldo Caprai, Montefalco

That says it all. Arnaldo Caprai, Montefalco

And so to the tasting, accompanied by delicious meats, cheeses and bread. We tasted 4 wines: one white and 3 red.

Wine tasting selection, Arnaldo Caprai Winery. I'll play this hand!

Wine tasting selection, Arnaldo Caprai Winery. I’ll play this hand!

First up was the white Grecante, 2011, made from 100% Grechetto grapes and aged for 3 months in steel vats and a minimum of 3 months in the bottle. Fresh and crisp, slightly acidic with a grassy overtone and very delicious. Serve as an aperitif, or with fish or poultry.

Next we tried the Montefalco Rosso, 2010, a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino and 15% Merlot grapes. This is aged for 12 months in wood (70% of the time in Slovenian oak barrels and the remainder in French oak barrels) followed by a minimum 4 months in the bottle. The oak came through slightly but it was mellow with a subtle flavour. A perfect match with red or white meats, charcuterie or mature cheese.

Montefalco Rosso Reserva, Arnaldo Caprai

Montefalco Rosso Reserva, Arnaldo Caprai

We moved on to the Montefalco Rosso Reserva, both the 2007 and 2008 vintages. The Reserva is the same blend of grapes as the Montefalco Rosso, but  it is aged in oak for a longer period: 20 months in French oak barrels and a minimum of 6 months ageing in the bottle. Well-rounded, structured wine with subtle oak overtones and a long finish on the tongue. An excellent wine which would pair well with roasted meats, charcuterie and mature cheese.

Finally, the best of the bunch (no pun intended!). Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco. Made from 100% Sangrantino grapes and aged for 20-24 months in French oak barrels with a minimum of 6 months in the bottle. Robust, potent and rich in tannins, it exploded with flavour but had a velvety smooth finish.  Best accompanied by food; serve with good roast meats or game and mature cheeses.

Mio mario is very happy!

Mio marito is very happy!

Of course we liberated 2 cases of wine – 3 bottles of each one that we tested. Point of interest: in Italy a case of wine comprises 6 bottles not 12, in case you thought I couldn’t add up!  Time to reflect on our perfect day and to eagerly anticipate sharing the wines we took away with us.

Mini Adventures. Arnaldo Caprai Winery, Montefalco.

Mini Adventures. Arnaldo Caprai Winery, Montefalco.

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Endless Art

Spello may be a tiny town, but it houses some of the very finest art works in this region. Those who come here for the day head straight to the fine church of Santa Maria Maggiore where Spello’s art jewels are to be found.

The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The church was completed in 1285, but its crumbling facade was reconstructed in the 17th century, using the original materials. It stands in a small square paved with medieval cistern covers. The 2 large fluted columns in marble which you can see at the foot of the bell tower are the remains of an earlier, Roman structure; the church was built on an important Roman road that ran through this area.

Inside, there is a single, wide nave and seven altars. The light filters through the many windows, highlighting the rich stucco decoration, paintings and sculptures. But it is the Baglioni Chapel that, rightly, commands attention. The decoration was commissioned by Troilo Baglioni who was the Prior of Santa Maria Maggiore in the 16th century. The artist was Bernadino de Betto, more commonly known by his nickname Pinturicchio – “little painter”. This nickname referred to his short stature, not to his artistic talent.

Pinturrichio joined the Perugia painters guild around 1481, the same year in which he collaborated with the artist Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino, on some frescoes for the walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. Pinturrichio also decorated the (Papal) Borgia apartments and a produced a fresco series for the library of Siena cathedral. He painted the Baglioni Chapel in 1500 to 1501. His work is highly decorative with superb attention to detail, particularly in his figures. Like other artists of his age, the women are depicted as graceful and serene and the landscapes have depth and an air of peace. Pinturrichio is said to have influenced other Umbrian artists such as Raphael, who was apprenticed to Perugino.

The Dispute in the Temple by Pinturrichio, Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The Dispute in the Temple by Pinturrichio, Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Baglione can be seen at the far left of this picture dressed in his black habit, standing next to his treasurer in a blue robe holding a bag of money.

Annunciation (detail showing self-portrait of Pinturrichio, by Pinturrichio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Annunciation (detail showing self-portrait of Pinturrichio, by Pinturrichio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Adoration of the Child (detail) by Pinturicchio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Adoration of the Child (detail) by Pinturicchio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The floor of the Chapel is made of small, glazed majolica tiles dated 1566 from nearby Deruta, showing winged horses, birds and plant motifs.

Also represented in the church is Perugino, whose 2 works here date from around 1521.

