Tuscany is beloved by the tourists in the know, who visit for its great red wines, stunning Renaissance architecture and beautiful countryside. MICHELE SHAH reveals its must-see sites.
Tuscany evokes a Renaissance landscape oozing gourmet food and wine as no other region does. Its rolling, vine-clad hills, olives and cypress trees are just a part of the attraction which draws a huge number of discerning travellers and wine lovers to the area.
The region’s history, traditions and culture extend to magnificent cities, medieval hilltop villages and endless hamlets scattered around a timeless countryside, all of which encompass Italy’s heartland. Its picturesque farmhouses, castles and monasteries are very often home to some of the top wine estates, hotels and restaurants.
Tuscany is arguably Italy’s premium wine-producing region. Any visit must include the classic areas such as Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano. Marked by its very diverse terrain and its many microclimates, Tuscany offers a range of different styles of wine, even within the same grape variety, Sangiovese being the main grape in DOCG and DOC blends. Its name originates from the term sangue di Giove – the blood of the ancient god Jove – which gives some idea of the importance attached to wine here.
Chianti Classico is a good starting point: the area can easily be reached from either Siena or Florence. Its territory encompasses the original Chianti villages of Radda, Gaiole, Castellina, Greve and Panzano, favoured for their excellent terroir.
The Benedictine Abbey of Badia a Coltibuono, set in the hills above Gaiole in Chianti, was founded by the Vallombrosan monks more than 1,000 years ago. Its age-old tradition of wine growing is now continued in a modern family enterprise. The formal gardens, the frescoes in the refectory and the old vaulted cellars are a special attraction. Plan to stop here for lunch at the adjoining restaurant, run by Paolo Stucchi. The menu is based on revisited Tuscan dishes garnished with seasonal garden vegetables and herbs. It is also a charming location for al fresco dining and a good way to sample the estate’s wines. In addition, Coltibuono offers cooking classes and caters for bed & breakfast.
From Coltibuono, descend to Gaiole and climb up to Castello di Brolio and Castello di Cacchiano, owned by the Ricasoli family, an ancient aristocratic line of barons. The Chianti Classicos reflect terroir and tradition. Brolio produces some fine wines which fall outside the mainstream appellation, made in part or entirely from international varieties. The grounds surrounding the magnificent castle dominating Chianti can be visited. The nearby Castello di Spaltenna makes for a romantic stay with excellent wining and dining.
From Radda it’s a scenic drive to visit the ancient hamlet of Volpaia with its castle and winery, owned by the Mascheroni Stianti family. It’s also fun to see the olive press, and – if you happen to be there in November – the freshly pressed emerald green oil, slightly piquant, aromatic and ideal for bruschetta.
Don’t leave the area without visiting Castello di Ama, set in a charming hamlet, and easily reached from Gaiole or Radda, on the way to Siena. Marco Pallanti’s wines are some of Tuscany’s most eminent and elegant, while art lovers will enjoy the contemporary art works created in situ for the estate.
The medieval town of Montalcino, located 40km south of Siena, is the home of Brunello, Tuscany’s quintessential Sangiovese, and considered one of the most elegant, ageworthy wines. Credit for Montalcino’s success goes to the Biondi-Santi family for ‘inventing’ this unique Sangiovese clone in 1888, after much experimentation. A visit to Tenuta Greppo estate where the historic ‘Brunello clone’ was produced is a good starting point.
In contrast to the Italian wine producers and to the feudal landscape of Montalcino is the American-owned Banfi winery, the largest, most modern and most automated in Tuscany. Above the industrial-scale winery, on top of a hill, sits the medieval castello with a famous glass museum, a wine bar/ shop of cathedral proportions and a taverna serving a set Tuscan lunch with five Banfi wines. For fine dining try the one-star Michelin Ristorante Castello Banfi (evenings only) and maybe plan to stay overnight at Banfi’s agriturismo Colupino.
Near Banfi, which lies southeast at Sant’Angelo in Colle, visit Argiano, known for its crushed, berried Supertuscan Solengo, and the neighbouring Castello di Argiano, owned by astronomer Giuseppe Sesti, who produces a superb biodynamic Brunello. Visit the historic cellars of Fattoria dei Barbi, and lunch at the Taverna where you can sample their wines and tasty farm produce.
The medieval hill town of Montepulciano, about 30km east of Montalcino, located between Val d’Orcia and Valdichiana, has historically dominated the Chiana valley. In the 15th century, Poliziano of Montepulciano, poet laureate and humanist to the court of Lorenzo dei Medici in Florence, recommended serving Montepulciano as the court wine. Thus it was given the accolade ‘Vino Nobile’.
Avignonesi’s 19th-century farm estate, owned by the Falvo brothers, reflects a full range of quality wines, as well as a superbly rich vin santo. The visit runs through spacious cellars for vinification, ageing and storing. Don’t miss the traditional Tuscan ‘Vinsantaia’ where mature grapes are laid out until April, on straw and cane raft shelving to dry and sweeten.
A few kilometres northwest of Montepulciano at Gracciano is modern estate Poliziano. Its wines are polished and focused – particularly the Nobile cru Asinone and Le Stanze, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
For top-notch Nobile and true expression of terroir, visit the family-run Boscarelli estate in Frazione Cervognano. Take lunch at La Grotta by the San Biaggio church. The décor is lovely and the wine list excellent.
IF YOU HAVE TIME
Drive to the coastal area of Bolgheri – a two-hour (100km) scenic route just northeast of Siena. Stop on the way to visit the historic towns of San Gimignano and Volterra before heading for the coast. Once at Bolgheri, stay at the Grand Hotel Tombolo, an ideal base for exploring Bolgheri’s world-acclaimed wine estates: Ornellaia, Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia), Le Macchiole, Michele Satta and Castello di Terriccio. The wines reflect a Bordeaux blend aiming for elegance, complexity and longevity. Be sure to dine at Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso – expensive but a must.
From the coastal area of Bolgheri, drive northwest towards Pisa and Lucca to Tenuta di Ghizzano at Peccioli (owned by Ginevra Venerosi Pesciolini) and Moreno Petrini’s Tenuta di Valgiano, just above Lucca. Both estates are in the ‘rising star’ category, producing fine wines of great personality. The warmer climate and proximity to the coast makes for fruity, ripe, dark reds, to be enjoyed young, favouring a more international style and blend.
East of Florence lies Chianti Rufina. Its Sangiovese-based wines show a more restrained, austere structure with good acidity levels, making them ageworthy wines in good vintages. The main producer and the oldest estate is Castello di Nipozzano, beloning to Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi.
Chianti from the Colli Fiorentini, north of Florence, yields a less complex, fresher style of wine with softer tannins. And the 11th-century historic estate, Castello di Poppiano is the largest and most important producer in the area.
Michèle Shah is a wine and travel writer based in Italy.
For more wine travel ideas, read past Great Wine Route articles featured in Decanter, on our website. Visit www.decanter.com and click on Archive.
Written by Michèle Shah