Taste! Tuscany 2016
Carlos and I were very excited to be running the first of the ‘out of Languedoc’ wine holidays from the range of Taste Tours that I created last year. This one was called Taste! Tuscany and was 7 days of exploring the vineyards, the wines, the olive oils and beautiful villages and towns of this area. I had put the tour on the web site last November and was absolutely delighted when 16 people booked and the mix was perfect; 8 from the USA and 8 from the UK.
I had spent a week in Tuscany on a ‘field trip’ with my professor when I was studying for my WSET Diploma in 2005 and Carlos and I spent a week there in October 2015 getting our bearings and deciding on an itinerary. I had also studied the wines of the region quite seriously over the years so we were well prepared when we set off this September and drove from Languedoc in one of the Vin en Vacances little buses, we were to hire another one in Pisa.
On day one I picked up the 8 Americans from Florence and Carlos collected the 8 Brits from Pisa airport and we rendezvoused in Carmignano, one of my favourite appellations at one of the oldest wineries on the area called Tenuta di Capezzana. It was lunch time when we arrived and we were greeted by a small army of young and enthusiastic people who had set a huge table on the terrace with fabulous views over the hills. The dishes started to come and eventually the table was heaving with delicious food which we tucked into accompanied by the wines of the domaine which we were introduced to with each course.
It was a great way to taste the wines and it seems this is the Tuscan way as this is how we tasted each day throughout the week. After a very interesting tour of the property including the olive oil mill and cellar we headed off to our accommodation for the week at Fattoria Di Corsignano which is close to Sienna.
There is hardly a straight road in Tuscany and each road winds round many hills so what might take 10 minutes to drive if the road was reasonably straight can take 2 or 3 times longer. But eventually we arrived at the Agro Tourism property where we were staying. These are a wonderful concept that Italy is very good at offering and I wish we had similar places in France. This one was charming, a little rustic but the people were very friendly. We stayed in small cottages most of which were 2 bedrooms and there was a very good restaurant serving local dishes. We all enjoyed a great first dinner and got to know each other a little and the fun had definitely begun!
The next day we headed to Felsina which is one of the best wineries I have ever visited and where we had a superb tour with a knowledgably and enthusiastic guide. Again the tasting was made over a ‘light lunch’ as it had been billed and this became quite a joke over the week as all the ‘light lunches’ turned out to be a feast fit for a king!
This particular lunch was being cooked for us in the next room and at the end of the meal the 2 young chefs appeared and we all gave them a standing ovation. The wines were superb too, all made from Sangiovese but from different terroir and they turned out to be my favourite red wines of the tour. Sangiovese when picked ripe produces complex, gamey wines with tart cherry flavours that are a perfect match for tomato based dishes due to their high acidity. I also loved their Vin Santo and this one was honeyed with delicious orange flavours and superb levels of acidity which swept the sugar from your mouth leaving you with the tantalising flavours and no sickly sugar.
The weather was not kind to us this day in fact it absolutely lashed down with rain which was sad as we were to spend the afternoon in Sienna. We started with a guided tour with Viviana, a very knowledgeable tour guide who took the group around the city ending with the magnificent Duomo then people drifted off for some free time.
We re-grouped that evening for a pizza (one of the best I’ve ever tasted) in the square called Piazza del Campo where the Palio di Siena, the famous horse race takes place twice a year. The group were still getting to know each other and so inevitably the Brits sat at one table and the Americans at another but as the evening warmed up and the wine began to flow they were toasting each other across the room. It was a lovely sight to see.
Next day we headed to the stunning town of Montepluciano. The drive afforded us the opportunity to see much more of the area as this historic town is south of Sienna and it took a little over an hour to reach. We tasted wines at a highly regarded winery called Salcheto just outside the town. Here we tasted the noble wine Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and discovered what made it different to Chianti.
We visited a futuristic winery where they have a very light carbon foot print using the heat of the earth to produce energy and harnessing the sun for more. Although it was impressive to see we weren’t all keen on the wines produced there. We visited the beautiful hill town of Montepluciano which is a medieval town of rare beauty. The city, full of elegant Renaissance palaces, ancient churches, charming squares and hidden corners, boasts vast panoramas all over the wonderful Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana valleys that surround it.
At the end of the day we visited a sheep farm to taste Pecorino di Pienza which is considered the best pecorino produced in the Crete Senesi, a specific area within the province of Sienna. This was a superb visit and possibly the highlight of this day.
On Tuesday we stayed closer to home in the Chianti Classico territory whose borders have remained unchanged from those established by ministerial decree in July 1932. We started the day with a visit to the impressive Castello di Monsanto where we had an amazing tour of the underground cellars built by just 2 men who spent nearly a quarter of their lives building these underground cellars that are now stacked with bottles dating back many decades.
The tasting took place in the orangery that overlooks the gardens of the castle and is decorated with ornate frescoes. The wines were superb and we all appreciated the delicious Chardonnay which turns out to be one of the finest produced in all of Tuscany.
After this fine visit we were all ready for lunch which was a good thing for there was a lively feast ahead of us in the village of Panzano with Cecchini Dario who is a leading, internationally renowned Italian butcher. He is described as ‘A personality, a celebrity, and a butcher extraordinaire. A theatrical host, a show-stopper, and an artist’ and we were not disappointed. We spent a couple of ours sitting at long tables on a sunny terrace joined by other visitors to the region, drinking Chianti from raffia covered bottles and eating every cut of beef you have ever heard of.
We finished the day with an olive oil tasting which we did the professional way with little blue bowl shaped glasses.
A great experience!
At the half way point in the week I had planned a free day for everyone but for those who wanted to they could join a ccooking class and those who did this had a glorious time learning how to make pasta and other delicious foods. Those of us who took some time off joined the ‘cooks’ for lunch to taste the fruits of their labours. I particularly loved the chicken with fresh sage and bacon, I’m going to be cooking that myself very soon.
Brunello di Montalcino wines are some of my favourites and are produced at the southern end of Tuscany and it was to here that we headed on the Thursday. The day was superb during which we learnt the history of this famous wines and how its high quality is guarded by a consortium of dedicated and passionate wine makers.
This day consisted of top class winery visits as well as a peaceful visit to the beautiful monastery of Sant’Antimo and one of the best lunches of the week at a family style restaurant hidden away in a tiny hill village reached by one of the ‘strata bianca’, rough tracks that crisscross this area.
We ended the week with a visit to one of the most famous producers of Vernaccia di San Gimingano, a superb white wine of Tuscany. Our visit was to a winery owned by two princesses who are related to the Mona Lisa. We all felt highly honoured to be escorted round the estate with one of the princesses who also served us with food and wine at her enormous table. A visit I will remember for a long time not least because of the Vin Santo produced here which tasted of honeyed almonds, marzipan and Seville oranges. I am saving my bottle to enjoy with a slice of Christmas cake.
The afternoon was spent in the nearby village of San Gimignano where everyone had some free time before meeting up for one of the best gelato’s I’ve ever had and made by a famous ice cream maker in the heart of the village.
Every dinner but two had been eaten at our agro tourism and tonight we were treated to a 4 course dinner with wines from their estate. It was a fitting way to end this superb week of wine and food and to toast all the people who had by then become firm friends.