Pieta with St John and Mary Magdalene by Perugino. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Pieta with St John and Mary Magdalene by Perugino. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Madonna and Child with St Catherine and St Biagio

Madonna and Child with St Catherine and St Biagio

I have mentioned before that we are staying in part of the ex-nunnery of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare). The church houses an oil painting from this house which was formerly a panel used to partition the closed-order nuns from the public. This painting, from around 1700, is attributed to Carlo Lamperelli, who was born in Spello. Unfortunately I have struggled to find a good photograph of this painting which, even in the flesh, is rather dark and unclear.

Panel from Santa Chiara by Carlo Lamperelli. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello.

Panel from Santa Chiara by Carlo Lamperelli. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is a treasure house. The Baglioni Chapel is a masterpiece. I don’t mind paying my 2 Euros to light up these frescoes as I fully understand the need to protect them from excessive light. However, an opaque glass panel has been constructed across the front of the Chapel, restricting visitors from seeing the frescoes without paying, and since there is not always someone on hand to pay your money to, I saw many visitors leave the church without having had the chance to view these masterpieces. Aside from that, the glass barrier is extremely ugly and it ruins the lines of the church. Remove this monstrosity, powers that be. Charge us to light the frescoes like other churches do, with pay and display lighting!

Stairway to Heaven

There are several ways to travel from Spello to Assisi. The first, quickest but most boring, is via the main route SS75. Secondly, the local roads that go gently north through some small historic villages. And the road we chose. Right up almost to the summit of the Mountain, some 1290 metres (4230 feet) high. The mountain was (and perhaps still is) regarded as a sacred and mystical place; the beauty and solitude was certainly inspiring. The route follows an ancient cart track, winding steeply upwards with hair-raising hairpin bends (particularly when the driver is situated on the blind side of the car, as was I). The surface degenerated as we ascended, and soon we were driving over a pounded stone track, full of holes and rocks. Luckily we met few other cars (I should have wondered why) so were able to use the width of the road when things got really bad. The track was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles with very few passing places. Fortunately I was able to pull over when a large cattle truck approached from behind; we saw him shortly afterwards disgorging the animals onto the high pastures. We reached the snow line shortly afterwards.

Mini Adventure: Mount Subasio, Italy

Mini Adventure: Mount Subasio, Italy

Where do you take your Mini?

Where do you take your Mini?

When we did get the chance to stop, we were treated to superb views across to the Appenines.

View from Monte Subasio

View from Monte Subasio

Eventually we got our first view of Assisi, tumbling down the lower slopes of the mountain, the rose hue of its stones shimmering through the swirling cloud.

Assisi from Monte Subasio

Assisi from Monte Subasio

Assisi was the birthplace of Saint Francis, and it was here that he set up his religious order, based on the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The town is permeated by monuments and art commemorating the life and works of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare, who also lived and worked in Assisi. It is for this reason that the town remains a place of pilgrimage for many Christians, and is one of the main tourist centres in Italy.

The most significant monument is the Basilica of Saint Francis, constructed shortly after his death in 1226, although much of the internal decoration was added later. The Basilica dominates the town; externally I did not think it was beautiful architecturally, but inside it was visually stunning.

Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

The Basilica consists of 2 churches: the upper church was built on top of the lower church and the crypt. All have been damaged to some extent by earthquakes, but the restoration has been well executed. The tomb of Saint Francis is in the crypt, along with those of several of his closest followers.

The lower church is rather dark, but the quality of the wonderfully rich art is superb. Some of the greatest artists of the age, including Giotto, Cimabue and the unidentified Maestro di San Francesco contributed to the frescoes. No photography is allowed, so the following photos are taken from postcards, just to illustrate the extent of the decoration.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Lower church.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Lower church.

Madonna and Child by Pietro Lorenzetti. Lower church, Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

Madonna and Child by Pietro Lorenzetti. Lower church, Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

The upper church is lofty and bright. Its art is more famous (though I am a fan of the lower church art), in particular the episodes from the life of Saint Francis are considered to be amongst the world’s great masterpieces. This fresco cycle was attributed to Giotto and his assistant, but more latterly is thought to be the work of the Maestro di San Francesco. But both Giotto and Cimabue are well represented in the art of the upper church.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Upper church.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi. Upper church.

Assisi, view from the Basilica

Assisi, view from the Basilica

Leaving the Basilica, we walked to the main square – the Piazza del Comune – which is largely medieval and well preserved. In fact, the Temple of Minerva (1st Century BC) and the Torre del Popolo (13th Century) can be seen in one of the frescoes of the life of Saint Francis!

Piazza del Comune, Assisi. Temple of Minerva and Torre del Popolo

Piazza del Comune, Assisi. Temple of Minerva and Torre del Popolo

The town was crowded with tourists, surprising this early in the year. It was disappointing that many of the restaurants and shops seemed to cater entirely for the tourists, with fast food and cheap religious souveniers everywhere. I have said before that I am not religious, but I love the architecture and art that organised religion has generated over the decades. I still find it distasteful that making money is such a key feature of many religious sites.

