Let’s Talk About Speck, Baby

There were two things on offer pretty much every day during my hiking trip in the Dolomites:  Strudel and Speck.  Considering I don’t generally have a sweet tooth, there were days I passed on the Strudel (oh, the horror!), but I never missed an opportunity to indulge in Speck.

Simply Speck
Simply Speck

Speck is a smoked and cured ham from the province of Alto Adige (also called South Tyrol) in northern Italy, bordering Austria. The meat comes from the hind leg of a pig (as does Prosciutto) and is rubbed with spices, such as juniper, rosemary, salt, pepper, and bay leaf, and dry cured for three weeks before being smoked and aged.

After a little research, I found out that the smoking process is very gentle for Speck, and is done at carefully controlled temperatures so that the meat remains sweet while taking on the mild smoky flavor. Smoking takes place over several months for a few hours at a time. This is some high maintenance ham!

Speck ages for six months in ventilated rooms that let the Alpine air in, helping to mellow and balance the flavors.  If you’ve breathed in that Alpine air yourself, you can just imagine it soothing the meat and making it taste better. Speck has an “IGP” (Indication of Geographic Protection) for Alto Adige, which means that how it’s made is carefully regulated.

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Alpine Air for the win!

Just like the Dolomites, Speck combines the traditions of Northern Europe, where hams are more heavily smoked, with the Mediterranean, where hams are subtler in flavor. It’s truly the best of both worlds.  (To eliminate any cultural confusion, in German Speck generally refers to pork fat, or lard, and is not the same as Italian IGP Speck.)

Speck is insanely delicious, and can be found at restaurants and rifugios* all over the Dolomites. I had it simply sliced thin with rustic mountain bread and served with cheeses and vegetables, on pizza, cooked in pasta and risotto, and in the heavenly bread dumplings called Canederli. It adds much more flavor than Prosciutto, but doesn’t overwhelm as much as bacon.  Believe it or not, you can find it on Amazon, and I am sure you can purchase it at specialty stores in your area. I myself am dreaming of adding it to a mushroom frittata next weekend. Buon Appetito!

*Side Note:  Rifugi are mountain huts, mostly owned by the Italian hiking organization (Club Alpine Italiano) and family run, where you can stop in for an espresso or a beer, sit down for a hearty meal, or reserve a bed for the night. Most are only accessible via foot. These are not your average base lodge cafeterias. The food here is varied, and you’re sure to get a soulful, satisfying meal and friendly Alpine hospitality.

One Enchanting Day in Verona

I spend a fair amount of time on the road for my job, but for the past ten days I have been traveling for vacation.  The main event of my trip was a group hiking excursion in the Dolomites, in the most northern part of Italy, bordering Austria. Before and after, I spent a day each in Verona and Venice on my own.  Far too much happened to document the trip in one blog post, so let’s first talk about Verona.

I had seen pictures of Verona, a town in the Veneto region of north-east Italy, from many of my wine colleagues who travel to the wine expo, Vinitaly, every year in April. I was enamored with the alley ways, piazzas, and seemingly endless array of wine bars and restaurants in this small medieval town.  When I figured out that Verona was about half way between Milan, where I was entering Italy, and Bolzano, where I was to start my hiking trip, I decided to spend a day and night discovering what it was all about.

I arrived to Milan on my overnight flight from New York and immediately made the two hour journey to Verona.  My hotel was just outside the historic center of Verona (Centro Storico), just a short walk to the Arena and Piazza Bra, the main Piazza (or square) in Verona. Enchanting and busy — but not overrun — Piazza Bra beckons you to sit in the park, or at an outdoor cafe, and just daydream while gazing at the Arena, a still-functioning Roman amphitheater featuring operas and other performances.  This area is especially enchanting at night, under the lights of the Arena.

From Piazza Bra, I strolled down Via Mazzini, the busy pedestrian shopping street, to Piazza delle Erbe. Strolling is serious business in Verona, so I quickly had to leave my New York pace behind, and saunter past everything from Gucci to Sephora at a snail’s pace on my way to the second most popular square in Verona. Here you will find colorful architecture, flower boxes, outdoor stalls selling everything from fruit cups to hats and scarves, outdoor cafes, and the Torre dei Lamberti. You can climb the Torre (tower) for beautiful views of Verona, or just wander around the square. I was in awe of all the photo opportunities this tiny square offered, and finally had to take a seat by the fountain and simply take it all in.

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Verona is Juliet’s Balcony, of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fame. The irony is that Shakespeare’s play does not take place in Verona, and there is no balcony in the actual “balcony scene”.  Furthermore, there was never a Juliet, since she is a fictional character.  Still, I went, I took a picture of the balcony and the Juliet statue, and watched the mob of star crossed lovers (i.e. tourists) cover the walls with tiny love notes on sticky pads. I must admit to getting caught up in the forged emotion of it all.

