Zipping and Sipping Through Tuscany
By Tab Hauser
The disclosure: I am in no way advocating that anyone wine and drive at the same time or under the influence. What I will say is that the best way to get to know Tuscany is by zipping along its scenic roads that easily connect its pretty villages and vineyards at a moderate pace in both speed and consumption.
The region of Tuscany, Italy is well known for its wine, food, walled villages and its surrounding scenic vineyards. As fans of Chianti, Brunello and Super Tuscans we toured wineries in old castles, Renaissance villas, and one very modern estate.
These estates were selected for their quality of food and wine, scenic views as well as their proximity to pretty towns nearby.
Our personal food and wine festival was split up into four nights in Greve, the heart of Chianti, and two nights in Montepulciano.
To enjoy the windy roads we went pure Italian with the sporty Alfa Romeo Guilin we upgraded to from Hertz in Florence.
We planned to visit one winery per day for their tour and lunch. By visiting one per day, things stayed fresher in our mind and on our palate, and we did not have to worry about overindulging or getting tired in the afternoon.
After the winery, we would stroll around a historic town nearby to walk off lunch and learn about it.
Castello di Verrazzano
Driving from Florence had us go directly to Castello di Verrazzano in Greve. The Verrazzano family settled here in the seventh century with the first recorded wine production in 1170. (The explorer Giovani Verrazzano was born here in 1485.)
Our tour started at the 10th-century lookout tower to learn about the land and the family. It continued through the gardens, the ancient cellars and past the aged balsamic vinegar room.
280,000 bottles are produced in a dozen varietals with an emphasis on Chianti Classico, Riserva, and Gran Selezione. The latter being aged longer and given extra attention.
After the tour, we sampled several wines including a side by side comparison of three different Chianti’s to taste the aging difference.
This was followed by a four-course wine lunch from locally sourced ingredients. The view here gazed upon Castello Vicchiomaggio and its 10th-century tower and villa we would call home for the next four nights.
After the vineyard head up the road five minutes to Castello di Montefioralle. This petite walled village can be seen in about 30 minutes. It is one of the oldest in Chianti and remains frozen in time.
Marcasi Antonori is one the largest and oldest wine producers in Italy with 26 generations of the Antonori’s at the helm.
Our scenic 45-minute drive through the narrow back roads of Chianti took us to the main entrance where we boarded a bus to the hilltop lobby. Where other wineries visited were in old castles, this one was of an ultra-modern design built into the hill.
If this place were in a James Bond movie you would expect the villain Blofeld to step out and say “I have you now Mr. Bond.” Tours here are a bit “corporate.” Visitors see a small wine museum and art gallery along with two short films. Guides lead you above the giant modern warehouses stacked with barrels.
After the tour, we sampled a good Chianti Riserva and two less impressive wines before being lead to a bar where you can buy high-end tastes of their super Tuscans created here.
Then, we enjoyed a wine paired three-course lunch that featured the famous Tuscan T-bone steak and finished with cookies dipped in a sweet Vin Santo wine.
For the afternoon we recommend the 40-minute drive to San Gimignano, known as “the city of fine towers.”
After a leisurely morning on the grounds and pool at Castello Vicchiomaggio, we met the owner John Matta for a detailed tour that started in the vineyard.
John showed us the vines of the Sangiovese grapes that were held up on wires. He explained how only two bunches are allowed for use in Chianti wine.
The extra bunch is cut and dropped. He said doing this improves the quality of the remaining grapes. He then showed us their aging area under the property with their distinctly Tuscan barrels.
This vineyard produces 300,000 bottles a year and has won the Italian Wine Producer Award in 1997, 2002, 2005 and 2010. After our tour, we sampled his different wines with an emphasis on Chianti.
We found the Chianti Classico a good value and the Chianti Gran Selezione outstanding. John recommended cellaring the Gran Selezione for several years. That evening in their 14th-century villa we enjoyed a four-course dinner with a superb bottle of their 2009 Gran Selezione.
