Tasting at Castello dei Rampolla

Tasting at Castello dei Rampolla

A few months ago I invited several VinConnect customers to join me on my next set of regional winery visits, which turned out to be Tuscany in November 2013. Three loyal, intrepid VinConnect fans signed up for the task, and so joined me the week before Thanksgiving to tour and taste with VinConnect’s partner wineries, as well as several others we know well. I chronicled events from throughout the week to help give everyone else a sense for what this all entailed– who we met, where we ate, what we tasted, and the lessons we learned.  Here are the highlights (and a link to a map with the major regions in red if you wish to follow along):

Travel day:  Friday-Saturday
We all left on various flights on Friday evening, landed Saturday morning in Italy, and arranged to meet up later in the day. It turns out one client and I shared the inbound flight to Florence, so after dropping our gear at the hotel we strategized over where to grab a quick bite of lunch. Some online sleuthing led us to the Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina, which was highly recommended as one of Florence’s top wine bars. Literally across the street from Pitti Palace, it’s a tiny place that has outstanding wines, good light fare, and attentive service. We sat outside on a lovely afternoon watching the Palace traffic, made friends with the owners, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly enough that we promised ourselves to return. After walking around in the afternoon and climbing to the top of the Duomo, we met up with the other members and headed to a kickoff dinner at one of my favorites in Florence, GustaVino. In the heart of town, this has a contemporary room and cuisine with a fantastic wine list. The food was solid, and the wine excellent — we drank bottles of Gravner Breg 2000 and Canalicchio del Sopra Brunello 2004. After dinner we decided to introduce the rest of the team to Pitti Gola for a nightcap — this time they recommended a bottle of Le Chiuse Brunello Riserva 2001 that was absolutely stunning.  These guys know their stuff…

Sunday
Sunday morning we hung around Florence seeing the sights (Duomo, museums, Ponte Vecchio) and had a quick lunch at one of the most highly acclaimed pizza restaurants in the city, GustaPizza. Unfortunately it was overrun with Americans even during the off-season, but we quickly came to see why — the pizza was outstanding! Late in the afternoon we grabbed our car and made our way to Panzano in Chianti, where we settled into our lodging at the Villa Pecille, a huge, traditional villa located adjacent to the town on the edge of the esteemed Conca d’Oro vineyards of Fontodi. Dinner was at Cantinetta Sassolini, widely regarded as the most authentic Tuscan restaurant in town, where we had the first of many bistecca della Fiorentina and drank a nice bottle of Vecchie Terre di Montefili Chianti Classico Riserva 2009 recommended by the proprietor.

Dario Cecchini announcing the Bistiecca della Fiorentina

Dario Cecchini announcing the Bistiecca della Fiorentina

Monday
Monday morning arrived and finally our first visit — a tour and tasting at Fattoria La Massa (profile,website). La Massa’s brand new winery building is cleverly designed, and an important advancement in capacity, technology and quality for this estate. We tasted their new releases for 2011, including a nice La Massa, excellent Giorgio Primo, and a stellar new 100% Sangiovese wine that will be launched early in 2014 (so stay tuned for more details!).

For lunch we grabbed at bite at Dario Doc, a casual “burger” place owned by celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini who you may have heard or read about. The food was well-prepared, incredibly tasty, and priced quite reasonably — a great choice for a quick lunch in Panzano.

Then we headed to Castello dei Rampolla (profile) to meet the proprietor Maurizia di Napoli Rampolla. She led us on a great tour, and then hosted a tasting along with their cellar master Marcus. We first got to taste individual barrel samples of the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot that will be blended into the Sammarco and d’Alceo 2012s. Then we did an amazing mini vertical of Sammarco 2003/2005/2006, followed by the soon-to-be-released Sammarco 2009 that was simply lights-out. Finally, we talked about some of the new initiatives they are pursuing, which include aging in egg-shaped terra cotta vessels and making totally organic red wines (with no added sulfites, nothing), which are still under development.

