One of the highlights of our month in Orvieto was a four hour tour, cooking class, and meal at a local winery – a wonderful retirement gift from my daughters. There are many winery tours and cooking classes available in Tuscany and Umbria, but Decugnano dei Barbi is one of the most highly rated and I cannot agree more.
We booked our late June date (2-6pm) several months in advance, and a quick peek at the website let us know we were going to be in for a treat. The winding 30 minute drive to Decugnano dei Barbi took us into the countryside, where the winery perched about 300m (1000′) above sea level at the top of a limestone hill. From the main dining table, the town of Orvieto is perfectly framed in the arched window.
When we arrived at the gate, the owner buzzed us in, and we drove in to the first parking lot. Anna Rita, our guide, met us at the car, and introduced herself. She spoke excellent English and was a friendly and informative guide. We had expected to be joined by a group of other people but were pleasantly surprised to find we had a private tour!
The winery has been owned by the Barbi family since the 1970’s, but wine has been produced on this vineyard for centuries. On the site, were a number of production outbuildings, the private Barbi family home, a lovely villa available for rent, and the old chapel that has been converted into a dining room with attached kitchen for the cooking classes.
Anna first took us for a walk around the grounds and explained that the area soil is clay and the rock is sand stone, with fossils and shells left behind from the Pliocene era when central Italy was covered by a shallow sea. They believe that the unique minerals in the soil help to give their wines its flavour.
The first written proof of the vineyard was in the early 1200’s when the wine was made for the clergy of Santa Maria di Decugnano. The original chapel is now part of the winery tour. The caves date back at least 500 years, possibly longer.
In Italy, wines are named for their region, not for the specific grape used, and the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin, which includes DOC and DOCG wines) determines exactly where and how each wine must be made. Production is strictly regulated, but vintners also have the option of making any other kinds of non-DOP wine as well. Orvieto Classico is the regional white wine, but the Barbi’s grow over a dozen different grapes and produce seven different red and white wines, all without chemicals or fertilizers.
We were first shown how the grapes are pressed in a large tank which uses a balloon inside to gently squeeze out the juice without releasing too many tannins from the stems. Depending on the kind of wine, the juice sits in the tank for a few weeks or is piped into large tanks inside the storage building. We toured through these buildings and even watched the vintner get things ready to bottle some wine the next day.
Next, we walked through the vineyard and down a hill to the ancient limestone caves where the wine is aged in bottles or barrels. The constant temperature of 12-14 degrees celsius and the high humidity, make this a perfect place to store the wine. As we entered, we passed row upon row of bottled wine, each section a different type and/or vintage. Then we visited the room where the oak barrels are stored and next to that, the bottling area for the sparkling wine. It was really interesting to hear how they do it.
The bottles have been stored with the neck down so that the sediment accumulates in the neck of the bottle. Three skilled people hand cork the bottles in assembly line fashion. The first person puts the neck of the bottles into a liquid that flash freezes the top, then puts it into a little machine that shoots the cork and the frozen sediment out of the bottle. The next person in line quickly refills the bottle with enough wine and a little sugar to bring it back up the correct level, and then passes it to the last person who quickly recorks it. It has to be done very quickly so the bottles don’t lose their fizz.
After our tour of the winery, we walked up to the old chapel to wash up and put on aprons and went into the kitchen where met Rosanna who would be teaching us how to prepare our four course meal. We used all fresh seasonal ingredients, and Anna even picked some fresh mint from the field as we walked up the path. Anna interpreted and helped as we all cooked together.
First we made pizza dough and put it aside to rise. Then we made fresh pasta dough, rolled it out as thinly as possible, gently folded it over several times, and cut it into 1 cm ribbons called tagliatelle. Next, Erik cut up tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and zucchini for a fresh veggie pasta sauce while I mixed up a fresh sausage of ground beef and pork with herbs and spices and then rolled thinly sliced veal around the little logs of sausage and secured them with a toothpick. Rosanna sautéed the rolls in oil and sage briefly and then added white wine to braise them slowly. The leftover sausage meat was formed into balls and cooked in the oven.
Once the meat and sauce prep was done, we made cookies with flour, sugar, olive oil, and dessert wine, and then we pressed the pizza dough into 4 rectangular plans, drizzled it with olive oil, and topped each pan with a different topping. One was with zucchini flowers, one was thinly sliced zucchini, one was quartered cherry tomatoes and parsley, and the last was tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.
I stuffed some more zucchini flowers with a thin piece of anchovy and mozzarella cheese and then dredged them in beer batter for Rosana to fry up. I also dipped big sage leaves in the same batter for her to fry.
By this time, all the prep was done, so we washed up and moved to the dining room while Anna and Rosana finished up the preparations and served us our meal. We started with our little pizzas for Antipasti with a glass of sparkling white wine (Brut) similar to champagne. They were all so good, I could have had my fill but we knew we had to save room for three more courses.
The Primi course was our tagliatelle with the veggie sauce and wow, was it delicious! I could not believe the simple sauce could be so tasty. With this course, we had a glass of Orvieto Classico, the white wine of the area. Anna offered to refill our glasses when we finished the wine before the food, and it was hard to say no, but we did have to drive back to Orvieto after so we sadly declined.
For Secondi, we had our meat rolls which had been sliced on the plate with some of the sauce over top, the fried zucchini flowers and sage leaves, some green beens and sautéed chicory. All of it was delicious but man, I was getting full. There was enough food to last three meals! With this course we had a glass of Decugnano’s red wine – a blend of Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Syrah. The wine was so good, I could easily have had another glass but we did end up buying two bottle to take back with us (only 13 euros each).
Dolce was our little doughnut shaped wine cookies called Ciambelle al Vino. They were similar to biscotti, so we dipped them into our Pourriture Noble, a sweet white dessert wine for our fourth course.
By the time we were finished it was almost 6 o’clock and I was full to bursting, but oh so content. Anna and Rosana packed up all of the leftovers in 3 big containers along with two bottles of red and one of white that we had purchased, the recipes, and our aprons, and we said our thanks and goodbyes. It was definitely a highlight of our time in Orvieto and I will remember it for years to come.
Because this day was a gift, I have no idea what it cost, and I don’t think I want to know, but you can check the Decugnano website and contact Anna Rita to get a price. Now that we are home, we owe my daughters an amazing Italian dinner as a thank you!