It is impossible – almost absurd – to travel to Tuscany without visiting a few of its wineries. In an area where wine producing is an art embedded deeply into the DNA of the land and the people, the dozens and dozens of wineries represent a manifestation of life expression and not just a business or a touristic destination. The choices are endless – the Chianti region alone has 380 – and most are picturesque with high-quality produce and an exciting story in the background. During my recent trip, I visited only three: however, they were carefully selected and so unique that one should definitely add them to the itinerary while roaming through the Tuscan villages.
Antinori nel Chianti Classico
Inaugurated in 2012, the new Antinori Winery in the Chianti region is a magnificent amalgamation of innovation and tradition harmoniously blended in an enterprise of a massive scale – especially when compared to the much smaller wineries that dot the Tuscan hills. The architecture is modern and yet classic, big and yet light, incorporating wood, terracotta, spirals, and numerous pieces of art in an ambiance that brings joy to the heart similar to the one induced by the wines aging in the cellars.
The origins of the Antinori family date back to 1385 and, for the last 26 generations, one of its members has been exclusively dedicated to winemaking. Today, for the first time in the company’s history, a woman stands at the helm. Albiera Antinori, assisted by her father, Marchese Antinori, and her sisters, Allegra and Alessia, manages what is recognized as the 10th oldest family-owned business in the world, maintaining and enhancing the legacy of the family. It is possible to meet any of them while touring the winery as they are all very involved in the operation of the business on a daily basis.
“The red wine has a soul – it reflects the personality of the place and its producer,” says Mr. Antinori, emphasizing that talking about wine is a spiritual and artistic experience – just like wine-making itself. There is a personal, long-term investment in the process: something of one’s own soul abundantly poured into the cultivation of the land and the years of faith, dedication, and patience that are required till a vineyard offers the expected results. Time ticks at a different pace in the winery; maybe this is the reason I was so impressed by the installation of an artistic solar clock that does not tell the time but, instead, reflects on the floor a feeling, a word, or an inspiring phrase.
Although the facilities are three-stories tall using the force of gravity throughout the various wine-making phases, their design is so well blended into the hillside that their size is practically undetectable. The wood- and terracotta-dressed walls of the cellar echo the hum of the wine as it ages in the barrels, reinforcing an ambiance of reverence and awe.
The 90-minute tour includes a visit to the olive oil production facility – where the old terracotta jars are still preserved – and the Vin Santo production facility with the smaller barrels used for the aging process. During the wine-tasting at the end, we sampled three wines:
- the SanGiovanni, a pleasant white wine from the Antinori winery in Orvieto with a fruity and mineral taste where citrus and pineapple could be detected;
- the Botrosecco, a red wine (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc) from vineyards close to the sea of Tuscany: it felt thick like liquid honey with the aroma of the fruits of the forest;
- the Villa Antinori, a flagship wine since 1928 (90% of Chianti Classico, 10% of cabernet): a unique experience, like fluid life in a glass; thick but not too thick; soft and sensual; a poem, a liquid symphony, a perfume.
Despite the magnificence of the 100m-Euros-edifice and the impressive family history, there was an impersonal tone during the tour – something that came in contrast to the beauty of the environs or even the warmth of the wines themselves. Also, the 30-euro ticket is significantly more expensive than most other wineries without offering much additional value. Nevertheless, Antinori nel Chianti Classico is a unique experience that one should not miss.
Badia a Coltibuono
In the upper Chianti region, close to the Gaiole village, there is a 1000-year-old monastery: Badia a Coltibuono (which translates to “The Abbey of the Good Harvest”). Located at a relatively higher altitude compared to the Tuscan plains, it is surrounded by lush forests and offers stunning views of the valley. Although its prehistory dates back to the Etruscan times, it was founded as a monastery in 1051 by monks of the Vallombrosan Order (a Tuscan reform of the Benedictines). Initially, the monks were focused on the cultivation of the surrounding area (hence the name of the abbey), but, gradually, they increased the property of the monastery to include many thousands of acres and began a flourishing wine production and commercial business as well. In the beginning of the 19th century (during the Napoleon era), the abbey was conquered by the French and was secularized. After changing ownership several times, it was finally bought 150 years ago by Guido Giuntini, a Florentine banker and great-grandfather of Piero Stucchi-Prinetti, the present owner.
