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Tastes from Tuscany

In January, I traveled to Atlanta for a wine dinner hosted by Alessia Antinori, the youngest of a trio of sisters who are learning the ropes of the family winemaking business -- one with a history that spans more than 600 years and 26 generations.

The wines were pleasing enough, classic Italian Sangiovese and an entry from a new venture, Antica Vineyard in Napa Valley that, to that point, had yielded an interesting but under-developed Chardonnay. I knew there is more depth to the family business, one which encompasses a variety of labels produced around the world.

A couple of weeks ago, I tasted through the Antinori portfolio again, this time closer to home at Garbaldi's Cafe -- at a dinner moderated by the family "ambassador," Aldo Rafanelli.

Rafanelli is an apparent fun-lover, honey collector and consummate storyteller. His self-effacing humor and vast knowledge of Antinori -- and the Italian culture -- made for an entertaining evening. Happily, it was also an evening punctuated by perfectly crafted dishes that paid homage to the matching wines' Tuscan heritage.

Among the highlights:

A refreshing Vermentino, an intensely fruit-laden varietal harvested from the Guado al Tasso vineyards near Bolgheri, about 80 miles southwest of Florence, was a refreshing foil to a bold shaved fennel salad with Meyer lemon and citrus vinaigrette. Vermentino possesses a distinct character. Typically, it is pale yellow, with a green tint. Body, acid and fruit are a nicely balanced in this wine, which finishes with subtle minerality.

For me, no Italian dinner would be complete without a Chianti. This one from Antinori, Peppoli Estate Chianti Classico, is a classically modern Chinati that blend 90 percent Sangiovese with 10 percent Merlot and Syrah. The single estate in Tuscany also produces a small amount of olive oil, also under the Peppoli label. The wine itself is rich, well-balanced and is a perfect expression of the grape. It is meant to be drunk young, when the fruit still possesses its nuances. The earthiness of the terroir carried through to the wine, which in turn blended beautifully with the course, Porcini mushroom risotto drizzled with Chianti reduction.

The third of the night's five wines to earn my admiration is one I enjoyed in Atlanta,  Tignanello Single Vineyard Super Tuscan, a blend of about 80 percent Sangiovese and the balance in Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes come from the crown jewel of the Antinori's Tuscan vineyards, Tenuta Tignanello. The aroma of blackberry was rich and intense, but not nearly as intense as the lingering flavors of chocolate, black fruit and coffee. The wine is a wonderfully balanced example of proper aging to achieve good tannin structures -- which contributes to a lingering, opulent finish.

The course with this wine was a traditionally unadorned Tuscan-style beef tenderloin, prepared simply in a little olive oil, salt and pepper. A colorful and savory blend of roasted baby root vegetables rounded out a dish that certainly transported us to a vineyard-side dinner.

The dinner was a great way to experience the wines in a casual and entertaining atmosphere. Guests visited one-on-one with Rafanelli and walked away with a real appreciation for the wines we were served.

Over the coming weeks, check in with your favorite fine dining restaurants -- tis the season for for visiting wine makers and November is already loaded with remarkable opportunities like this one.