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An Interview With Winemaker Giovanni Mazzei

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Back in the 1980s there was a rush of interest in Tuscan cooking that seemed to have more to do with style and fashion than what was actually about la cucina Toscana.  It began when the fashionistas poured into Milan (which is not in Tuscany, but Lombardy) and the designers, publishers, buyers and models began frequenting three Tuscan restaurants there—Bagutta, Bice and Da Giacomo, all within a spiked heel’s throw of the fashion houses where the spring and autumn shows were held. They drew an international crowd and plenty of movie stars, and by the time Bice opened an outpost in  New York in 1987, at a time when Italian designers like Armani, Missoni and Dolce Gabbana had supplanted French couturiers as the most exciting and innovative in Europe. 

The menus were very basic, with reliable Tuscan dishes like bistecca alla Fiorentina, pollo alla mattone, and tagliatelle con lepre (hare), eaten with Tuscan wines like Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. So, there grew a myth about Tuscan food being the best and the most stylish, as well as being lighter than the food from, say, Bologna or Naples. To be sure Tuscan food is fairly simple, with a few hearty dishes like stracotto beef stew and cibreo made with chicken livers and cockscombs. Grilled meats and game were staples, and the wines of the region did indeed go well with all of it. 

The term “Tuscan Grill” had no particular meaning but was attached to a lot of good and bad restaurants in America, while the fad faded at the better restaurants in big cities. So, I thought it was time to bring the subject up to date by interviewing  Giovanni Mazzei, whose story is really one worth sharing. You have probably already heard of Giovanni’s family’s property – Castello di Fonterutoli Over the past ten years, he has moved away from the “family business” and started his own wine, IPSUS, which was finally launched last year after years of independent research (including into biodynamics – a certification that Giovanni is working towards). With two vintages now out (2015 and 2016), IPSUS is rapidly establishing a reputation as a “cult” wine among connoisseurs. 

As a general rule, do you believe that the food of a region goes best with the wine of the region and why so? 

I think it does to some extent:  being able to match the purity and traceability of a region’s food and wine, both born from the same land, helps to express different aspects of the same place. That is what is so enchanting about Tuscan farming;  we are so proud of our region and what it has to offer, and we share that through our produce. I do also believe that the hallmark of a good wine is one that expresses itself perfectly on its own, and this was a major consideration when making Ipsus. 

What are the aspects of Tuscan cuisine that distinguish it from the cuisine of other parts of Italy? 

The prompt seasonality of our cuisine is quite unique. With different ingredients showing their best at specific points of the year, there is always a different recipe that is “in season.”  In the late summer we include tomatoes in a lot of dishes, as they are perfectly ripe,  for example, la pappa al pomodoro, a traditional Tuscan bread soup. For the colder months, one of our specialties is eel. At our agrotourism farm  Il Caggio, we cultivate a small amount of eel that we collect during the winter to roast on the fire. It’s a staple of the Tuscan household and the wood fire is used a lot during the winter, roasting boar, wood pigeon, and vegetables including zucchini, asparagus and radicchio.  

Our cuisine is based on a vast variety of fish, meat and vegetable dishes, stemming from a lot of history and executed with a lot of creativity. They are dishes that absolutely require local ingredients. Our history has led to the simplicity of our cuisine, but it is through this simplicity that we are able to get creative in how we cook and assemble dishes.

How does the Terroir of Chiantis like IPSUS make the wines a perfect match for the cuisine you just described? 

Like our farming, winegrowing in Chianti involves the subtle input of man into nature to get the very best out of it. We are not just growing grapes, we are grooming the land to show off our terroir in our wine – that is what creates the perfect pairing, as our farmers are doing the same. The 6.5 hectare of Ipsus vineyards are divided into six plots, all situated within a little enclave or “clos”, located at 320 to 350m with the exposure South-East to South-West (150°). Our vines are over 35 years old, and our soil comprises a mixture of clay schist, calcareous marl, and alberese rock fragments, while we benefit from a well-ventilated Mediterranean climate. As well as the altitude, the calcareous marl and the alberese rock fragments contribute the silky tannins, minerality, and complex aromatics. The clay, alongside the altitude, definitely contributes to the unique freshness of the wine. Combine all the elements and you have a wine that is light but with lots of structure, tension, and an array of unique and elegant aromatics. The uniqueness and variations of our terroir leads to a complex flavor profile—aromatics of blackberries, pine needles and flowers, cherry, pomegranate, blood orange, star anise, cinnamon, crushed stones and dried flowers. 

