In a way, traveling to Tuscany is just one big shopping trip, because what’s super beautiful about the region are its vineyards, and what’s super tempting to do at vineyards is to taste and buy wines. Every now and then, we’d admire a sight like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo (see above), but I’ll admit that seeing the Abbey was incidental to exploring the area around Montalcino, home of brunello.
Badia a Coltibuono sits just outside Gaiole in Chianti, and handily enough for shopping fans, it’s not far from the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. There are beautiful formal gardens and an old abbey (now an upscale agriturismo, of course), which you can tour for 5 euros a person. We headed to Badia because we’d loved its chianti classico riservas, which we tasted when our friends C & M shipped over a case to London two years ago. The restaurant also got rave reviews on Chowhound and Slow Travel sites.
Sadly, while the grounds were picturesque and the restaurant pretty good (more on this to follow), the Badia wines we tried were awful. Thin and sour, generally, from the regular chianti classico up through their riservas and special blends like the Cultus Boni, which, though best of the bunch, still wasn’t very appealing. I know I should have noted the vintages we tried so that you could be warned, but I just wanted to get out of there.
On the plus side, Badia’s tour was pretty interesting and entertaining. I always enjoy seeing the enormous oak barrels and smaller barriques where the wine ages.
Overall, visit Badia for the beauty of the grounds and the decent enough food, and at least for now, skip the tasting.
We couldn’t resist visiting Villa Vignamaggio, where we stayed in 2003 during our honeymoon, but whose wines we believe (objectively, we like to think) are quite tasty and definitely hard to find in the US. The villa staff were warm and welcoming when we explained that we’d honeymooned there, and they invited us to wander the grounds unescorted, which was fantastic. We were also invited to taste a few of the wines for free, which beats paying 20 euros per person any day.
The family that originally owned the villa was allegedly close friends with Leonardo da Vinci, so the local story is that the Mona Lisa depicts one of the family’s daughters, Lisa del Giocondo. Of course, a fact I find more entertaining is the villa’s role in Much Ado About Nothing (best known for having exposed Keanu Reeves as the least talented actor working in Hollywood).
All that sort of gimmicky history aside, Vignamaggio makes a complex, tasty, and reasonably-priced riserva chianti classico, and on this last visit, Jon and I were happy to taste and buy a 2003 bottle in honor of our ‘moon there. Thanks to purchases made during trips to other parts of Italy, we’ve managed to hoard and slowly savor several other Vignamaggio riserva bottles, and we’ve particularly enjoyed a 2001 vintage marketed with the label “600” in honor of the villa’s anniversary. (We are not immune to slick marketing, apparently).
If you see a Vignamaggio in your local wine shop, give it a try and let me know what you think.
Fattoria Poggio di Sotto came highly recommended by Antonio, an enoteca manager we chatted up in Montalcino (more on this below). When we pulled in to Poggio di Sotto’s driveway, the buildings looked so empty that we immediately regretted not having called ahead. But we walked over to a building labeled “office” and were glad to find a woman who works at the vineyard. She was reluctant to conduct a tasting because she said her english was bad, but we figured it was fine by us if she didn’t want to talk much while pouring wine.
Well, the woman pulled out all the stops and took us on a tour of some of the vineyard’s grounds and its winemaking facilities. I never tired of seeing everything from the grape smasher to the barrels to the machines that shove corks into bottles, and by the time we got to the tasting room, we were in a good mood.
Poggio di Sotto’s rosso was so-so, but the 2000 brunello really knocked our socks off. The sour note: when we asked about the price for the brunello (65 euros), the woman told us that the cost of the tasting and tour would be 15 euros per person.
Now, I wouldn’t have minded the 15 euros per person if she’d told us about the tasting fee up front, but bringing it up after we’d gone through the tour and tasting – well, I couldn’t help but feel tricked.
Lesson learned. We’ll be sure to ask up front in the future, I guess.
Doing our best to set aside our bad feelings, we picked up some of the brunello anyway. But I think we would have bought more if we’d left happy rather than duped.
There’s an old fortress in town, la fortezza, which sits empty now except for an wine shop called, creatively enough, Enoteca La Fortezza. There’s a small menu offering charcuterie, and the enoteca offers a dizzying choice of local brunellos. In locked glass counters, there are some old, dusty (read: incredibly expensive) brunellos for sale, which we browsed much as we would something valuable in a museum. I can’t imagine I’ll ever drink one of those puppies.
We decided to pay 12 euros for a tasting of three brunellos, and I was sorely disappointed by all three. I think because it’s low season, the bottles that have been opened for tasting have been sitting around for too long. I don’t care what any pump/seal manufacturer claims. The bartender was dismissive when we commented that all three wines tasted bad (as in “off”) to us. Ahh, customer service in Europe!
Bottom line is that the Enoteca La Fortezza seems to have great inventory, a unique and charming location, but rather unpleasant service.
If Enoteca La Fortezza was rather intimidating, on the other end of the spectrum of enoteca styles is the ThinkWine! Enoteca, close to Montalcino’s Piazza del Popolo, which is all contempo fonts, colorful labels and inexpensive (3 euros), casual tastings. It reminded me of chains like Best Cellars, which work hard to dispel the idea that wine is exclusive and inaccessible. The bummer, of course, being that if you actually wanted to find a wine by region or country, it’d be a pain in the ass to find.
And now I come to the two Montalcino enotecas where we did a lot of our shopping, neither of which was much to look at, but both of which had significant other strengths: Enoteca Pierangioli and Bruno Dalmazio Enoteca.
Enoteca Pierangioli is tiny and nondescript. We would’ve walked right by it, except that in the shop window were four brunellos on display, one of which was a Podere Brizio, bottles of which we’d bought in London last year at the wine show and *loved*. Only 5,000 bottles a year are made, so obviously we thought it was a sign of good taste that Enoteca Pierangioli featured it in the shop window.
So with our overwhelmingly-complete list of brunello vineyards in hand (courtesy of the Montalcino tourist information centre), we walked into the Enoteca to pick up a few bottles of the 2001 Podere Brizio riserva (so much cheaper in Italy than in London) and chatted up the manager, Antonio. He said if we liked the Podere Brizio, we should try 2001 brunellos by Mastrojanni and Angelo Sassetti (done and done), and we in turn asked him (1) where we could find pecorino by Caseificio Sassetti; and (2) which of the hundreds of brunello vineyards we should visit.
The question about Caseificio Sassetti set the guy on fire. He was so excited that we’d asked about what was, in his opnion, the “best cheese in the region,” and with his arms waving all over the place, he gave us super-detailed directions about where to buy this wondrous cheese. I think he was so pleased that we’d asked about the super-special cheese that he then strongly recommended we visit Il Colle, Poggio di Sotto and Tenuta Oliveto, all three of which are near Castelnuovo dell’Abate, 15 minutes southeast of Montalcino. And off we went . . . .
Bruno Dalmazio enoteca is huge, modern, well-stocked and well-priced. If you can’t find a chianti or brunello at Bruno Dalmazio, then it probably doesn’t exist. There was no assistance there to speak of, but we wandered through the aisles unharassed and at our leisure, and we picked up a few bottles from vineyards we knew already. The prices were just that good.
What you could do is figure out which wines you like by visiting small enotecas in town, and then going over to Bruno Dalmazio to price check and buy. But I guess it’s this sort of thinking that’s wiping out independent bookstores in America, so perhaps if you’re a guilt-ridden liberal, you’d best avoid Bruno Dalmazio altogether.