Although, in every winery, it is mainly the cellar that emanates an aura of reverence, in Badia a Coltibuono the visitor listens to the echo of the past and feels a meditative veneration in every room and courtyard.
To reach the building, cross the magnificent gardens of Renaissance-Italian style where the colors are carefully matched to reflect those of the Italian flag: red from the earth, green from the plants, and white from the mantels. Pass by the old well that was in use until 1761, and stop for a while at the monks’ dining room which is decorated with paintings of various friars on the walls and crests on the ceiling. In a corner, you can observe a tiny locker: this is where they used to safe keep the salt – a precious asset at that time, often used as trading (bartering) commodity by the monks while traveling. Saunter through smaller rooms where the windows that overlook the fir-covered slopes offer the impression of live paintings and will take your breath away with their vitality and bright colors. And, finally, descend the 13 steps of the cellar (twelve for the Apostles and one for Christ) to reach the sanctum where wine ages. The temperature and humidity conditions in this basement are naturally ideal, and the fermented wine is still brought here from the modern winery facilities (located in another village) for the aging process. The last stop before the wine-tasting room is the personal cava of the owners where you will find bottles since WWII, covered in protective mold, and you can have a bit of fun taking photos of the wines whose production year matches your year of birth.
Although a brief visit may seem enough, do not delude yourself. Once there, you will wish you could spend more time listening to the whispers of the mountains with a glass of Chianti Classico Reserva in your hand. It is highly recommended you book a room for a day or two and allow yourself to emerge into this atmospheric environment that connects so effectively the past, the present, and the future.
There are four families that date back to the Renaissance period and still live in the Chianti region engaging in the wine-making business: Barone Ricasoli who owns the Brolio Castle; Prince Corsini who owns Villa Le Corti; the Mazzei family who owns the Fonterutoli Estate; and Count Capponi who owns Villa Calcinaia. The rest of the 380 wineries of Chianti have either been bought by foreigners or are much younger enterprises.
For us, Villa Calcinaia was not just a stop. It was our home, since we had booked for our stay one of the old, renovated villas that stand adjacent to the private chapel, surrounded by the familiar, vineyard-covered (and wild-boar populated) slopes of the Tuscan landscape. The winery was just a few meters away from our terrace, next to the summer house of the Capponi family – a dynasty whose origins are registered in 1215, is now in its 38th generation, has its principal mansion next to the Uffici in Florence, and is distinguished by a simple, white-and-silver crest similar to that of the Templars, only without the sign of the cross (the simplicity of the coat of arms indicates how old the family is).
The winery is small, but our tour was private and very elaborate, embellished by stories of wild boars getting so hot in the summer that they seek refuge in the vineyards unwillingly causing severe damage to the plants, or, even fall into the pools, swimming themselves to exhaustion.
The cellar dates to 1524. Besides the typical French-oak barrels, the winery also uses some large ones (over 1000-bottles capacity each) for wines made from a single vineyard. The courtyards, the old doors, and remnants of the family presence – a ball forgotten on the grass, a utensil left on a shelf, a poster with the crest – kept reminding us that we were not just in a business environment: we were in a home that breathed life for so many hundreds of years that its history had been indelibly scribbled on the walls.
Our visit ended with the much-awaited tasting process which included:
- A Sanforte (2015): initially only 250 bottles, now just 80 bottles left since the vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera. It ages for one year and remains in the bottle for another year.
- A Chianti Classico reserve (100% Sangiovese): two years aging, one year in the bottle.
- A Villa Bastignano (100% Sangiovese), limited edition: three years aging, one year in the bottle.
- A Merlot (made in Chianti): two years aging/one year in bottle (this was my personal favorite).
- A Vin Santo (DOC), a production of only 1000 bottles.
- And locally-produced olive oil (considered to be of a more delicate, lighter taste compared to the olive oil in Southern Italy)
If you pass by Greve, do not omit a stop at Villa Calcinaia. And, if you are lucky, you might even be guided around by the Count himself who frequently visits the area and is keen to share his knowledge as well as anecdotes from so many centuries of wine-making.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou