Tuscany: An Imaginary Wine Tour
As the summer winds down, many of us are still thinking about memorable extended vacations or adventurous day trips that took us away from quotidian patterns and rituals. We have been enjoying the stories of fortunate friends, colleagues, and customers who visited Paris, Barcelona, the Greek Islands or Tuscany, just to name a few. Some of us were lucky enough to get away to exotic lands and some of us vacationed vicariously through others. Whichever scenario fits, we decided it would be fun to go someplace in September, like Italy, even if it were just a journey of nose, mouth, and mind, through the cities and vineyards of the rolling hills of Tuscany.
We start in Boston and take off from Logan Airport, via Alitalia, and land in Schiphol, Amsterdam. (Sorry, there are no direct flights.) From there a short two hour flight puts us in Florence, the capital city of Tuscany, and called by some, the Athens of the Middle Ages. Here is where the Renaissance was born. Artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Donatello were some of the luminaries of the period.
While in Florence we stroll through the Piazza della Signoria and gaze at the Fountain of Neptune with its satyrs on the edges and sea horses emerging from the waters. Just outside the Palazzo Vecchio we can see a replica of Michelangelo’s David – purists that we are, we head up to Accademia di Belle Arti (“Academy of Fine Arts”) to see the real deal. On the way, a quick stop at one of the most visited locations in Europe, the Piazza del Duomo, to wander through museums, cathedrals and bell towers of epic proportions. After some night life adventuring and a seven course meal we rest up at the hotel of our choice and head out in the morning for San Gimignano and the first of our several winery stops.
San Gimignano, a walled city with fifteen towers that escaped the ravages of war and urban renewal, has become internationally known for just that. That and a local wine made from the Vernaccia grape that produces a dry, fresh, distinct white wine with a hint of bitter almonds on the finish. Vernaccia di San Gimignano was also, in 1966, the very first DOC wine in Italy and in 1993 was awarded DOCG status. After exploring towers and the city we head out to the surrounding countryside to visit a couple of wineries.
Just a few kilometers north northwest from the ancient walled city lies the Casa Alle Vacche vineyard with its 20 hectares of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Canaiolo, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano. They also have three hectares of olives to complete the agricultural picture. Here we chat with the Ciappi family and sip some delicious light bodied Vernaccia. West of the city we stop in at Panizzi, a younger winery with some very stylish wines. We sip some more Vernaccia and decide, that while different, we can’t pick a favorite. We stay with some friends just outside the walled city and dream of red wine rivers sure to come.
From San Gimignano we head into the heart of Tuscany – Chianti, and Chianti’s heart lies in the Classico region. A gentleman farmer’s paradise if ever there was one, the Chianti wine region is scattered with farms and vineyards dotted with cypress and olive. The Sangiovese grape, the lifeblood from Florence to Siena, beats out a steady flow of vinous potions. Black and tart cherries with a minerally iron note are textbook descriptors for Sangiovese, along with some lip smacking sourness and sturdy tannins. These wines are ideal with all delicacies Italian.
We head north east into the Classico region and pay a quick but thoroughly satisfying visit to Isole e Olena where we have time for a quick conversation with Paolo about the use of international varieties in Italy. Here we try his opulent yet balanced Toscana Chardonnay that makes us believers. From there we head a little south into the Castellina in Chianti village and stop by Castello La Leccia for our first red wine of the trip. This estate situated 450 meters above sea level offers breathtaking views as we look down into the Val d’Elsa that runs from Siena to San Gimignano. We taste our Toscana Rosso, full of dark cherries and earth, while surveying the verdant valley.
From there we head a few kilometers south east to Castelnuovo Berardenga to visit Borgo Scopeto. Some of their property is located in the Classico region, and some of the vineyards lie on the outskirts in the Colli Senesi. The large heather Erica Scoparia that springs up in the surrounding woods is likely where this estate originally acquired its name. Here they have a podere, or country estate with farmhouse. The farmhouse has been converted into apartments for guests with gardens and a swimming pool. Here we sample their Chianti Classico which is smooth and medium to full bodied. Hints of herbs and full throttle dark cherries make this wine stand out, and while we would like to stay by the pool and keep on sipping we move on to Siena, an ancient walled city very close by and to the west.
