Tasting in Tuscany
Question: I am a big fan of your “Little Napoli” Restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea and love to spend hours there while staying at the Highlands Inn several times per year. It was at your restaurant that I was introduced to what has now become my favorite wine, Antinori’s Chianti Classico called Pèppoli.
My friend and I mentioned to your manager, Jean Hubert, that six of our friends will be traveling throughout Italy in late September and would love to have your suggestions on your favorite places to visit at that time of year. We are thinking of going to Tuscany as we understand this is the harvest time. If possible, can you help arrange a tour of the Antinori Winery and also suggest some places to stay and restaurants to visit? We are looking for places that are fun, off the beaten track, relaxing, and beautiful (aren’t they all beautiful?!!). We will definitely go into to Firenze for at a few days also before we come home. Thank you for any help you can offer.
– Stephenie W.
Answer: People often ask me where is my favorite place to visit in Italy. I always say it depends on the season – Lago di Garda or Capri in summer, Tuscany in September during la vendemmia (the grape harvest), Rome at Christmas, and of course, Napoli (my family’s hometown) at any time of year.
The Italians call the grape harvest season la vendemmia. For me, it is a yearly occasion for a trip to Italy, to participate in the wine harvest and taste the wonders that Chianti, Montalcino and other Tuscan wine regions have to offer.
At this time of year the often-oppressive rays of the Italian sunshine begin to fade as the wine harvest season reaches its peak. That’s when you can experience Tuscany in its full glory – where the process has taken on an almost mythological role, binding the wine producers with locals and visiting wine aficionados alike.
The grape harvest occurs throughout Tuscany from about the middle of September to about the end of the first week of October. Of course there is no set date that the harvest begins and ends as it depends on the weather and the condition of the grapes. Do you follow football in America? Imagine the two-week build up to Super Bowl Sunday! That’s all anyone talks about, reads about and argues about…it is the same with the grapes in Tuscany – everyone is on their toes trying to figure the best time to pick the grapes and worrying about whether they’ll make good wine (or great wine) that year. If you pick the grapes too early, the wine will be weak and flavorless, pick too late and the rain may ruin your crop. For the fortunate few who pick just right and make great wine, they become rich and famous and “live” (stay in business) to do it all over again the next year!
See my past article: CAPRI: YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW
VISITING THE ANTINORI ESTATES IN TUSCANY:
There are a few hospitality opportunities that the Antinori family has created for guests to experience country life on their estates in the heart of the Chianti Classico region, and the Antinori vineyards and winery are open to the public for tours and wine tasting.
Here is a quick link that you can refer to find all the Antinori projects listed below: antinori.it
STAY ON THE VINEYARD AT FONTE DE MEDICI
First of all, just over looking the Antinori vineyards of Tignanello and Solaia you can stay at FONTE DE MEDICI. Located just 20 minutes south of Firenze, it is a 17-room agriturismo (country-style residence). Most of the rooms have a small kitchenette, and are decorated in an old-world Tuscan- style. Breakfast is included in your room price and served on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. A light lunch is available and they serve a wonderful home-style dinner menu in the evenings. There is a lovely swimming pool, tennis court and small gym. We particularly love to hike through the vineyards and forests during the morning hours. Mountain bikes are also available. Also, higher up on the vineyard is Villa Tignanello where there are seven larger apartments each equipped with a full kitchen. Cinzia, the manager and chef, is the perfect hostess and the entire staff is very helpful. You can find more information about Fonte de Medici on their website: fontedemedici.it
CANTINA ANTINORI at BARGINO: WINERY AND VISITOR CENTER, WINE TASTING, RESTAURANT AND TOURS
The new winery and visitor center is located about 20 minutes south of Florence. Opened in 2012, it represents the Antinori family’s love and passion for the Chianti Classico hillsides and reflects the centuries-old bond that the Antinori family has with their ancestral territory. Entering the winery means you will take part in an adventure that spans six centuries of Antinori family history and its passion for winemaking. If you only can visit one winery in Tuscany, this is my recommendation. It is advisable to book in advance to reserve the best tour and tasting possible, but you also can drop in for casual visit. The museum and reataurant are also fantastic. Please visit the website: http://antinorichianticlassico.it/en
OSTERIA DI PASSIGNANO: WINE TASTING, COOKING SCHOOL & RESTAURANT
Just a few minutes from Fonte de Medici is the OSTERIA DI PASSIGNANO. The Antinori family teamed up with Chef Marcello Crini to transform the ancient wine barrel room into a wonderful restaurant, wine bar, cooking school and wine shop. It is here that a private visit to the 900-year old wine cellar located under the historic Badia a Passignano can be arranged. In this cellar the barrels of the very important Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva are aged, the benchmark for all top end Chianti Classico wines. After the cellar tour a tasting is offered and then you also have the opportunity to buy all the wines of Antinori. You can always stop into the wine shop or restaurant anytime, but reservations for a private tour are necessary and you can find booking information at: osteriadipassignano.com
Note: The wine shop will ship wine back to the USA for you. Also on my Pèppoli website you can shop online for all the Antinori wines and have them delivered to your door when you get home. Go to the online wine shop: pepeshop.com
TOURS & TASTINGS AT NON-ANTINORI WINERIES
Here is a short list of other wonderful wine estates that offer tours and tastings that I particularly enjoy. These estates are located along the main Chianti road, the SS222, called the Chiantigiana, between Florence and Siena.
