A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to enjoy a whistle-stop tour of Tuscan viticulture at a five-star luxury resort near Siena. Yes, I know, it was one of my toughest assignments yet!
Siena, it barely needs saying, lies in the heart of one of Italy’s most prestigious wine producing regions. Tuscany is to Italy what Bordeaux is to France. It has 40 DOC(G) status wines (second only to Piedmont, which has 52) and is home to some of the most recognisable names in Italian wine.
The resort’s cavernous cellar, situated below a thirteenth-century villa, contains over 1200 prestigious and boutique labels. I was lucky enough to taste a few of them.
A great white
Teruzzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano (2010)
We started the tasting with a Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Tuscany’s renowned white wine made from the Vernaccia grape. It is one of the regions most historic wines. In 1966, it became Italy’s first DOC and in 1993 it was elevated to DOCG status.
San Gimignano itself is a charming medieval village about 35 kilometres from Siena. Its striking hilltop location, medieval walls, towers and churches make it an ever-popular tourist destination, while the high altitudes and calcareous, sandy soils surrounding the village are well suited to producing structured, aromatic white wine.
On nosing the cork, a look of mild consternation played across the face of our urbane sommelier. He quickly regained his composure, poured the wine and had a sniff. While he seemed far from convinced, we proceeded with the tasting. Unfortunately, the sommelier’s suspicions were confirmed when he took a mouthful of the wine. It wasn’t corked, he explained, it was just un po’ chiuso (a bit closed). This can be a particular problem with white wine, which doesn’t age as well as red. With some breathing time, the wine would probably have improved, but eager to proceed with our tasting, he reached for another bottle.
No problems at the second time of asking, and we were soon enjoying a crisp, floral bouquet with a slightly bitter almondy finish. A classic Vernaccia di San Gimignano!
A timeless classic
Selvapiana Chianti Rufina (2015)
As early as the 14th century a wine known as Chianti was being produced in the hills between Florence and Siena. A few centuries later, the Medici established the first known laws governing wine production, establishing, amongst other things, the various production zones of the Chianti region. Due to overproduction and substandard production techniques, Chianti’s image was tarnished somewhat during the 1970s and 1980s and even today the brand still suffers from its straw-covered fiasco table wine image. Personally, I’m a big fan of that nostalgic facade, but perhaps not quite in keeping with today’s luxurious surroundings!
An upgrade to DOCG status in 1984 sparked a much-needed renaissance in production techniques and the creation of the gallo nero (black rooster) logo, the symbol of the Chianti producers’ association, coincided with a general improvement in production values across the region.
Tuscan wines are dominated by two grapes – the white trebbiano and the red sangiovese. It is said these were native wild vines, domesticated long ago by the Etruscans. The ancient Sangiovese grape is perhaps the most important native red grape in Italy (alongside the Nebbiolo of Piedmont). Naturally high in acidity and aroma, it is the predominant grape variety in Chianti Classico. As well it’s characteristic black cherry flavour, the Sangiovese also gives Chianti a certain woody, smoky quality, an intoxicating blend of sweet and spicy.
On the shelfs of the cantina, I noticed a few of the famed 1997 vintage (a year in which the reforms and replantings of the 1980s and 1990s coincided with particularly good weather) and was tempted to ask for a taste, but instead we settled for a fresher vintage, still mouth-wateringly good!
On the rocks
Next, the Sommelier produced a Bolgheri Sassicaia. Bolgheri is about 30 minutes south of Livorno on Tuscany’s Mediterranean coast. It is an area densely populated with cinghiale – Italy’s ubiquitous wild boar and is prime hunting territory. Compared to the ancient Chianti, the red wine produced on the now-famous hills of Bolgheri is a newcomer to the Italian wine scene. In 1944, while others had more pressing matters to attend to, Mario Incisa, recently arrived from Piedmont, planted his first vineyard. Intent on making a Bordeaux-style wine for his personal consumption, it wasn’t until 1968 that he released his first wine onto the market. He called his wine Sassicaia (rocky place) and it took the wine world by storm.
The elegant blend of merlot and cabernet grapes married with the tarry, woody notes typical of Tuscan vines proved to be a winning combination, while the proximity of the Tuscan coast gave the Sassicaia its unmistakable saline quality. In 1984 a Bolgheri DOC was created and over the last decade wine making in the region has exploded.
The big brown
Brunello di Montalcino Casanova di Neri 2014
With our dinner reservation rapidly approaching, it was time for our final tasting, a Brunello di Montalcino.
Montalcino is another of those iconic Tuscan hill towns. Just 25 kilometres south of Siena, the climate here is dryer, hotter and more Mediterranean than the damper, cooler climate of the Chianti Classico territory. The soils are also different, containing more sand and limestone. These factors combine to produce a super robust strand of the sangiovese - the famed Brunello di Montalcino.
With its deep flavours and superior ageing potential, Brunello di Montalcino is up there with Piedmont’s Barolo and Barbaresco as one of Italy’s most sought after wines. The wine we tasted was rich and full-bodied with warm red-cherry and plum and hints of chocolate, leather and coffee. Intoxicating!
Small Italian towns tend to disappoint me. I guess that could be said about small towns in general, not just in Italy.
Lacking in personality, devoid of industry or purpose, cleansed of history and character, culturally barren and culinarily bland, small towns are, in my experience, best avoided.
Give me a vibrant city or a small hilltop village any day. Anything in between is unworthy of my time or effort.
I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, by what I found at Colle di Val d'Elsa, a small-town of 22,000 inhabitants in the Elsa valley, somewhere between Siena and Florence.
Colle di Val d'Elsa is that rare thing, a small town with purpose, character, industry and charm. Not to mention a few quirky surprises too.
