I love my wine … sometimes a little too much … especially on a Friday evening after a long week of too much work and too little fun but a ten day Tuscan golf and wine vacation has taught me not only how to swirl, sniff and sip a fine glass of Chianti but even more importantly, how to be in the moment and savour the entire experience.
Every month in Tuscany offers endless possibilities to indulge your passion for golf and wine but if you are as fortunate as we were to visit in September, every corner of the region is a whirlwind of festivals dedicated to the celebration of the grapes. The medieval village of Greve sits at the epicentre of the verdant Chianti valley that lies between Florence and Siena and I can’t think of a better place to start your own personal nine and wine odyssey.
We arrived in Greve the final afternoon of a three day event and headed to the main square that was packed with friends and family, young and old alike who had come together to celebrate the harvest and the latest releases by local producers. The typically quiet piazza had been transformed by a sea of stands into the most wonderful open air wine showcase. It was duly noted that we did not have ‘glass in hand’ and we were quickly directed to the Segretaria where we purchased our wine glasses for 10 Euros each that along with a ticket allowed us to taste up to eight glasses of wine. Talk about value and, within minutes we were no longer tourists but a part of the local scene.
At our first stop we learned the cardinal rule of Italian wine-tasting. Whether you are at the market, a winery or an elegant restaurant in Florence, you’ll never truly appreciate the beauty of the wine unless it is accompanied by food. So, before sampling the wine, we were offered a chunk of soft, dense Tuscan bread to dip in golden, spicy olive oil the likes of which I have never experienced. At the same time, we noticed that the bread itself was unique in that it was made without salt. It was at this moment that another lifetime lesson kicked in to ensure that we took full advantage of every opportunity to not only play but learn from others. It’s really very simple, if you have a question – ask! People love to share their stories, their culture and their traditions and Italy is no exception.
Being curious about this peculiarity, we were soon treated to a tale that underscores the fiercely independent nature of the Tuscan people. According to legend, in the 12th century the Pisan authorities raised the price of salt but the Tuscans refused to pay and being resourceful ,discovered a new method for making bread without the precious ingredient. So why now, centuries later, when salt is so inexpensive do the proud people of this area still continued to bake bread their way? Because they know that it is that subtle difference that makes the perfect foil for a complex Pecorino cheese or a spicy salami and of course, the wine!
Glimpses like this into the past ensure the present comes to life at every course and vineyard you stop at along the way. For Tuscans, golf or wine-making is not all about process and profits; it’s about people and the land. So after you ‘nine’, go out and wine to experience all the Tuscany has to offer.
Here are a few suggestions of the wineries that you will want to include in your itinerary.
If you want to discover Chianti’s roots then a visit to Badia a Coltibuono is definitely in order. Here’s where it all began in 1051 when the monks of the Vallombrosan Order founded the abbey and began planting the first vines. Under Napoleon’s rule, the estate was secularized and eventually sold to the Stucchi- Prinetti family and has remained in their hands for six generations. While much is new such as the cooking school and the elegant and romantic restaurant housed in the refurbished stables, the family remains dedicated to preserving the heritage of the estate. Serving handmade pasta, traditional local meats such as lamb or rabbit, local sheep and goat’s cheeses and of course their own wines as well as other quality Italian vintages from the region, Coltibuono reinforces that the marriage of food and wine is one made in heaven.
Castello di Meloto originally belonged to the Coltibuono Abbey but was transferred to the Ricasoli family in 1269. When you pull up to the castle keep don’t immediately bolt for the tasting area. Instead, take a deep breathe, note the aroma of the herbs and let you eye wander to the extensive garden overflowing with lavender, rosemary, oregano and bay laurel. Relax and you’ll be fully ready to appreciate a personal tour of the castle that was lavishly restored in the Baroque style in the 18th century before moving on to the main event, the ancient wine cellars housed below the foundations of the castle.
The wines here are exquisite and with good reason. Barone Bettino Ricasoli was the driving force behind the consortium that established the laws that still govern the production of Chianti Classico wines today. If you want to linger to learn more about Ricasoli’s influence, their newly renovated restaurant and bar makes the perfect ‘classroom’ setting.
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa behind glass and barricades, surrounded by throngs of people but it was certainly more impressive to be standing in the courtyard at Vignamaggio sipping a glass of Monna Lisa Riserva while Sandro enthralled us with the story of Leonardo da Vinci and Lisa del Giocondo’s romantic liaison. Now I know the real reason it took Leonardo almost 5 years and 31 layers of paint to perfect his masterpiece!
And if that wasn’t enough, after touring the production facilities take a leisurely stroll through the courtyard to the Italianate garden where Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing was filmed. All in all, the ideal place to experience Tuscany from an artistic point of view and savour another glass of outstanding wine.
What does Manhattan and Castello di Verrazzano have in common? Giovanni, the prodigal son and famous navigator who discovered New York Bay and was later immortalized when a bridge was named in his honour. After hearing about not only his exploits but the centuries old rivalry with the family that shares the valley, you can indulge in a seven course feast that features the best wines from the estate as well as local specialities such as wild boar and guinea fowl but be forewarned that you better wear your ‘buffet’ pants!
High-tech and high-touch make a great pairing when it comes to producing dark red, full bodied Brunello wines. Banfiis the largest producer in Montalcino and your hosts will more than delighted to tell you the story of the Mariani family who made it ‘big’ after they returned to their roots. Although the production facilities are truly state-of-the-art, it is evident that the present is indelibly intertwined with the past when you adjourn to the tasting area adjacent to the castle. Here’s where you almost feel yourself travelling back in time where if you are feeling rather ‘princely’ you have the opportunity to spend the night in the luxuriously appointed rooms within the castle keep. But despair not if you are more a ‘serf’ like us, you’ll appreciate your driver transporting you back to your fattoria or residenza after you have received the ‘royal treatment’ sampling from the world-renowned Banfi cellars.
So, if you’re of the vintage that remembers when your parents bought Chianti wine for the cute little wicker basket that could be retrofitted as a candle holder at the next dinner party, set that sentiment aside and start planning your trip to Tuscany today. Donatella and her amazing team at Macana Golf will put together a custom-tailored par excellence package where can lose yourself, but not your way, exploring the wonders of Tuscany!