For dinner we revisited our new friend Dario, this time at the nicest of his three restaurants in town, the aptly named Officina della Bistecca. The restaurant consists of one single long table of ~30 seats, next to a open fire. You are served five individual meat courses, all from various cuts of the famed Tuscan Chianina beef, supplemented by some basic vegetables (potatoes, beans, and crunchy fresh veggies) all served family style.  Dessert is Tuscan olive oil cake, as well as coffee and digestifs like Grappa and the wonderfully named Enocordial Military Spirits.  Delightful…

Dinner was incredibly fun and showy, but the food was also fantastic and the restaurant permits BYOB with no corkage — making dinner here an absolute must if you’re a carnivore visiting the region. During dinner we revisited the remnants of our La Massa 2011 tasting (including the La Massa, the new 100% Sangiovese, and the Giorgio Primo) the last of which had opened up beautifully and was now stunning. We also brought along a bottle of the experimental Castello dei Rampolla Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 with no sulfites, which was certainly very interesting by contrast.

Tuesday
We began with a tour and tasting at Fontodi (profilewebsite), one of the most important and prominent estates in all of Chianti. Silvano treated us to an interesting tour and fabulous tasting of several recent releases including their Chianti Classico 2009, Vigna Del Sorbo 2009, Flaccianello 2009, and Syrah Case Via 2007, which all showed very well.  Certainly one of the top estates in Tuscany, Fontodi is absolutely at the top of their game with lots of high 90s scores and great reviews in the recent strong vintages.

Lunch in the Home of Bettina Rogosky, Proprietor of Podere Il Carnasciale

Lunch in the Home of Bettina Rogosky, Proprietor of Podere Il Carnasciale

Following that we made the drive east to the town of Mercatale Valdarno to visit Podere Il Carnasciale(profile). After going up and down lonely, windy roads and over a mountain, we finally arrived at the “estate” which is the remote farmhouse /winery where the owner/proprietor Bettina Rogosky lives. Winemaker Peter Schilling led a tour of the vineyards and the cellar under the house, where we got to taste barrel samples from four tiny vineyards that currently make up the estate’s modest production. After that we did a brief retrospective, tasting magnums of Caberlot from 2005 and 2006, as well as an unusual (for them) 750ml “mystery bottle,” which turned out to be a Caberlot 1996 that was simply stunning. Bettina herself cooked and served a homemade traditional Tuscan lunch of ribollita (bread “soup”) and her own bistecca della Fiorentina, and we all lounged around the table for several hours talking, tasting and enjoying the wonderful company.

With full hearts and full tummies, eventually we had to jump back in the car for the drive to Montalcino in the heart of Brunello and settled in at the Palazzina Cesira. Still satiated from the wonderful lunch, our “dinner” consisted of snacks and a glass of Philipponnat Champagne NV at a lovely wine bar just a few doors down from the B&B in the heart of this charismatic hilltop town.

Wednesday
Wednesday began with a lovely tour and tasting at Ciacci Piccolomini (profilewebsite). We did a great tour, then visited their recently opened a new tasting center that was very impressive. We sampled lots of wines, and looked at the memorabilia of the estate, family, and current proprietor Paolo Bianchini’s former career as a professional cyclist. All the wines showed great, but I was most impressed with the Montecucco 2010, Brunello Pianrosso 2008, and Brunello Riserva 2007, the last of which showed great structure and power despite its obvious youth.

Lunch was a quick bite at a stylish wine bar/bistro on the plaza in Montalcino. Then we decided to make an impromptu visit to Valdicava (website), a personal favorite of one of my guests. They arranged to see us on short notice, and we had a lovely tour and tasting of the rustic estate with the cellar manager, who shared tank samples of both the regular and Madonna del Piano Riserva Brunellos from 2012 and 2010, as well as a bottle of the regular Brunello 2005.  These were excellent wines, and a lovely visit.

