Tuscany – a short travel guide

The weather is getting better and many of us are turning our thoughts to travel. Every now and again I write wine travel articles for my friends at the excellent 3D Wines Experience wine club and they print them in their Uncorked Magazine. Well, I thought that some of my readers here would enjoy them too, so I will publish them on here in a slow trickle.

My first piece for 3D Wines was about Tuscany and while it isn’t comprehensive it does cover a good swathe of lovely places in Tuscany’s, so I hope that it comes in handy for some of you.

Wine map of Tuscany – click for a larger view.

Tuscany has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. It has everything from sun, sea and sand to some of the most romantic towns and cities in the world. It is a place that you can visit time and again and yet always find something new to excite you.

Tuscany is home to many famous wines, but Chianti remains its beating heart. The term Chianti was first used to define the hilly area area around Radda, Gaiole and Castellina and is thought to have been the name of an Etruscan family. This is the heartland of Chianti, where it all began and today it’s the core of the Chianti Classico D.O.C.g., but the whole Chianti area is worth exploring.

Castellina in Chianti.

Castellina
Castellina in Chianti is small and still has the feel of a mediaeval walled town. It is a joy to wander along the charming main street – Via Ferruccio – and the Via della Volte, an amazing vaulted, passage now home to shops and restaurants. The main square – Piazza del Comune – is dominated by the Rocca di Castellina castle which houses the Museum of Etruscan Archeology. This is a real gem and if it whets your appetite to learn more about this ancient culture, there is the stunning Etruscan tomb of Montecalvario a few minutes walk away.

It can be very hot here, so some amazing, homemade ice cream from the Antica Deliza Gelateria is highly recommended and almost reason enough to come to Castellina – do try the lemon and sage. If you need something more substantial the Antica Trattoria la Torre serves very good traditional food and is right in the main square.

Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi.

Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina.

Just outside the town is the Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi an old country house turned into a welcoming B&B hotel complete with swimming pool, while the nearby Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina provides high class Tuscan food and a wine list to match.

The rolling hills of the Colli Senesi.

Siena
Chianti Colli Senesi, as you might imagine is produced in the hills around Sienna. Once Florence’s equal as a city state, Siena ultimately lost out politically to its rival in the north, but in every other respect is by far the winner. Siena was never the centre of Renaissance intrigue, or Italy’s capital and so it remains small, with just 53,000 people its population is barely a seventh of Florence. This amazing, compact city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose buildings are almost all the same colour – terra di Siena or ‘Siena earth’ which makes it seem very beautiful.

Piazza del Campo Siena.

Do spend some time in the Piazza del Campo, this huge piazza is used as the racetrack for the Palio horse race twice a year and is lined with cafés, restaurants, gelaterias and market stalls. Make sure that you climb the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower overlooking the Piazza, heavy going in the heat, but the view is worth it as the whole city opens up before you.

The Duomo, or Siena Cathedral, is not only stunning in itself as it contains bas-reliefs by Donatello, but the site also includes the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo which houses masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. Once you have absorbed all the art another panoramic view awaits you from the terrace of the Il Facciatone tower.

Every Wednesday there is a lively market around the Fortezza Mediceana, where food, wine, antiques, animals and clothes are all for sale and it is a great place to watch the locals going about their lives.

Torre del Mangia Siena.

As you might imagine Siena is bursting with places to eat and it is hard to make a mistake, but my favourite is the Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda which has been run by former Palio jockey Pierino Fagnani since 1973. This place is wonderfully atmospheric and fun with a great wine list and a very traditional menu. Try Pici – a thick hand rolled spaghetti which is only made in Siena and often served with a rich wild boar sauce. This would also be a good place to try some Panforte for dessert, with a glass of Vin Santo perhaps?

Looking down on the Piazza del Campo Siena.

Staying in Siena isn’t always easy as the hotels are usually very old, small and lack air-conditioning, while many of them are up several floors with no lift. The Hotel Duomo is pretty central, air-conditioned and has wonderful views from most rooms, but like many hotels in Siena it does lack parking. If you are seeking something more luxurious then the 5 star Grand Hotel Continental Siena occupies a magnificent 17th century Palazzo once owned by Pope Alexander VII. What’s more their Enoteca SaporDivino is a superb wine bar in the cellar that has to be experienced.

Florence.

The Duomo in Florence, beautiful by day and night.

A colourful procession in Florence.