Castello di Verrazzano, Greve palmbayimports.com
Rocca delle Macie, Castellina in Chianti palmbayimports.com
Castello di Fonterutoli, Castellina in Chianti mazzeihospitality.it
During the harvest season in Tuscany there are a number of wine festivals that are fun to visit. Located in the piazza (town square) of Greve and Panzano these small wine festivals showcase the best wines from each of the surrounding villages. You simply buy a tasting glass for about $10 and then go around tasting the wines with no additional charge. Normally the local olive oil and bread is also offered to taste.
For the schedule for each season please visit the websites below:
Note: While there are many other festivals, I have only noted my favorite ones which are located between Florence and Siena.
ENOTECHE (Wine Bars and Wine Shops)
A wine bar and wine shop in Italy is called an Enoteca. In case you find yourself in Tuscany without reservations for a private tour of a winery you can always stop at the local enoteca to sample the local wines. Actually, the enoteca is generally the local hangout as most often light snacks, cheeses, salads and pinzimonio (Italian-style crudités dipped in olive oil) are served throughout the day.
HERE IS A SHORT LIST OF MY OTHER FAVORITE PLACES TO VISIT WHILE IN TUSCANY:
Macelleria Folorni: Piazza Matteotti, 69, Greve 055 854363
In the center of Greve, is Falorni. This is the most famous salumi house in Chianti. They specialize in wild boar products and pecorino cheese. During the hunting season, the boars are brought in to the piazza and butchered right in the square. They also have a very good wine shop attached. Do not miss this place. falorni.it
Antica Macelleria Cecchini: Via XX Luglio 11, Panzano 055/852020
This may be the world’s most dramatic butcher shop. Here, with classical music and lively conversation, owner Dario Cecchini holds court: while quoting Dante, he serves samples of his very fine sushi di Chianina (raw slices of Chianina beef salted and peppered). Also, try the Tonno del Chianti (an ancient way of preparing pork to taste like tuna). He has researched recipes from the 15th century and sells pâtés and herb concoctions found nowhere else. Panzano is a town with only a few streets, so everyone knows where Dario’s place is. Mention my name and he will race around the counter and give you a big hug. He closes at 2:00 pm on Sunday, so be sure to get there early enough to say hello. Dario and his wife Kim (great friends of mine) have two beef-driven restaurants attached to the butcher shop,Solo Ciccia and the Officina della Bistecca. Please see their website for opening times, and offerings. http://www.dariocecchini.com/dariocecchini/en/
Il Vescovino: Via dei Ciampoli da Panzano, 9
Panzano in Chianti
Located in the old city of Panzano up on the hill, is Il Vescovino. It is run by one of my the top chefs in Chianti, Maria Zarro. I highly recommend il vescovino for lunch, as the lovely terrace overlooking Panzano’s Conca d’Oro (“golden valley”) is what dreams are made of. And when you taste Maria’s food paired with the Tuscan wine offerings, you will think you are in Paradise…actually, you are in Paradise! ristoranteilvescovino.com
Oltre il Giardino: Piazza Bucciarelli 42, Panzano 055 852828
Restored from an old farmhouse and transformed to a refined and welcoming Osteria, this is a perfect example of lunch “under the Tuscan sun” on the outdoor terrace. Paolo & Marta are the owners and are wonderful friends and hosts. It is located just down the street from Dario’s place. ristoranteoltreilgiardino.it
Al Gallopapa: Via delle Volte 14/16, Castellina in Chianti 0577742939
Tiziano has made this enoteca-turned-restaurant into one of the most fun places in Chianti. A medieval cantina brought to life by Tiziano’s energy and charisma. Hidden away in the back passageways of the village, you follow the signs under the archways. All the meats come from Dario’s and cooked perfectly. Open for dinner only.
