Mr RU13 and I recently returned from a week’s walking holiday in Tuscany. Before we went, I had great plans to taste and blog about every Tuscan wine known to uomo, accompanied by beautiful photos and detailed tasting notes.
I apologise, but that isn’t what you’re going to get (although there are some nice photos). 2 reasons:
- It was very, very, very hot. Please remember, I live in Manchester (the one in North-West England, famous for rain). The temperature in Tuscany in early June is usually in the mid-20s Celsius (about 70⁰F, but instead it was about 34 (about 93). That’s hot if you’re (a) a pale Northerner who likes it cool and (b) on a walking holiday. My natural desire to sample as many possible wines as possible was tempered by the less than temperate conditions. I felt as if I was on a mission to survive without keeling over with sunstroke.
- I was on holiday. As soon as the taxi drove us away from Pisa airport, I was in holiday mode. All my recent stresses about work (or the lack of it) seemed a very long way away. We had a week to ourselves in a beautiful area of Italy, and I just wanted to enjoy myself without over-thinking it.
We spent the first couple of days in Volterra (ancient Estrucan city, these days more famous for vampiric associations), where we started our evenings with an Aperol Spritz at a bar on the main square. If you’re not familiar with the Spritz, it’s a blend of Aperol (an Italian bitter orange drink with about 11% alcohol), Prosecco and soda water, served with a slice of orange and ice. The first evening I tried it because it’s what you do if you’re on holiday in Italy. I wasn’t at all sure about it, but it was fruity, very refreshing and not too alcoholic a start to the evening. On the second evening, I had been planning to try a glass of Prosecco instead, but found myself craving the ice cold, slightly bitter, if a rather alarming shade of orange (Think Irn-Bru if you know what this is. Or Google it.), flavour. Addictive.
To be honest, I don’t think it was great for my wine-tasting palate, so we just drank anonymous house wine from a carafe with dinner both nights. Both restaurants encouraged us to do so, to the extent that I would have felt a bit precious insisting on something from the list. The house wine was fine. At home, I may have said something snobby and dismissive about it, but that’s not the way that holiday-me rolls. We did have the most amazing Limoncello I’ve ever tasted. I’d always thought it was something you drink at the end of the night when the wine runs out, but this was gorgeous: lemony and creamy at the same time.
We did manage to step up the wine discovery a notch at out next stop: San Gimignano. We stayed at Hotel Bel Soggiorno, which has a very good and extremely popular restaurant. Our stay included dinner on both nights; we just had to choose and pay for the wine. On the first night, we decided to try the local brew: Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The Level 3 WSET textbook describes Vernaccia thus: “quality varies hugely and most is sold to the crowds of tourists who visit the fortified town of San Gimignano”. As two members of the crowds of tourists visiting San Gimignano, we felt that we had to try it while we were there. Hoping for higher quality, we ordered a Riserva from the upper end of the price list. It had been aged in oak, but I don’t know for how long or whether the oak came from France, Hungary or Outer Mongolia. Holiday-me doesn’t worry about that sort of thing. It was lovely, though, lots of stone fruit, predominantly white nectarine and maybe a hint of jasmine, balanced with a subtle hint of oak. Really good stuff, and perfect with the oven-baked prawns with chickpeas, cherry tomatoes and rucola. Sorry, I didn’t take a photo of the bottle or note the name of the producer. Holiday-me forgets that sort of thing. A lady at the next table was complaining that her red wine was too warm and demanded an ice bucket to cool it down. How uptight.
I did try to get it together the next day by booking a tour and tasting at a local Vernaccia producer. However, nobody else booked (clearly everyone was taking this holiday mode seriously) so the visit was cancelled. We consoled ourselves with gelato. There are two gelaterie on the town’s main square; you can take your pick of “the best gelato in the world” or “winner of the world gelato award 2008/2009”. Given that the queue at the former was shorter and the latter’s standards have clearly slipped in recent years, we opted for the best gelato in the world. It was amazing. Our favourite flavours: sour cherry and limoncello.