There are certainly other sites to see and things to do in Verona, but I was wonderfully content wandering down alleys lined with bicycles and greenery, flowers and taverna’s, just knowing that eventually I would come full circle and back to one of the piazzas.

I ended my day with dinner in a lovely taverna, Taverna di via Stella, as recommended by one of my colleagues. I started off with an appetizer special of salad with bresaola (an air-dried beef originating in northern Italy), followed by stuffed duck with polenta. Polenta is a specialty here as well, also originating in the northern part of Italy.  I washed it all down with a Valpolicella Classico Superiore from the producer Speri, one of the oldest winemaking families in the Veneto region. I scraped my plate down to the last bit of polenta, accepted a complimentary limoncello from my waiter, and was off to bed to stave off the possibility of jet-lag. Molto Bene! Bellissimo Verona!

Hiking & Wine in the Dolomites

alto adige

I can hardly believe my trip to the Dolomites is coming up in June. I’ve always dreamed of visiting the Dolomite mountains, which are in northern Italy, in the region called Trentino-Alto Adige, near the border of Austria and Switzerland. The area is known for skiing in the winter months, and hiking in the spring and summer. I have my plane tickets, global entry card, and hiking boots, as well as my Backroads hiking trip reservations, care of my trusty travel agent at Go Your Own Way Travel. The few things left to do include brushing up on the Italian (and German) language and studying up on the wines of the region. Also, getting in a few hikes before the trip might be a wise idea.

Trentino-Alto AdigeTrentino Alto Adige breaks out in to the mostly German speaking Alto Adige in the north and the Italian leaning Trentino in the south. I’ll be meeting my fellow hikers in Bolzano, which is in the north and is the capital of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol or Südtirol.  For perspective, Bolzano is about a three-and-a-half-hour trip from both Milan and Venice.

As I read about the difficult grape growing conditions in Alto Adige, due to the steep slopes and mountainous terrain in the region, I can only imagine I’ll be earning that glass of wine at the end of each day of hiking. As in many other European wine regions, the vineyards are planted on the slopes along a river, here the Adige River, and the best wines come from grapes planted at around 1,500 feet. At this altitude, the grapes are high up enough to get the benefits of the varying day to night temperatures but are not so high as to be overly exposed to frost.

Alto Adige is in a unique position, where the Alps to the north protect vineyards from cold winds, and the open valleys to the south enable the warm air in from the Mediterranean. There is plenty of sunshine (300 days per year!) but also ample spells of rain to benefit the grapes.

There will be a great variety of wines to try because Alto Adige grows not only more well-known international grapes, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder in German) and Gewurztraminer, but also lesser known grapes prominent in Germany and Austria, including Kerner, Muller Thurgau and Sylvaner.  These grapes all make white wines, which is what Alto-Adige’s cool climate excels at. There will be reds to sample too, including Pinot Noir, and the local stars, Lagrein and Schiava.

I have tried wines from Alto Adige in the past, with delightful results.  For instance, I had never even remotely enjoyed a Pinot Blanc (or Pinot Bianco) until I drank one from Alto Adige. I always found Pinot Blanc to be flat and bland and, in comparison, Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige is bright and flavorful. Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige seems to have more character to me as well. Lately I have been trying to seek out Kerner, in anticipation of my trip, which is a hybrid of Schiava and Riesling, and beautifully aromatic.

In terms of the reds, I had never heard of Schiava until about five years ago, but once I discovered its bright red fruit and slight tartness, I was hooked. Lagrein I always found to be like Merlot, but I have not had one in ages.

I look forward to doing more exploring of the wines before my trip, and of course during my hiking and wine experience. I’ll report back; and I’m sure you’ll hear all about the food from this hungry hiker as well!

Bubbles, Bubbles, Everywhere

Lately I have been pondering just how many options we have when it comes to sparkling wine.  You may think that Champagne and Prosecco are your only real options, but I am here to tell you that is simply not the case.  Sure, Champagne is the standard bearer, and Prosecco is your “cheap and easy” option, but consider there is also Cava, Sekt, Cremant, Franciacorta, American sparkling wine, and British Sparkling wine too.  Any of these bubbles can serve you well on a special occasion as well as with a bowl of popcorn, a bag of chips, and a good binge watching session.

Let’s break it down before you pop some corks:

How Sparkling Wine is Made:  There are two basic methods of making sparkling wine. The Traditional, or “Champagne Method”, and the Tank, or “Charmat Method”. Bubbles in sparkling wine are produced when the wine goes through a second fermentation (the first fermentation turns the sugars in the grapes in to alcohol).  In the Champagne Method, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing small, precise bubbles. In the Tank Method, the second fermentation takes place in a large tank (go figure), which produces larger, softer bubbles. The Tank Method is faster, produces more volume, and results in less complex wines.

Champagne:  Champagne is from the Champagne region of France; period.  A sparkling wine cannot be called ‘Champagne’ unless it is from this place. Champagne is located in the cooler part of France, north of Paris. These wines are made from one or a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the lesser known Pinot Meunier (a red grape).  Styles range from citrusy, crisp and bright, to toasty, rich and full.