Osteria Le Logge: Via del Porrione, 33 Siena 0577-48013
Just off of the Piazza del Campo Le Logge has been a landmark in Siena for over twenty years. In addition to fabulous food, the ambience is special. In the summer, tables are available in the street where musicians serenade. They also publish a beautiful cookbook in Italian. This is one of the best places to experience a modern style of Tuscan food in Siena. It is very difficult to get into, so booking ahead is a must. In case you cannot get a table, grab a table at any of the restaurants in the ancient Piazza del Campo and watch the parade of people walking by as you enjoy your dinner. giannibrunelli.it
THE ANTINORI WINE & RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE IN FIRENZE (Florence):
If you happen to be also going into Firenze (Florence) the Antinori family also welcomes guests at their restaurants. Very close to the Duomo in the center of town at Via Tournabuoni 3 is Palazzo Antinori, the family residence and business offices since 1506. Cantinetta Antinori, managed by Danielle, is located just inside the entrance to the Palazzo and here you will find the quintessential Florentine dining experience. All of the Antinori wines are offered by the glass, even Tignanello, and served along with typical, yet elegant Florentine dishes. Reservations for dinner are important, while a simple lunch here is also wonderful. Piero Antinori and his daughters come here for lunch most days, so you know the food must be good. Cantinetta Antinori is closed on weekends so please check the website for opening times at: www.antinori.it
Procacci: Via de’ Tornabuoni, 64R
Across the street from Palazzo Antinori is Procacci. This is an Antinori wine bar with many wines by the glass and specializes in truffle pannini, truffle oils and salumi made by Dario Cecchini. This is the best place in Firenze to buy Antinori wine by the bottle. www.antinori.it
Buca Lapi: Via del Trebbio, 1/r 055 213768
Last but not least is Buca Lapi, located in the cellar of Palazzo Antinori. This is the best place in all of Florence for Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The Chianina Beef T-bone steaks are organic and numbered and cooked over olive wood charcoal. Luciano (a dear friend) also makes fantastic ravioli in sage brown-butter sauce; hand-made pici (very thick Tuscan-type pasta) with wild boar Bolognese and his flourless chocolate cake is the perfect ending with a dessert wine. Don’t ask for Limoncello here though as that is only served in the south of Italy. Buca Lapi is open on Monday through Saturday, but closed on Sunday. Reservations are critical so call ahead at: 055 213768 bucalapi.com
Note: Via Tornabuoni is the fashion hub for all of Firenze. The street begins at the Arno River with Palazzo Spini-Feroni owned by Ferragamo, then as you walk up the street you pass Gucci, Prada, Armani, Cavalli and a host of other top designer stores finally ending at Palazzo Antinori, where as you stand on the front steps you look straight at the front steps of the Duomo. Via Tornabuoni is only about 400 yards long but quite possibly the most expensive ¼ mile you will ever walk (if you shop that is).
HERE IS A SHORT LIST OF MY OTHER FAVORITE PLACES TO VISIT WHILE IN FLORENCE:
Ciro and Sons: via del giglio 28r – FIRENZE – t. +39 055 289694
This family-run restaurant has ambiance, charm, and is run by one of the nicest families in Florence. The family is originally from Napoli, and the entire menu and the pizza are extraordinary. It is fun, casual and every night there is a festival atmosphere. ciroandsons.com
Cantinetta Verrazano: Via dei Tavolini 18
This is the best wine bar to sample homemade salami and prosciutti, served beautifully on wooden boards. Located in the centro storico (center of town) between the Duomo and Piazza Signoria. It has only 5 tables, but for a quick light snack or lunch, it is perfect. verrazzano.com
Bar Gilli: Piazza della Republica
A good meeting place for your friends and family where you can grab a coffee and relax in the outdoor caffé. It is my favorite “people watching” place also good for a light lunch or mid-afternoon snack. The best pastries in town are here also. gilli.it
Hotel Savoy Bar: Piazza della Republica
A great place for an elegant cocktail in the historic center of Florence. I especially like to enjoy a late night cocktail here after dinner. Actually it is also one of my favorite hotels to stay too. Located kitty-corner to Bar Gilli, this is my favorite meeting place and here you get treated wonderfully. hotelsavoy.it
The Fusion Bar in the Hotel Gallery Art (near the Ponte Vecchio): Vicolo dell’Oro 5
Experience a modern wine bar and fashion statement all in one. They also serve Asian antipasti and sushi. The Ferragamo family owns the hotel and it is very chic. The best time to stop for a drink here is the pre-dinner hours, around 6:30-7-30 pm. This is my hangout in the early evening; it is a “see-and-be-seen” kind of place. lungarnohotels.com
Caffè Giacosa (AKA Giacosa di Cavalli): via Tornabuoni 83/R
Roberto Cavalli’s first shop in Florence opened last year on the former site of Caffe’ Giacosa, a city landmark where the Negroni cocktail was invented. Cavalli relaunched the historic caffé just around the corner. Good place to drop into for a quick espresso and tramezzini (small sandwiches).
Ferragamo in Firenze:
From luxury hotels and suites, to cocktail lounges and fabulous restaurants, the Ferragamo family offers the quintessential Florentine experience to their guests. I can highly recommend visiting any of their properties and you will be treated like royalty. lungarnohotels.com
Borgo San Jacopo walk: There are many shops and restaurants on this street to stop by and see. The street is the first street on the right just across the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltarno area (other side of the river). The Oltarno is a lovely place to just stroll around, as there are very few tourists on this side of the river and many artisan shops to explore.
Professional guided Walking Tour:
If you want to fully appreciate Firenze, I would like to recommend a small tour company called The Original Walking Tour of Florence. It is a 2-hour guided tour (in the language of your choice) hosted by art historians. The walking tour emphasizes the art, architecture and culture of the Renaissance. artviva.com
Travel Tip: It is important to have a very good road map while visiting Tuscany. The roads are very well marked but often small and curvey. If you have appointments for a winery tour or restaurant reservation, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to find your destination.