One of the things I love about Italy are the diverse, highly localized flavors and tastes one finds while exploring this ancient peninsula. In Italy there is no such thing as "Italian food," all dishes are highly localized. Remarkably, you will find differences within a province or even between nearby towns. Of course, wines vary dramatically up and down the peninsula, but what has delighted me in my search for unique, artisanal products is the variety of local liquors and sweet wines you will find. I make a point to bring back something truly local to the region I’m visiting, perhaps a bitter-sweet aperativo or an herby digestivo.
Enter Monte Valentino, a tiny boutique dessert wine producer nestled up in the rugged mountains of Umbria. On a winter wine scouting trip with Arnaldo Rossi, my Sommelier buddy in Cortona, he told me about this molto particolare (very unusual) red sweet wine that is infused with the fruit of the visciolo tree. So began my trek to a remote post deep in the heart of Umbria.
"You won’t make it up the hill. We’ll have to pick you up at the train station," says Fabrizia Gargano, the co-proprietor of Monte Valentino, an exquisite little agriturismo (an Italian B&B) that produces the wonderful sweet Visciole cherry wine called Sollucchero, which translates literally as “I become enraptured”. Once you taste Sollucchero, you’ll understand why.Monte Valentino is a 300+ year old borgo nestled in the verdant Umbrian hills just north of Perugia. But in late January, we’re greeted with a blanket of snow that highlights the dormant cherry trees as Nicola Polchi, Fabrizia’s husband, navigates his Land Rover up the steep single lane road from the valley below. I’m glad I’m not driving. The views are stunning on the way up, but enjoying the scenery while driving could prove fatal.
With roots dating back to the days of the Dukes of Urbino, Fabrizia and Nicola restored this small borgo in 1996 with an eye toward living a life immersed in the beauty of a natural and wild Umbria. In addition to producing Sollucchero wine, each year they open their home to travelers looking to experience a region rich with history yet a bit off the beaten track.
While Nicola spends much of his time in the winter months finely crafting handsome furniture made from oak and walnut from the nearby forests, he is always ready to describe the process of making Sollucchero and take you on a tour of the cantina. "Fabrizia and I hand collect the Visciole cherries at their peak of sugar production, which is in early July when the cherry skins just start to wrinkle." Nicola is quick to tell us that they macerate the bitter cherries and blend with a base of Rosso Orvietano wine the same day to ensure the rich, spicy essence of the visciole cherry is captured by the wine. The wine spends several months in cold fermentation and is finally filtered and blended with a bit of alcohol and a touch of sugar to offset the bitterness of the Visciole. "We then bottle the wine and let it age for 9 months before releasing it," says Nicola. "The wine never touches oak, but this year we will be experimenting with aging some of the Sollucchero production in oak casks to see what it can offer to the wine."
Visciole cherries are unlike anything we Americans are used to. Not quite a pie cherry, and certainly not like the sweet cherries we eat by the fistful in the late spring, Visciole cherries are quite small and exceptionally tart. The Visciola cherry tree grows wild and its cultivation was a favorite of the Italian contadini, or rural peasant farmers of the past. Fabrizia and Nicola have taken the wonderful wild, spicy Visciole to a new level with their exquisite Sollucchero.
Sollucchero has a lovely ruby red color with highlights of purple, both clear and bright. The nose is delightful with jammy black fruits, wild strawberry, dried rose flowers and a pronounced pie-cherry scent from the Visciole cherries. On the palate the sweetness is lighter than many typical dessert wines. The fruits found on the nose come through intensely on the palate; blackberry and black cherry, dried flowers and toasted almond with a nice acidity that balances with the sweetness. The flavors persist with a long, pleasant finish. While Sollucchero has 16 degrees of alcohol, it is not overpowering or ‘hot’ in the mouth. The nose and flavors close down when it’s served cold, so Sollucchero s best served at room temperature.
Sollucchero is heavenly by itself as a dessert wine shared with friends at the end of a long meal, but its sweet spiciness goes particularly well with blue-veined cheeses like gorgonzola, stilton or the wonderful Crater Lake Blue from The Rogue Creamery. Sollucchero is also out of this world with dark chocolate and wonderful drizzled on vanilla gelato.
You can read more about the origins of Monte Valentino Sollucchero on Nicola and Fabrizia’s website here.
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