Sitting beneath towering trees on a bench on one of the sloping paths of the University Botanical gardens in Siena, amongst the dozens of birds calling and flitting through the forest, there’s time to reflect. The gardens sprawl over six acres down the side of a steep ravine that ends in the remnants off the medieval city wall. Beyond the wall and the Porta Tufi gate, the Tuscan countryside rolls and spills far off in the distance, vineyards and olive groves dotting the scene.
Yesterday we spent twelve hours motoring through Tuscany with four others (two from New York — a young woman who works for the UN and her boyfriend a computer science student at Columbia University, and her parents, a couple from Gainesville Florida) and our guide Lorenzo, a sommelier born in Pisa who worked in Holland for a time, but returned to wine country.
Lorenzo loves wine, discussing the origins of the Sangiovese grapes so important to this region, the large ‘productors’ like Cecci who produce thousands and thousands of bottles of wine for export and not worth drinking, and the smaller owners whose production is often limited to 50,000 bottles or less, often sold to individuals directly off the farm, like us who had appointments for tastings today.
Lorenzo also likes to take his passengers off the tour, so we stopped in a number of extra places along the Cassia, the road built by an early roman emperor, and two monasteries important to pilgrims making their quest along Via Francigena, the dangerous route between England and Jerusalem. Hikers and pilgrim’s still make portions of the journey today and Lorenzo drove us into several Tuscan hill towns along the old routes, when defensive walls and striking towers would have greeted weary travelers like apparitions.
In San Gimignano, tourist shops and merchants now greet new arrivals, and only a few of the towers that once dominated the skyline still remain, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the impact such a place would have had on a foreign visitor.
Below the town we stopped for light lunch and tasting at the Tenuta Torciano vineyard, where we sampled six varieties of white and red wine, accompanied by plates of salami, pecorino cheese, bread and locally produce oil oil and aged balsamic, and the a serving of lasagna drizzled in truffle oil. A well-established producer, with warehouses in Chicago and distribution centers in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan(!), we were given the opportunity to purchase any of their products at a discount (including shipping, customs and taxes door-to-door). Lorenzo reminded us that San Gimignano’s claim to fame was not it’s red vintages, including the Chianti and Brunello we had sampled, but the white Verenazza, a unique wine that ages well and will keep for several years. Later, he told us, we would sample a Brunello grown on the eastern slopes of Montalcino that would far surpass what already had seemed to be an excellent vintage.
We left, full and content, and passed through verdant fields and rolling hills and soon came to a thick forest quite dangerous for pilgrims in a border area that lay in outside of control of either Siena and Florence who in the early 1500’s fought for dominance of all of Tuscany. After a brief visit to an 8th century monastery under reconstruction, we came upon the intact battlements of Monteriggione, scene of a fight that ultimately led in 1555 to Florence’s successful defeat of Siena. Staring out over the steep walls of the town, it’s difficult to imagine any force that could have overcome it’s defenses, but today the towers remain empty, except for visitors who can walk along the tops of the walls and only imagine to be on the lookout for friendly or unfriendly approaching parties.
From here we headed south through Chianti Classico country and passed countless vineyards framed with straight lines of cypresses, which we found out were originally planted because their thick roots would grow and stabile the driveways to hilltop villas. We saw vast fields owned by the Cecci family, and saw the country changes as we headed south and east toward Montalcino.
We made a short stop at Castellina in Chianti and strolled through the covered archways of the defensive walls with Lorenzo,and taking note of the shape of the arches and the combination of brick and stone used in the construction close to a thousand years ago. We learned about the symbol of the black rooster and the pink stripe that must be on any bottle of authentic Chianti Classico and how the government regulates the bottling and labelling of every bottle of wine produced in the region.
On the slope entering the town of Montalcino, we stopped and saw huge dark thunderclouds rising over the Orcia valley toward Pienza and Montepulciano beyond, then spent a half-hour climbing the curving streets to the Duomo, took a short glimpse inside the huge empty Fortezza before continuing to our next wine tasting in the valley below.
Our second tasting was much different. We were greeted by Fabio, a tall Curley headed middle-aged man who greeted us briskly in ItalIan and offered us a palate-cleansing cup of unidentified wine while he showed us the traditional method of tying San Genovese grapes. He then quickly ushered us into the chilly above-ground cellar and explained, with Lorenzo’s translation how the wine was stored in the huge oak casks from Hungary, and remained (in the case of the prized Brunello) for four years, then another year in bottle, before being offered for sale. We were then shown to a tasting room where we were given many samples of increasingly valuable and finer wine, along with baskets of bread, olive oil, salami and prosciutto. Fabio capped of the tasting with a shot a grappa which the adventurous downed in a quick tip. The Fabiola father, 82-year old Mario appeared in a straw hat and light grey suit and tie. He brought our a bottle of his best wine, an eight-year old Brunello Reserva, and without a word refilled everyone’s glass. Then to our further surprise, as people began to fill out their order forms, he offered up another shot of grappa for anyone brave enough. Of course, most of us saluted Mario as we quickly drained our glasses.
On our way hometo Siena, Lorenzo had one final extra stop, a Benedictine monastery high in the unique hills, San Oliveto Maggiori. Although we didn’t have time to tour the place, we spent a few minutes gazing at it’s spires and walls and taking photos. Everyone must see such a unique place once in their life, Lorenzo said, after welled back in the van for our short journey home.
- Posted from my iPad
Location:Via Santa Caterina,Sienna,Italy