Siena is such a small city that you can walk across it in about a half hour. So an early evening stroll is just the thing. We check out Il Campo, the Piazza where the Palio, a bareback horse race, is held in July and August, before checking in to the Grand Hotel Continental to be pampered. For dinner we head to Osteria il Campaccio for wild boar and polenta paired with Toscolo Chianti. The Toscolo is so easy to drink with its bright red fruits and friendly demeanor we are tempted to order a second bottle, but are reminded by one of our more responsible traveling companions we need an early start tomorrow, as we are headed to Montepulciano and Montalcino!
Montepulciano, the city not the grape, is a charming hill town and is about one hour south east from Siena. The city is known for food and wine; the former – cheese, pork and honey, the latter Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which achieved its DOCG standing in 1980.
Here the best wines are made with Prugnolo Gentile, which is just another name for Sangiovese; but not all Sangioveses are created equal and the winemakers here feel they have an exceptional clone. After checking out Palazzo Comunale, designed by Michelozzo in the tradition of the Palazzo della Signoria of Florence, we head to Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta. Owned by the Corbelli family the vineyards stand on the Gracciano hills, one of the best “Crus” of Montepulciano. They show us their basic Rosso, and while very lovely, it is the more masculine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with its velvet tannins and concentrated flavors of sour cherry that steals our hearts. We decide to buy a few bottles for the trip home.
Off to Montalcino, the home of Brunello, with the dust kicking up behind our rented Fiat, we realize we have more than passed the halfway point on our journey. This doesn’t put a damper on our fire, as we head into Montalcino. Montalcino is yet another picturesque hill town possibly settled by the Etruscans. We check out the fortress which overlooks the town and then head to the hamlet of Castello di Argiano, restored and owned by Guiseppe Maria Sesti and his wife Elisa. They turn out to be gracious hosts and pour their Brunellos and other wines for us, which are stunning. The winner here, considering our budget, is their Toscana IGT called Monteleccio which is an Italian version of the Latin name “Montalcino,” meaning “hill of the holm oaks.” After a lovely lunch and more wine we decide to stay in town for the evening and sneak our Monteleccio into Il Leccio for dinner.
In the morning, we head to the Maremma region and a make a quick stop in Scansano for a visit to one of our favorite value producers of Sangiovese, or Morellino as the locals call the grape. Erik Banti isn’t in but one of the local cantinas has his Morellino di Scansano with its herbs, sour cherries and biting acidity perfect for cutting through our prosciutto, basil, and tomato panini.
Maremma is a coastal strip that is loosely defined as the area south of Livorno (Leghorn) extending southward through the province of Grosseto, and much of the area was better suited to mosquitos than wine production. North of Scansano is Bolgheri the famous home of Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The DOC for Bolgheri was established in 1994 and Sassicaia was granted its own sub-zone DOC of Bolgheri. These wines have hit stratospheric price levels so we make plans to visit a newer producer with less expensive wines, Campo Mare which is owned by Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari. Here we get to try the wines, and once again for us, and for the money, their basic Bolgheri made up of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc is the clear choice. Deep and rich, with black currants, cherries, and spice, this full-bodied wine is a capital way to end this virtual trip in and around the lovely rolling hills and seacoast of Tuscany. Did we say end? Well you couldn’t blame us if on the way back to Florence we “leaned” towards Pisa for some last minute tourist thrills would you? We thought not.
September Wines of the Month: Tuscany
Try all four wines of the month! We’ll have a bottle of each open…
In Sudbury: Saturday 9/1 from 1-5 PM
In Concord: Friday 9/7 from 3-6 PM
Individually these wines (write-ups below) are on sale for the entire month of September and priced better than our everyday 20% case discount. But you can still:
Buy the September Four-Pack Sampler for $40 – More than 25% off regular retail!
1) Casa Alle Vacche 2011 Vernaccia San Gimignano
Casa Alle Vacche, or House of the Cows, has been in the Ciappi family for three generations and they take pride and extreme care in the vineyards and in the winery. This shows up in the bottle. Their wines are very well made, true to their varietal character and to their places of origins. They are also very easy on the pocketbook, and equally easy to drink. Light bodied, crisp, the wine has subtle fruit aromas and flavors of apples, lemons and pears. True to Vernaccia character it finishes with a hint of bitter almond. Bright and refreshing, this wine should prove to be quite versatile with appetizers or main dishes. It is remarkably tasty with a simple pasta primavera or shrimp scampi, but can be sipped under the shade of olive trees by itself.
