I got the invitation to serve as a judge for, “A Tavolo con Il Nobile,” an annual food and wine pairing festival in historic Montepulciano, Tuscany, via email.
I’m not sure I’d even read the entire message when I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
I was told there would be just four American judges, so I was in rarefied air to be sure. First things first, though. I had to figure out exactly what “A Tavolo con Il Nobile” was. What I discovered made me even more excited.
I, of course, knew of the city of Montepulciano — a walled, ancient, hilltop city near the Tuscan border with Umbria. Its most famous wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is a delicious blend of Sangiovese, the noble grape of Tuscany, and other local red varieties such as Canaiolo and Colorino.
Vino Nobiles are lovely expressions of their Tuscan terroir. Well, “A Tavolo con Il Nobile” takes the Vino Nobiles and matches them with local cuisine. The cuisine is prepared by eight contradas — historic local clubs that operate inside the city of Montepulciano. Each year, the festival has a theme. This year, it was la nana — duck.
The eight contradas would create a recipe featuring duck, the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano would provide them each with a different Vino Nobile to pair with the recipe, and the judges would determine which ones looked, tasted, and matched the best with the duck. I happen to love duck, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Tuscany, so I was prepared for a little slice of heaven.
The first round of judging, visits to four of the contradas, took place on Saturday night, the day after my arrival. I was teamed up with Christopher and Darcy Davies, a Colorado couple with their fingers in a number of food and wine pies under their umbrella Wine Country Network, and Bruno Gambacorta, an Italian food and wine television journalist and the festival’s founder. It was his job to make sure we did our jobs.
The score sheets were fairly simply-four categories: Typicity, Taste, Appearance and Affinity with the wine. The first two categories were worth 10 points, the final two, 5 points. So a high score, if everything was deemed perfect, was 30 points.
Easy peasy. Bring on la nana. So, down the hill we went — a common theme in Montepulciano, which makes San Francisco seem flat. We were either walking down or up the entire trip as there is no level in Montepulciano. The first contrada looked promising — a large, historic hall lined with dark wood tables. Unfortunately, the food was nearly as dark as the room and the tables — everything on the plate was brown. Low scores, I’m afraid, and an inauspicious start.
The offering from contrada number two was also underwhelming, and overcooked, so let me skip ahead to contrada number three, the highlight of the night.
I knew I was going to like this place right off the bat as the cooks manning a huge open-air grill with a blazing fire. About half of the contradas featured indoor spaces, the other half, outdoors, which I definitely preferred. This contrada also got it right by providing a young woman to handle translation. Americans have a tendency to panic when they don’t understand the language.
But, what really won me over was the creativity of the recipe. The dish was fairly simply — grilled duck with fresh rosemary. Alongside, wrapped in pancetta, was rosemary-infused sorbet. The hot and cold contrast of the duck and sorbet combined with the saltiness of the bacon and the freshness of the rosemary was just about perfect. I didn’t think it was very typical, and the duck was as bit overcooked, so they lost a few points, but they were still miles ahead of the others, and the clear leader for the night.
Day two began with a visit to the incredible museum on Montepulciano, which I will save for another blog, followed by another round of four contradas. There were two more winners on this day, both of which surpassed the leader of the night before, in my opinion.
The first took what I thought was a truly unique approach-cooking the meat off the duck much like you would in a soup, then serving it slightly chilled, picnic-style, with potatoes, carrots and pickled onions, It was sort of a deconstruction followed by a reconstruction, and it worked really, really well. I thought we had a winner.
That is, until the very last visit. Here, looking out over one of Montepulciano’s famous walls, a woman and her young helper got everything right at the Contrada of Talosa, serving up the most sumptuous, creative, and wine-friendly recipe of the bunch. The cook used every part of the duck — a perfectly cooked leg with a nice, crispy skin, sliced, roasted breast, thigh meat chopped up and served inside squash blossoms, even the liver, which she made into pate. There were a myriad of flavors and textures, but they were all brought together by a Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano — definitely the best food and wine pairing, not just of the contest, but of my entire trip.
So, there you have it — eight duck dishes matched with eight different Vino Nobiles over a day and a half, if that. Oh, and by the way, the contradas that got our top three scores finished one, two, and three in the contest in the order we rated them. That made me feel great.
What an experience. I hope they invite me back.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.