Forget Lucca (nice walled city but not a lot of life) and head for Florence. Very busy and small, all of the historical sites are focussed around the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno pretty much. So it gets very congested with tourists.
Stayed in a small basic hotel that did the job (Hotel Fiorino) five minutes from the Uffizi art collection in the 16th century Medici palace (and magistrate offices hence the name). It has a narrow square between two of the place wings where you can have your caricature drawn! . It happened to be the first Sunday in the month so museums are free and there is no reservation possible – 5 hour queues! ! Note to come back and see the Medici art collection including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt. Tickets can be prebooked online along with access to the Duomo. Also Michelangelo’s David now in the Galleria dell’Academia.
Joined a long line to eat the best local focaccia sandwiches (hoping they would be worth the wait – and they were particularly the Porchetta) at All Antico Vinaio. Choice of salami, parma ham too served with pecorino and with black truffle cream too!
My highlight were the handmade most comfortable yellow shoes bought from Mannina just the other side of the Ponte Vecchio – www.manninafirenze.com
CHIANTI Back on the wine route and headed out of Florence on the SR222 towards Sienna – not the fast road but the one that passed through the vineyards of Chianti. What was most surprising was the lack of intensive viticulture like in Bordeaux, more a mix of olive trees and farms and sunflowers and forests. Of course cypress trees too lined the horizon. The region is hilly and the soil is dry and arid marl.
It got its DOC in 1967 and its DOCG in 1984. The top area is the Chianti Classico. Here it is a minimum of 80% Sangiovese (rest can be Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Canaiolo, Colorino whte Trebianno, Malvasia).
Passed through the simple villages of Greve in Chianti winding our way through the hills. The busiest village is Parzano a hill top centre for Chianti wine production. The area is around 20,000 hectares (to be checked) with 7000 hectares for Chianti Classico. The soil is poor schist, limestone and clay.
Headed into the walled city of Sienna, famous for its bare-backed crazy horse race that takes place start of July and middle August. It takes place in the main square of the city where we enjoyed a glass of fresh white wine, Vernacia from San Gimenano the Tuscan equivalent to St Emilion.
Then on to our day’s true and my top of the list Tuscan destination, Montalcino (photos above). We arrived in time to enjoy the hilltop village’s wines as the sun descended at Caffe la Fortezza (near the Fort) located to the west of the town – three different wines of Brunello di Montalcino (2011 & 2010) – Sangiovese of course.
The wine is called Brunello di Montalcino after the local version of the Sangiovese grape which has larger berries (firstly called Grosso and now Brunello). It was not until after the unification of Italy in the 1870s that the area started producing some of the area’s best wines. This was due to an innovative wine producer called Biondi-Santi who cam back after the wars to manage his grandfather’s estate ‘Fattoria del Greppo’. He decided to vinify the Sangiovese on its own (before all of the grape varieties were fermented together) and make a wine exclusively from Sangiovese. This part of the DOCG rules today and the wine is aged for 5 years minimum in large botti (and some smaller barriques for a more modern style). Vineyards are planted on slopes with the best exposure and at maximum of 600m. It is the hottest, driest microclimate in Tuscany and is the first to harvest compared to Chianti and Montepulciano. It has 330 producers and over 2000 hectares of vines.
Hotel was in the Eastern part of the village and we had stunning views down onto the vineyards stretching below us and into the distance as the sun came up (Hotel Dei Capitani). We loved the simple beautiful down-to-earth village and ate at the local’s favourite ‘Il Grifo’ on the main street Via Mazzini. Rabbit, pasta and an excellent 2007 Brunello di Montalcino l’Aeita. It was made Italy’s first DOCG in 1980 along with Barolo in Piemonte (DOC in the 1960s with our next destination, Montepulciano).
It takes just under an hour to go from Montalcino to Montelpulciano.
Montepulciano about 45 minutes eastwards is a much busier, larger hill-topped town (600m above sea level) with plenty of historical wine cellars to visit within the town itself (underground cellars dating back to Etruscan times dug into the tuffa ages the wines which were grown in vineyards around the town). Of course started with a fresh glass of Prosecco (available everywhere) on the terrace panorama of the vineyards (Valdechiana*) in the Art Deco Caffe Poliziano in the steps of Federico Fellini.
*The Val di Chiana, Valdichiana, or Chiana Valley is an alluvial valley of central Italy running north to south 100km in length lying on the territories of the provinces of Arezzo and Siena in Tuscany and the provinces of Perugia and Terni in Umbria (Orvieto – which lies an hour and a quarter to the south of Montelpulciano and is known for its white wines from Trebianno and Grechetto).
It has 70 wine producers and stretches over 5000 hectares (same as St Emilion) all on the slopes around the town. Its wines are called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Nobile meaning Superior). We visited the underground cellars of Talosa and tasted their range of Montepulciano and their lighter more modern Rosso di Montepulciano and Vin Santo – grapes of Trebbiano, Malvasia, Grechetto picked in August then dried inside ‘passerillage’ during 3 months, aged in small chestnut casks for 15 years.
Sangiovese is the principal grape and makes up a minimum of 80% of the blend. The rest is traditionally Canaiolo and Colorino to add colour mainly although apparently there are 86 possible choices including white varieties. Today the main contenders are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Ageing is a minimum of 24 months but in large old Italian botti so the oak is not dominant. Sediment is removed once a year. The wines are light in colour with good acidity – the perfume of Chianti with the richness of Brunello!
Locals lunch overlooking the Montalcino vineyards at a local Osteria and wine producer where all the family were at hand to serve home-cooked food with their wines.
Onwards to Venise (4.5 hours from here).