Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Rural Mural

One of my other jobs out here in Italy's hidden secret involves writing a monthly column on Le Marche's many excellent wineries (or, more specifically, Macerata province's). Last week this took me to Matelica, one and only source of its green gold pride, Verdicchio di Matelica. But that's not the subject of this posting.

Every time I go to a town I always stop in at the tourist office to see what's going on, what's new, and to get a local's impressions on any- and everything (normally it's a different person from the last time I was there). This time I stumbled upon a brochure of a nearby town that initiated a project to paint murals on the walls of several houses. After wading through the customary morass of bureaucracy and getting the required permits, art students from all over Italy and beyond came to decorate the walls of this village. This was several years ago, but I reckoned they were still there (the murals, not the artists), and so I took a drive out there.

While some of the murals have been painted over by now, those that remain are a dlightful surprise, adding a colourful and distinctly alternative dimension to this picturesque, traditional village. Take a look. (Double-click on the picture and it will open full-size.)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Serendipitous Le Marche

It was just a single line in an obscure guide, innocuously recommending a visit to the piano nobile of the municipal building "if you have time." I'm glad I had time, although I questioned my use of it when the tourist lady said she'd need to go and get the keys from another office to get in, thinking as I was of the likely fruitless search for the right person, the rummaging around for the keys, the numerous tries in the lock from the bunch resembling a genius's puzzle, ... When the friend with whom she was lost in conversation when I made my request accompanied us, I raised the other eyebrow a little quizzically too.

But all misgivings evaporated when we found the right person immediately, located the appropriate key with equal speed, and was thrust into the most sumptuous of municipal hearing rooms I have ever been in. While the plush green upholstery was impressive, it was the walls and the ceilings that prompted my jaw to drop and my mouth to utter a monosyllabic grunt of awe - ornate, colourful frescoes invited me in, offering accounts of the town's history and depictions of Italy's four surrounding seas. The photos below don't begin to capture its all-round appeal.

I was thankful too for the presence of the friend, whose knowledge of the frescoes and the pictures in the next room was somewhat superior to the tourist lady's. The adjoining rooms were quite different, but in their own way just as engaging, with baroque furniture lounging idly in the corners, and a half-wall of vignettes giving life to Dante's Divine Comedy courtesy one Filippo Bigioli, an early nineteenth-century artist I hadn't heard of before. (Unfortunately the room was too dark to take pictures of his vignettes.)

And this after a highly rewarding visit to the town's small Pinacoteca Civica with its Crivelli brother masterpieces and other gems dating back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. I'm not an art buff, but the craftwork of the works on display by the Crivellis and other artists whose names were new to me can't but be admired. Outside, the elliptical main piazza is an attraction of its own, with its arched arcades and beckoning coffee shops. Tucked away in central Le Marche, this town deserves a visit for anyone with the time, and if you don't have it, make it.

Post a comment if you know the place I'm talking about.

(If you click on the picture, it will launch a full-size view of it.)

Monday, 6 April 2009

Le Marche wines - suprising variety, unquestionable quality

In 2008 Italy overtook France for the first time since 1998 as the world's biggest wine producer, turning out 4.7 billion litres of the stuff. Now it's a little difficult to get one's head around such a number, so looking at it in terms of consumption is helpful.

Italy also happens to be the world's biggest consumer of wine (in per capita terms), perhaps not surprising given their proclivity to pair most (non-breakfast) food with a glass or so of fermented grape juice. In 2007 they bought 299 million cases or some 2.7 billion litres, around 57% of what they produced. Converted into everyday terms, that means each Italian older than 15 (including the teetotallers) drinks a bottle of wine roughly every five days.

Somehow that number seems low, but I think there's a good reason for that. There's a vast production of wine that never makes it into commercially sold bottles, let alone into the stores that peddle them - the ubiquitous home brew, product of so many vines growing on the side of the house, next to the road, down near the culvert, and a hundred other places that simply can't be left to bare earth. Our neighbours, for instance, make 400 litres a year, and drink it all themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that they're one of the larger farms around here, it's still of modest size when one thinks in terms of cooperatives and agricultural empires, so think how many litres that translates into nation-wide when one takes into account all the grape-growing neighbours of Italy.

But all that's really beside the point. It's Le Marche's wines that we're here to talk about. And what a conversation it is - the region's wine cellar is a treasure-chest of discovery, not least because their labels, blends and varietals are relatively unknown. Also, annual production is small by the standards of other regions - 181.5 million litres, or around 7% of the national production comes out of Marche.

But that doesn't mean it's inferior - far from it, in fact. For example, on the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS - Italian Association of Wine Sommeliers) list of 5-star wines for 2009 (those that scored 91-100 points), Le Marche has 21 - only the Piedmont, Tuscany, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia have more. Much has changed in the wine industry here in the past 10 years or so - as it has in other parts of Italy - with cultivation and fermentation techniques undergoing research, improvement and modernization, old varietals being resurrected, international ones being introduced (or re-introduced in some cases), and overall quality rising steadily compared with 20 and 30 years ago.

The fact that Marche's wines are not as well known as those of other regions makes a visit here one of discovery and adventure for the taste buds. Sure wine-drinkers around the world may already know about Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi - perhaps as much for its striking green amphora bottle as for its verdant freshness - but there are many others worthy of attention, despite their probable anonymity outside Italy (and even Le Marche): Bianchello, Falerio, Esino, Maceratesi, Pesaresi, Pecorino ... and that's just the whites (which make up 62% of the region's production). Amongst the reds, there's also plenty to choose from, with Rosso Piceno leading the way in terms of production, and Rosso Conero and Lacrima di Morro d'Alba standing out in terms of depth and variety. International varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc are also now beginning to make a strong statement in the region's offerings, while area specialties such as Serrapetrona's Vernaccia and Loro Piceno's vino cotto continue to add another long-standing dimension to an already appealing array of wine products.

Some say Le Marche's selection of wines is reason enough to visit this wonderful part of the world, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree (even though it has a lot more to offer). So when you pack your bags for a trip to Italy's best-kept secret, be sure to pack your palates - they'll be very glad you brought them along.

(There'll be more in future blog posts on specific wines and growing areas, so check back for periodic updates.)