WineChap embarks on a Tuscan vineyard crawl

Food from the peasants, drink from the gods, our expert is in heaven

Image: Matteo Carassale

When we flew out from Luton the other day, the sky was irritatingly blue; it’s always preferable to leave London when it’s raining. The jet was stocked with three different cuvées of Bellavista Franciacorta, giving a Lombardian take on our altitude tasting and, unsurprisingly, the broader-shouldered and partially barrel-fermented of the trio, named for winery founder Vittorio Moretti, performed the most impressively. By comparison, the saten style I wouldn’t recommend in planes – its softer mousse renders it a little too fragile to be heard in a pressurised cabin.

My journey began earlier in the spring on South Audley Street at Select Collection's exotically appointed boutique, full of items from its various global destinations, including an intriguing collection of different sands from a variety of beach locations. Only being able to be on one beach at a time (unless perhaps you are Marlon Brando), few would realise silicon could be so diverse. A far cry from Thomas Cook as decorated by a returning gap-year student, Select Collection offers instead a hand-picked portfolio of enviously desirable hotels and resorts in a sturdy coffee-table brochure, which has you wistfully looking for your next free long weekend. It also offers an excellent concierge service: very personalised, discreet and tasteful, in the stylish-but-understated Scandinavian manner I have become familiar with through having a Swedish wife. Equally laudable – whether perusing Tuscan villas or being childishly fascinated by running different sands through my fingers – the experience is accompanied by glasses of Perrier-Jouët.

Image: Matteo Carassale

Fast forward to Italy a few months later and our first stop, having diverted from Pisa to Florence last minute, was still back towards the coast – to Bolgheri, home of the Super Tuscans, for a tasting at Castello di Bolgheri, the dominating structure in the village and the estate whose family (the Counts of Gherardesca) once owned many of the vineyards, which are now icons of the region and indeed the world. Lunch with winemaker Alex Dondi and family head Federico Zileri presented an opportunity to tuck into a large bowl of tripe, my favourite of Tuscany’s peasant dishes, and to sample a selection of vintages of the castle’s eponymous wine – a rich but nuanced Cabernet-dominated blend from some of the very best parcels of vineyards in the area. One to watch, Castello di Bolgheri is keen to regain the initiative from its (actual) cousins down the road who were to be our next stop.

Heading back down the longest Cypress-lined avenue in Europe (or so I’m told) to Tenuta San Guido, home of Bolgheri’s and perhaps Italy’s most famous wine, Sassicaia, we were met by Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta (Sayn-Wittgenstein) and shortly after joined by her pioneering father, Niccolo. We sampled both 2010 and 2011 from barrel – the former vibrant, fresh, charming, the latter Niccolo opined was going to be very special – in the mould of classics such as 2001 and 2006. In its production, Sassicaia is more like bordeaux than bordeaux is these days and remains resolutely old school. The wines are appropriately unbending and aristocratic, compelling even in indifferent vintages. As an example, I had tried the ’96 in London with Priscilla earlier in the year and now Niccolo opened a ’77 (a mere vino da tavola as it was at the time!) – it was both a privilege and a pleasure.

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We then began the journey south-east to the heavily wooded Val d’Orcia natural reserve and our home for the next two evenings, Castiglion del Bosco (pictured). Originally set up as a members-only golfing and wine paradise by Massimo Ferragamo, the sprawling estate has generously opened its doors to the public, turning the small hamlet of Il Borgo into the most desirable boutique hotel in the region. The pictures on its website do not do the place justice and perhaps this is a deliberate tactic to maintain its exclusivity – but certainly my clients, more experienced luxury travellers than I, were in no doubt that the rooms here rate among the best in the world. I spent a while getting lost in mine, looking for a map of the suite and wondering if the monogrammed cotton buds would provide sufficient sustenance to allow me to find the mini-bar and some nuts. Being Ferragamo, everything which can be covered in soft, rich leather, is – loo seat and toothbrush notwithstanding (I think). And yet this unstinting devotion to opulence is done with style and I think even humour. The tendency to get luxury wrong, to hideously overdo things when money is not reined in by taste is conspicuously absent here. From furnishings and art features to the weight of the water that cascades over you in the shower, everything had a patrician confidence and solidity that just seemed right. I never found the mini-bar, though.

