By John Henderson
The air is crisp in Tuscany at 1,800 feet. The hills that make the Tuscan landscape look like a quilt of earth colors rejuvenates your senses in ways only a Jacuzzi can approach. The views. The tastes. The breezes. As I sat on my bike in the tiny hilltop village of San Donato, I looked down at the windy road below me. Castellina in Chianti. Monteriggioni. Volpaia. Names of Tuscan towns roll around my tongue like the wine I’m about to drink in them.
This is where where grape vines flicker in the sun under emerald green hills. It’s where wildflowers of red, purple and orange line forest roads and lead to quaint villages where wine flows like water and the air smells of cheese and prosciutto.
You can experience Tuscany by car. So much of Tuscany is so wonderfully rural, a car can go where no public transport can. You can experience Tuscany by bus. So many buses clog lots in Florence, Siena and Pisa, you must memorize the license plate number to avoid getting left behind. However, the best way to experience Tuscany, the outdoor Tuscany, is by bicycle.
Cycling in Tuscany has been romanticized by everyone from family butchers to pro cyclists alike. Add me to the list. I recently took my first Tuscan bike ride. In Tuscany, cycling takes on a different quality. Wineries dot Tuscany like tomato stains on an apron. You can’t ride more than 30 minutes without seeing neat rows of grapevines behind an 18th century house teasing you with outdoor tables and a view of a meadow.
I went with a company called Bike Florence & Tuscany Piero Didona and his wife, Elena Boscherini, started the company three years ago after Piero ran a bike shop for 20 years. They both have those lean, tanned bodies that are the committed cyclist’s calling cards.
This isn’t just a business to them. Cycling is their passion. Piero told me when he’s not leading tours, he’s riding, sometimes up to 100 kilometers in a day. Riding in Tuscany always appealed to me. But one thought haunted me as I took the dawn train ride 90 minutes from Rome to Florence.
I haven’t even sat on a bike in three years. Piero told me not to worry. It isn’t difficult. He did offer a pseudo warning.
“You have to be fit,” he said. “Tuscany isn’t flat. Some people think they’re fit because they bike 150 miles per week but they’re riding in Florida. It’s very flat. After the first hill they about die: ‘We don’t have this at home.’”
I wasn’t concerned. After all, if we’re cycling to Tuscan wineries, I’ll find that extra gear. It’s why they label it their “Bike Tasting Tour.”
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The trip is basically a wine tasting with cycling thrown in. Me and seven other Americans covered only 13 miles, mostly downhill. We started at 1,800 feet and ended at 600. You do the math.
The entire trip is done in the famed Chianti region which spreads like a wine stain over nearly half of Tuscany. The Chianti region covers several overlapping areas designated as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).
80 Percent Sangiovese Grapes
To be labeled a Chianti, a wine must consist of at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. And the grapes must come from these regions to guarantee this important DOC or DOCG label on the bottle. Chianti is the godfather of Italian wine. This tiny region of central Italy produces 8 million cases of wine a year.
San Donato is a good place to start. I strolled through the village that’s no longer than the length of a football field. I heard roosters crowing. I saw old men chat in front of a cafe. I looked down from the height over an array of purple wildflowers and saw vineyards and meadows and forests. All I needed was a glass of wine.
The bikes loaned to me was a high-end Specialized, the American bike company that’s the top selling bike in Italy. Mine was a 27-gear hybrid that felt like a Maserati after 40 years on my 1974 10-speed Raleigh Grand Prix.
A Green Panorama
We wheeled down the hill, going just slow enough to take in the incredible green panorama below us. With so few hills, it was like riding through Tuscany in a convertible and at the end of a 20-minute ride one of the best glasses of wine in the world waited for us, not to mention Simone, their assistant, handing out wet towelettes.
We came into the town of Castellina in Chianti. Its one main drag is lined with Italian specialty shops ranging from espresso makers to dried risotto to leather belts. An underground street has a cozy enoteca and the back entrance to our first wine tasting.
Aleandro opened Le Volte Enoteca in 1960 and is still running around the store in his wine apron to this day. Aleandro’s burly French assistant, Gilles Kehren, started us off with a Vernaccia, the famed white wine from San Gimignano, the Tuscan town known worldwide for its massive towers. It’s as good a white wine produced in Tuscany.
I fell for a red wine I’d never heard of: the Bolgheri. The Bolgheri Superiore is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s deep, rich and full bodied and well worth the 31.50 euro retail. Giles plied us with slivers of cinghiale and pork sausage on bread and we were ready to head back down the hill.
We rolled down the hill over some lovely long stretches of flat road where each turn offered new villages in the distance to see. Lornano is a winery/agriturismo outside the town of Monteriggioni. An agriturismo is like a villa but in a farmhouse.
I took one look after walking down the gravel path and immediately wanted a reservation for August. A sparkling turquoise swimming pool overlooked the rolling green Tuscan countryside. The stone buildings housing the rooms looked like something Leonardo Da Vinci may have stayed in while resting from painting Madonnas.
Angioletta took us into the crispy cool storage areas where she explained the fermentation process. We had tastings of a whole array of Chiantis and I re-fell in love with a wine that I had taken for granted living in Italy. The first Chianti Classico I had, a 2012, was 100 percent Sangiovese and absolutely terrific. It’s rich enough to serve with spicy Italian sausage but light enough to drink with crackers and cheese. It was an absolute steal at 19 euros.
I tried the Chianti Gran Selezione. Its classy gold label well represented its 62-euro price tag but I’m not discriminatory enough — or rich enough — to tell much of a difference.
I had to wake from my daydreaming about sipping wine poolside to get back on my bike for our last stretch. This one consisted of three little hills that wouldn’t rate a Category 5 on the Giro’s Cat 1-5 mountain chart (5 being the easiest) but did rate a warning from Piero that anyone not feeling up for it can ride in the chase car. One woman did.
We all managed to make it to the village of Monteriggioni, a medieval, walled town founded in 1215. It’s still populated by only 42 people. Over a bowl of pappardelle cinghiale, one of the trademark dishes of Tuscany, I asked Piero about the massive popularity of cycling in Tuscany.
More Tourists are Bikers
“Now cycling is becoming more popular,” he said. “More people are looking for beautiful places to express themselves. More tourists are bikers.” His company organizes tours 12 months a year and has all levels of routes, including some similar to the three-week Giro d’Italia stages for the serious masochists.
We went upstairs to our last wine tasting. Monte Chiaro Terre della Grigia is in the first building in town, built nearly 1,000 years ago. Seila Bruschi is a wildly enthusiastic blonde sales manager who gave us the rundown. She had me try a Malvesia Nera. It’s 100 percent Pinot Noir, exactly the same as my native Oregon which I’ve said is the best Pinot in the world. The Malvasia was damn close. Adding chunks of Chianti-induced pecorino, I knew what I’d have on my terrace the next time I got home.
Cycling in Tuscany. The biggest surprise wasn’t the ease of the cycling but the reasonable prices of the world-renowned wines. To enjoy Tuscany at its fullest, you don’t need a car or a bus.
Two wheels and a thirst will do.