Tuscan viticulture was once dominated by the monasteries and local aristocracy, with some names such as Antinori having played an important role since the 14th century. But whereas large estates were once farmed by tenants, the region generally now comprises smallholdings, very often owned and worked by investors from outside the region, frequently from abroad.
In some parts of Chianti Classico, vines grow at altitudes of 500 metres where day and night-time temperatures vary sufficiently to allow longer and finer ripening of Tuscany’s indigenous Sangiovese. Wines made here from the best Sangiovese clones can be dark but balanced, developing complex farmyard aromas over time. High yields and white grape varieties once permitted under the DOCG labelling are now banned and instead, classic Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon can form a small percentage of the blend.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano also allows foreign red grapes into its blend, and the white grapes grown here produce the deliciously sweet Vin Santo. Brunello is a local strain of Sangiovese around the town of Montalcino, the high prices commanded by its wines testament to its equally high quality. Though the soils are poor, the climate is kind, a winning combination for beautifully concentrated wines of considerable longevity, best first approached in their middle age.
But the biggest Tuscan-wine success story at the end of the last century was at sea-level surrounding the small town of Bolgheri. Because vines were not traditionally grown there, there were no restrictions in using foreign grape varieties and thus the world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Sassicaia, was born. Ornellaia came into being some twenty years later and so the rush began to emulate Bordeaux in this maritime amphitheatre whose backdrop is formed by the Metallifere hills.
Medieval Siena forms a hub for our chosen itinerary and the group stays here throughout.
Siena. Fly at c. 8.30am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Pisa. Drive to the city of Siena, the largest of hilltop towns in Tuscany, distinguished by an architectural and artistic legacy of an exquisite elegance. Upon arrival, enjoy a private tasting with the lecturer in the hotel’s indoor courtyard.
Montepulciano. Drive south to the considerable house of Avignonesi, taken over in 2009 by the current Belgian owner, who introduced organic and biodynamic methods to the estate. Visit the vineyards, Vinsantaia and Barricaia, followed by a tasting of wines and olive oil. After lunch, continue on to nearby family-owned Poliziano, the local Sangiovese or Prugnolo Gentile vineyards and modern installations where international style wines still reflect the local terroir.
Bolgheri. Today’s journey is westwards to the coast and its vineyards of Bordeaux grape varieties. Le Macchiole was one of five wineries to initiate experimental winemaking in this part of Tuscany. A private visit and tasting of three of their complex and elegant wines. Lunch at the Osteria Enoteca San Guido, where we taste Sassicaia. The afternoon is spent at Ornellaia, which has passed through the famous hands of Antinori and Mondavi and is now owned by the Frescobaldi family.
Montalcino. Free morning in Siena, whose treasures and beauties can scarcely be exhausted in a lifetime of visits. In the afternoon, travel to the Casanova di Neri estate for a Brunello di Montalcino. Varied microclimates across the 63 hectares of vines have allowed for the production of eight diverse wines. Sample a selection of these paired with local cheeses. Return to Siena for an evening lecture and tasting at the hotel.
Chianti Classico. Some free time in Siena before a mid-morning departure to the rustic Isole e Olena, surrounded by neat vineyards and spectacular views. The afternoon and early evening is spent in the hamlet of San Felice; despite its ownership by a multi-national company, the welcome is personal, and tradition and innovation are successfully combined. A light supper in the winery before returning to Siena.
Chianti Classico. Drive north to Chianti Classico for a tour and tasting at the familial state-of-the-art Antinori winery, whose influence is felt across the region. Fly from Pisa, returning to London Heathrow at c. 7.30pm.
The tour is dependent on the kindness of many individuals and organisations, some of whom are reluctant to make arrangements far in advance, so the order of visits outlined above may change and there may be substitutions for some of the wineries mentioned.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,960 or £2,840 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,400 or £3,280 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A319); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 3 lunches and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions and tastings; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and local guides where required.
Hotel Athena, Siena: simple and comfortable four-star hotel in Siena’s historical centre. Single rooms are double for sole use.
There is quite a lot of walking and standing in possibly muddy vineyards and cool, damp cellars. Coach journeys can be long via winding roads. Average number of wines tasted per day: 8. Average distance by coach per day: 94 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.