Luxury hotels put a lot of effort these days into creating an authentic regional experience. Tuscany has more than its fair share: farmhouses and estate buildings restored to airbrushed perfection and given contemporary country-style interiors straight out of a two-kilo Taschen coffee-table book. Olive trees are pruned for looks rather than productivity; lavender and rosemary straight from the nursery are popped into carefully segmented dry-stone-walled beds; truffle hunts are orchestrated; menus are larded with authentic Tuscan-style dishes like pappardelle in hare sauce; and bucketloads of vin santo and boxfuls of cantuccini biscuits are bussed in to meet authentic Tuscan-style dessert quotas. Such places can make you feel strangely dissociated; you’re experiencing the experience rather than the thing the experience is designed to unlock. You’re living in a virtual Tuscany, in the middle of Tuscany.
Castello di Ama is not one of the aforesaid. It’s a serious working wine estate – year on year one of the best among the Chianti Classico producers, its full-bodied but elegant reds consistently eulogised by world-renowned wine writers such as Antonio Galloni and the FT’s own Jancis Robinson. It’s also become quietly celebrated for its collection of site-specific contemporary art, commissioned from artists of the calibre of Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren and Louise Bourgeois. And as of April 2015, it also has three guest suites – part of an unhurried, small-scale embrace of luxurious hospitality that began in March 2014 with the opening of a restaurant, Il Ristoro di Ama, in one of two elegant 18th-century villas at the heart of the estate village.
From Lecchi, one of those solid, stone-built Chianti villages where a single shop functions as café, wine bar, grocer, newsagent and tabacchi, the road rises through olive groves and oak woods to a panoramic ridge. Here a massive block of galestro schist – the bedrock around these parts and one of the reasons why the Sangiovese grapes planted in this area end up as such good wines – acts as the Castello di Ama welcome sign. To the left, the Bellavista vineyard descends in neat, serried rows; given the winery’s vocation for avant-garde cultural interventions, you could be forgiven for seeing this and other meticulously combed slopes as a form of land art.
There’s no true castle at Ama – at least not any more – just a delightful stone borgo, or estate village. Not all the houses here belong to the winery’s owners, Lorenza Sebasti and Marco Pallanti, but the important ones do: grand family summer retreats Villa Pianigiani and Villa Ricucci. On its frescoed piano nobile, Villa Pianigiani hosts the laid-back Il Ristoro di Ama. Sicilian-born chef Giovanni Bonavita has been working for the Sebasti family for 20 years; it was a small step from cooking for the family, their art-world friends and visiting wine professionals, to cooking for paying guests. The menu is simple and local – pappa al pomodoro, potato-filled tortelli in Cinta Senese sauce, chicken with black olives in wine sauce – but it’s a revelation, from the ribollita soup (almost solid, the way it should be, with delicate zolfini beans replacing cannellini) to one of the best zabaiones I’ve tasted, made with Ama’s tangy, not-too-sweet vin santo and served with a meltingly good hazelnut tart.
The three guest suites are in the grander of Ama’s two patrician villas, Villa Ricucci; guests here also have the run of a library, a vintage billiard room and several other communal nooks. One of the most enjoyable things about Ama is that no leading contemporary designer has been called in to decorate it. My two-bedroom upstairs suite is the aptly named Bellavista, its twin bifora windows looking down onto Daniel Buren’s compelling mirror installation, Sulle vigne: punti di vista, and beyond to a gentle declivity striped with vines. Inside, the salient features are two nonna‑style cast-iron beds, a lived-in Persian rug, an oak wardrobe large enough for several concealed lovers, and a lovely walnut chest of drawers. Like most real Tuscan patrician interiors (rather than Tuscan-experience ones), it’s an engaging, if somewhat random, blend of heirloom furniture.
True, the spectacular downstairs dining room, with its 18th-century frescoes, along with one of two suites that open onto it, feature a few contemporary pieces by Milanese design firm Edra – beaten-steel Campana light shades, patchwork Leatherworks chairs – but these too partake of the same defiantly eclectic spirit. You feel that most of these things are here because somebody likes them, not because they’re pitching for coffee-table-book fame.
By day or night, the lane connecting the two villas has a fairy-tale feel – Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou has painted a selection of its stone flags in Day-Glo colours. These are a vibrant introduction to the rest of the art collection positioned throughout the estate. In the ancient wine cellar underneath Villa Pianigiani, an iron grate set into the stone floor bridges the entrance to a cistern – half natural, half man-made. Kneeling in a shallow pool at the bottom of the cistern is a female figure carved in pink Carrara marble, her torso blossoming into a flower that oozes water from its tip. This is Louise Bourgeois’ Ars Topiaria; like much of the French-American artist’s work, it occupies a shape-shifting confessional terrain somewhere between Ovid and Freud.
Winery visits and certain tastings are discreetly included in the room rates at Castello di Ama. Chef Giovanni offers cooking courses too (his pasta-making skills are the stuff of local legend and mesmerising to watch). And there are any number of treks or mountain-bike excursions to be enjoyed, in a landscape that looks like the backdrop to a Simone Martini fresco. But you won’t find these spelt out under an “Activities” label on the website. This discretion is very much in the healthy spirit of a place that expects its guests to come as they are and accept it for what it is. Over dinner at Il Ristoro, the charmingly unpretentious Lorenza is frank about her priorities: “Hospitality? I’m only doing it for the wines.” In a world dominated by the emotional brochure and the bespoke experiential destination, I can’t be the only person in the room to find this rather refreshing.
Discover more Tuscan gems as Gillian de Bono explores Maremma’s long sandy beaches, ancient hill towns, surprising cultural venues and chic places to stay, or find out what constitutes Nigel Coates’s Perfect Tuscan Weekend.