The 2007 vintage took me to Tuscany, and provided an opportunity to fit into a countryside lodging for two weeks, and apart from wine activities, absorb some local culture.

THE SCENE-Toscana in the local language is a large region of which there is a large proportion of hilly, forested, wild country which we would call bush. It was the pheasant season-there were plenty of the birds around as well as shotguns discharging. Most of the activity was weekend based, and quite widespread.

Hiring a car is fundamental to visit sites, and allow more time than usual to reach destinations due to the slow speeds (expect continual narrow winding roads) and defective signage until you become practiced at second guessing what the directions mean.

A GPS is a good option, particularly on motorways as it is normal for the way across major roads to take more than one circular routes crossed by successive roundabouts before the correct destination is obvious. This instrument takes you across the right part of the roundabout and on to the right motorway section but can occasionally be confused with directions too.

Italian regional tourism is not like Australian information centres where you might find information about an entire state or a contiguous road system. The local ‘i” only focuses on the town, the sector or the region, and questions about outlying or other areas will be met with consternation.

If you are the healthy outdoor type it is particularly difficult to locate walking or exercise paths of any significance unless you take a guided tour where the terrain (often through private property) is arranged prior. Of the one national park I discovered, the Cinque Terre was well signed, yet this is a hyper-tourist site. No doubt there will be others and maybe Google is the one best way of finding more information.

We settled for the 3 km looping walk around the accommodation’s farm, Il Castagno, , a thousand hectare mixed property (sunflower, lucerne, sangiovese, villas) in the tiny town of Il Castagno (sole business is the local ristorante/pizzeria) ten kilometres east of San Gimignano (the small hill town saturated with tourists daily).

Finding good and satisfying places to eat and enjoy Italian culture is fun, also a challenge until you adjust to the time scale. That is the lunch closure: shops of all kinds including supermarkets will close from 12:30-1:00 and re-open at 4:00 save the tourist towns which rely on a high volume of business at that time of the day, and no other.

The catch is if you are having a lazy time, then late morning departures for visits run you out of time for shopping, even provisioning or if you are driving on Tuscan roads for an hour, expect it to take longer, even more so at night when a restaurant will be difficult to locate.

Two food guides were invaluable: Lonely Planet and Osterie & Locande D’Italiaor A guide to traditional places to eat and stay in Italy, published by Slow Food and well worth the English version sold by Slow Food is a Piedmontese-origin organisation upholding traditional cuisine and food supply values, particularly to confront the fast food conglomerates who have enhanced the decline of Western health through poor diet.

Macdonalds have a sparing presence in Italy as the majority of Italians shun this example of lifestyle and prefer to support their local markets and alimentaria. Even supermercados are confined to the industrial section of the towns and cities so as to not clutter the skyline of the older architecture.

If the Italian habit of the lunchtime closedown were to be trimmed then the access of the junk food retailers would increase due to the convenience factor whereas daily local shopping for fresh meal ingredients stimulates the diversity of home style cooking. Or attendance at the eating house next door for lunch maintains the local economy instead of spooning the junk profits to a US listed company.

Our cooking supplies were often bought daily from town square markets (centro) which rotated around the local towns-a fish monger (Italian trout), heaps of squid, octopus and cuttlefish, prepared on the spot, or the butcher, basic cuts through to wild boar ribs and monster rib eyes for carnivores, spit roasting free range chooks also crammed with other roasts. There were terrific vegetables such as flavoursome zucchinis, flower on, local white truffles, and seasonal fruit, crunchy pears and pedestrian imported Cavendish bananas-every culture eats bananas!

Wines-we tasted widely in restaurants and visited some cellar doors-many vineyards advertise along the roadside. The list:

Falchini Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2006 Vigna a Solatio, 12%, E10, very pale, fresh lemon, mouth sweet, austere, high acid, phenolic palate. 87 Poggioalloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2006, 12.5%, E10, clean dry white, bitter crunch fits the food. 86 Antinori Vermentino 2005, Tenuta Guado al Tasso, Bolgheri, 12.5%, E15, great aromatics, grown near the sea, lemon, crunchy tannins, very good. 90 Buondonno Chianti Classico 2005 made by Gabrielle Buondonno in Castellina-in-Chianti, Casavecchia alla Riazza, organic wine, 13%, E18 (Da Bado restaurant Volterra). A basic wine list without vintages-arise from the table to read the detail on the bottles standing up around the restaurant; no English, wine simple, fresh, basic clean Chianti. 88 Sono Montenidoli Chianti Colli Senesi 2004, 14.5%, big rich thing, sangiovese and canaiolo, hefty oak, E16 90 Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva 2004, Frescobaldi, 13%, very good, all sangiovese, aromatic, restrained oak, varietal, powdery tannins E22, 90 Producer visits: Santa Cristina; near Il Castagno, also accommodation (13 apartments), restaurant,; 350-400m elevation, Solaria 2006, vino da tavola, trebbiano, 85 E3.30, 13%; Hanemone 2005, IGT,trebbiano, chardonnay, moscato, unwooded, jesty, smart, 87 E6.00, 12.5%; Decimamusa 2005, IGT, oak aged sauvignon blanc, very oaky, 86E11.00, 13%; Gemmula Chianti Classico 2004 (all red-sangiovese, canaiolo, malvasia nero, colorino), good Chianti, almond-cherry fruit, soft, 87 E5.20, 13%; Fontallorso 2004, IGT, all sangiovese, six months new oak, pushed up on ripeness, does well, 89 E7.00, 13.5%, also own extra virgin olive oil, Gambassino from correggiola, moraiola and leccino varieties.

