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Italy driven to drink: Wine Road and tourism

Italy recently passed laws to upgrade its Strade del Vino wine tourism routes – the first to get approval is in Tuscany at Rufina and Pomino. Richard Baudains loaded the kids into the back of the car and went out on the new Wine Road
  • Commercially speaking, wine tourism in the newest Wine Road has definitely yet to take off in the area.
  • The wines of Rufina have intense floral-fruit aromas and great ageing potential.
  • The vineyards at Pomino, which reach an altitude of around 750 metres above sea level, are the highest in Tuscany.
  • Pomino produces light to medium body wines with zippy fruit, providing a contrast to the quintessential Sangiovese flavours of Rufina.

The New Wine Road

As I set out along Italy’s newest Wine Road I came upon an unspoilt country district at the foot of the Apennines with a very interesting and widely underestimated wine production, fabulous olive oil, nearly a dozen great estates to visit and lots of inviting places to stay. Embarking as a tourist in vinous Italy was about to prove highly successful. The Rufina area also offers sufficient alternative activities (visits to medieval churches, horse riding, splashing in swimming pools, doing nothing) to vary the programme for a family that, after the third wine producer of the day, is beginning to feel that Dad has conned them into giving up the Easter holidays to pursue a personal obsession…

The impact of the Wine Road is discreet to say the least. Due to a typically Italian bureaucratic impasse, the Strade del Vino roadsigns, which are supposed to guide you along the route described in the official brochure, are still lying idle in a warehouse somewhere. I cannot say we missed them. An information office, restaurant and wine museum, which will be housed in architectural splendour in the Villa Poggio Reale at Rufina, is due to open this summer. Commercially speaking, wine tourism has definitely yet to take off in the area, which means that Rufina preserves an authentic Tuscan atmosphere. In Chianti Classico this has long since been dissipated by souvenir shops, wine boutiques and advertising hoardings.

The Wine Road starts 30km east of Florence. If you are in a hurry you can join the HGV traffic on the main road out of town and turn off at Pontassieve. Alternatively (much more fun), take the winding road north out of Fiesole and creep up on Rufina through the hills.

The DOCG zone of Chianti Rufina occupies the slopes on either side of the valley of the Sieve, between Pontassieve and Dicomano. Most of the wine growing happens below the town of Rufina, although there are a couple of good places to visit further up the valley. Pomino is a tiny zone perched up high on the hills to the east.

Rufina has a cool microclimate and great soils for Sangiovese. The result is wines with intense floral-fruit aromas and great ageing potential, but also a tendency towards a certain edgy acidity and firm tannins. Most estates today are looking to add fruit and body to this basic profile to make rounder and readier wines. Some are also experimenting with more international style grape mixes. On the whole Rufina remains a bastion of DOCG wines. Pomino, the other denomination on the Wine Road, has a story all to its own. It was cited in the famous Medici edict of 1716, which defined the boundaries of the leading wine growing areas of the time. Its modern history began in the 1850s, with the introduction of French varieties at the Castello di Pomino by Vittorio degli Albizi. The estate was inherited by the Frescobaldi family who continued degli Albizi’s legacy, and were instrumental in obtaining the DOC in 1983. The vineyards at Pomino, which reach an altitude of around 750 metres above sea level, are the highest in Tuscany. The climate is cool, very dry and sunny with significant temperature changes. These conditions produce light to medium body wines with zippy fruit, providing a contrast to the quintessential Sangiovese flavours of Rufina at the other end of the Wine Road. The following estates will reveal how.

Fattoria di Basciano

(Tel: +39 055 8397034)

This is a 30ha estate owned by the Masi family, who run a long-established négociant business in Rufina. It is managed by Paolo Masi, who makes wines with very clean fruit and solid textures. All the wines are aged in barriques, with up to 50% new wood, and some American oak for the Rufina Riserva, the single vineyard Il Corte (90% Sangiovese-10% Cabernet), and the I Pini (50% Sangiovese/50% Cabernet). They produce super olive oil, while holiday accommodation may be had in a 12th century watch-tower overlooking the vineyards.

Tenuta Bossi

(Tel: +39 055 8317830; website: www.gondi.com)

The historic estate of the Marchesi Gondi, whose renaissance villa is surrounded by woods full of game, vines and olives. The best wines are the full-bodied, traditional riservas, and an interesting and rather old-fashioned Cabernet called Mazzaferrata. There is a tiny production of very good Vin Santo, and an intense and peppery Laudemio olive oil. Appartments are available in farm houses on the estate.

Azienda Agricola Il Cavaliere

(Tel: +39 055 8386340)

A young estate still planting vineyards, in a high and very beautiful part of the hills. The well-made Rufina Frascole has a lovely Sangiovese aroma, but also tannins which need time to soften out. Self-catering accommodation is available on the farm, with superb views and fascinating Etruscan remains to visit.

Azienda Agricola Colognole

(Tel: +39 055 8319870)

The Spalletti are former owners of the Villa Poggia Reale where they made a celebrated Rufina Riserva. They returned to winemaking at their Colognole estate in 1991 and began replanting the 60ha vineyard with new selected clones. The first vintages had the nervy edge and tough tannins typical of Rufina. They aged very slowly – the 1993 Riserva del Don is just drinking now. Since the arrival of consultant winemaker Federico Stederini (ex-Ornellaia) in 1995, the wines have more colour and flesh, but have lost none of their distinctive personality. There is stylish accommodation in converted farmhouses.

