Terrific Tuscany – Kiwi drinks up large

January 5, 2024
2 mins read
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Witchdoctor’s wine guru PHIL PARKER looks back on a memorable trip to the heartland of Tuscan wine country.

For all its distance, New Zealand seems to have an endless fascination with the food, wine and culture of Italy. And we have been eager to embrace espresso, Chianti, Prada, Fellini, Lamborghini, and a whole bunch of other stuff ending in a, e, i, and o.

So, this wine holiday was my most ambitious to date – Italy, focusing on the Chianti region in Tuscany. We flew in on Emirates via Dubai. The idea was to avoid all the security hold-ups associated with a transfer at LAX. I can report that Dubai is smelly, humid and extremely hot, with an airport terminal like something out of the Star Wars cantina scene and many, many people of different cultures in very strange clothes buying duty-free like there’s no tomorrow.

We had three days in Rome, then another three in Umbria. Hiring a rental from Perugia, I drove nervously out of the city in our very comfortable Lancia automatic with no major trauma other than somehow ending in a bus-only lane which was running contra to the other peak hour traffic. Locals made kindly but not really helpful Italian gesticulations that probably meant we were loveable foreign imbeciles.

A judicious U-turn soon had us hopelessly lost again in short order. However, we eventually located our B&B in Bastia about 30 minutes away as dusk fell … and tempers frayed. Umbria was quiet and charming: endless fields of sunflowers and good, affordable and very drinkable local wines from our nearby supermarket at about 6 Euros a bottle.

Onward to Tuscany by the very efficient Trenitalia rail network and local buses, we first stopped in San Gimignano, a walled hilltop township. Dating from around the 10th Century, San Gimignano is a fortified town featuring the classic Tuscan terracotta pink and honey, brick and tile buildings. Very much a tourist town now, it boasts numerous restaurants, a museum of religious art and a wine museum. The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta has frescoes by Sienese school artists Bartolo di Fredi and Taddaeo di Bartolo.

But the highlight of the trip was Montalcino, another fortress town dating back to the 14th century. The whole township is easily traversed by foot and has a permanent population of about 5000. Spectacular postcard views of the Orcia Valley are around every corner, giving panoramas of the region’s olive orchards, vineyards and wheat fields as they stretch into the hazy distance.

Renowned for the iconic Tuscan red grape, Brunello, Montalcino is the most famous Chianti producer in the region.  Brunello is 100% Sangiovese, produced and branded under very strict regulations. Grapes must be grown within the Commune of Montalcino, ageing for two years in oak casks, and a further four months in the bottle is obligatory. Two hundred and eight producers make around 290,000 cases in total of Brunello per annum. The name Montalcino is a protected brand, like Champagne, and can only be applied to another red, Rosso di Montalcino and a white – Moscato di Montalcino. Brunello retails in NZ at anything from $100 to $200 and upwards.

Very few local vineyards were open for cellar door tasting, and only by appointment. The best way is a hosted tasting at the Enoteca, a wine boutique, restaurant and tasting facility, which is located in the Fortezza, the castle keep. I was treated to a line-up of five vintage Brunellos. The clouds parted and I heard bits of the Hallelujah Chorus. These are glorious wines – full, ripe and rich, with dried fruit, old wine characters, soft tannins and lingering aftertaste.

Montalcino is also renowned for honey, extra virgin olive oils, and local cheeses like Pecorino. Many restaurants and cafes make the best of local speciality produce. In fact, the best meal we had in Italy was Trattoria Il Leccio – located in a small village – St Angelo in Colle, just outside Montalcino. Other attractions include San Quirico d’Orca – a thermal spa town going back to Etruscan times, with many churches, gardens, and upmarket tourist accommodation.

Highly recommended! Ciao !!!

 

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Originally a physiotherapist, Phil's fascination with the fermented grape juice led to the launch of his wine tour company Auckland Fine Wine & Food Tours at the turn of the century. A seasoned and well-respected wine writer, Phil's oenophilia led to the publication of his wine region guide to New Zealand, The Mad Keen Wine Buff's Road Trip (Random House).

1 Comment

  1. Nice! I spent many a time in Greve en Chianti sampling more than my fair share of super tuscans…. good food, great wine and a stunning country side where the golden hour goes for hours makes it a must visit spot for me

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