I first went to Italy in the middle of my awakening as a young adult, not so completely sure of myself anymore and not so insecure either. A little rebellious at that time. It was a road trip with my Hungarian cousins, whom I spent time with every summer of my childhood, and who I knew as intimately in many ways as my own family outside Chicago, where I grew-up. Never having left land-locked Hungary before, they were nervous about meeting people who they couldn’t communicate with, and about exploring a new city, like Florence, and about being tasked by my father with keeping me safe. One of the things I remember most about that trip was when I walked into the ocean with them on the Adriatic Coast for their very first time. That first night in Tuscany, we camped out at the top of the hill of Poggio Magherini overlooking the medieval city of Florence. I fell in love immediately with this place, with the history, the art, the river, the green rolling hills, and the open friendly Italian faces.
In college, I chose to study Italian and ended up double majoring in it, and spending my junior year abroad at the University of Bologna. This was a transformative and challenging year … I learned a lot of humility in the way everyone who learns a new language must. I learned how to cook. I learned really how to cohabit. I learned how to acclimate to a new culture, and eventually to immerse myself in it. I learned that I could not drive a moped, but was more than happy to be a passenger. It was a year of sensory exploration, and along the way I learned a little about the marriage of food, wine, and experience. When the year ended, I didn’t want to go home.
Now, these many years later, I am in Italy again, together with my husband and children here for the first time. We are renting a small villa in a breathtakingly beautiful area outside the town of Greve-in-Chianti, overlooking a little valley surrounded by small vineyards and olive orchards. My Italian is coming back slowly. I wake up each morning feeling deeply happy — who couldn’t with this view of rolling vineyards and olive orchards interspersed among villas and forest — and we set out to explore Italy again; for me, this time from a much different perspective and place in my life.
The Tuscan Experience—
Tuscany is a world of bright golden hues and deep forest green. The scent of lavender floats in the air. It is hill country, and here and there the forest has been cleared from the hillsides to grow vines – predominantly Sangiovese in Tuscany – and groves of olive trees. We’re reminded of the fact that almost all of the wineries here produce olive oil in addition to wine, and they also tend to produce a number of different wines – from everyday whites and reds for those afternoon meals, to hearty red wines.
For me, being here almost feels like a religious experience. It starts with the long journey from Rome, the slim roads and crazy drivers (yes, Italians drive insane!) the perfectly rounded hills flanked by the more austere Appennine Mountains and the cypress trees that dot the landscape. Then there is the warmth and openness of the Italian people you meet … and of course the wines, the olives and cheese, the late sunsets and warm nights … but the experience that makes the strongest impression on me is the light. The quality of light here in the summer is uniquely Tuscan. It’s a golden light that makes every green hillside, every stucco villa seem to glow deeper and richer in hue.
Here’s a sensory memory that will stay with me: as we’re driving from Greve-in-Chianti around the countryside outside Siena, and near Montalcino, there are fields and fields of sunflowers that are blooming all over the valley floor, and only in bloom this one month. Our driver for the day explains that the sunflowers are harvested for their oil, in which the locally grown, stuffed zucchini flowers that we love so much are fried. All these huge sunflowers turning to face the morning sun — literally translated, “girasole.” … this is an image that will live with me even after I return home.
In every town we visit, from San Gimignano, to Siena, to Montalcino, Greve, Radda-in-Chianti; there are wonderful little wine shops. We particularly enjoy the little shop in the main piazza of Greve-in-Chianti — La Bottega del Chianti Classico — and in San Gimignano we pick up a couple bottles at Enoteca Antica Latteria. Of the white wines, Vernaccia from San Gimignano is our favorite so far this trip. It has a floral aroma and a ripe stone fruited quality on the palate but is delightfully balanced with notes of lemon meringue. We also particularly enjoy a Rose from the historied producer Biondi Santi in Montalcino, purchased from the Enoteca in Greve. These shops have an extensive collection of local wines in every price point and many vintages, with decent pricing (additionally they offer reasonable shipping to the states.)
