Wine Travel: Tuscany
The Twelve-hour flight helped build the anticipation and I couldn’t sleep a wink on the Lufthansa red-eye to Florence. I had dreamt of Italy all my life and now I’m finally going to be there, not just Italy, but Florence the romantic heart of Tuscany. Florence is a beautiful city and it was just magic to walk from palazzo to piazza and to museo. The Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio were just as advertised, nothing disappoints here. I had heard terrible stories of crowds, gypsies and litter, though no of these were in evidence to the extent of any problems. I guess with all the art and history on display, I only saw Florence’s lovely side and enjoyed every minute. In fact the only thing I can remember being annoying was the buzzing of thousands of vespas, and that even didn’t matter much. I was looking forward to my first night in Italy, and it was made all that more special that the Antinori winery was treating me to dinner at the La Cantinetta Antinori, their bistro at their family Palazzo di Antinori. The Antinori family is distantly related to the Medici Family the former rulers of Florence and Tuscany, and are thought of as Italian royalty. I must say the Caninetta was simple in appearance, but amazing in service and quality. The evening was very special and one of the best wine nights I ever had, with some of the finest Tuscan wines available. The tasting started with antipasto to die for, with their estate olive oil drizzled on everything including my shirt. The wines kept coming almost the entire Antinori lineup from their various estates. The only white was a crisp and lively Vermentino from Bolgheri that cleaned up my palate and left me mouthwateringly ready for the impressive reds that were to follow. The night went in a blur of fantastic food and stunning wines, but here are the highlights of the wine. Peppoli Chianti Classico, Tenute Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva, Guado al Tasso Estate Bolgheri rosso and the famed Tignanello “Super Tuscan” red. Whew, the time just flew by and my head was spinning as I sat back with desert and vin santo and a double espresso waiting in the wings just to make sure I could find my way back to the hotel! Lucky for me it was only three blocks away, sadly it didn’t give me all that much time to reflect on my first meal in Italy. I awoke surprisingly refreshed and stepped out onto the hotel’s rooftop terrace and enjoyed the finest cappuccino I’ve ever had, made for me by a man in a elegant uniform that I had mistook for a submarine captain. As I sat at my small table in the sunshine I smiled at the view of terra cotta tiles and church towers, yes Florence is wonderful. Read Dante, view Michelangelo and drink Antinori and you’ll just start to understand this beautiful historic city.
Next up was touring the ancient hilltop towns of Tuscany by rental car. Again I was very lucky that all those horrible tales of mad Italian drivers and terrible medieval roads proved not to be the case. OK, I do admit that the line at the rental car place was frightening as was driving out of Florence through impossibly narrow lanes, but once out of the city it turned to pure joy. The roads were excellent, the drivers courteous and the road signs easy to read, please I’ll take this over trying to get around San Francisco or LA anytime! I just made rules for myself, never ever drive into a walled city no matter what the guidebook says. Trust me on this, because I had read that Lucca had quote “wide Roman streets that are easy to navigate” Sure, I drove in and promptly turned onto what was promised as a main avenue, in reality it was a pedestrian walkway barely wide enough for the tiny VW I was driving. To make it absolutely perfect, it was pouring rain and packed like sardines with people! I quite literarily had to push the mass of humanity along as I in almost a complete panic attack found a way out. Finally I found a side lane where luck would have it there was a police car full of laughing policeman that very nicely escorted me to my hotel, it made me wish that I understood Italian, because the parting words were lost on this guy, but I’m sure they were hilarious. So never break that rule, even though I almost drive into San Gimignano through the back entrance to the city of towers, but at the last second I braked hard and reversed out scaring the hell out of German family in a Mercedes as I went blazing by backwards at 45 MPH. Those streets were so narrow that vespas had to fold their mirrors to get through.
I stayed in a beautiful villa in the small commune of Bucine; the place is an olive oil and wine estate named Tenuta di Lupinari, set in the Eastern hills of Chianti. Seven days and nights of Heaven, that offered a castle view with the rising sun to wake up to every morning. The estate produces easy drinking Chianti that went great with the local menu, but Tenuta di Lupinari’s star is their olive oil, which is flavorful and cloudy green and very full bodied. Foodies listen up, I found a gem, with some help from couple that were staying at the villa, from San Francisco bless them. The best meal in Italy was had at Osteria di Rendola, a fabulous restaurant in the little town of Montevarchi. The place was amazing and the food was out of this World, the best of show dish was a porcini mushroom risotto with buffalo mozzarella and avocado cream. Of course they had a great wine list, but I went for their own wine a Cabernet Sauvignon bottled just for them. I had been drinking local Chianti and other Sangiovese based wines, so I was curious to try the Cab. It was lovely and fruit driven with big flavors and good depth. This was as good as most $50.00 Napa wines, so I was even happier to find, even though this was not a cheap place the Cab only cost $25.00, this was a great evening meal. The other highlights were the visits to Cortona, with its Etruscan tombs, Siena with its huge fan shaped Piazza del Campo and the harvest of grapes in Montepulciano. Before leaving Tuscany behind for Portofino and Milan, I had to drive though and explore Chianti Classico. The beautiful Radda in Chianti was a wonderful place to spend the afternoon with its tiny Piazza and cute little shops including a wine shop offering for sale and taste some of the finest small estate Chianti’s. Lunch in Radda was great pleasure and humorous. The place Villa Miranda; is a little roadhouse that is run by an old woman and her family. The food was fresh and vibrant that delighted the senses, the homemade ravioli in sage butter sauce still lingers in my mind. The funny part was the wine service, I thought a light white would go with the food ordered, but I found this was just not done in Radda. The troll of a woman brought me a half bottle of ancient Villa Antinori Chianti Bianco that was brown in color and totally cooked with a label that was bleached out by sitting on a window sill for ten years. Totally undrinkable, but the food was so good I didn’t even send it back. I got a good chuckle out of it and hell I was sitting outside overlooking the gorgeous hills covered in vines, Villa Miranda gets mixed reviews for quality and service from travel books, I was lucky I guess. When in Radda please drink Chianti Classico, I learned my lesson the hard way.