It starts slowly. You read a book or two. Perhaps Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun or Ferenc Máté’s A Vineyard in Tuscany. You begin to long to visit the region. You picture yourself in the landscape of Tuscany exploring ancient towns perched atop hills with commanding views, sun-drenched days and hillsides dotted with vines and olive trees. Time exploring small wineries and evenings spent eating hearty fare washed down with characterful local wines. And when you finally visit, you realise that it really is as beautiful and enchanting as the authors suggest. The light is special, as are the wines, the food and the people. Tuscany is a remarkable place.
Once you have succumbed to the lure of this Italian dream there is no turning back. All that is left are the logistical considerations. First there is the Tuscan villa option as a base for an extended stay. With a group of like-minded friends, spend mornings visiting wineries, an extended pranzo, afternoons lounging around the pool before aperitivo and evening dining excursions to nearby towns, that sort of thing. There are many websites, such as yourtuscany.com or tuscany-villas.it, for choosing the perfect set-up and wasting several hours browsing.
Alternatively, base yourself in Florence, grab yourself a hire car and go on day trips to various towns and regions. With this option, you get all the benefits of this beautiful city and, trust me, it will steal your heart. You’ll experience amazing food, wine, art and architecture within striking distance of the famous wine towns. Radda, Greve and Panzano, deep in the heart of Chianti Classico territory, lie just an hour’s drive away from Florence, as does the achingly beautiful hilltop town of San Gimignano with its 14 medieval towers and the delicious crisp white wines that bear its name – Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
Arm yourself with an Italian phrasebook and definitely get online and order an English copy of the Slow Wine Guide for Italy (slowwinemagazine.com). Steel yourself. You are going to have to do some groundwork and contact producers to make appointments. But it’s worth it.
Tuscany is quite a spread out region. Chianti starts north of Florence and fans out south to Siena with Chianti Classico at its core. South of Siena lie the famous towns that are the source of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino, as well as satellite appellations, including Montecucco, which are turning out very impressive wines. Westwards, towards the Tuscan coast, you will find the world-class wines of Maremma and Bolgheri – home to the renowned super Tuscan wines. Here the local hero sangiovese is blended with international varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, to produce wines with an enviable track record of cellaring and prices to match.
For me, a combination of city and country sounds just about perfect, so after a few days in Florence, head out to the hills. It is beyond the scope of this article to expound on the virtues of Florence, that said, make sure you spend plenty of time in the amazing Uffizi Gallery, gawking at the Duomo and various Medici galleries. Also make sure you visit Trattoria Sostanza (Via del Porcellana, 25/R, 50123 Florence, +39 055 212691) for their incredible petti di pollo al burro, chicken slowly cooked over coals and finished in a pan with an extra-large serving of butter; last meal material.
Florence is also the place to overcome your fear of offal. Lampredotto (tripe) stands dot the city and a panini stuffed with this most noble Tuscan cut of meat, bagnato (dipped in the cooking broth) or served with salsa verde is a rite of passage. Try Da Nerbone at Mercato Centrale, L’Antico Trippaio near the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge or the wonderful Semel in Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti. For those wishing for a full lampredotto immersion, the amazing Osteria Tripperia Il Magazzino (Piazza della Passera, 50125 Florence, +39 055 215969). Just incredible cooking and the gutsy meatballs and lampredotto-filled ravioli topped with Tropea onion are a thing of great beauty.
Driving out of Florence in your trusty hire car, head for the Chianti Classico heartlands first. Radda is arguably the prettiest town to stay in, but Greve and Panzano both have their charms and the chianti.com website is the best place to look for accommodation ideas.
Staying at an agriturismo or farm-stay is an attractive option and many wineries in the region have an agritourismo attached which certainly makes sense. Some suggestions are Fontodi, Villa di Geggiano, Castello di Cacchiano or Castello di Volpaia or you can look on the Chianti website for these, too.
Chianti perhaps gets a bad rap, no doubt hailing back to the days of daggy wicker bottles, and cheap and cheerful wines. But it deserves better. Fittingly, there is a renaissance taking place. The wholesale uptake of organic viticulture and an emphasis on how the land is farmed mean that Chianti and in particular, Chianti Classico has never been better. The Chianti blend, sangiovese with the addition of canaiolo, colorino, cabernet sauvignon and even merlot (although, in my opinion, the most profound examples ditch the international varieties) is a wonderful drink, deftly and sure footedly waltzing that ridge-line of sweetness and bitterness as only the Italians can do. Medium-bodied, quite high acidity and medium tannin with a distinctly savoury edge, they are wines built for enjoyment with food; ones that become as essential at the dining table as a knife and fork. And that is just wonderful.