 

 In terms of taste, I wanted with IPSUS to create a wine that is constantly evolving while it’s in your glass. Not only does this make it a very entertaining wine, which matches the Tuscan way of living, but also works extremely well with our dynamic, seasonal cuisine. Indeed, The Tuscan way of leaving is all about living with nature. Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, Giotto, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Beato Angelico, Pontorno, Ghirlandaio, Vasari  would never have been the masters that they were if they weren’t fully integrated in the beauty of Tuscan nature.

Some say that Tuscan cuisine is very simple and not as interesting or rich in diversity as other parts of Italy, such as, Veneto, Lombardi, Bologna, Naples and Sicily. Do you think this is true and is simplicity a Tuscan virtue? 

Simplicity is indeed a Tuscan virtue , but the diversity in our produce is also equal to none. For example, in Tuscany there is an incredible selection of different tomatoes available in the markets (like the Fiorentini or Pisanello) that we would use for different dishes. Living in central Italy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Apennine mountains, we benefit from amazing access to many different ingredients, from fish to zafferano (saffron). Our originality is born from our dedication to the land: Every season, every year we are looking at what we can do from what we have around us.

 Why does Tuscan bread lack salt? 

Tuscan cuisine is quite salty, so this balances the meal. But looking back on history: There are also various stories about periods where there were salt shortages or high salt taxes, and so the people instead baked bread without it. This resulted in the Tuscan people looking to other flavorful and salty foods in our cooking, bringing us to today, with good balance between these foods and our bread. 

What are the innovations in Chianti and IPSUS that have changed it for the better over the last 10 years and how can a Chianti Classico compete with the so-called super Tuscans? 

First, viticulture has seen significant change in the last 40 years. In Chianti Classico we witnessed a real revolution that brought us to an incredible selection of biotypes of Sangiovese, which for me is really the key to creating the style of wines that I am looking for – a “Tuscan purity.” Over the 15 years since we purchased the vine parcels around Il Caggio, we have acquired more knowledge on how to let the vines express themselves, and how to interfere as little as possible throughout the winemaking process. This to me is how to achieve a true expression of Chianti Classico. 

Can you recommend some good Tuscan cookbooks in English? 

Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) is the “bible” of Italian cuisine. The book was first published in Florence in 1891. I would also recommend the infamous Tuscan character, Fabio Picchi’s 2016 cookbook Papale Papale: Ricette che salvano l’anima (“Papale Papale Thoughts and Recipes to Nourish your Soul”). 

How is Agro-tourism doing in Tuscany in the Covid era? 

Even with Covid-19, we have seen a growth in agro-tourism within Tuscany. I do believe that, due to the pandemic, people are desperate to pursue family, nature and artisan values, and I think that agro-tourism has continued to accelerate as it is the best way to be surrounded by, and engaged with, nature.

What do you like to cook and do you choose the food first and then the wine, or the wine first and then the food? 

My favourite dish to cook is risotto. When you are making a risotto, you really make it. You are not baking, boiling or roasting; you have to be there with it constantly, otherwise it is ruined. It’s the same principles as winemaking : You always have to be around the vines, constantly monitoring them in order to get the best out of them. It is very romantic.     Surprisingly, I choose the food and the wine almost independently. I pick a wine that I am eager to try or am particularly enjoying at the time, and otherwise try to let go of strict food and wine pairings. I think if the food and wine come from the same soil, the same spirit, then you should be able to enjoy them together. 

Can you recommend some of the best restaurants in Tuscany, the finest and the really favorite trattoria’s? 

Le Panzanelle in Radda in Chianti Classico.  Ristorante Padellina in Strada is also great. It is run by brothers, Alvaro and Rolando Parenti.  Alvaro has a passion for Dante (the Medieval Italian poet and philosopher), and he often emerges from the kitchen to recite from heart verses from the Divina Commedia to the dining room. 

What are your favorite restaurants in Florence? 

The finest restaurant in Tuscany, I must say, is Cibreo in Florence. I also like Cammillo, Belguardo, Vecchia Bettola, Sostanza detto Troia and Buca dell’Orafo. 

To the DOCG regulations still prevent certain grapes from being used in Chianti Classico? Is Trebbiano ever used anymore? 

Yes, producers can only use red grapes to make Chianti Classico, with a minimum of 80% of Sangiovese. Trebbiano is not used in DOCG wines,  but there is a lot of great opportunity for the estates that want to make it on its own [as a white wine], and I’m sure we will witness some great Trebbiano coming out of the region in the future. 

What is the governo process and it is used anymore? 

Governo is a winemaking technique that started in Tuscany over 700 years ago. It involves saving a batch of harvested grapes and allowing them to partially dry. This is said to increase the richness and stability of the wine. The process is not used anymore in Chianti Classico, and our producers aren’t that familiar with it, but it is still used in some areas of Tuscany.

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