Thursday, February 8, 2007

Under the Tuscan Sun

For Thursday I scheduled a day with the highly touted Luca Garappa from Hills & Roads. He planned a day for us based on what I told him we were interested in: wine, small towns and beautiful scenery. He picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 and we were off.

We began with a winding drive through the beautiful hills of Crete Senesi, or "Sienese Clay". In the morning mist we were surrounded by vast farms such as the one pictured above. Luca told us that several farmers may share the land and rather than fence it, they know their boundaries by natural landmarks. The earth changes composition from hill to hill, so there were many variations in color and crop grown. Typical produce includes olives, grapes for wine, fava beans and sunflowers. We also saw animals - sheep, cows and horse which made us baa, moo & neigh and smile with thoughts of Miles.

We stopped in Asciano, a small medieval village and also Luca's home town. We strolled through the town while Luca pointed out buildings and fountains. He has a true love of the ancient buildings and scoffed at many of the modern renovations we saw.

The next stop was at one of the vineyards of Donatella Cinelli Colombini, near Trequanda. Since it was winter, Luca had to search to find an open winery so this one was a new experience for him also. In the high season the Fattoria del Colle can host around 70 guests for a week of activities. We began with a tour of the grounds near the house which include a formal garden, pools & game area (archery & ping pong included!). The chapel on the grounds was built in 1592 and is still consecrated today. The villa is filled with antiques and art from the exciting history of the home. The most renowned resident was Peter Leopold of Hapsburg (The Grand Duke of Tuscany and later Emperor of Austria in the 1700s), who used it as a "romantic" refuge.

Beneath the villa are the wine cellars where we went next for our informal tour and tasting. The wineries here are unique in that they are managed by a staff of women only. (I think the only man is a consultant.) This was my first winery tour so I soaked it all in. Finally it was time for a tasting. We tried 3 wines: Chianti Superiore, Cenerentola Orcia, and Brunello di Montalcino. Since I'm an amateur I won't try to describe any of them, but will say that we enjoyed them all and purchased a bottle of the Chianti Superiore and Brunello di Montalcino. They also produce olive oil, so we requested a taste of that as well. I had no idea that a formal olive oil tasting is similar to a wine tasting - including the swirl, sniff and sip. It was tasty but I don't think I'll be chugging oil again anytime soon. We tried black, green and mixed olive oils and liked the mixed most.

After lunch in a nearby small town (including more wine) Wayne & I were getting drowsy. Luca drove us toward the Chianti area of Tuscany for a stop in another medieval village, San Gusme. This small walled town seemed deserted but Luca assured us that it was not, everyone goes to the main towns to work. We soon found the bar (yes the only bar) and had our espresso fix. After a quick stroll inside the walled town we hopped back in the car. The Chianti area is more wooded, and while also beautiful, Wayne & I preferred the rolling green hills of the Crete Senesi.

The next stop was supposed to be a tour of Castle Brolio. I think the combination of lots of wine & riding in a car was taking its toll and Luca noticed. He offered us the option of a briefly stopping at the castle and then returning home, so we skipped the formal tour and wine tasting. We'll have to seek out their wine in the states since the Castle is a world-famous producer of great wine, the Brolio Chianti. Luca told us that the castle dates back to the 12th century and was a fortress on the edge of ongoing battles between Florence and Siena. As recently as the 20th century that castle was still used for military purposes when it was briefly occupied by Nazis during World War II.

This evening we were worn out from our day. It was truly a highlight and we're so glad we hired Luca. But for this evening we settled with sandwiches (panini!) made in the deli down the street. We managed to request them to be made without speaking English! Quite a step up from our first meal in Italy.

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