Further afield – Firenze
I suppose that Florence must be at the heart of many trips to Tuscany, so I should mention some of my favourite delights to be found there. Harry’s Bar was opened on the banks of the Arno in 1952 by a friend of Giuseppe Cipriani who created the original in Venice and it appears to be unchanged. It is so elegant and cosmopolitan that as you sip your Bellini you half expect Clark Gable to appear arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe.

More traditional fare is available at the nearby Cantinetta Antinori which is housed on the ground floor of the ancient Antinori family palazzo. This beautiful place offers a small menu of classical Tuscan cuisine together with an enormous list of wines made by Antinori and their friends throughout the world. You can even try all their Super-Tuscans by the glass.

Trattoria Marione

Both of those are delightful and swanky and perfect if your wallet is full, but if you are after some good food and charming local colour on a tighter budget then the wonderfully bustling Trattoria Marione is nearby in the Via della Spade. The check table cloths, Chianti flasks on the tables and salamis hanging over the bar might make you think it’s a tourist trap, but I have only ever known locals to be in there and they always seem to be happily tucking into wonderful traditional Tuscan food in abundance – try the tagliatelle sul Cinghiale – tagliatelle with wild boar.

Florence is also known for its colourful Fiaschetteria or Vinerie, traditional wine bars that are often no more than a hole in the wall. The upmarket Enoteche are a more salubrious update on the theme, often quite smart and serving an array of wine together with stuzzichini, snacks or appetisers of Crostini, Salami and Affettati – mixed cured meats.

Piazza Napoleone, Lucca.

Walking Lucca’s walls.

Lucca
Far from being filthy, Lucca is a delightful walled town a little north east of Pisa. You can walk all around the walls and see the town before you venture in to the maze of winding streets, some of which look as though they are stuck in the Renaissance, while others like Via Fillungo boast an impressive array of luxury shops – as with Florence jewellery and leather goods are the things to buy here. The oval shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was once the ancient town’s Roman amphitheatre. This is a beautiful space and it is wonderful to soak up all the history for a while in one of the many bars.

Lucca from the air – you can clearly see the walls and fortifications – click for a larger view

Lucca boasts one of my favourite family run restaurants. The Trattoria da Leo has been in the Via Tegrimi since 1974 and is a delightful place to enjoy delicious, simple Tuscan food and while away an hour or two. It is an unpretentious, but totally genuine place that lists just two wines, both red – Vino Toscano at 12.5˚ in either quarter or half litre carafes or the local Vino Colline Lucchesi in bottles.

If you find yourself in need of intellectual stimulation, Puccini was born in Lucca and his house in the Corte San Lorenzo is now a wonderful museum. After which you surely deserve an ice-cream and luckily the Gelateria Santini Sergio is nearby and has been making superb gelato on the premises since 1916 – do try the chocolate and orange.

Just go there
There is so much to enjoy in Tuscany that nothing can really do it justice other than going there and seeing these places as well as Pisa, San Gimignano, San Miniato, Livorno, Pistoia, Elba, Montepulciano, Montalcino and all those other little towns you would stop in along the way and remember for ever more.

Not only is everywhere a feast for the eyes, but every corner of Tuscany is home to something that you can actually feast on. Internationally famous wines, local wines, superb olive oils, honey, hams, cheeses, salamis, mushrooms, meats, herbs, breads and sweets abound – no wonder I am so drawn to the place.

Useful Addresses:

Antica Trattoria la Torre
Piazza del Comune15
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57- 774-0236

Albergaccio di Castellina
Via Fiorentina, 63
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57-774-1042

Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda
Via della Galluzza, 26
53100 Siena
+39 (0) 57-728-2208

Harry’s Bar
22R Via Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci 
Firenze, Toscana 50123 
+39 (0) 55-239-6700
Cantinetta Antinori
Piazza Antinori 3
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-292-234

Trattoria Marione
Via della Spada 27R
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-247-56

Trattoria da Leo
Via Tegrimi 1
Lucca, Toscana 55100
+39 (0) 58-349-2236

 

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

Wine of the Week 66 – a light, bright red or a deep rosé?

I got very excited by this wine. The look of it really attracted me, it just looked so bright and refreshing. The only trouble is, I could not quite work out what it was, it sort of looked liked a rosé, although in truth the colour was a bit deep. What’s more the label said it was a red wine – so who knew.