After that we were back south to visit Poggio di Sotto (website), where we were joined by two German cyclists touring the countryside. Cycling here can be quite dangerous given the narrow roads and traffic (especially after a glass of wine), but I’ll admit to being envious of their efforts despite the chilly weather. The estate has incredible views to the south and west, and wonderful wines to boot.  Interestingly, all of their grapes get vinified and spend two years in oak, then barrel selections are made for what goes into the Rosso (that’s 100% Sangiovese) and what ages longer to become Brunello. We tasted their Rosso di Montalcino 2009 and Brunello di Montalcino 2008, both of which showed extremely well.

Afterward we dropped by the nearby Abbey of Sant’Antimo, a significant historical church dating from the 11th century that’s still in operation today, for a little cultural engagement before heading back into town.

Dinner was at the Montalcino stalwart Taverna del Grappolo Blu, which on this visit was decent but quite frankly uninspired. Our wine with dinner was the same — a bottle of La Fornace Brunello Riserva 1995 that was just OK, but a little past its peak and nothing special. Unsatisfied, we headed back to the wine bar to cheer up with a few glasses of local whites and reds before turning in.

Spectacular Tasting at Monteverro

Spectacular Tasting at Monteverro

Thursday
Thursday began with a tour and tasting at Siro Pacenti (website). On our way down from Montalcino we went through some clouds and rain, but were treated to a nice Tuscan rainbow when we finally arrived at the estate. Siro Pacenti is a very modern facility, with stylish touches throughout the various spaces. The wines show a bit modern as well, but the Brunello Pellagrilli 2008 and Brunello di Montalcino 2008 that we tasted are very well made with beautiful flavors and silky mouthfeel.

Following our visit we made the long drive to the coast and south to the lovely town of Capalbio. What’s now tourist beaches along the Mediterannean coast used to be swamps full of malaria until the 1850s, so the only towns of substance are inland and on hilltops. Here we stayed at the Agriturismo Antica Pincianaand had a quick lunch in the attached restaurant, then it was off to Monteverro (profilewebsite).

As you may know, Monteverro is a brand new estate, launched in 2004, and a relatively recent addition to VinConnect. Not much serious wine is grown this far south (near Grosseto), and the founders made a huge investment in time and money to find the perfect location and build state-of-the-art facilities. The result is stunning — both the buildings and the resulting wines are absolutely exceptional. We tasted the full lineup of 2010 wines that are expected to be released soon and they were excellent across the board, particularly the 2010 Chardonnay and flagship Monteverro which both astounded the group with their minerality, complexity, power and sheer quality. Keep your eyes out for these!

That evening we were hit with a driving rainstorm, so rather than going out for dinner we once again dined in front of the open fire as the only guests at our hotel’s restaurant. In addition to a nice white Casavyc Piano Piano Poco Poco 2011 off the house list, we opened a few of our own bottles acquired in our travels, this time a lovely Ciacci Piccolomini Ateo 2010 and a sublime Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello Pianrosso 2007.  What a cozy evening, despite the howling wind, driving rain and bitter cold outside…

2013-11-22-10.45.362-1024x764Friday
By Friday morning the weather had cleared up and we were back on the road for a full day of driving, touring and tasting along the Tuscan coast. First we headed north to Super Tuscan all-star Tua Rita (website) in the cute little town of Suvereto. These highly regarded wines didn’t disappoint, as winemaker Stefano Frascolla shared with us their full lineup of wines, and even included some special gems such as an awesome Giusto dei Notri 2005 and a bottle of their flagship Redigaffi from 1996 that left us almost speechless. After a brief light lunch it was back in the car and onward north to perhaps the “epicenter” of the Super Tuscan wine movement — the lovely town of Bolgheri.

There we met and tasted the wines another Super Tuscan star, Le Macchiole (profilewebsite). After a tour of the vineyards and winery, we tasted a full lineup of their wines which were brilliant across the board — standouts here included the Rosso 2011 (a ridiculous value that was just named Wine Spectator’s #21 Wine of the Year for 2013), the Paleo 2009 and 2010, and Messorio from 2009 and 2010 that left us finally out of superlatives.

