If you follow Orlando Wine Blog on Facebook or Twitter, you know I’ve been in Italy for a couple of weeks. The focus of the trip was family, not wine, but you can hardly take a breath in Italy without also taking a sip of wine. And while I ached to fully immerse myself in winery visits, I did have some very special wine experiences that were almost entirely unplanned and unexpected.
Over the next several posts, I’ll count down my top 5.
5. Unusual Wines in Spectacular Places
If you’re a regular reader, you know I gravitate towards wines that are a little off the beaten track. You also know I place a lot of stock in the entire experience of savoring a wine, which can often transcend the stuff in the glass. My trip provided a few great examples of both.
The Obscure Grape
My first stop in Tuscany was the small town of Certaldo, not far from San Gimignano. The historic old part of town is perched high on a hill, fortified by ancient walls and a castle – the stuff of fairytale knights, princesses, and dragons.
On my first afternoon, I was looking for an “aperitivo” and wandered into a small restaurant called Osteria del Vicario, which has a courtyard that looks out over what seemed like the whole of Tuscany. You could almost hear the angels singing it was so beautiful.
I had a nice chat about wine with the server, whom I believe was also the restaurant’s co-owner. He was extolling the virtues of a bottle on their list made entirely from colorino, a blending grape primarily used, as the name suggests, to add color to the much lighter sangiovese that dominates the region’s beloved Chianti. As with, say, petit verdot, it’s rarely seen in single varietal form.
The restaurant didn’t sell the wine by the glass, so I didn’t order any that afternoon, but my curiosity was piqued. I couldn’t stop thinking about that wine.
A couple days later, I came back and ordered a bottle, and indeed it was fascinating. Made by producer Agrisole, it was big wine at 14% alcohol and higher than average acid and tannin. At first opening, it had the typical Italian aromas of herbs and tomato, but after 15-20 minutes, notes of chocolate started coming out. After half an hour, you might even have been forgiven for thinking this was a New World wine. Fascinating!
The Obscure Region
My second stop in Tuscany was Siena, a wonderful and historic small city that needs no introduction.
One afternoon, again in search of an aperitivo, I stopped into a wine shop and asked the proprietor to suggest a place to have a nice glass before dinner. To my surprise, she recommended an establishment on the Piazza del Campo.
This huge plaza, shaped like a half moon, is the meeting point for Siena’s maze of ancient cobblestone streets and for the city’s many residents and tourists. Its arc is lined with cafes and bars, which I assumed would be touristy, overpriced, and mediocre. As it turns out, these places attract locals too and are surprisingly inexpensive given their prime locations.
On her recommendation, I ended up at Liberamente Osteria, where I found a nice selection of interesting wines by the glass. I decided to step outside the box and sample a Morellino di Scansano, the unsung wine of Tuscany.
Morellino is one of many synonyms for sangiovese; Scansano is a village in southern Tuscany, not far from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The region has a coveted DOCG classification, but it’s often overshadowed by its more famous counterparts like, Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino.
If the Morellino I sampled was representative, this category is definitely worth a look. It was rustic, savory, unpretentious, and perfect for a breezy summer afternoon overlooking “il Campo.”
4. Classic Wines in Understated Places
I do love the weird stuff, but I also love the classics, and I never quite got over how accessible they were in Italy. Here is a place where some of the world’s greatest classifications of wines are available by the glass for less than you’d pay for a mid-range pinot noir in the U.S.
The First Encounter
My first mind-blowing wine experience of the trip was not in Tuscany but much farther north, in Bellagio on the shores of beautiful Lake Como.
This area is riddled with spectacular views, but my wine soul was most excited by a little wine bar that was literally a hole in a wall.
You enter Aperitivo et al through a stone door in a thick wall. You end up in a cave-like room lined with tables and filled with wine. It looks small and unassuming … until you see the wine list.
This is a place that has Sassicaia BY THE GLASS! 110 Euros a glass, to be exact.
I didn’t spring for that, but I did enjoy glasses of 2012 Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino and 2008 Colarej Barolo. Spectacular.
The Final Toast
We celebrated our last evening in Tuscany with a meal at one of Siena’s best restaurants, Osteria le Logge. It’s owned by Laura Brunelli, wife of the late Brunello producer Gianni Brunelli. She has owned and managed the family’s vineyards since her husband’s death in 2008. The restaurant serves one of the estate’s Brunellos by the glass – a happy spluge.
I capped off the night with a beautiful dessert wine, or “vino di meditazione,” as the Italians call it – the Antinori Muffato dela Sala 2008.
As wonderful as these experiences were, I had a few more that topped them. I’ll detail those in my next post. Until then …