Italy’s Oldest Vineyard at Castello di Brolio
We checked out of Castello Vicchiomaggio for our drive to Montepulciano with a stop at Castello di Brolio and Baron Ricasoli Vineyards. This winery is considered Italy’s oldest, dating back to 1141. In 1872 Baron Bettino Ricasoli invented the Chianti formula. Visiting here is a three-part experience. The first part is the tour of their large production and cellaring facilities followed by a tasting of several wines.
The second part of our visit was enjoying a beautifully plated gourmet lunch at Osteria del Castello.
We concluded our tour with a walk around and inside the castle that was complete with torrents, walls, gates, towers and their fine living and giant dining room containing century’s old tapestries.
The grounds and the grand tour includes the renaissance garden, wine museum, family church and crypt along with a rare family armory museum.
Montepulciano: Winery Below the City
Our last two nights were in Montepulciano located between Florence and Rome. Montepulciano streets contain a blend of medieval and renaissance architecture with vineyards inside the city’s walls. Many of the stores here display very large bottles of their hometown wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
The wineries in town to visit should include both De’Ricci Cantine and Cantina della Talosa. What makes this place unique is the aging process set in in a labyrinth of Etruscan caves dating back to 6 B.C.
Vineyard at a 13th Century Castle
Driving west from Montepulciano on the scenic and hilly roads of Tuscany took us to the13th century Castello of Poggio alle Mura, now known as Castello Banfi. Our last mile gave us an impressive view of the Castle sitting perfectly landscaped around some of their 7100 acres of vineyards.
This winery was started by two Italian American brothers in 1978 whose wine distribution spans many countries.
The tour starts at the machinery that cleans, crushes and removes seeds and stems of the grapes. It continues through the giant warehouses that have large stainless steel and custom wood over steel fermenting tanks. From there we walked to smaller warehouses to view many of the 7000 aging barrels.
At the tasting bar, we sampled their very elegant Brunello’s, followed by their lower priced Rosso di Montalcino, known as the baby Brunello due to its shorter aging time. Afterward, we enjoyed a four-course gourmet lunch with different regional wines.
The castle here is complete with its tower, two inner courtyards, walls and a retractable staircase. At the base, we walked by their upscale inn and then into the Museum of Bottle and Glass which has the largest private collection of Roman glass. Also on display is the world’s largest wine bottle capable of holding the equivalent of 35 normal bottles of wine.
From Castello Banfi, with the decision not to visit any of the 200 small vineyards in the area, we drove 20 minutes to Montalcino which is ground zero for everything Brunello.
This unchanged 500-year walled village can be walked end to end in 10 minutes.
Its main street has many shops that feature their local prize in a bottle. Signs everywhere offer samples or two-ounce purchases.
La Bottega di Amalcare located 100 feet from the original fortress is worth a stop.
Here the owner cheerfully greeted us at the door to offer tastings of any of 25 Brunello’s on display with no pressure to purchase.
He explained how the Sangiovese grapes are grown, picked and nurtured into wine that is aged five years before sold. Going to this store had a festive atmosphere.
When visiting any winery, it is important to make an appointment through their website. Know your prices before you order anything and always use a credit card to protect your purchases in case there is a problem.
Greve: Castello Vicchiomaggio is a 1500-year-old villa and winery with a 10th-century tower having spacious suites and apartments. The grounds have good views and there is an inviting pool in season.
For information go to Greve’s unusual shaped square nearby has a mix of shops, restaurants, and a few tourist stores. Worth a stop is the Falorni food store and Il Golosi pastry shop.
Montepulciano: Il Rondo Boutique Hotel is a full-service inn just outside the walls of the city. We opted to rent their apartment inside the city for its location. This large apartment was the owner’s grandmother and is tastefully decorated from her time. >www.albergoilrondo.it