There are what we call the “big Champagne houses” of France, for example Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Tattinger, and smaller Champagne producers such as Marc Hebrart, Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Peters, and Agrapart & Fils. The larger houses make consistent styles of Champagne that are easier to find out in the marketplace, but I would encourage you to seek out the smaller producers for better value and diverse styles. You really can’t get a decent Champagne for less than $50 so don’t fool yourself in to trying.

Cremant:  Cremant is sparkling wine from France, but from regions such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley, not from the Champagne region. Cremant is made from grapes that are native to the region where the wine is being made. For example, Cremant from the Loire (Cremant de Loire) can be made from Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and a few others. Cremant is made using the Champagne Method, and offers good value.  You can get a lovely Cremant for $20 bucks, give or take.

Prosecco:  Prosecco comes from Italy; the village of Prosecco to be precise. The grape used to also be called Prosecco, but in order to make sure that no wine outside of the Prosecco appellation could use the name, the grape became known by its alternative name, Glera. Prosecco is made using the Tank Method and is generally simple, crisp, and may have a touch of sweetness.  Not all Proseccos are created equal. If you want to find a Prosecco with a little more depth of character, then look for “Valdobbiadene” on the label. Grapes from the Valdobbiadene province grow on the cool hillsides and produce more complex wines.  You can find a decent Prosecco for $12-15 on up. If you are going to dump orange juice in it and make a mimosa, by all means go with a cheap one, but if you are going to drink it straight, choose one in the $15-18 range.

Franciacorta:  Also from Italy, Franciacorta comes from the Lombardy region in the north, bordering Switzerland. These bubbles are made in the Champagne Method and cost more than Prosecco. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are the grapes used to make Franciacorta. Although northern, Lombardy is warmer than Champagne, France, resulting in slightly riper wines with fuller fruit flavors.  A good Franciacorta will cost you $25-40.

Cava:  Cava is the often overlooked sparkling wine from Spain. There is admittedly a lot of bad Cava brought in to the U.S., but there are good examples worth seeking out too. Cava is generally around the price of Prosecco, and is produced using the Champagne Method. Pronouncing the grapes, which include Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada, may prove challenging, but the fruity, citrusy flavors are bright and welcoming. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes can also be used. The name Cava comes from the caves the wines are aged in and not a region, so Cava can be produced in various areas around Spain.

Sekt: Sekt is synonymous with sparkling wine in Germany and Austria, and the standards for quality are loose at best.  Germans and Austrians drink a LOT of Sekt, but you don’t see much of it here in the states.  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier are used, but indigenous German/Austrian grapes, such as Riesling, Kerner, Pinot Gris, Silvaner, etc. are also used to produce Sekt.  Most Sekt wines are made in the Tank Method and are low in alcohol with juicy pear and floral aromas and flavors. If you can find it, expect to spend in the $18-$30 range.

British Sparkling Wine:  Sparkling wine from England is having a bit of a moment. It makes sense that the English should focus on sparkling wine; they don’t really have the climate for anything else. The weather and soils on the coast south of London are, in fact, quite similar to Champagne, and some Champagne producers are looking to purchase vineyards in England. The wines are made using the Champagne method. Until recently, you couldn’t find British bubbles in the U.S. but they are now making their way on to wine lists and in to retail shops in the states. The latest sparklers coming out of England are made from traditional Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, along with an English grape variety aptly named Bacchus. Some are made from traditional German varieties as well. English fizz is not cheap; look for bottles in the $50-65 range.

American Sparkling Wine: With no rules as to which grapes have to be used in sparkling wine, bubbles can be made almost anywhere in the U.S.  Most quality sparkling wines from America are made in California, and many Champagne houses have invested in California vineyards for this reason. The coolest areas, such as Anderson Valley on the North Coast, are best suited to sparkling wine production. There are also areas of Oregon and NY State that are befitting for making bubbles. Most American producers choose the traditional Champagne grapes and the Champagne method of production, and styles can vary as much as they do from Champagne. Expect to spend $30-50 for a quality American sparkler.

There are other wines with bubbles, including Lambrusco (sparkling red from Italy), Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (sweet sparkling wines from Italy), Pétillant-Naturel (trendy, naturally sparkling wines from anywhere), and of course sparkling wines from other countries (such as Australia and South Africa), but the above examples are the best place to start if you are looking for a “Champagne-like” experience.

Now you are ready to pop some corks. Just make sure to hold the cork and turn the bottle to slowly ease the stopper out. Contrary to popular thinking, a loud “pop” is not what you want to hear when you open sparkling wine, rather a faint “hiss”. And please don’t aim the bottle at you, or anyone else. Oh, and it’s up to you of course, but I like to drink my sparkling wine out of a regular wine glass.  It may not look as elegant, but you’ll get more out of the aromatic experience. I also like the Coup, pictured above.