Pietralta; near Il Castagno, German-owned selling mainly to the German market, establishing new varieties like lagrein and more ancient Tuscan ones which are confidential; Chianti Classico 2004, good wine, varietal expression very good, restrained oak, 87 E 5.90, 12.5%, uses 2% new Jupilles, 18,000 bottles which is the majority of production, Chianti Riserva 2004, smart yet woody, 90% sangiovese, 10% merlot, 2600 bottles, 89E8.50,13%; Brinato IGT, 2005, smart wine, merlot dominant, leafy merlot, sangiovese, lagrein, 1500 bottles, 89 E10, 13.5%; Brinato 2004 IGT, very classy, mocha, 90 E 12, 13.5%; Solivagas 2004 IGT, cabernet, syrah, merlot, touch bretty, one year in new barrels, shows it, 89 E15 13.5%,

Banfi Vintners; 850 hectares in Montalcino; Serena Sauvignon Blanc 2006, no herbal, classy oak use, crunchy texture with the typical racy acidity, fresh, 88 12.5%; San Angelo Pinot Grigio 2006, pale green, heaps of cool ferment nose character, new worldish in aromatics, grown at 300 m, fresh and zippy, great finish and flavour, 89 12%;Fontanelle Chardonnay 2005, pale green, nutty, peachy, complexity with oak but restrained, understated but very varietal; medium texture, fine, fresh and minerally, smart, 91 13%; Colvecchio Syrah 2004 IGT, great colour, really good spice, licorice, nutty oak, big and rich, really well made, quite a stunner 92 13.5; Cum Laude 2004 Super Tuscan, cabernet, merlot, sangiovese, syrah, 30/30/25/15, serious oak, char, leafy cabernet, fruit sweet, very fine, very soft 92 13%; Summus 2000 Super Tuscan, sangiovese, syrah, cabernet, 40/40/20, lots of secondary characters from bottle age, tannins drying out, long flavours, mint very prevalent 88 13%; Excelsus 2000 Super Tuscan, cabernet merlot, 60/40, lots of terroir, cedar oak, volatile acidity pokes out, quite tannic but still fine 90 13%; Brunello di Montalcino 2002, said to be a difficult year which few estates released, not a deep colour, nose complex, aged, oak integrated, earth and mint, medium bodied, a good line of tannins, tannins powdery from oak, aging quite fast, 9013%; Poggio Alle Mura, Brunello di Montalcino 2000, a serious wine, lots of oak though and volatility, soft and alluring, very delicious, velvet texture 94 13.5%; Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1995, great complexity, brass, nuts, terroir, still varietal, very rounded palate, lots of secondary flavours, tons of juicy, drying tannin, smart 95 13.5%; Florus Muscat Late Harvest 2004; golden green, raisined grapes left on the vine to 16 Be, oak aged for a year, delicious, concentrated, non-botrytis sticky 90 16%; Salsa Etrusca (12 year old) vinegar, aged sequentially in oak, chestnut, cherry, ash and mulberry barrels of reducing sizes-60, 50, 40, 30, 25 litre 6.9 % acidity, made from trebbiano and muscat, a sweeter style to balsamico due to the process; Olivo Extra Vergine di Oliva 2006, from leccino, olivastra di Montalcino, moraiolo and ascolana tenera, exceptional oil.

Carpineto; in Dudda; Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2006, neutral, spice, high acid, tight 87 12.5%, E 5.70; Dogajolo 2006 IGT, sangiovese, canaiolo, 85/15, always a reliable red, fruit filled, good chewy texture 88 13% E 5.00; Chianti Castaldo 2005, lots of new oak, sangiovese, canaiolo, 90/10, lots of flavour, fuller bodied 87 E 4.80 13%;Chianti Classico 2003 Riserva, lots of mint, earthiness, almondy oak, varietal, 100% sangiovese, drying tannin 89 E12.00, 13%; Brunello di Montalcino 2001, mature nose, complex, drying tannins, yet lost of lasting flavours, mature fruit, oak totally integrated 91 E 27.00, 13%; Farnito Vin Santo 1986, orange, brown, gold, an oxidatively matured sweet white, rancio from barrel age, complex, old oak, nutty, trebbiano, malvasia, 60/40 90 E 24.00, 15%; three olive oils, Sillano from Florence, Delle Simbarde from Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Il Picciolo in Grossetto.


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