Wine Tasting in Tuscany (via Siena)
If you’ve ever tasted wine in Napa or other wineries in the US, you might think you are ready for wine tasting in Tuscany. But Italian vineyards operate a bit differently than what you might expect.
While there are often lots of wine bars in the nearby Italian towns that will sample local vintages, the vineyards themselves usually only take visitors by appointment. Many of the more commercial ones have some larger facilities and are more accustomed to tourists, but if you love wine like we do, you know that those are not the best ones to visit.
Tuscan Wine Regions near Siena
While there are many different varietals grown in Tuscany, there are three main wine areas reachable from Siena: Chianti, Montepulciano and Montalcino. All of them grow Sangiovese grapes, but the weather, soil, altitude and individual winemakers all make these regions distinctive.
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We have visited Montepulciano and Montalcino during previous trips to Siena, but this time we chose to focus on our favorite, Montalcino – the home of Brunello. We visited wineries with two of our favorite guides – Federica and Franco.
Lunch and Tasting with Federica
We met Federica Fantozzi back in 2014 when Mark did a walking tour with her and our friends on the Via Francigena. Federica has a PHd in Environmental Biology and is a certified Environmental Guide of Tuscany, so she not only knows good places to visit, she has a wealth of knowledge about the area and its history. She’s also become a good friend and it was a treat to spend time with her again during this trip.
Federica picked us up and drove us to the beautiful Bagno Vignoni where we enjoyed a coffee and walk around the tiny picturesque spa town. We stayed here on our anniversary in 2014 and it was great to be back, even for just an hour.
Afterwards we headed to Taverna dei Barbi, the restaurant on the grounds of the historic Fattoria dei Barbi, one of the oldest and largest Brunello wine producers. We shared a delicious lunch paired with Brunello wines, including the most memorable tagliatelle with chicken and saffron, which tasted like your grandmother’s chicken soup turned into an elegant pasta dish.
Just lunch would have been a great taste of Brunello, but we continued on to the Altesino vineyard for a private tasting of wines from their 40-plus year old estate. We toured the grounds and their facilities and tasted wines with the whole place to ourselves, an end to a beautiful Tuscan day.
Italian Wine Standards for Quality
The Italian wine industry is highly regulated, especially for its flagship wines like Brunello. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest classification for Italian wines and the government limits the number of DOCG bottles each vineyard can bottle each year to ensure the highest possible quality. There are about two hundred Brunello producers in the Montalcino area and even though the grapes and the process are much the same, the terrain and the winemakers’ touch can vary widely.
All Brunellos are made from Sangiovese grapes and must be aged for at least five years before they can be released. The producers are not allowed to irrigate the vineyards so must rely on mother nature to work her magic instead.
Every year, the local experts do a tasting and rate the year’s production on a scale of one to five. A Brunello from a five-star year can demand top dollar, even if it isn’t from the best winery. You can buy Brunello in the US for about $65-$100 but in Tuscany you can get great ones for 25-30 Euros. Brunello ages really well, so a five-star bottle will just get better and better with age.
While Brunellos are amazing wines, probably the best value in Montalcino is the Rosso di Montalcino. Most every vineyard produces it and it only requires one year of aging. We had several outstanding Rosso wines that cost just 9 or 10 Euros and were better than many $20 to $30 wines in California.
Wine Tasting in Tuscany with Franco Wine Tours
This trip we again had an opportunity to visit Montalcino with Franco Fadda of Franco Wine Tours. We did a previous trip with Franco in 2014 with three other couples but this time, thanks to the lateness of the season, we were able to have Franco all to ourselves with our friends Pete and Kari Hazen, winemakers from Rancho Roble in Lincoln, California.
Franco grew up in the area and has extensive knowledge of the wines and relationships with many of the different winemakers in Montalcino, as well as Montepulciano and Chianti. With just a little bit of information about us he planned a wonderful day in the area.
Our first stop NostraVita, a family-owned winery up on a hill in Montalcino next to a towering oak tree. It was not a nice day, cold and blustery, but we were escorted into a welcoming, warm tasting room built from plexiglass so we could taste their wines while enjoying the gorgeous scenery all around us.
NostraVita was started by Annibale Parisi and his wife Elena who had the vision to buy land for a vineyard in Montalcino in 1970, long before it was fashionable and profitable. Now it is a true labor of love for the whole family with a focus on art as well wine.
After we tasted the wines we took a tour of the rest of the grounds, which is an artist colony of sorts. There are sculptures everywhere, some created by Annibale himself as well as members of his family and other artists, many who come from all over the world to visit and work at NostraVita. There is an amazing workshop constructed of steel containers on rollers, so the different parts can roll apart to create a large workspace with four corners of tools and equipment. We felt like we were visiting Leonardo Da Vinci’s 21st century workspace and it was difficult to leave.
Before we left, Annibale hand-painted the labels on our reserve Brunello wines, a treasure that will be difficult to drink, though we will manage.
After NostraVita we headed to Collemattoni where the focus shifted back to wine. We had visited this winery in 2014 and the tasting room manager recognized us. We still had a prized 2007 Brunello we have been holding on to so we were happy to be able to taste some different years and bring back some more. As it turns out, 2010 was actually an even better year than 2007, so we have a couple of those bottles to store for the future.
For lunch, Franco took us to a local restaurant for lunch, Il Pozzo, nestled in a very tiny town at the top of a hill overlooking the Tuscan countryside. We enjoyed an amazing lunch of local Tuscan foods, trying a little bit of everything, including the rabbit. Of course we also had some more wine. By this time of the day we were ready for naps, but we pressed on to our next winery.
Our third winery was Solaria, with unique wines from Patrizia Cencioni, who has been running the estate for more than 25 years. In a country with old traditions, there are not that many women winemakers in Italy so it was great to see Patrizia and her daughters and taste their wines.
While the whole day was wonderful, the last winery we visited, Bellaria, had our favorite wines of the day. This was the first winery we’ve ever been to with a 100 point wine – the 2010 Brunello Assunto Riserva got 100 points from James Suckling. What’s amazing is that this delicious wine is not that expensive, around 30 Euros. But what was most extraordinary was the Bellaria 2016 Rosso, almost as good as the 100 point wine and only 9 Euros. It was one of the best wines we’ve ever tasted, and the price made it even more incredible.
Wine Education in Siena
If you are in Siena with a couple of hours to spare and want to learn more, we’d also recommend the Tuscan Wine School. We visited in 2014 and sent some friends back there in 2017. In a short time we learned all about the different Tuscan wines and tasted varieties from Chianti, Montepulciano and Montalcino, with and without food. We still keep a cheat sheet on our phones with the ratings for different years of Italian wines, and check it when we visit restaurants before we order.
Forget the tour, I just want to drink wine!
If you love red wine but you don’t have time to take a tour or a class, don’t worry. We don’t think we’ve ever had a bad wine in Tuscany. Even the two Euro wine at the grocery store is decent and the house wines at restaurants are cheap and delicious. Don’t miss it!