In the end I just decided to taste it – and I am glad I did, because it was so delicious I made it my Wine of the Week.

P1020702

Eva and Leonardo Beconcini.

The wine is made by my friends Eva and Leonardo Beconcini at their family winery in Tuscany. The estate is called Pietro Beconcini and they make superb wines that never fail to impress me. This was the latest addition to their range and I am so glad that I was able to taste it.

Wine Map of Tuscany click for a larger view.

Wine Map of Tuscany click for a larger view.

Pietro Beconcini makes Chianti, but they also have a secret weapon. They grow a grape that is either unique to them in Tuscany, or no one else has discovered that they grow it. As well as Sangiovese, they grow Tempranillo – the Rioja grape – and have done for generations, although they only discovered what the grape was in the last 20 years or so. It is a great story and you can read all about in this piece I wrote about my visit to them.

The lovely vineyards at Pietro Beconcini.

The lovely vineyards at Pietro Beconcini.

Their new wine is a light red, or a deep rosé depending on your pointy of view, that they recommend serving chilled – which I did.

The wonderful colour of Fresco di Nero.

The wonderfully vibrant colour of Fresco di Nero.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2014 Fresco di Nero
Tempranillo Toscana
Pietro Beconcini Agricola
Tuscany, Italy

This wine is a fascinating style and is made from early harvested Tempranillo grapes – picked in August in fact, their Tempranillo is usually picked in mid September. The wine undergoes a col fermentation in glass lined concrete vats and is aged on the lees in the same tanks for 4 months.

A vivid deep, but bright and concentrated strawberry red with a subtle tinge of orange.
The nose blasts soft red fruit, orange peel and blood orange aromas together with a touch of enticing spice.
The palate is fresh and generous with a creamy texture and a touch of smoke from the 4 months on the lees I expect, even a little savoury, ready, stuffing character to the mid palate. The orange and orange peel and the red fruit, strawberry, cranberry and cherry all vie with each other for the centre spot on your palate giving a fresh fruit crunch and there is a nice freshness of acidity keeping the wine lively.

You can serve this as an aperitif, treating it as a serious rosé or with food as an excellent light red. Whether it’s a red or a rosé, it is surprisingly complex, quite delicious and very drinkable – 90/100 points.

I enjoyed it with charcuterie, but can imagine it works with almost anything and whatever you have it with, this is a wine to be enjoyed.

Quality, convenience & a great deal of pleasure

Time was when your local corner shop was the last place you would turn to buy a bottle of wine. I well remember how they used to be, a jumbled assortment of wines with no apparent selection process, vaguely arranged on the shelves with price tags guaranteed to make you wince.

Well it seems that that might all be in the past, at least at Spar stores. We all take Spar stores for granted, there they are on most shopping parades all over the country supplying us with emergency bread and milk and a few other bits and pieces. Well recently I have tasted quite a few of their wines and I have to say that I have been impressed.

The range that I tried consisted of smart, well sourced and sensibly priced wines that hit the spot time and time again. It seems to me that the quality of the Spar wine offer now means that they will no longer be the wine shop of last resort, but somewhere customers can rely on as to provide some really very good bottles of wine.

What’s more they have their 5th Annual Wine Festival coming up which will allow you to try their wines at specially reduced promotional prices.

Red

Modesta Grenache Syrah Mourvedre2012 Modesta Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre
D.O. Valencia, Spain
Opaque purple damson colour, bright.
Plummy, fragrant, bright and fruity.
Chunky fruit, some spice and a feel of happy freshness. The texture is satisfyingly chewy with a sappy quality.
Soft tannins and rich fruit make this very enjoyable and very versatile. Extremely drinkable with or without food – 86/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.00 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £4.00

SPAR Chianti 20122010 Spar Chianti
D.O.C.g Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Nose of damsons, rich cherries and red berries with a touch of smoke, fragrant spice and flowers.
The palate is smooth and discretely juicy with lovely ripe red plum and cherry fruit supported by soft tannins, subtle oak and a seam of fresh, cleansing acidity. This was either a delight or I seriously wanted a drink! Perfect with pasta and a multitude of Italianate dishes – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.29