We called it a day at that point; it is just too much to take in on a single visit, so we will return to again do battle with the crowds.

Scenes From an Italian Restaurant

The cuisine of Umbria uses regional and seasonal ingredients to produce its simple, traditional dishes. Its rich soil, extensive farms, lakes and woodlands provide a plentiful larder of splendid ingredients for its tasty, robust dishes. I have been pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality of the food and wine of the region, although I am sure I have a lot to learn over the next few months.

Cured meats or salami are a speciality, with wild boar, pig and donkey being popular. But are the Palle de Nonno (Grandfather’s Balls) made from authentic ingredients?

Spello salami - artisan shop

Spello salami – artisan shop

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

Vegetables too are in plentiful supply, fresh, huge and delicious.

Shiny red tomatoes

Shiny red tomatoes

Mixed peppers

Mixed peppers

Umbria also produces high quality red and white wines which are respected throughout Italy. It has not been possible in a week to sample a huge selection, but we have sampled a fine white wine – Orvieto Classico Superiore – made from grechetto grapes from the Orvieto region. At just over 4 Euros a bottle, that was good value.

Orvieto Classico Superiore

Orvieto Classico Superiore

The top red sampled so far is Sagrantino di Montefalco. The native sagrantino grape has been recently revived; Sagrantino di Montefalco, which contains only that grape, is fast becoming Umbria’s flagship wine. It has a distinctive flavour, powerful and complex. A bottle of the very best from the famed vintner Arnold Caprai is on the shelf, waiting for that very special occassion.

Sagrantino di Montefalco

Sagrantino di Montefalco

The bottle picture above was savoured with an excellent lunch at the Ristorante Porta Venere, tucked away in a medieval cellar. We ate fresh bread with local olive oil, followed by rabbit stuffed with wild asparagus and proscuitto. 

Ristorante Porta Venere: Rabbit stuffed with wild asparagus and proscuitto.

Ristorante Porta Venere: Rabbit stuffed with wild asparagus and proscuitto.

A few days earlier we had had a completely different – but equally good – dining experience at the Osteria de Dada. A tiny place, stuffed with rowdy locals, no menu or wine list, one chef and one waitress! It could have been a recipe for disaster, but the house wine was great, the roast lamb and pork loin were exquisite, and the singing chef and waitress made for a thoroughly entertaining meal.

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Rise

Easter Sunday dawned with church bells ringing and torrential rain, but nothing was going to dampen our spirits as we set off to town in search of a coffee. Bar Tullia has delicious coffee and pastries and a friendly clientele. The lovely Antonio and Paola were quick to introduce themselves and curious as to why we had chosen Spello for our extended stay. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming; a true community.

Back at the apartment we prepared the typical Umbrian Easter Sunday breakfast.

Traditional Umbrian Easter Sunday Breakfast

Traditional Umbrian Easter Sunday Breakfast

Traditionally, this is eaten at 9 o’clock in the morning, but to be honest we just couldn’t face wine at that hour, so we modified our plan and held out to midday.  The wine is an exquisite Vernaccia, made from half-dried grapes aged in small wooden barrels. Not quite a port; closer to a Madeira perhaps, slightly sweet but rounded and delicious. The wine was accompanied by Torte Pasquinale, savoury bread with pecorino cheese and salume, dried sausage with wild boar and mule. It was delicious.

The big event of the day was “running Jesus through the streets”, when a large statue of Jesus is carried at speed by several strong men, from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore to the Oratorio of Saint John the Baptist. The heavy rain of the morning had by now matured into a raging storm, and it raged on with lightening, thunder and sheet rain threatening to drown out the traditional celebration of the risen Christ. Mio marito declared that he was not, under any circumstances, risking drowning, being struck by lightening or by a heavy statue, but he relented when he saw me swathed in waterproofs and ready to go! So off we went.

Spello - Easter Sunday. The brass band leads the procession.

Spello – Easter Sunday. The brass band leads the procession.

I saw the procession approaching from afar. “There’s Jesus!” I squealed, a little too loudly and a little too enthusiastically, as if I had just spotted Elvis. A lone trumpeter ran towards the procession, clearly late on parade. On they came, until we could clearly see the pain on the faces of the men carrying Jesus.

Nearly there...

Nearly there…

Jesus returns in triumph to the Oratorio.

Jesus returns in triumph to the Oratorio.

Finally, Jesus was returned to his home in the Oratorio and after a few prayers and votes of thanks, the crowd dispersed. Inevitably the number of people attending was reduced due to the foul weather, but bravo to those brave souls who stayed the course.