Fattoria Galiga e Vetrice

(Tel: +39 055 8397008)

This long established producer is faithful to traditional styles. Most memorable are the

subtle bouquets of samples from the barrels of old vintages in the cellars under the Villa. Fattoria Vetrice Riserva Signor Grati is the epitome of an old-fashioned barrel-aged Chianti Riserva. It also produces outstanding olive oil. Accommodation is available.

Fattoria Lavachio

(Tel: 055/8317472)

A modern estate with well built Rufina wines and a chunky Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet blend called Il Cortigiano. Unusual for the area is the range of whites, which includes the very successful late-harvest Gewürztraminer, Oro del Cedro. Accommodation on the estate is in a comfortable country hotel. There is also a riding school, Agriturismo Vallebona (Tel: +39 055 8398518), which does residential courses, as well as organising horse-back wine trips around the Strada del Vino. This includes a visit to a pottery (Ceramiche Innocenti, Tel: +39 055 8398781), specialising in decorative majolica and well worth a visit.

Castello di Nipozzano

(Tel: +39 055 8311325)

Frescobaldi’s Nipozzano estate accounts for almost 30% of the total surface area of Rufina. The charm and laid-back Tuscan aristocratic style of the Marchesi belies the dynamism of the estate management. Nipozzano Riserva has solid personality and is great value. Montesodi is a powerful, concentrated all-Sangiovese single cru riserva, deep and complex. It has great ageing potential, but it is drinkable in the way young modern first growth Bordeaux can be for the fruit and texture. The medieval castle and villa has great views of the estate. You may taste and buy in the smart cellar shop. Grab the Montesodi 1997 while it lasts, and stock up on the excellent Laudemio olive oil. Cellar visits, guided tastings and receptions are by appointment.

Castello di Pomino

(Tel: +39 055 8318810)

More a villa than a castle, it inhabits a cool and airy setting high among the pines. There are cellar visits and tastings. Pomino Bianco is made from Chardonnay, topped up with Pinot Bianco. Single vineyard Pomino Benefizio was Italy’s first barrique-aged Chardonnay, the original intense citrussy style of which is giving way to a softer rounder wine. Pomino Rosso is based on an idiosyncratic grape mix of Sangiovese, Cabernet Merlot and Pinot Nero, which often shows the difficulty of getting Cabernet to ripen completely at these heights. The intention is to concentrate on Sangiovese-Pinot Noir. The Pinot knocks your socks off. Nearby, Pieve di San Bartolomeo at Pomino is a handsome 13th century church with an original Della Robbia glazed terracotta.

Fattoria di Selvapiana

(Tel: +39 055 8369848)

The Selvapiana style is firm and very terroir, but recent vintages have also shown a lot more fruit. Elimination of the standard riserva has benefitted the straight Chianti, which is a great food wine. Top wines are: single vineyard selections, Bucerchiale (100% Sangiovese), and Fornace (90% Sangiovese-10% Cabernet). Conversion to all French oak over the past five years, and systematic green harvesting, have helped the quality leap. Visits to the cellars and the gardens of the villa are available, as well as tasting and sales of wine (there is a good selection of vintages) and the superb olive oil. Look out for the Riserva 1997: a show-stopping wine.

Azienda Agricola Travignoli

(Tel: +39 055 8361098)

A serious estate with extensive vineyards and particularly interesting riservas, run by the young Giovanni Busi, producing concentrated, well extracted wines. Tegolaia is a Sangiovese-Cabernet blend in the modern Tuscan mould, with a lot of fruit and aroma. Also worth trying are limited production wines like the white Gavignano and red Riserva del Conte.

Castello di Trebbio

(Tel: +39 055 8304003)

A romantic medieval castle which has a coat of arms sculpted by Donatello, just outside Rufina, but with vineyards inside the boundaries of the DOCG. The first wines by the new consultant winemaker, Luca d’Atoma, already show his grapey blockbuster style. The Rufina Riserva Lastrica looks like a wine which needs a long time to assimilate all the new oak. The IGT Pazzesco (literal translation ‘crazy’, but also a pun on the name of the original owners of the castle, the Pazzi family of Florence) is a big jammy blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah, which is much more forward.

Tourist Information

Eating out: The Wine Road offers wholesome country fare. The Girarosto at Pontassieve (Tel: +39 055 8368055) does solid provincial cooking with no frills, in bright and airy dining rooms. The Ristorante Etrusco (Tel: +39 055 838037) at Dicomano is famous for its authentic Fiorentina steaks. The Osteria La Casellina (Tel: +39 055 8397580) is set in the middle of vineyards, has a great informal bistro atmosphere, an interesting and original menu and very well chosen wine list.

Olive oil: Rufina makes some of Tuscany’s most intensely flavoured extra virgin olive oils, with grassy artichoke and green olive tones and a long, peppery finish. A number of the producers belong to the top quality Laudemio group.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Fattoria di Castiglionchio in basic but comfortable self-catering accommodation, in a picturesque and very convenient location. High season prices are from L700,000 (£220) per week for apartments sleeping two.

Information: For guides and information contact Consorzio Strada del Vino Chianti Rufina e Pomino (Tel: +39 055 268204; website: www.chiantirufina.com)

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