Regular Price $13.99
September Sale Price $10.99
2) Erik Banti 2010 Morellino di Scansano
Erik Banti is one of the pioneers of Scansano wine; setting up shop in Maremma and making his first finished wine in 1981. Maremma is the large coastal area that runs from Livorno to the Province of Grosseto, and much of this area was once swampy and mosquito infested. One famous Tuscan winemaker, in the 1970′s, tried and then gave up due to loss of life amongst the laborers carving out vineyards. Banti is located in the hills of Scansano where mosquitos are not a problem. Banti wines are no strangers to either shop, Sudbury or West Concord, and his Carato was quite a hit a few months back. The Morellino is a blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, and 5% Ciliegiolo. This simple yet focused wine with its aromas of sour cherries and herbs, and it bright acidity, make this a great everyday food wine. Pizza, chicken, burgers and prosciutto, basil, tomato paninis are surefire winners.
Regular Price $14.99
September Sale Price $11.59
3) Toscolo 2011 Chianti
Neil Empson, wine importer extraordinaire, produces this wine with his friend and oenologist Franco Bernabei. This is Neil’s proprietary brand. He has said his heart lies in Tuscany so when he chose a name for his wines he picked Toscolo which means “Tuscan Boy.” The grapes come from various zones around Chianti, and Neil gets to cherry-pick the grapes he wants to use for this wine. This allows him to maintain consistent quality vintage to vintage. 100% Sangiovese, this wine spends six months in oak to soften the texture and lend the wine some spicy notes without diminishing the lovely cherry, pomegranate, and raspberry fruit that the wine displays. This wine works well with many first and second courses, red and white meats, and cheeses. Roasted thick-cut pork chops would work very well.
Regular Price $10.99
September Sale Price $8.59
4) Castello La Leccia 2009 Toscano Rosso IGT
Castello La Leccia is an ancient hamlet that lies in the Chianti Classico region in the village of Castellina in Chianti, a bit north of Siena. Here they make the Rosso that we are featuring, as well as a Chianti Classico, a Riserva, and olive oil. Paolo Salvi is the winemaker here and since 2000 they have been making improvements to the vineyards as well as the cellars. The blend here is 70% Sangiovese, 25% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot. This ruby colored wine is aromatic with dark cherries, violets, and marzipan. The wine still has some primary grape-y notes along with some mineral dust. Easy drinking, the tannins are light and made of velvet; the body is of medium weight and the finish shows some the bitter almond that is typical. Great “everything pizza” wine!
Regular Price $10.99
September Sale Price $8.59
Buy the four wines above…the September Four-Pack Sampler for $40 – More than 25% off regular retail!
And more Featured Wines from our Tuscan Wine Tour
Come taste these wines…
Featured Tuscan tasting part 1 Saturday September 15th 2-5
Featured Tuscan tasting part 2 Saturday September 22nd 2-5
Panizzi 2011 Vernaccia San Gimignano
Panizzi is relatively a newcomer in Tuscany. Just a little over twenty years old, they have been producing highly rated wines that are complex and full of vitality. The vineyards are about a kilometer and a half away from San Gimignano with all its towers. 100% Vernaccia, the grapes are gently pressed and then fermented in stainless steel. This brilliantly clear wine is aromatic with fruit aromas of pineapple, green apple, and pear. The texture is rich and shows some oily viscosity for a mouth-filling sensation and a long finish. Pasta with shrimp and scallops, or even lobster would be an excellent choice. Vegetables and cheese are also delicious accompaniments.
Regular Price $17.99
September Sale Price $13.99
Isole e Olena 2010 Chardonnay Toscana IGT
Paolo de Marchi, whose family is originally from Piedmont and who purchased this estate in the sixties, continues to produce some of the best Chianti Classicos around. Paolo took over the reins in 1976 and his wines continue to get better. Paolo, while making very nice Chiantis and his flagship wine, Cepparello, also makes a Cabernet, a Syrah, and a Chardonnay. The Chardonnay, with each new vintage, impresses me more and more. Barrel fermented, the 2010 Chardonnay is deep in color for the variety and has an impressive nose filled with baked apples, vanilla, lemon, nutmeg, cardamom, apple blossoms, honey, and lemon. A full bodied wine, you might almost mistake this for Russian River Chardonnay, but the fruit is a bit more old-world in style. This wine would go astoundingly well with a seafood or mushroom vegetable risotto, but I had it with chicken Parm the other night, and that also worked quite satisfactorily.
