After a joyful reunion in Florence, our clan of eight piled into two vehicles and headed southwest for a week in Tuscany. My brother’s friend had found an amazing four-bedroom home outside of Asciano, and we were so thankful to be able to stay with them and my family. After having our travel dials set to warp speed since January 3rd, it was nice to slow down the pace, relax, and spend some time catching up with everyone. Set on a rural hillside of Tuscany’s Crete Senesi region (the area is named for the Sienese clay that creates an almost lunar landscape across Siena’s southern countryside), the rustic home was nestled between Asciano and Chiusure – amongst carefully-manicured vineyards, groves of flourishing olive trees, and rolling hillsides that were set ablaze under the plunging, Tuscan sun.
Our hosts, Guido and Francesca, were incredibly warm and generous, taking the time not only to recommend a handful of Tuscany’s best wineries, but to set up a private tasting at a friend’s vineyard, and also to spend a day personally showing us around some of the neighboring, historic villages. During our stay, we ended up touring a number of medieval-era townships, and well as three different wineries, each suggested by Francesca for a different reason – Antinori for its unique architecture and traditional Chianti Classico, Salcheto for its high-quality, organic Sangiovese vintages, and Bolsignano for its small, family-owned vineyard that churns out first-rate reds with the help of friends and family during their annual ‘harvest party.’
A surprisingly enormous wine producer, Marchesi Antinori boasts a commitment to both tradition and innovation. The winery’s history was both interesting and impressive – the Antinori family’s wine-making roots date back to 1180, and since 1385, when Giovanni Antinori joined the Florentine Guild of Vintners, at least one member of the family has continued the legacy of wine production, with a focus on Chianti Classico. Interestingly, the façade of the large winery is in stark contrast to the producers’ more traditional background, with a new, modern construction comprised of geometric patterns and minimalist designs constructed (literally) into the hillside, to avoid detracting from the region’s natural beauty. While we found the Chianti Classico to be a decent red, it wasn’t anything extraordinary. I think we’ve gotten a similar impression from other large producers – once you get big enough and branch out in too many directions, the artistry of your one true specialty is almost lost. Regardless, it was an interesting tour with an extraordinary past.
A much smaller wine producer located just outside of Montepulciano, Salcheto asserts a strong focus on sustainability and reducing their environmental footprint. For these reasons, the winery was recently recognized as ‘Sustainable Winery of the Year’ by local food and wine connoisseurs Gambero Rosso. Not only are the wines produced by Salcheto certified organic, but they maintain a nearly energy-independent cellar by using light tubes that direct natural light underground, as well as by using wood from pruned grape vines to heat the facility in winter. Moreover, all of the tanks and fermenters are gravity-fed, and the winemakers are diligent about minimizing water consumption. Not only did we love that they were environmentally-conscious, but their wines were amazing! We absolutely loved the Salco and the Riserva, two full-bodied reds made from Sangiovese grapes. For our tasting, five wines were paired with an extraordinary lunch of homemade pici pasta (a local tradition made from only flour and water), meat and cheese platters, as well as bruschetta made with perhaps the most delicious tomatoes on the planet – all served in glass-walled tasting room with a magnificent view of Montepulciano. You can’t beat a lunch like that.
The last winery we visited was Bolsignano di Roberto Rubegni, a small, family-run vineyard in Montalcino. Owned and operated by a most gracious couple, Roberto and Sara, their three hectares (roughly seven acres) of organically-grown Sangiovese grapes generate an annual yield of only about 5,000 bottles each of their two reds – the Rosso di Montalcino and the distinguished Brunello di Montalcino. When we arrived, Sara welcomed us and led us around the vineyard, allowing us to sample some of the succulent fruit, and explaining their processes of grape selection and harvest. She then showed us to an elegant tasting room off one wing of their home, where she and Roberto had set up a seemingly endless spread of local meats, cheeses, and olives, homemade jams, fresh bread, and warm bruschetta. They opened several bottles of wine for us to pair with the delicious fare, and vigilantly ensured that our glasses and plates were never empty. Not only did they welcome us with the most generous hospitality, but their wines were just incredible. Roberto’s prized Brunello was our clear favorite, and we brought several bottles of the rich red back to the house to enjoy.
When we weren’t touring amazing wineries, we spent the majority of our time exploring some of the quaint medieval towns that were scattered about the Tuscan countryside. From Montepulciano to San Gimignano, narrow cobblestone streets, ancient castle walls, and charming stone churches beckoned, an air of ageless wonder encompassing us as we examined the faded frescoes, shadowy cellars, and time-worn wells. In Bagno Vignoni, we dipped our tired feet into the rejuvenating thermal springs that run through the diminutive town. In Pienza, we admired the lovely vistas of the Val d’Orcia from the old city walls. This Renaissance-era community was the hometown of Pope Pius II, and the pastoral church where he was baptized (Parish Church of Saints Vito and Modesto) dates to the 12th century, though its earliest roots stretch back as far as the 7th century. We immensely enjoyed the charm of both Siena and San Gimignano, two UNESCO World Heritage sites and quintessential medieval towns. The stunning Gothic façade and banded bell tower of the 13th-century Siena Cathedral soar above the city’s picturesque Piazza del Campo. In San Gimignano, a number of medieval tower houses soar above expansive city squares and modest churches, imparting a truly distinctive character we’d hadn’t experienced in the other cities.
And while we tremendously enjoyed meandering the passageways of all the small villages, indulging ourselves in kilograms of mouthwatering gelato and locally-celebrated pici pasta, and sampling an assortment of robust red wines, our Tuscan retreat was really all about this…
…family. Thanks for the quality time, guys – and for being a part of our journey around the globe.