Having left friends’ wedding celebrations near Arezzo in the small hours (the ceremony included the immortal line “Love and marriage are like ham and eggs: the chicken is involved but the pig is totally committed”; and uniquely they had an Italian heavy-metal group come on-stage at 1am), I could have done with a lie-in after the week’s vineyard crawl.
But it was not to be: I had to get to Florence for my stag party – as civilised a destination for a chap’s traditional farewell to bachelorhood as could be imagined, yes? I needed to collect a linen suit I had left behind in a hotel earlier in the year and this seemed a good excuse to invite a few close friends to join me for the weekend, even if, as I explained in the admittedly unenthusiastic invitation, “It will be hot, sweaty, mosquito-plagued and teeming with American tourists, plus flights during the Olympics/peak season will be exorbitant.” I had continued that anyone sufficiently lacking an alternative was welcome to meet me at Capocaccia, next to the Ponte Santa Trinita and the British consulate, for aperitivo hour.
We arrived in Florence in the late afternoon. The “breeze” was like walking into a hairdryer, the winds off the Arno heated by high, hot stone walls and channelled through narrow streets; you needed a Negroni every 20 minutes just to cool off. It transpired that Capocaccia had changed names not once but twice since my last visit, which made it even more of a challenge for friends to find; but it still seemed to attract the same group of ultra-chic, self-aware young Florentine poseurs, leaning on the walls of the Arno’s banks, making a single cocktail last for an hour or more.
We headed to dinner at Il Latini, an obvious choice for a sizeable and inevitably rowdy group – this Florentine institution makes up the menu (and subsequent bill) having shrewdly appraised the company’s likely preferences and resources. I have been here half a dozen times over the years with very different guests and, impressed by the accuracy of the process, always left very full and very merry.
The following morning, we set off for Castello di Ama, an estate in whose Bellavista vintages the wines of Chianti reach their apotheosis and are at their most Burgundian. Owner Lorenza Sebasti Pallanti took us round this unique and extraordinary estate, which weaves in, among the vineyards (second image), winery and cellars, installations and works commissioned annually from major modern artists. Marble, glass and light sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, Chen Zhen (first picture) and Anish Kapoor can be found below and beneath barrels of maturing wines and in the private chapel; Nedko Solakov’s doodles adorn the tasting room, and constructions from Carlos Garaicoa and Daniel Buren are to be found in the gardens. And then there are the wines: Lorenza remarked that a wine needs hooks, angularity, features. Like memorable faces, it’s the bone structure supporting the flesh that is often the most striking. While the ’07 Bellavista was quite impenetrable at this juvenile stage of its life, the ’04 was more yielding; pepper, all-spice and roses opening in the damp morning. Bellavista ’01, meanwhile, hits the palate like waves on a beach and rises like smoke in the mouth: a wine you feel in your cheekbones. Although Sangiovese dominates the estate’s vineyards, few know that Castello di Ama also boasts the oldest Merlot vines in Chianti – a year before they were planted by Ornellaia, whose Masseto is the most famous wine from this grape in the country. Lorenza observed that some wineries, like families, are losing a sense of legacy, that the freedom of the younger generation breeds poverty of future history. This certainly cannot be said of Castello di Ama: its singular wines, pioneering art installations and exceptional vegetarian lasagne ensure immortality.
Back in town, after a Guinness at the Stovepipe’s tiny balcony overlooking the duomo and overlooked by tourists as the best spot to view Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, I returned to the Hotel Regency (sister to Rome’s Lord Byron Hotel), a charmingly unaffected residence I often use, just a short walk east overlooking the leafy Piazza d’Azeglio. The Regency belongs to a different age; I'm never sure if it’s been lovingly restored or just continually well-polished through the ages. The décor resembles the smarter rooms in one of Piccadilly’s more modest gentlemen’s clubs, but thankfully its dining room offers considerably better fare. Having spent far too long in the bathroom trying to decide which luxury-hotel-branded shower gel best embodied my aspirations, we set off for our dinner appointment at Cambi, south of the river, a place local Florentines take their out-of-town relatives to impress. It is justly famous for the city’s bistecca (a New Jersey client of mine I took here once, who has a regular table at Peter Luger, still swears it’s the best steak he has ever eaten) and it didn’t disappoint; we guzzled charry, glossy slabs of beef, sluiced down with Antinori's Pian Delle Vigne Brunello 2001.
One of The Regency’s other prime advantages is its proximity to the hilariously opulent Four Seasons with its magnificent outdoor pool, making it entirely possible to wander barefoot, in swimming trunks, the few streets’ distance to a poolside lounger, thus avoiding the €80 non-resident charge for use of the facilities that arriving clothed might incur. Its towering atrium may resemble a bacchanal as styled by Jean Paul Gaultier, but The Four Seasons makes a superlative bellini – Sardinian peaches marinated for 24 hours in Vermentino, then blitzed moments before being blended with prosecco, and served to you (at the barman’s discretion) in the water – thus re-christened a “Pool-ini”. Half a dozen of these on Sunday afternoon and it was time to head to the airport. Needless to say I forgot the suit, but I’ll be back.