The town has a thriving crystal glassware industry. Remarkably, it is said that 15% of the world’s crystal is produced here. Indeed, there are numerous outlets and manufacturers displaying their fine wares throughout the town. Perhaps it is this industrial vigour that underpins the town’s vibrancy.
Another striking feature of Colle di Val d’Elsa is that it is split in two levels - the "Colle alta" and the "Colle bassa". The oldest part of the town, the "colle alta", is connected to the lower part of the town, the Colle bassa, by a 400-metre elevator which is accessed through a restored Second World War air raid shelter. A novel way to arrive at the panoramic old town.
At the lower level, the town’s principal square, Piazza Arnolfo di Cambio (named after the town’s renowned architect and sculptor), provides a striking focal point for the city. Bright, clean and well-maintained, the piazza hosts a pharmacy, post office and police headquarters, as well as the usual bars, bakeries and shops, making it a vibrant focal point for the town. For the local pensioners, it’s just a pleasant place to pass the time of day.
Colle di Val d’Elsa is also a staging post on the via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim trail that connects Canterbury and Rome. Today, modern day backpackers are a familiar sight as they pass through the town on their way to Siena.
With three active theatrical companies, two theatres and three cinemas, the town boasts a vibrant arts scene. Colle di Val d’Elsa also exudes a certain multicultural air (not always the case in Italian towns and villages). In October 2013, the town's new mosque was inaugurated. Although its foundation was not without controversy, it is now an important place of prayer and worship for the local Islamic community
And now we come to the quirky - and these, if I’m being honest, are the episodes that really swung it for me with Colle di Val d'Elsa.
First, looking for a simple bite to eat, we chose an unassuming trattoria just around the corner from Piazza Cambio. I was immediately drawn to the remarkable collection of whisky miniatures crammed into two glass fronted cabinets. A reminder of home, the collection was also an intriguing glimpse into the history and idiosyncrasy of this small town
The second episode occurred later that evening. With Hellas Verona playing Sassuolo, I was keen to find somewhere to watch the game. As this wasn’t exactly a glamour tie and I was, after all, in a small Tuscan town with no obvious interest in the game, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about finding somewhere to watch it.
With some vague directions, I was soon making my way towards a pub on the fringes of the town. I had no trouble finding the joint, as karaoke emanating from the gazebo could be heard for miles around. I walked into a lively, bustling bar, festooned with football memorabilia. Even better, there was a decent crowd, clearly enjoying the match in front of large screen.
As I supped on my first pint, taking in the surroundings, it was clear that this bar had a direct and authentic connection with football. The memorabilia on display had a rich and authentic feel to it. The centrepiece was a full-size poster of Diego Maradona in his distinctive Napoli strip, posing with who I assumed to be a Juventus player who seemed vaguely familiar, but who I couldn’t quite place.
By the time I’d ordered my second pint, the identity of the mysterious Juventus player was beginning to distract me from the game itself.
When the barman poured my third pint it clicked. “È tu, vero?”, I said, smiling and pointing to the picture behind him. “Si”, he replied, "it's me".
The barman’s name was Luciano Macri. On 12 August 1984, Napoli had come to Tuscany to play Siena in a pre-season friendly. Siena were struggling in the lower divisions. Macri was a young striker on the periphery of the Siena squad.
A certain Diego Armando Maradona had just arrived at Napoli from Barcelona and this preseason friendly was his first opportunity to show what he could do.
It was a masterful display. Maradona orchestrated a 4-0 victory while barely seeming to move out of third gear.
For Macri, this close encounter with footballing genius would be the highlight of his playing career.
He never made the big time himself, but would always treasure the moment he came face to face with the greatest player the world has ever seen.
For me, the opportunity to have a pint with someone who had played against Maradona was yet another reason to love Colle di Val d’Elsa. Perhaps small towns aren't so bad after all!
Which is Italy's most beautiful island?
Well, I've now been fortunate enough to spent time on each of Italy's three largest islands, Sicily, Sardinia and, most recently, Elba. While Sicily has a unique history and culture, and the crystal clear waters and immaculate beaches of Sardinia are almost impossible to beat, for me Isola d'Elba is Italy's most beautiful island.
A lush, green, mountainous interior with hidden bays, quaint fishing villages, and vibrant beaches, it seems better cared for than its southern neighbour Sicily and more authentic than the ever-popular Sardinia. The beach resorts are discreet, seldom rising above a single storey and the back drop is invariably green, the ubiquitous Italian stone pine, providing a natural and soothing alternative to the concrete that defines other resorts.
We focussed our attention on the north-eastern corner of the island, staying in Nisporto and making day trips to various beaches in the area. The furthest we ventured was to the vast sandy beach of Lido Capoliveri and the refined luxury of Biodola.
While our accommodation at Nisporto was basic (barely satisfactory if the truth be told), lacking both air conditioning and mosquito blinds that are essential luxuries in the height of summer, the location was spectacular, just a stones throw from an intimate stoney bay, the frequently passing ferries on the horizon a constant reminder of the islands summer-time appeal. With some gentle persuasion, we even came to love the immaculate rounded pebbles on the beach which, with the correct footwear, made for a refreshing alternative to sand. Take-away pizza on the beach followed by a late-night family swim was one of the memorable highlights of our week's stay on the island.
The food, as you would expect from Tuscany, was unfailingly fresh, delicious and abundant. Prices compared favourably to the often over-priced Sardinia and service was unfailingly good-natured and friendly.
In terms of history and culture, we found little of genuine interest. But then again, we were barely looking.
A future trip, perhaps avoiding the harsh heat of the Italian high summer, beckons.