I’ve taken my column’s title from Michelangelo, who once wrote, “I feast on bread and wine, and feasts they are.” Tuscany’s most famous sculptor had his heart in the right place. Wine has been part of Italian culture since the ancient Romans began to write.
If you’re interested in Italian wines and travel, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve lived in Italy twice, for a total of five wonderful years, and have visited every region of this amazing, diverse, beautiful country. I’ve knocked on Italian winery doors, in spite of my stumbling Italian, in search of “the wine we had at dinner last night,” or “the wine we drank at a friend’s home last weekend.” My husband bought a few (dozen) pounds of wine grapes and made his own wine with Italian friends. Along the way, I learned a few things about Italian wine travel. I’d love to share them with you here.
Most visitors to Italy hit the “big three” cities — Rome, Florence and Venice — and venture out from one or more of those sightseeing hubs to see places that appeal to them. Through this column, I’d like to introduce you to some Italian wine areas that make ideal daytrips from these three cities. Eventually, I hope to take you on a ferry to Sicily and Sardegna, but for now, we’ll stick to the easy-access wine country.
If you’re interested in Italian wine, you’re definitely interested in Tuscany. This region is Italy’s most famous wine producer, at least in North America. Chianti Classico, Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello – they’re all here. Some of my wine-loving friends have skipped Rome and points south altogether in order to have more time for Tuscan travel.
If you plan to visit Florence or Siena, I invite you to stop by one of my favorite hill towns, San Gimignano, the homeland of Italy’s first Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wine.
From far away, you can see the medieval profile of San Gimignano. Fourteen towers rise into the milky blue sky. Vineyards and olive groves trail down the hillsides. The town’s towers are all that’s left of the original 72 built by powerful medieval families. The soaring, rectangular towers were used in warfare as a safe place from which to shoot and/or drop things onto enemies, and as signs of power and prestige (as in, “Mine’s bigger than yours.”).
The town, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1990, is a wonderland of archways, narrow streets and bustling piazzas. You can visit museums and churches to view the famous frescoes by Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s fresco-painting teacher) or climb the Torre Grossa, the town’s tallest tower. Market days provide an opportunity to rummage through fabrics, sausages, cheese and flowers.
Wine lovers travel to this famous Tuscan hill town not only to absorb its rich history and culture but also to sample the historic Vernaccia di San Gimignano (now a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG, wine), Chianti Colli Senesi (DOCG) and San Gimignano Rosso (DOC). Although the Vernaccia di San Gimignano white has been criticized in recent years for fluctuations in quality, many producers have worked diligently to improve the quality and consistency of their wine. The region’s red wines feature both good quality and reasonable prices.
Wine is truly the lifeblood of this town. You can’t help but notice that wine production and wine tasting are important to San Gimignano’s residents and visitors alike. San Gimignano boasts several wine shops (“enoteca” in Italian) where you can taste and buy wine. Some also sell cheese, sausages and other perfect picnic fare. You can even treat yourself to gelato made from wine at Gelateria di Piazza, Sergio Dondoli’s award-winning establishment in Piazza della Cisterna.
If you can tear yourself away from the cobbled streets and lofty towers, check out the Museo del Vino della Vernaccia (Vernaccia Wine Museum) in the Villa della Rocca di Montestaffoli at the top of the town’s hill. It’s a small museum that has a wine shop where you can pay to taste local wines by the glass. Don’t forget to write the names of the wines you enjoy in your wine diary.
On my last visit to San Gimignano, I ate at Osteria delle Catene at via Mainardi, 18. I will never forget this restaurant, not only because our meal there was delicious, but also because my father accidentally left his new video camera behind. The owner retrieved the camera and chased us down the block in order to return it, even though his establishment was packed with customers. Osteria delle Catene features local Tuscan dishes, such as farro soup flavored with saffron and pasta with wild boar sauce. It’s deservedly popular with tour groups, so plan to arrive early.
One of the most enjoyable, yet frustrating aspects of Italian wine travel is that some of the best wines never make it out of their home region, let alone across the Atlantic. During your day in San Gimignano, why not make it a point to taste some wines you can’t find at home? The easiest way to try a wine is, of course, in a wine shop or restaurant, but you can also visit wineries all around San Gimignano. Consider bringing a list of telephone numbers with you from home, perhaps taken from Gambero Rosso® Italian Wines 2007, so that you can telephone the wineries you’d like to visit. Calling ahead is the best way to ensure that the winery will be open when you arrive.
Some wine-lovers prefer to visit wineries that produce wines they’ve enjoyed back home. Fortunately, several wineries in the San Gimignano area export their products to North America. You might want to visit Mormoraia, which is also an agriturismo, Panizzi or Teruzzi e Puthod.
If you have time to stay overnight, booking a room at a nearby wine-producing agriturismo is an excellent way to investigate the wines of San Gimignano. An agriturismo is a farm that offers rooms and sometimes meals. As part of your stay, you are invited to tour the property and see how the farm’s main product is made. There are at least 20 agriturismi in the area around San Gimignano, and nearly all of them produce wine.
If you decide to visit wineries or stay at an agriturismo, you’ll probably want to rent a car, because most of these places are difficult to reach without one. You can check out hotels, vacation cottages and agriturismi at San Gimignano’s official tourism website.
San Gimignano is an easy day trip by car from Siena or Florence (35 miles from Florence and 17 miles from Siena). Don’t try to drive inside the walls unless you’re anxious to get a parking ticket. Park your car in one of the four lots outside the town walls and walk in.
San Gimignano doesn’t have a train station. If you don’t have a car, you’ll need to take a train to Poggibonsi and continue on to San Gimignano by bus. Train S.p.A., which is actually a bus company in spite of its name, runs its #130 bus between Poggibonsi’s train station and San Gimignano several times a day. Train S.p.A.’s website includes bus schedules. You’ll need to look under the “extraurbano” tab to find the schedule for bus #130.
I can’t think of a better way to end a day in San Gimignano than to linger outdoors with a glass of Vernaccia, watching each tower reflect the approaching sunset.