I’ve never been a lover of Italian wine but I travel with an open mind and a willingness to try just about anything. There are many vineyards surrounding the hilltop towns of southern Tuscany and during the last week, I have had the opportunity to learn about the different types of grapes that grow here and taste some of the wines that they become.
I start my journey in the town of Montalcino, within the walls of the formidable 14th century fortress. In the base of one of the towers is an enoteca (wine bar and shop) where I am offered some of the local Brunello wine. Created in 1888 by chemist-turned-vintner Ferruccio Biondi Santi, it is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, stored in oak barrels for 2 years and then in the bottle for another 3. Not surprisingly, this wine does not come cheap. Prices range from €35 to €350, well out of my budget, but I have to admit that it is a very nice, smooth, red wine. Apparently, the biggest buyers of this wine are Americans. In the Museum, a former monastery attached to a crumbling church with feint and damaged frescos, they are getting ready for the local wine fair, where awards will be given to the best Brunello wine producers in the area.
As I head east, I stop briefly at another hilltop town called Pienza. It doesn’t get the same amount of tourist traffic that some of the other more well-known towns do, and it shows. The Duomo slopes quite dramatically at the rear, large cracks have been pinned and the frescos are in poor condition. There are boards in both Italian and English pleading for donations to help with repairs to the lead window and the tiled roof, provisions for disabled access and improved security. Along a scenic terrace, offering views across the rolling, green, Tuscan hills is a much smaller church which has fared better. I do my bit for the local economy by buying some pecorino cheese. It is lunchtime and I’m lucky to find a shop that is open. The owner is serving a group of Indian tourists who are demanding a discount and seeking a bargain. He tries to explain that it’s hard to give a discount when they are only spending €5 to start with and they eventually give in and pay for their wares. I ask him about the cheeses in the chilled display cabinet and he explains that they are of different ages, strength and hardness. I opt for the middle ground and try a slightly aged, but soft and creamy, eating cheese. It’s a winner so he cuts off a chunk for me to buy and I continue my journey, in search of some nice, reasonably-priced wine to go with it.
The town of Montepulciano is shrouded in mist when I arrive and as I walk around the streets it is bitterly cold and damp. I can barely see the Cathedral and Town Hall, when I arrive in the Piazza Grande and I doubt there are and views to be seen from the top of the clock tower. There are many wine sellers in the town who offer free tastings and tours of their cellars. I end up in Cantina Ercolani and am immediately directed to the cellars. It’s a self-guided visit and, as I wander aimlessly and alone around the many rooms storing barrels of wine below the shop, I wonder if I may get completely lost. Somehow, more by luck than judgement, I resurface, but not before having to pass two glass cabinets filled with medieval instruments of torture and a 4th century Etruscan tomb. My knees are beginning to creak now, after all the steep walking around the hilltop towns and with the dampness of the evening. I definitely need some lubrication and there’s plenty on offer. First I try the local Vino Nobile, predominately the Sangiovese grape but with the addition of Canaiolo Ner, Mammolo and Colorino. It is also aged in oak barrels but it’s not as nice as the Brunello. I try a younger red wine which has not touched any oak but it’s not much better. Finally, I try the Vino Santo (sweet dessert wine) and it is so strong that it tastes like a cheap sherry.
North of Siena, I arrive at San Gimignano, with its panoramic towers and large open piazzas. The sun is out and the views are far reaching. From within the town, it’s actually quite difficult to photograph the towers, but I find an ideal viewpoint from the one remaining tower of the ruined fortress. The interior now houses a public garden with several olive trees. As well as wine, olive oil and salami are on offer. Two stuffed wild boar stand to attention at the doorway of La Buca, which specialises in wild boar sausages and salami, produced on their farm a few kilometres outside the town.
Unfortunately the wine museum is closed for the winter so I end up in the former church of San Francesco, which has been converted into a wine shop. Here I try the crisp, dry white of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and it tastes very good. It’s also well within budget at a bargain €3.70 so I decide to but a bottle. The salami also looks good and I’m tempted by the suggestion of wild boar with truffle. Sadly, it’s sold out and the somewhat bizarre combination of truffle cheese doesn’t seem like a good substitute.