Regular Price $43.99
September Sale Price $33.99
Borgo Scopeto 2009 Chianti Classico
The estate dates back to the year 1000 and was a fortified settlement belonging to the episcopacy of Siena. The name Scopeto most likely comes from the wild heather (Erica scoparia) that grows in the surrounding forests. The first vintage of Chianti Classico from this estate was in 1998, so while the estate is venerable, the wines are just starting to find their way. The wine is a blend of 90% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot, and 5% Colorino and is vinified in a traditional manner. Aging is done in 30 hectoliter Slavonian oak casks and this gives the wine unique baking spice and herbal aroma. The wine is aromatic with herbs, sour cherries, raspberries, black cherries, and an iron/meatiness typical of Sangiovese character. Structured, the wine will age for a few years quite nicely and the tannins are persistent and soft. Sour cherries on the palate make this a particularly good pasta wine, but will also pair nicely with wild boar.
Regular Price $16.99
September Sale Price $12.99
Gracciano 2009 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Montepulciano can be confusing for the average wine drinker. Is it a grape? Is it place? The answer is: both. In the case of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, however, it is a place. (In Montepulciano d’Abruzzo it is the grape.) Located seventy-five miles south of Florence, this Kodak-moment village makes some seriously good juice. The soil here is sandier than in Chianti or Brunelo di Montalcino and the Sangiovese they grow is called Prugnolo Gentile. That and the warmer climate make these wines, in general, fuller bodied, but perhaps not as delicately aromatic. The wine is made up of 90% Prugnolo Gentile and 10% Merlot with the age of the vines being well over twenty five years. This garnet colored wine has lots of dark cherry and sour cherry aromas accompanied by spice, licorice and almond. The palate is very concentrated with velvet tannins that finish long and dusty. Meaty and complex this wine would be great with a steak that was peppered and Tuscan herbed. Aged pecorino should also be considered.
Regular Price $21.99
September Sale Price $16.99
Sesti 2009 Toscano Rosso IGT “Monteleccio”
Giuseppi Maria Sesti is a modern renaissance man. He has written five books on the history of astronomy, organized the festival of Baroque opera at Batignano in Tuscany, and restored the property where he now makes wine. He and his wife Elisa, using cycles of the moon, grow grapes and olives and produce Brunellos and Toscano Rossos of profound complexities. This “Monteleccio” which essentially is another name for Montalcino, is comprised of Brunello (Sangiovese) grapes that are selected for their quality by Giuseppi. The wine is very aromatic, perhaps the most potent of our Tuscan line-up, with sour cherry, earthy notes of fallen leaves and forest, iron, flowers and spice. The palate is full and loaded with sweet ripe fruit and balancing acidity and tannins. If you are looking for an interesting and challenging wine, then this is for you. Pair with rich stews of pork and root vegetables, venison steaks, and truffled risotto. We love this wine! Imported by Kermit Lynch.
Regular Price $27.99
September Sale Price $21.99
Campo al Mare 2010 Bolgheri
Bolgheri, for those enamored of Super Tuscans, is the home of Super Expensive wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia that were modeled after Bordeaux wines of France. Created by members of the Antinori family using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc., these wines first appeared in1970 (Sassicaia) and 1981 (Ornellaia). By comparison Campo al Mare, owned by the Folonari family, produced their first Bolgheri Rosso in 2003. A shorter history perhaps, but still an impressive addition to these legendary Super Tuscans. The wine is your typical Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Very aromatic, the wine is loaded with black currants, cherries, red currants, cocoa, mocha, baking spices, roasted herbs, and mint. Texturally, it has structural tannins that are almost silky yet taut. This is very full-bodied and concentrated. A young wine that drinks well enough now, but will certainly age well for 5-7 years or more. Why spend $150 or more on one of the better known Bolgheri wines, when you can get the Campo al Mare at a fifth of that price? Try this with hearty Tuscan stews or marinated flank steaks. You’ll be glad you did.
Regular Price $37.99
September Sale Price $29.99