But we also choose a day to go wine tasting. The majority of the red wines in Tuscany, from Montalcino to Florence, are produced from the Sangiovese grape varietal. These best of these are produced from the hillsides surrounding Montalcino, and are designated Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello is a medium to medium-heavy bodied red wine with rich, round, and full tannins. A reserve Brunello is typically aged in French oak barrels and can have a distinctly plummy character. Many wineries also produce a Rosso di Montalcino, which tends to be lighter in body and style, as the aging process is much shorter. The Rosso wines are meant to be fresh and come to market sooner. There is also a large and growing segment of the market here that produces Indicazione Geografica Tipica wines, or “IGT” wines, from grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, and in fact, at each of the producers we visit they offer at least one IGT wine. Here are our favorites …
Casanova di Neri—After a brief tour of the property surrounding the tasting room and crush pad, our experience ended with a seated tasting through a secret door off a bookcase in the main tasting lobby, in a gorgeous room with five wines. The tasting was accompanied by a plate of bread, olive oil from the estate, and the cheese of the region, Pecorino, along with a delicious fig jam. 100 euros/person. Our favorites of these wines are the 2015 Rosso and the 2012 “Tenuta Nuova” Brunello di Montalcino. The IGT designate 2015 PietradOnice IGT Toscana from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was also delightful.
Podere Le Ripi—Our tour started at the tasting room, and included a walk through the vineyards and then down to the winery. We had a lovely, young host. The winery building is a honeycomb shaped round building that leads underground. The wines are produced in a modern fashion while adhering to traditional requirements. We had a small “light” lunch at the tasting room (which consisted of essentially three courses) while we tasted through the four wines poured for us. The Brunellos were our favorite wines. 40 euros/person included the lunch and wines.
Uccelleria—Our tour began outside with short description of the history of the property, then inside to the fermentation room. Down to barrel room for a long barrel tasting, from both 2015 and 2016 from French oak as well as Slovenian oak tanks. I tasted a lot of iodine and black-cherry, strong wet beef notes, blood, plum, and leather. This experience was quite special. Ucceliera is innovative. We tasted a wine produced in a French oak barrel from Sylvain that was completely un-toasted, allowing for a very true expression of the wine. It was a group experience, with two other couples, but very engaging and informative. 15 euros/person for tour and tasting, which included olive oil produced from the estate.
Colle Beretto—A thoroughly engaging and lasting tasting with the winemaker, Bernardo Bianchi. It’s a beautiful winery newly renovated by the owner Roberto Cavalli. We recommend a trip to taste with Mr. Bianchi if at all possible. In addition to the Chianti Classicos produced, the estate grows Merlot and Pinot Noir as well. The Pinot was actually one of our favorite wines. Our tour and tasting included a small plate of pecorino cheeses, with olive oil from the estate.
What We Learned—
Take wine less seriously. As wine truly becomes the alcoholic beverage of choice for most Americans, having wine on the table becomes more of what is has been for Italians for centuries. That is to say, a part of the meal, and more a part of everyday experience. Sometimes people in the US feel intimidated by wine, like they might not have the right descriptors, or be qualified to talk about what they like or don’t like. There is none of that in Italy. People just pick what they like and leave a lot of the wine-talk out if the experience. Often this is about price and favoring local producers, or putting the Rosso on the table every day, and saving the Brunello for Sunday. For us as small producers who can sometimes take what we do a little too seriously, we’re embracing this approach. Explore wine; find what you like. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to us as well.
We had a variety of different tasting experiences during our travels. We’ve written about a few, but the one that most resonated with us was not the fanciest or most expensive winery. It was the smallest winery we visited, the one that took the time to taste in their cellars with us, to taste out of barrels and tanks, that was open and friendly, rather than intimidating. The winery that was honest, as well as innovative. And that winery was for both of us one called Uccelliera. When someone truly takes the time get to know you, to really talk about the winery, the history, the styles of wines they produce and why — in an open and almost familial way – those are the experiences that are going to stay with you and make you a fond and loyal customer for years to come.
And this is very much the experience we hope and strive to provide at Crosby Roamann. We’ve tried to bring back a little of that Tuscan magic to Napa Valley. We hope you’ll take the time to come share it with us!
Arrivederci. A la prossima! Enjoy the rest of the summer.
Juliana & Sean