Print2009 Valle Vento Barolo
D.O.C.g Barolo, Piemonte, Italy
Made by the lovely people at the Araldica cooperative this is a very modern and fruity Barolo.
Deep ruby colour, not opaque, with a slightly orange rim.
Nice earthy nose, orange peel and savoury mushrooms, even some meat notes.
A very supple palate, smooth and very drinkable. The astringent dryness comes through on the finish much more as do the rose petals and earthy characters. The tannins are there, but not harsh, for a Barolo it is very fruity and upfront, which makes it very attractive and enjoyable – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £14.99 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £12.00

White

XXXX SP_Gavi label design_22011 Gavi
D.O.G.g Gavi, Piemonte, Italy
This was also made by the splendid Araldica cooperative this is a nice, easy drinking Gavi.
Citrus and orange blossom aromas lead to a gentle palate with soft acidity and a touch of almond about it. There is a touch of minerality and a slight creamy feel that makes it feel quite elegant. A very enjoyable, user friendly dry white wine – 86/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.29 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £6.00

Sancerre - La Valle des Vignes2012 Sancerre La Valle des Vignes
A.C. Sancerre, Loire Valley, France
Fresh, citric, grassy and elderflower nose.
Green tinged palate with quite rich, soft ripe green fruit and the merest hint of apricot and a juicy palate.
Nicely made, modern, bright and drinkable, not really crisp but very attractive and very drinkable – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £11.99 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £9.00

Sparkling

PrintNV Perlezza Prosecco Brut
D.O.C. Prosecco, Veneto, Italy
I’m not always a fan of Prosecco, they can often be a bit simple and somewhat sweeter than I want, but this is a very nice sparkling wine. Unusually dry and not too cloyingly aromatic, it is elegant, refreshing and crisp with a steely edge and taut appley fruit.
Incredibly versatile and clean as a whistle – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £9.00 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £6.00

These were all good wines that I tasted on their own and again with food. They were well made, stylish and very enjoyable, perhaps not the most profound wines or finest and most complex examples of their type, but they were all very enjoyable to drink – I know I certainly derived a great deal of pleasure from drinking them.

So next time you are in your local Spar, stick a bottle of Prosecco in your basket as well as the milk and the hobnobs.

X Marks the Spot – a Tuscan Mystery

Pietro Beconcini Agricola – even lovely on a rainy day

San Miniato is not a big place, but midway between Pisa and Florence it is part of a landscape that has produced wine since Etruscan times. Unlike the more famous areas of Tuscany though the wine has traditionally been seen purely in local terms. In the past it seems that many of the region’s big producers have bought grapes or wine from the farmers of San Miniato to beef up their own wines and give high quality at a good price. Much like Fronsac in Bordeaux it has historically been something of an insider’s secret.

Continue reading

My Favourite Wines, Top Discoveries and Experiences of 2011

I feel like a respite from all the self indulgence that the Christmas holidays force upon me and feel my thoughts turning back to wine. As the New Year is coming up fast I thought that I would attempt to tell you about my wine highlights for the year.

Most of my top wines have been written up here on my Wine Page, but some have slipped through the net and are new today. Please always remember that this is an entirely personal list, but I hope you enjoy it and that it gives some food for thought.

Sparkling Wines

I was really spoiled for fizz this year, 2 Champagne tastings stand out in particular:

Champagne:

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non Vintage based on the 1953 vintage
This whole tasting was extraordinary and provided a wonderful insight into a type of Champagne that it is all too easy to take for granted – read about it here.

1995 Perrier Jouët Belle Époque
In February I was lucky enough to taste four different vintages of Belle Epoque out of jeroboams, the 1995 was the standout wine for me, but they were all superb – read about it here.

Continue reading

Mastering the vernacular – Getting to grips with Vernaccia di San Gimignano

San Gimignano

My recent trip to Tuscany included a wonderful visit to San Gimignano. I had long wanted to see this place and it certainly lived up to my hopes – it is very beautiful and quite extraordinary. I loved the town, the sense of history, the dramatic, almost bizarre buildings and the feeling that I was in a complete medieval town with nothing of the 21st century around me.

As lovely as the place was, I was there to try the local wine and I did not really know what to expect. It is an oddity in Tuscany as it is white and made from a grape peculiar to this place – Vernaccia. Of course there are many other wines called Vernaccia dotted around Italy, but it seems that they are all unrelated to each other – indeed a couple of them are even red. One reason is that the word Vernaccia comes from the same linguistic route as the word vernacular and simply means local or indigenous. However, I have heard it claimed that the Tuscan Vernaccia and the rarely seen Ligurian Vernaccia may well be closely related. Continue reading