Dinner at La Pineta

Dinner at La Pineta

Not content with just that, however, we moved on even further north to the estate of Castello del Terriccio (profilewebsite). This is a simply incredible piece of property, encompassing some 4000 acres, only a small amount of which is planted to vines. We were greeted by and tasted with Giuliana in one of the estate’s “guest houses”, which is in the process of being converted into a B&B for use by travelers and guests. She tasted us on a huge lineup of wines, including a lovely rose 2012, three vintages of the Castello (2005/2006/2007) and a sublime Lupicaia 2004 that was huge and complex, yet polished and balanced.  Wow…

From there it was on to the trendy Villa Martini in the beach town of Castiglioncello, and then dinner at the nearby La Pineta, which holds one Michelin star. Regarded as the best seafood restaurant in Italy, it’s situated literally right on the beach maybe 30 yards from the crashing surf. Though we couldn’t enjoy the sound of the waves or the sea air due to the nasty weather, we happily dined on a variety of grilled fresh fish, which went great with a brilliant bottle of Jacquesson 936 Champagne and quite well (surprisingly) with a magnum of 2004 Castello del Terriccio Castello.  Here is our group with famed chef Luciano Zazzeri and the wonderful wine:
Antinori’s New Aging Cellar

Antinori’s New Aging Cellar

Saturday
Saturday it was one last drive, back to the Florence environs to visit the newly-opened winery and visitor center of the Antinori family (website). Having seen the articles about the architecturally thrilling building we were all pretty excited for the visit, and it definitely lived up to the hype. We did a long tour and tasting, then headed up to the rooftop restaurant for a leisurely lunch to finish off the opened bottles, which included a solid Badia a Passignano 2008, an excellent Gaudo al Tasso 2010, and finally a sublime Marchese Antinori Vin Santo 2008. While feeling more “Napa” than “Tuscany,” the Antinori campus is open 7 days a week for tours, tastings and food, and it’s definitely worth a stop if you are passing by as it’s conveniently located just off the main thoroughfare between Florence and Chianti.

Nearly exhausted, it was back into town for our last night. and of course we returned to where the week started — sharing some great wines and good food with our new friends at Pitti Gola. We had just a light dinner of cheese, charcuterie and pasta dishes, complemented by some more lovely and interesting wines — a Pinot Grigio 2006 from Fulvio Bressan, a solid Il Colle Brunello 2001 recommended by our hosts, and finally a bottle of our own Fontodi Flaccianello 2009 that showed brilliantly and brought our incredible trip to a fitting close.

In summary, this was a fantastic trip. We covered a lot of Tuscany, which is a more sizable wine region with more variety than many people realize. Between Chianti, Brunello and Bolgheri, there are a huge number of excellent wineries to visit, and a tremendous amount to learn about the various terroirs, regions, grape varieties, and winemaking styles pursued throughout the region. If you want to experience all of that it does require some advance planning and a fair bit of driving, but the reward is some great wine, wonderful experiences and a lot of beautiful countryside. On the other hand, if one wanted to take it more slowly, each of the three individual regions has more than enough to keep you busy and interested for a few days, and there are plenty of other cultural attractions around (Florence, Siena, Pisa, etc.) to engage other interests well beyond wine for those so inclined.

I highly recommend a wine visit to Tuscany for just about anyone interested in great food, wine and culture, and we at VinConnect can leverage our experience and relationships to help you with information, insights and introductions should you decide to investigate such a trip. Just let us know — we’d be more than happy to lend a hand to supporters of VinConnect and our partner wineries.

 

Author Kevin Sidders

I was on more than a dozen mailing lists of Napa Valley producers and was frustrated that I couldn’t buy my favorite European wines the same way. I hatched an idea, developed a plan, and am building a business that I hope will change the industry for the better. I spend a lot of time on my road bike to enable indulging my passion for wine.

More posts by Kevin Sidders

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