We tried to make up for the cancellation of our winery trip with a visit to the Vernaccia di San Gimignano museum. It’s very small, but the film about the history of the wine was very interesting. Did you know that Dante referred to it in the Divine Comedy as being responsible for the gluttony of Pope Martin IV? We then sampled a couple more examples of Vernaccia in the museum’s tasting room. I had enough presence of mind to take a photo of these bottles. Watching the film must have briefly snapped me out of holiday mode. Neither was great: the first was pleasantly fruity, but lacked the charisma and complexity of the previous night’s example. We didn’t like the Riserva; the lady in the tasting room did warn us that it was heavily oaked, but we thought we could handle it. She was right – it was unbalanced and any fruit was completely overwhelmed by essence of HB pencil. With dinner that evening, we tried a Tuscan Chardonnay. It was good: citrus balanced with restrained use of oak. However, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous evening’s Vernaccia.
Our next stop was Colle Val d’Elsa. After two nights of fine dining, we decided to mix things up with pizza. It was really good, cooked to perfection in a wood-fired oven. We drank a bottle of Chianti Classico, which went well with the pizza and was a good example of its kind. However, I think that it confirmed my opinion that Chianti isn’t really for me – the combination of high acidity and tannin isn’t to my taste.
The next day, we walked to our final destination of Siena. After a full morning’s cross-county walk, followed by a full afternoon’s sightseeing around the town, by dinnertime we were all in. We tried a trattoria recommended by previous customers of our holiday company. It was rubbish, as was the house white (I think it was Trebbiano, but it wasn’t worth remembering). Time to call it a night.
We spent the next day doing a self-guided walking tour of Siena, which was wonderful, as it took us to lots of interesting places that we wouldn’t have found for ourselves. We also had an amazing lunch at Osteria del Campaccio, eating delicious homemade ravioli which more than compensated for the previous night’s dinner. However, we didn’t do wine with lunch, due to the heat. (Did I mention that it was hot?)
After a siesta back at the hotel, we returned to the town to visit the Enoteca Italiana. This is a weird place. It’s a sort of wine tasting cellar in the most amazing setting, in the vaults of a Fortezza. It has an incredible list of hundreds of Italian wine by the bottle, plus a good selection by the glass. However, it’s a bit off the beaten track and doesn’t do much to attract visitors. There were two electronic information points, but they weren’t plugged in. My husband tried the Brunello di Montalcino and I had a glass of Grechetto, as it was a grape I hadn’t tasted before. The Brunello was ok. I know that it’s “exquisitely fashionable”, but it really doesn’t do it for either of us. My Grechetto, at a third of the price, was great: it was simply fruity, but was really packed with ripe peachy flavours. The waiter was friendly, but didn’t give us any information about the wines. WE would have asked, but he was busy chatting with his mates. We thought that this could be a really fantastic place if someone put some effort into it.
We moved on to Zest Ristorante and Wine Bar for dinner, which had not only an interesting menu including some lovely fish dishes, but also a great selection of wines by the glass. As this was our last evening, we each had a glass of something different that we hadn’t already tried. Mr RU13 had the Ribolla Gialla and I had Sauvignon Blanc (my first Italian one). The Ribolla Gialla was a bit dull, but the Sauv Blanc was excellent: lots of tropical fruit, including pineapple, with a twist of mint. I don’t know if it was due to the hot weather, but I enjoyed white wines far more than red on this trip.
My week in Tuscany was absolutely fantastic and left me feeling like a new woman with a new-found love of Italian white wines. I think that I was scarred by my former work team’s collective obsession with crappy Pinot Grigio. I apologise for the lack of detail in this post, but rest assured that normal service will be resumed very shortly, with Wine Society, Decanter and Corks Out tastings in the diary.