Hurdling through the Salone del Gusto

There’s two ways to approach the insane smorgasbord that is the SALONE DEL GUSTO, Slow Food’s biannual fête in Turin. One is like a butterfly, flitting from booth to enticing booth, guided by whim. The other is like an adrenaline-fueled athlete, with springs in your shoes and a game plan in your pocket. I’m from New York City. Guess which style I embrace? But tackling this foodie marathon is no easy task. For one, it’s huge. A thousand exhibitors from 100 countries fill three cavernous halls at Turin’s convention center, a former Fiat plant. A fourth building holds seminars and meet-the-maker panels throughout the five-day con-fab.

La Dolce Vita Wine Tours features a day at the Salone del Gusto as part of our SLOW FOOD FESTA tour. So I had a single day to cover the event. Or more precisely, five hours, for that’s all the free time I had before our group reconvened at the Enoteca for a vinous giro d’italia. A strategy was needed.

First, I booked a seminar several months in advance. I knew from past experience that these sell-out panels were well worth it, offering great opportunities to taste supremely rare stuff. Searching the lineup for Thursday, Oct. 25, I spotted gold: GREAT BAROLO RESERVA FOR AGING. Bingo! (More on this Barolo seminar in a future post.)

Next, I did an advanced search for everything wine-related in the Presidia. The Presidia are about biodiversity—Slow Food’s raison d’etre. According to the entomologist who coined that word, Edward Wilson, an estimated 27,000 species disappear every year. Through its Presidia, Slow Food is doing its part to keep that heritage alive, providing in-kind support to artisan farmers around the world who work with rare native breeds, plant varieties, and traditional techniques—things like heritage turkey in the U.S., ancient varieties of coffee in Uganda, and mountain cheese from the Balkans. Over 200 presidia were here, identified by orange booths.

Eight presidia popped up in my search. Armed with that list and a conference-hall map, I hit the ground running.

Three gruff men stood behind a line-up of 14 bottles. They eyeballed me without a word. I reached out my plastic cup and broke the ice. Soon the winemaker with a black beret and nubby wool vest was pouring me samples of wine that had fermented and aged in terracotta amphora—the oldest winemaking technique on the planet. He explained in broken English the particulars of each wine: six months maceration with skins and stems for this one, two years in amphora with skins but no stems for that.

If ever there was an ur wine, something representing the prototype of all wine, it must be this. Unfiltered, fermented with whole bunches, aged in man-sized terracotta jars, the wines were rustic, both reds and whites incredibly tannic, and the flavors unfamiliar and intriguing. I could easily imagine sitting around a sturdy kitchen table until the wee hours, waxing philosophic about the origins of wine, and washing down plates of hearty stew with these farmhouse wines from the Imereti, Kakheti, and Kartli regions of Georgia.

Beside a poster of amphorae, a thin man sat silently. When I mentioned Josko Gravner, the Friulian winemaker who started the long-maceration ‘orange wine’ trend in Italy, they excitedly pointed to their colleague: “He’s the one who makes Gravner’s amphorae!” I get them to pose for photos; they’re laughing now. I wanted to linger, but—as Dante would say—“the road is long, so let’s move on.”

An ancient grape, Malvasia has more than 40 subvarieties around the Mediterranean. This one comes from Sitges, near Barcelona. The story is that a Catalan diplomat started commercializing the wine, and when he died, he left his land to the HospitalSant Joan Baptista on the condition that they keep making the wine. And so they did, along with one other producer, Vega de Ribes. Only 4,500 bottles of Sitges Malvasia are produced each year, so Slow Food stepped in to preserve the 2.5 hectares of vineyard from land developers (not that those exist anymore in today’s on-the-brink Spain) and to encourage new plantings by young, enterprising winemakers. At the booth, just one sample—a Vega de Ribes Malvasía Saserra—was being poured. Fragrant as honey, it was nonetheless bone dry. It had me longing for seafood paella and a table overlooking the Spanish coast.

