Italy's best kept secrets

  • Monday 16 July 2007

Forget expensive hotels, today’s Italian accommodation of choice is the increasingly elegant agriturismo. More and more estates are converting their beautiful homes for wine lovers, writes Kerin O’Keefe

Forget expensive hotels, today’s Italian accommodation of choice is the increasingly elegant agriturismo. More and more estates are converting their beautiful homes for wine lovers, writes Kerin O’Keefe

Some of the most wonderful country inns to stay in when touring Italy’s wine routes are modestly classified as farm B&Bs, called agriturismos or foresterias. Although a farm holiday automatically conjures up images of pigs, mud and stark lodgings, more elegant country accommodations are opening up all over Italy – especially in wine country. Many of the country’s leading estates have carefully renovated their once abandoned farmhouses, even parts of rambling castles, into refined and delightful guesthouses.

This new breed of upscale agriturismo offers discerning guests the unique experience of staying on a working winery immersed in the heart of Italy’s gorgeous countryside – usually at a good price. Even when standards are high, these accommodations have fewer staff-related services and cost less than four- and five-star hotels, even though the digs themselves are often found in magnificent structures and breathtaking settings. Most are self-catering apartments rather than rooms with restaurant facilities – though breakfast is almost always provided – and reception is only open at certain hours of the day. Such a homely feel could be seen as a virtue.

Unlike the universal star ratings for hotels, Italian agriturismos have no uniform classification system, making regional classifications an unreliable and confusing quality indicator – hence most establishments do not even publish their ratings. Here, then, is a selection of some of the best winery accommodations in Veneto, Tuscany and Sicily.

VENETO Valpolicella

Just 20km from Verona, Serego Alighieri, the oldest winery in Valpolicella, offers guests at its foresteria the opportunity to enjoy the quiet of the Veneto countryside while trying some of the best of the region’s wines. The estate is owned and run by the Serego Alighieri family, the direct descendents of the poet Dante, who fled to the Veneto from Tuscany in exile at the beginning of the 14th century. The land was purchased in 1353 by Dante’s son and, 20 generations later, owner Pieralvise di Serego Alighieri continues to safeguard the family’s long winemaking tradition. In 1992 Serego Alighieri carefully restored one of the property’s large farmhouses near the family’s private villa so that wine lovers could stay and ‘really see what is behind a great wine, the work, the land and the people’, says the owner. Set at the end of a cypress-lined drive amid vineyards, fruit orchards and olive trees, the eight spacious apartments are elegantly furnished in country chic and all have fully equipped kitchens. The foresteria can arrange cellar visits and vineyard tours, and both in-depth tastings and cooking classes can be arranged. A fully stocked on-site shop sells Serego Alighieri’s highly acclaimed wines, including its award-winning Vaio Armaron, as well as other gastronomic specialities including the estate olive oil, jams, honey and rice. The shop also carries the much sought-after wines of leading producer Masi, which distributes Serego Alighieri’s wines. Though located on the adjacent property just a short walk away, Masi is not open to the public, but a tasting of its wines can be arranged for guests with advance notice.

La Foresteria Serego Alighieri 37020 Gargagnago di Valpolicella (VR)

Tel:+39 045 770 3622 www.seregoalighieri.it Apartments start at t161 a night

Prosecco

Italy’s first official wine route, Strada del Vino del Prosecco, is also one of the most scenic, with the snowcapped Dolomites as a backdrop. Top producer Bisol, which has been growing grapes and making wines in the Valdobbiadene zone since 1542, has recently opened up a delightful country inn for wine lovers who visit the area and its estate. According to Gianluca Bisol, ‘we think it’s very important to give people the opportunity to experience first hand the work involved in making a great wine and to be immersed in the countryside of our beautiful rolling hills.’ The Relais Foresteria Duca di Dolle, a meticulously renovated 16th-century monastery, is in the heart of the Prosecco DOCG and crowns the top of a high hill 60km north of Venice in the tiny and picturesque village of Rolle. Surrounded by 12ha (hectares) of some of the estate’s most prestigious vineyards, part of the restored farmhouse that now houses the agriturismo is still used to dry the grapes that produce the firm’s famous Prosecco Passito Duca di Dolle.

The restored property boasts seven tastefully furnished apartments, all with modern kitchen, and a large outdoor pool. Guests can visit the Bisol winery and vineyards and take a wine-tasting course where they can taste the estate’s top single-vineyard bottlings, like Cartizze, and learn the secrets of each individual vineyard. Courses finish with a pairing of Bisol’s wines with local specialities. Cookery courses can also be arranged.

