When I think Italy, I think wine. In the planning stages of this trip, I knew I had to get in on a true experience of the Italian wine culture, and not just at restaurants - I wanted to go directly to the source. I will forever be grateful to my good friends at Formaggio Kitchen for putting me in touch with a couple of their favorite wine producers from the Chianti region. From these contacts I was able to set up two incredible visits at two very different wineries.
The first visit was to Castelvecchio in San Casciano. Arriving in Firenze (Florence), we rented a car and headed straight to the winery, about forty minutes drive from the city center. The beauty of this region is an indicative element of the wine producing quality in Chianti - rolling hills for miles and miles, rows of grape vines and olive groves, bright, bright sun and slightly rocky terrain.
The family at Castelvecchio has been producing top quality wines internationally since 1962. Now in its third generation, Filipo and his sister, Stefania head the production, maintaining the estate reknown for organic and all-natural wines. Speaking with Filipo, it was incredible to hear just how much attention goes into making a single bottle of their wine. Each varietal is unique in its required time spent in barrels, stainless steel or concrete vats. Filipo uses only burgundy wood, which he likes for its characteristic density of wood fibers. This makes the negotiation between the inside and outside of the barrel more drawn out, burgundy also doesn't leave as much of a pronounced influence on the wine as an oak barrel might.
The most popular wines they sell at Castelvecchio are the Chianti, Santa Caterina and their Chianti, Ill Castelvecchio, both of which are available at Formaggio. We were given an incredible tasting of some of the wines we have more trouble finding in the US. Our top pick was the Solo Uno - a yearly production of one type of grape, whether it is 100% Sangiovese (a Chianti region classic and very delicate grape) or 100% merlot. It is an incredibly special wine and we ended up purchasing another bottle to enjoy later on in our journey.
Making the most of our stay on the vineyard, we paired a bottle of their Santa Caterina with a selection of prosciutto and pecorino from the local market. Enjoying these things by the pool in the sun it was impossible to fathom the bustle of Rome we had just left the day before.
Having had the authentically traditional, family-owned experience at Castelvecchio, it was superbly interesting to go on to meet Michael Schmeltzer from Montebernardi. Located in Panzano, the estate of Montebernardi has been around since 1082. Its wine production began in earnest in 1992 and Michael, a German-American with a degree in chemical engineering, bought the vineyard in 2003.
Chatting with Michael, we were given an entirely different perspective on wine production. We delved into some of the ancient techniques of wine production in the region and saw how one could innovate them with 21st century technology. The mediated marriage between the old world and new world was fascinating to see and some of Michael's tweaks reflect both a deep running passion and respect for excellent organic wines as well a cunning genius to dapple in change.
Of Michael's wines, our favorites were his Chianti Classico, tangy and light, and his 2012 Grillo white wine. Up until that point, I had only really enjoyed Italian reds. His Fuori Off Road Strada is light and refreshing, exquisite for drinking during the day or on the roof deck in the evening. Even more fun is that you can purchase it in a tetra pak. Convenience, environmental friendliness and cost efficiency are all exercised in Michael's decision to sell some of his wines in a tetra pak - its a huge testament to his ability to think outside the box...no pun intended.
After our tour and tasting with Michael, we were famished. Luckily, just a quick 5 minute drive from Montebardardi is the town center of Panzano and world famous butcher, Dario Cecchini. In addition to incredible cuts of meats and accouterments, Dario hosts lunch operation atop his butcher shop called Dario Doc. We managed to squeak in just before closing, being let up through the kitchen to an outdoor seating area. We feasted on a veritable trough of meat with pulled chicken, pork loin, their house special meat loaf and steak tartare. It was all simply incredible.
To finish off our meal and incredible wine experiences in Tuscany, we had a strong café and slab of olive oil cake. Thinking back on this part of the trip, it is truly wonderful to see how many wonderful opportunities came our way. I cannot thank the Formaggio kitchen enough, nor could I properly express the gratitude towards Filipo and Michael for taking the time out of their busy schedules to share some of their passion and knowledge on something so cherished.