Tuscany trip: Day two – Surprises, Sangiovese and Sunsets

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the idyllic hilltop village of Volpaia on Tuesday morning – thinking that the scenery and wines simply couldn’t get any better.  But how wrong we were!  There was still so much of Tuscany to discover and we set off early amidst a chorus of birdsong for Castello di Monsanto a little further south.

Here, we were shown the famous single vineyard of Il Poggio which is situated at the heart of this well-established estate.  It turns out there are a lot of ‘Poggios’ in Tuscany; with so many steep hills and valleys in this part of the world, it seems it is important to have a name for the ‘top of the hill’ – and so we came across a great many on our trip!  As you would imagine in the beating sun, these hills are vital to good exposure, aeration and drainage to create healthy, concentrated grapes.  Along with careful extraction and winemaking, this sets the best Chianti Classicos apart from the insipid, rustic styles so common of yesteryear.

One of the most respected estates in Tuscany, Fabrizio Bianchi’s family have run Castello di Monsanto since the 1960s and we were thrilled to have been showed the extensive cellars and enoteca that runs underground between the castle and winery.  Using only estate grown fruit and handpicked grapes, the Chianti Classico and Riserva (for which they are renowned) are full-bodied, rich and brooding with dense, dark fruit and a meaty edge.  The fine high-beamed orangery was certainly one of the grandest surroundings I’ve had the privilege of tasting in!

From Monsanto, we made our way towards San Gimignano – of Tea with Mussolini fame – and to a large winery called Terruzzi e Purthod, where they specialise in the local grape variety, Vernaccia, as well as a number of other wines.  For the MW student among us (Kat, not me!), this was clearly an unrivalled opportunity to discover everything there was to know about running a sizeable ‘outdoor’ winery; complete with enormous insulated stainless steel tanks, pneumatic presses and vast bottling line (of which we were given a very informative demonstration).  The scale of production here belies the quality of the wines and we were treated to a tasting at a picnic table overlooking the tall medieval towers of San Gimignano across the valley; including their prized – and frankly astonishing – white Sangiovese, made entirely from the gently crushed, free run juice of Sangiovese grapes.  This trip really was full of surprises!

Leaving the steep and compact valleys of Chianti country behind us, we continued south in the afternoon where the landscape changed dramatically to the rolling hills and beautiful, expansive farming-land around Montalcino.  A visit to the tiny and traditional Lambardi estate was brief but enlightening, where we were given a vertical tasting of their Brunello di Montalcino: 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007.  It was our first experience of 2007 in the region – a certified 5 star vintage – and more treats were in store for us as the week wore on.

On the other side of the hilltop town, we had the very great honour of tasting with Gianni Brunelli’s widow, Laura – an inspirational character who is as passionate about her late husband’s wines as she is about her cooking; successfully managing the estate and a highly-acclaimed restaurant in Siena at the same time.  When asked which of the numerous vintages we tasted was her favourite, she exclaimed with true Italian apassionata, “But I cannot compare my children!”.  An evening spent sampling her culinary mastery (all of which came from within 1 kilometre of her house) as the sun set – turning the valley gold and then pink – was simply the perfect way to get under the skin (excuse the terrible pun) of this remarkable grape variety – and more specifically, the magic of Brunello di Montalcino.

Edwina Watson

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