Relais Foresteria Duca di Dolle Via Piai Orientali, 5 - 31030 - Rolle (Tv)

Tel: +39 0438 97 58 09 www.bisol.it Apartments start at t148 a night

TUSCANY Greve

When Kenneth Branagh was touring Tuscany in 1992 in search of the ideal location to shoot his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, he knew the minute he saw the splendid Villa Vignamaggio that he need look no further. Surrounded by an Italian garden, olive trees and vineyards, the gorgeous, sprawling estate offers an authentic testimony to Tuscan country life during the Renaissance. Part of its charm is undoubtedly that while the rest of the world has raced on, Vignamaggio seems suspended in a simpler time.

The main part of the magnificent coral-coloured villa dates back to the 14th century, and legend has it that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was born here in 1479 – her family, the Gherardinis, were the original owners. Today Vignamaggio is a renowned Chianti Classico estate making world-class wines. It also offers high-end accommodation consisting of luxurious rooms and suites in the main villa, and apartments spread out over three different renovated farmhouses on the property. All apartments have fully equipped kitchens and there is an on-site dinner service during the week for guests.

Guided tours of the gardens and winery, followed by a tasting, are arranged daily, and guests are free to walk around Vignamaggio’s 140ha on well-maintained footpaths that wind through vineyards, gardens and olive groves. For the more athletic, there are two swimming pools, a tennis court and mountain bikes on offer, while the new ‘wellness’ centre offers beauty and pampering treatments based on vinotherapy.

Villa Vignamaggio, 50022 Greve in Chianti (FI) Italy Via Petriolo 5

Tel: +39 055 85 46 61 www.vignamaggio.com Prices start at t150 a night

Gaiole

The magnificent Castello di Meleto, 24km from Siena, is another winery agriturismo where both oenophiles and history buffs would be happy to stay during their next tour through Tuscany. Originally a medieval Florentine fortress during the fierce and frequent battles for dominance with Siena, the castle’s ancient central tower dates back to the year 1000. The rest of the imposing structure was built between the 13th and 14th centuries. From 1269 until 1968 the property belonged to the noble Ricasoli family of Brolio fame, who enlarged, fortified and later embellished the castle. Today, from its hilltop perch, the dominating castle safeguards the 180ha of vines that produce the estate’s excellent Chianti Classicos and IGT wines. The current owner, Società Viticola Toscana, has renovated numerous buildings and houses on the 1,000ha estate, as well as some of the best rooms in the castle itself, and all have stunning views of the rolling, vine-covered hills. An impressive range of accommodation is available including villa rentals, self-catering apartments with terraces or gardens, and spacious rooms in the castle itself, as well as those in the simpler parsonage. All are tastefully furnished. Tours of the castle can be arranged, including visits to the antique wine cellars, now used for barrel ageing. Here visitors will also see the vaulted escape route that leads from the cellars beneath the gardens and the bailey walls. There is also an on-site wine shop where visitors can try the estate’s wines. A centrally located swimming pool is available to all.

Castello di Meleto 53013 Gaiole in Chianti (Siena). Tel: +39 0577 74921

www.castellomeleto.it Rooms from t125 a night; apartments from t791 a week

SICILY Mt Etna

On the steep western slopes at the foot of Mt Etna, nearly 500m above sea level, the Scammaca family has been making wine for over 150 years at its Murgo Tenuta San Michele estate. As wines made from Italy’s native grapes have taken off in the last few years, wine lovers have joined the usual throngs that flock to the island in search of sea, sand, ancient ruins and, of course, great local wines. And the often snow-capped and smoking Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, is fast luring tourists away from nearby destinations.

‘Last year we got over 19,000 visitors to our estate and cellars,’ says Michele Scammaca. Realising many guests were looking for lodging near Etna, fondly known to locals as the ‘Smoking Giant’, the Scammaca family converted two of its farm buildings into an agriturismo. The nine double rooms and five self-catering apartments are all decorated in a simple relaxed décor and all offer dazzling views of the fuming crater 30km away and the distant Ionian Sea. The estate offers guests tours of the cellars and vineyards as well as tastings of the highly acclaimed wines, including a wonderful sparkling wine made with local grape Nerello Mascalese. An on-site restaurant serves up local specialities, while other amenities include an outdoor swimming pool.

Agriturismo Tenuta San Michele, Via Zafferana 95010 Santa Venerina (CT)

Tel: +39 095 950 520 www.murgo.it Prices start from t45 per person per night

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