Dinner followed at Il Borgo’s Campo del Drago restaurant and we were joined by Azzurra and Emanuela from the hotel and Marco Paier from the winery. Castiglion del Bosco was one of the founder members of the Consorzio di Brunello in the 1950s, which set the region’s wines on the path to fame and fortune. Its new winery, unsurprisingly, is built without compromise and houses one of the most impressive tasting rooms of any cellar in Italy. Emanuela had convinced chefs Elio Sironi and Enrico Figliuolo to join from the Bulgari Hotel, and Milan’s loss has been very much CdB’s gain. Dishes successfully trod the tightrope of being authentic but inventive, respectful but playful. Deftness and depth of flavour epitomises the food here, starting with a stunning ribollita (each vegetable cooked individually), moving via some excellent simple pastas (made on site, obviously) including a juicily perky quail with late season puntarelle and concluding with Il Bosco – a seven-chocolate dessert, visually and sensorily paying homage to the surrounding forest. Marco chose wines from around Italy to partner, one of the highlights being the estate’s own top selection Brunello Riserva from 2006, which in the absence of contrasting accounts I recall blind-tasted extremely accurately.

If the previous evening had introduced a theme, our next day was all about Brunello and included visits to a trio of top estates – Mastrojanni, Frescobaldi’s Castelgiocondo and Valdicava, all offering very different expressions of the region’s signature wine. Tasting again from barrel at the former, we worked our way from 2008 (with Mastrojanni’s signature earthy character), through to 2009 (a reprise of 2007’s perfume and balance) on to 2010 (classic, very late harvest, fresh but spicy and sinewy), finishing with 2011 (absurdly hot – 52° in August, so very ripe, mature fruit, just like 2000). Over lunch at Castelgiocondo (which I have described in this column previously as being the Highland Park of Brunello – ie a great all-rounder), we moved back down the line from 2007 – floral, 2006 – mineral, 2001 – herbal, 2001 Riserva – complete. Also impressive was their often overlooked Luce – its Merlot component adding flesh but not flab and a softness while retaining freshness. The day’s highlight, however, was a visit to Valdicava, the Le Pin of Montalcino. Vincenzo Abruzzese was the first winemaker to tell me years ago that great wine doesn’t have to be old to be great, the opposite of Oscar Wilde’s “nobody brilliant is brilliant in the morning”. Valdicava exemplifies how a good wine can age like compass points in Hopkins (or perhaps its was Donne – it certainly wasn’t Yeats – his compasses fell apart) – one point roves around but remains fixed by the other. The fruit should not lose its identity as it ages – the initial character should remain identifiable, the smile of the infant present through any number of wrinkles. Certainly his Madonna del Piano 2010 is going to be as precocious as it is age-worthy, better he believes, and I would enthusiastically concur, than his 100-point Wine Spectator scoring 2001.

Back at Castiglion del Bosco, the sky began to bruise and an impressive thunderstorm rolled in forcing me to abandon my clay court-sized terrace and hasten back indoors to change for dinner. The skies cleared and the scents from refreshed herbs in the kitchen garden wafted between Il Borgo’s stone walls. We headed to Il Leccio in Sant’Angelo in Colle, where a fine and rustic repast was washed down with our first mature Brunello – Il Palazzone 1997, after a bottle of Bollinger (for only €60) to start. Tuscany doesn’t have a great choice of indigenous bubbles and Italians love champagne (other local restaurants, Le Potazzine and Il Giglio, also offer a good selection). Somewhat out of character, I drank a prodigious quantity of still, sparkling and tap water over dinner, but despite mixing these drinks felt uncommonly fresh the next morning as I wandered down to the restaurant’s balcony, with its view across the valley to Montalcino, skylined on the near horizon. A love of breakfast is healthy but betrays a particular Anglo-Saxon lack of sophistication, especially in a country where coffee, cigarettes and possibly a very small pastry suffice until lunch. However, having seen a fellow guest’s eggs, their yolks the glossy hue of the Dutch football strip, my resolve collapsed. And, of course, where there are eggs there must be bacon… and then the plate looks rather empty without mushrooms foraged from the surrounding woods… plus sausages from Sienese pigs are among the best in the world, etc. I turned down the fresh-baked bread, though. I couldn’t possibly add carbs (pains au chocolats are mostly chocolate, yes?).

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Shortly after, I left my clients – rather prosaically, the men ruining a good walk on the 18-hole course designed by Tom Weiskopf and the ladies heading from Daniela Steiner’s spa to the Canonica cookery school to recreate Elio’s spaghetti al pomodoro, and hit the road…

Read WineChap’s second dispatch from Tuscany on Thursday September 13.

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