The famous estate of Antinori (antinorichianticlassico.it/en) is one of the region’s big names and is a fine place to start our Tuscan adventure with its stunning winery and cellar door facility, restaurant and wine museum. There are various tours and experiences available, and for a fee you will be able to taste a range of the Antinori wines from the Chianti Classico zone and further afield in Tuscany. The restaurant here offers the chance to sample some local fare and enjoy some of the estates wines. The perfect start.
Fontodi (fontodi.com) is another estate that should be on your list and one that offers farm-stays that will immerse you in the region (tenutedipecille.com). Fontodi produces wines that are true to the region with a delicious Chianti Classico DOCG and the seriously impressive Vigna del Sorbo Gran Selezione Chianti Classico and Flaccianello della Pieve Colli Toscana Centrale IGT. Make sure you try the gorgeous, sweet Vin Santo and tuck some of their extra-virgin olive oil in your luggage for the trip home.
Riecine (riecine.it/en) is a favourite of mine. Great farming with 12 hectares of vines planted in the Vertine and Casina districts. Although it has a long history back to 1112 AD, the modern founder Englishman John Dunkley always maintained that cabernet varieties permitted under DOCG rules for Chianti Classico have no place in the vineyards of Riecine. “When Baron Philippe de Rothschild plants sangiovese,” he said, “I’ll switch to cabernet sauvignon”. I like the cut of his jib. These are beautiful Chianti Classico wines that remain true to their roots and to the region’s most famous grape, sangiovese.
Poggerino (poggerino-chianti-italy.com) is another estate with accommodation that offers an impressive line-up of wines. Farmed organically for many years, the wines are uniformly excellent with a solid Chianti Classico DOCG, a stunning Chianti Classico Riserva Bugialla DOCG and the Chianti Classico (N)Uovo DOCG, which begins its life in cement tanks before finishing its gestation in a 650-litre concrete egg.
Fèlsina (felsina.it/en/) farm a variety of plots in the region making use of biodynamic preparations and showing respect for the vineyards. Located in the southeastern edge of the Chianti Classico appellation where the rocky, calcareous soils form a frontier between the Chianti Classico and Crete Senesi areas, in the direction of Montalcino. The range spans from sparkling spumante through to the fantastic reds with the Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG and Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG being the standouts.
And finally a bit of a unicorn visit. Montevertine (montevertine.it) is a special place and the wines are fawned over by the vinous cognoscenti. Located in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone just north of Radda in Chianti, Sergio Manetti acquired Montevertine in 1967, planting a couple of hectares of sangiovese to produce wine for family and friends. Signor Manetti was a bit of a rebel and a champion of the sangiovese grape and in 1981, when the Chianti Classico Consorzio insisted he add trebbiano to his wines as per the official appellation rules, he politely told them where to go and left the organisation, preferring to label his wines Rosso di Toscana instead of Chianti Classico DOCG.
There are three wines: Pian del Ciampolo, a blend of sangioveto (90%) – sangioveto is a clone of the sangiovese grape also known as sangiovese piccolo – canaiolo and colorino and aged 12 months in Slavonian oak; Le Pergole Torte, made with 100% sangioveto and also aged 12 months in Slavonian oak; and the Montevertine, a blend of sangioveto, canaiolo and colorino grapes aged in Slavonian oak barrels for about 24 months. All are stunning and true renditions of the grapes and region. The extra virgin olive oil and grappa are also brilliant, so leave some room in the suitcase.
We can only scratch the surface here as there are so many wonderful wine estates to visit, so grab that Slow Wine Guide for Italy and feel free to do your own research. For more information on Chianti Classico producers you can visit chianticlassico.com/en.
Heading south, Siena (terresiena.it/en) is a must-visit that unfortunately lies outside of the scope of this humble article, but it is a jaw-droppingly beautiful city that deserves several days of exploration in its own right.
Personally, in the southern part of Tuscany, I would base myself in Montalcino, a beautiful medieval hilltop town with many wine bars and dining options to keep you occupied during the evening. The fact that it is surrounded by vineyards and home to one of Italy’s most famous wines, Brunello di Montalcino is undoubtedly an added bonus (consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it).
The Brunello clone of sangiovese has a thicker skin, which in turn leads to bolder, more structured wines than the wines to the north. When young they are flamboyant and redolent with cherry and black fruits with notes of espresso and amaro herbs. They’re earthy and rich in fruit with fine, grippy tannin and bright acidity. They blossom with age showing tones of leather, violets, hazelnuts and figs; the tannin resolving into a chocolatey grip with a herbal edge. It’s a wonderful wine.
Banfi (castellobanfi.com/en) offers a contemporary take on the traditional wines of this area with opulent examples rich in fruit and spice with French barrique accents. The Brunello di Montalcino Poggio alle Mura DOCG is particularly impressive for its fruit weight and drive across the palate.
At this year’s Anteprime di Toscana, the wines of Poggio Antico (poggioantico.com) were very impressive with the Riserva Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Altera Brunello di Montalcino DOCG the stand-outs. The estate offers guided tours of their vineyards and tastings and the Ristorante di Poggio Antico is a fantastic place to dine and experience the best of Tuscan hospitality.
