Sunday, June 19, 2011

Italy- Florence, Chianti-Tuscany region

My wife and I visited Florence and the Chianti-Tuscany region, focusing on art and architecture, restaurants and wineries.  Scroll down or click on links to the right for photos. 

This article was orginally published in the Greensboro, NC News and Record: "Tastes of Tuscany." Go to  You'll have to create a login, but it's free and you can use it in the future.  Publication date: June 19, 2011.  (When you log in, you'll get the current day's paper.  If you are reading this after June 19, click on the Search tab, enter the article title, and set the drop down menu to "All issues.")  The article appears on pages H6-H5.

The tour was arranged by La Dolce Vita Wine Tours (  I plan to host trips to Italy again next spring. If you think you might like to go with my group, please write to me directly, You don't have to travel with me, but please tell La Dolce Vita that I sent you!  They make trips regularly, and Pat and Claudio are knowledgeable, personable travel guides. Go to their website to see various locations they offer.

Tastes of Tuscany

Article and photography by John Batchelor

Tuscany is undergoing a transformation. Stone villages, constructed in the Medieval era, are being rebuilt as townhomes. Tourism has become an essential element of the economy. Significant changes in wine production are underway as well. The combination of history, scenery, traditional Italian food and wines, and restaurant dining all add up to a great travel opportunity.

Florence is home to great collections of Renaissance art. Two galleries are major. Uffizi houses paintings, including Botticelli’s Venus. Galleria Accademia specializes in sculpture; Michelangelo’s David is the star. Long waits can be avoided with online reservations ( Better yet, use a service (, for example). We not only went the head of the line, we gained narration from a well-informed guide.

The dome (photo 01 Duomo) of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is Florence’s best known architectural feature. Construction began in the 13th Century. On the Ponte Vecchio bridge (photo 02 Ponte Vecchio), shops have been selling jewelry for centuries.

Two wine bars merit attention: Cantinetta Antinori ( and Frescobaldi Wine Bar (; they serve great, casual food. Our trip focused on wineries and food, in addition to art and architecture. We visited two wineries each day, interviewing winemakers and tasting the result of their blend of art and science .

A tour of wineries in Chianti is an exploration of a new generation’s efforts to restore what previous generations lost. After WWII, most Italian wine became cheap and weak-flavored, sold in bottles wrapped in baskets. The new generation refers to these by the term “fiasco” (“basket” in Italian), which carries a negative connotation from English.

In order to promote improved quality, Italian consortia have developed three wine classifications: IGT (grapes grown in a specific region); DOC (from a particular region, restricting production to intensify flavor, and limiting blending); and DOCG (following the strictest regulations). Look for these when buying Italian wine. At Vecchie Terre di Montefili winery (part constructed in the 13th Century), the DOCG turned out to be the best Chianti I’ve ever tasted. It is a Chianti Classico, another label feature worth noting, meaning all grapes were grown in the original Chianti region.

We had dinner one night at La Bottega, operating 300 years from a stone building with a terrace overlooking the town of Volpaia. We passed platters, family-style: baked eggplant with mint and garlic, dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar; fresh pasta with spinach, ricotta cheese, butter and sage; sliced pancetta, pepperoni, and prosciutto, made in-house; white beans and sausages simmered in tomato sauce; chicken stewed with onions; and boar stewed with olives. This is traditional Tuscan fare- slow cooked, tender meats with rich flavors. Every item was priced below 10 euro- strong value.

Brolio Castle (photo 03 Brolio Castle), owned by the Ricasoli family, houses a private museum collection of arms and armor dating to the 13th Century. Ricasoli winery hosted another tasting. Castello di Brolio (90% sangiovese, 10% cabernet sauvignon), made a very positive impression.

Castello di Meleto ( (photo 04 Meleto Castle) is about 1,000 years old. It operates as a hotel/B&B, winery, and olive oil production facility. It houses a theater (photo 05 Meleto Castle theater), one of about a dozen built inside a castle. We had a cooking lesson here- making fresh pasta by hand- tutored by the castle’s cook and grandmother of our dinner waitress, who grew up in the castle.

Several wine bars in Montalcino provide tastings of over 100 Brunellos. Brunello is a wine from a particular sangiovese clone, usually associated with the area around the towns of Montalcino or Montepulciano. My favorite was Ciacci Piccolomini di Aragona. A photo (photo 06 View from Ciacci Piccolomini di Aragona) from the vineyards illustrates the panoramic beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

We also got a taste of Italian driving here. A cab driver evidently did not understand a passenger say that he was getting out. She started away, knocking him over. As he struggled to get back up, she looked down and cussed him out. If he had been injured, I’m pretty sure she would have just backed over him. One word of advice about driving in Italy: don’t.

The Abbey of Saint Antimo (photo 07 Abbey of Saint Antimo) provided peace, as we attended the monks’ mid-day prayers/chants. These rituals have been observed in this location for centuries.

Montepulciano. At Poliziano Winery (, in addition to sangioveses we liked, we encountered Le Stanze, an exceptional blend. Meticulous production begins with picking and destemming grapes by hand. The quality movement was supported by another family in this region, the Marianis, owners of Banfi wines. They made a fortune from Riunite (one of the cheapos), then bought properties in Brunello, funding research that led to improved sangiovese clones. They made the best ones available to all wineries.

I have been in situations where games about wine knowledge develop, and that’s not fun (especially if I’m losing). Our group included two wine professionals who were preparing for advanced exams, but their pleasant personalities contributed positively to the experience. We also shared the trip with two Australians, and we came to appreciate their wit. After one of the wine educators asked about a production detail, our host translated the winemaker’s explanation, a lengthy, technical process. One of the Aussies remarked, pointing to a machine, “But he didn’t tell us what that knob does!”

We overnighted in Rome to make return connections, joining about a million other tourists walking along the Spanish Steps (photo 08 Spanish Steps) and the Trevi Fountain (photo 09 Trevi Fountain). Overhearing English, we asked directions. That led to, “Where are you from?” “Greensboro, North Carolina,” came the reply. Their names were Nancy and Elizabeth Fletcher, a mother and daughter who has been attending school in Rome two years. “Really liked your column about Marisol,” remarked Mrs. Fletcher.

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