A crowd was elbowing for space at the PASIEKA MACIEJ JAROS stand.  Perhaps they were attracted by the handmade ceramic bottles, sealed with red wax. Maybe it was the romance of mead, which appears in Norse mythology, the writings of Aristotle and Pliny, and the mead halls in Beowulf and Shakespeare. Or perhaps it was because Maciej Jaros is the last mead producer in Poland to adhere to traditional practices. With 30 hives, Jaros makes various types of aromatic honey, and from these he concocts a mind-spinning array of mead, using various ratios of water to honey and aging periods that can extend up to 20 years.

A Polish hipster in plaid shirt is pouring samples of Trójniak (2:1), Dwójniak (1:1), and raspberry-infused Maliniak. Once upon a time, mead was popular in regions where grapes cannot grow. That no longer matters. “I was at a mead festival in Boulder,” says the young man, “and there were 400 producers from around the world.” “Who drinks the most mead?” asks the Gravenstein apple-grower beside me. “It’s still Poland,” the youth replies. “It’s sold in good wine shops. We have it after dinner.” My mouth waters; I’m imaging this with makowiec, the Polish poppy-seed cake with raisins, walnuts, and orange peel. Ya think there’s a Polish pastry booth here? But I’m not even halfway through my list and decide to stick to the plan.

I’m doing my best to follow instructions and detect the marizan aromas in this rare kirsch, but I’m just getting rocket fuel. Distilled liquors aren’t my thing. But I understand why Slow Food has embraced this cherry brandy. The Brenzer cherry, a sweet, black heritage variety, is troublesome. It grows on tall trees so it’s more difficult to harvest than modern hybrids, and the cherries must be crushed the same day as picking rather than heaped into piles to await a consolidated transport to the crusher. This and recent changes in EU duties now make it wholly unprofitable to grow. Thus, the Slow Food cavalry charged in. I’m thinking that Brenzerkirsch is probably okay paired with a blazing fireplace in a Swiss chalet.

Somehow I can’t find booth 6F 032, so I miss the chance to taste Austria’s Wiener Gemischter Salz, a white wine made from old field blends near Vienna. And since time is drawing short, I skip two Italian Presidia—Trentino Vin Santo, made from the indigenous nosiola grape, and Moscato Passito from the Sagnario di Strevi Valley in Piedmont. That leaves one last wine on my list.

Like malvasia, moscato is an ancient grape with a huge family tree. I’ve tried many, from Piedmont’s feather-like Moscato d’Asti to Sicily’s hedonistic Passito di Pantelleria. But never before had I encountered this version from Calabria (the toe of Italy’s boot). The elaborate technique seems like it should have come out of a medieval recipe book, or better yet, represent an impossible fairytale task:

• Pick the Sarecana Moscatello grapes in September, when they are most aromatic. Hang in bunches to dry.

• In October, harvest the malvasia and guarnaccia grapes and crush. Boil the must in a copper vat to concentrate sugars. Ferment.

• Take the dried Moscatello grapes, remove stalks, and select perfect berries, one by one. Lightly squeeze and add to the cooked must. Ferment until the month of April.

Instead of wizards, three normal-looking winemakers stood at the stand. They lined up six wine glasses for me and poured a taste from their various wineries. All were delicious, but my favorite was from CANTINE VIOLA. Its aromas alone could intoxicate, with notes of honey, dried apricot, and candied orange peel. Traditionally, this was served with dried figs that had been stuffed with almonds, walnuts, and lemon peels, then baked.

Tantalus incarnate! My time was up!

Sprinting to the Barolo seminar, I passed heaps of cheese in every shape and form, artisan chocolates, traditional pastries, heritage beans and grains, exotic apples, craft beers, a zillion salumi, even snails. It was painfully obvious that I’d just scratched the surface. Another day or two here would be absolutely essential to come away satisfied. And maybe next time, I'll slow my sprint down to a walk. It is Slow Food, after all.