My top wine at the recent Anteprime tastings was the 2013 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG from Il Paradiso di Manfredi (ilparadisodimanfredi.com). With only 2.5 hectares of vineyards and a tiny production, the wines are composed in a very traditional manner from a great fruit source and large format, old Slavonian oak casks. Wonderful wines, great people and one of the region’s stars.
A must-visit estate is Soldera (soldera.it/en/), another of the region’s superstars. Very traditional sangiovese wines aged in large, old Slavonian oak casks, the wines are only released after a long rest in the estates cellars and they are stunning examples of the sangiovese grape. Wonderful farming and respectful winemaking, these are wines that are long-lived and will instantly take you back to the rolling hills of Montalcino when you finally retrieve them from the cellar.
Another tasting option is to visit the impressive La Fortezza Wine Shop and Wine Bar (enotecalafortezza.com/GB/Home) where you can take part in tasting flights of wines and purchase some wine for the journey home. The enoteca is housed in the fortress of Montalcino, built in 1361 and was the site of the defence of the Sienese Republic in 1555 against the invading Spanish-Florentine troops.
Montalcino makes a perfect base for visiting nearby San Gimignano, the stunning medieval town famous for its beautiful towers, winding lanes and crisp whites made from Vernaccia. It’s definitely worth a visit, but beware it is very touristy in peak season. Look for wines from Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara (colombaiosantachiara.it/en), especially the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva L’Albereta, and Montenidoli (montenidoli.com).
Montecucco, lying just south of Montalcino, is a region that is a rising star on the Tuscan wine landscape. Several years ago, I was dining at Brawn in London and had some of the best finocchiona and prosciutto that I’ve ever tasted from a gentleman called Carlo Pieri. Visiting the region this year for a tasting of the Tuscan satellite appellations, I was delighted to see that the best wine at the tasting was a wine made by his daughter, Eleonora at his small farm Poggio Stenti (poggiostenti.com). You cannot get a more authentic Tuscan experience, trying wonderful wines such as the Poggio Stenti Pian di Staffa Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva DOC and trying some world-class Tuscan smallgoods. Make sure you visit Carlo’s butchery in nearby Sant’Angelo Scalo to stock up on salumi for the road.
Montepulciano is perfect for a day trip to sample the famous Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (consorziovinonobile.it) wines.
For over 50 years Boscarelli (poderiboscarelli.com/en) has produced some of the most profound wines from the sangiovese grape with the Il Nocio Vino Nobile di Montepulciano being a highlight. There are a variety of tasting options and tours on offer for those wanting a deep dive into the region’s wines.
Other producers in Montepulciano worth visiting include Podere Il Macchione (podereilmacchione.it) for a young winery with sustainable farming and delicious, pure-fruited wines; Poderi Sanguineto I e II (sanguineto.com) for elegant wines that show a great sense of place; and Palazzo Vecchio (vinonobile.it/en/) for a solid range of delicious wines and an excellent osteria that is ideal for lunch.
Towards the coastline, Grosseto is Maremma’s most populous city and is worth a visit. Drive up the coast, perhaps stopping at Ristorante La Pineta (lapinetadizazzeri.it) on the beach near the town of Bibbona, with its one Michelin star, before heading onwards in search of some of Italy’s most famous wines.
Here on the coast, sangiovese takes a back seat to the international varieties of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and syrah and it is the home of the renowned super Tuscan wines of the 80s. It can be kind of confusing as these wines, now known as Toscana IGT, range from 100% sangiovese to 100% syrah and everything in between. At least with Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and others you know what you are in for. That said, there are some profound examples.
You have probably heard of the names Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia, Redigaffi and Masseto, all famous Toscana IGT wines that thrust the region onto the fine wine stage.
One estate that offers tastings and guided tours is Ornellaia (ornellaia.com/en/) where you can discover the vineyards, the artworks of the Vendemmia d’Artista project and of course, taste their stunning range of wines.
Just inland from the city of Lucca you will find the lovely Tenuta di Valgiano (valgiano.it), certainly less flashy than Ornellaia, but a producer that has close ties with the local sustainable farming community and they are producing fantastic biodynamic-certified wines from sangiovese, syrah and merlot, along with a terrific white called Palistorti Bianco made from vermentino, trebbiano, malvasia and the Italian white grape grechetto – wonderful wines.
It’s hard ending here. There are so many amazing wines and estates to tell you about and you could easily spend a month ambling around the Tuscan countryside, but alas, I can only offer a glimpse into the region’s wine and food highlights. La dolce vita is real and as you sit looking out over the verdant hills with a glass of wine in your hand, hearing the chimes from the nearby church tower as the light plays over the landscape, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
TOP TIP: get in touch with wineries in advance to make bookings and confirm they are open during your stay.