The little red Fiat took the curves and inclines in 360 degrees of glorious countryside and tiny villages on the Cassia from Firenze. Spring showed its presence in wildflowers, mustard, shocks of wisteria, roses, supernatural green quilted fields, and hints of growth on the vines.
A crimson sun dipped below the hilltops as we reached our destination in Seggiano, Italy. Buona sera!
The rosy sky faded and lights dotted the medieval town of Seggiano a half kilometer away. We were blissfully alone- after three days in Roma, two in Genova and twelve in the eastern Mediterranean with over 4,000 guests and crew on a cruise ship the size of a city!
The little stone cottage in Tuscany was our home for one week. Thrusting open the shutters from the bedroom perch, birds singing, olive trees blanketing the ten acre farm and beyond, the ancient stone hilltown on the slopes of Monte Amiata nearby, we felt invigorated and restored. Our plans allowed both.
We’d just witnessed archeological, cultural and artistic wonders of the world, literally, in Ancient Olympia, Greece, the Acropolis in Athens, at Ephesus, in Izmir, Turkey, Teatro Antico in Taormina, Sicily, the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Here in southern Tuscany, the land, its fruits, and the people who inhabit these ancient abodes commanded our attention.
The simple pleasure of cappuccino and a cornetto in the morning was a five minute walk away. The cost is much less if you enjoy this standing at the bar, with the locals.
Armed with our host’s guide to favorites, our own preparation, and the promise of the Italian devotion to creating, eating and sharing good food, we splurged.
On the curve of Via Grossetana at the base of Seggiano, Stefania’s Caffe 60 reeled us in with homemade everything. Seggiano’s olives, ricotta and pecorino cheeses, truffles (tartufi) and olive oil, liberally poured, are a sensation. Breads, salads with fennel and oranges (and more olive oil), pastas (spaghetti, cavatelle, tagliatelle, tortellini, pici) with cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper), porcini (mushrooms), cinghiale (wild boar), cozze (mussels), a moist, fragrant pesche sul sale (fish cooked under salt) and Torta della Nonna landed us here daily for a bite or an entire meal.
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Our very basic Italian vocabulary and speaking skills were tested. We rejoiced in even the simplest exchanges and comprehension. Menu -reading became our forte. Moreover, we loved the Italian spirit! The limoncello (on the house) at the end of your meal! Stefania’s smiling, capable manner, and her dear 23 year-old son who waited on us morning, noon and night. One evening, she brought us a gift of organic almond paste.
At each bar (meaning café, for cappuccino, espresso, alcoholic beverages, panini, or complete meals), trattoria, osteria or ristorante, local, fresh ingredients: carciofi (artichokes), truffles, honey, salume (cured pork) and cheeses were offered. Gelato artigianale-our preferences pistachio and amarena- became an obsession.
Pizza is ever available, always a taste sensation, topped with local ingredients, for a mere 6-10 euros.
White or red? This question may refer to pizza topping or to the wine which inevitably accompanied each meal.
Because the cottage on the olive farm was smack in the middle of Chianti, Brunello and Vino Nobile wine country, we’d crafted a plan to make treks to a handful of these wineries or “tenute” [estates]. In Italy, it’s typically expected for guests to have a reservation or “prenotazione,” arranged in advance through email correspondence.
Thirty-seven kilometers north at Villa Greppo in Montalcino, Sabine provided us with a tour and tasting of Biondi Santi Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino. Here, Clemente Santi made the first Brunello. The estate remains within the family after six generations, adhering to tradition.
Nearby, at the stunning 12th century Sant’Antimo Abbey, priests and brothers still use the Gregorian chant seven times daily in religious services at the Romanesque church. Visitors may come to listen, to learn, or make a retreat.
The underground cellar at Castello Banfi is filled with barrels of French oak holding 460 to 16,000 bottles each.
After touring the expansive production facilities several kilometers away, tastings of 100% Sangiovese Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino, and Supertuscans (with Cabernet and Syrah in addition to the Sangiovese) were a pleasure in the late afternoon with Bernadette and Lisa as hosts.
Montepulciano, about an hour away, is home to Vino Nobile, also from the Sangiovese grape.
At Avignonesi, a morning tour several days later appropriately started in the vineyards, which straddle Montepulciano and Cortona. Here, Ilaria shared their technique and philosophy: “The terroir speaks and we listen.”
At a sit-down tasting, we were won over by their March 2015 release, 100 % Sangiovese Grandi Annate (good vintage) Vino Nobile, and their Vin Santo made from Sangiovese, which ages ten years.
It is called “Occhio di Pernice” (The Eye of the Partridge) because of its dark color. We relished a free shipping option.
The same afternoon, Giulio Caporali, owner of Valdipiatta, greeted us for a barrel tasting in the tufa cellar in the hillside, where Etruscan relics have been discovered. As we sipped the Vino Nobile he extracted from French and Slavonian oak barrels, the effects of the aging were notable on our palates. Eyes twinkling, he shared that his oenologist doubted he could produce Pinot Noir, which he also shared. We sensed considerable wisdom and commitment.
Guilio later hosted a sit-down tasting of Valdipiatta’s Rosso (80% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo Nero, 5% Mammolo), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (85% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo Nero), Vigna D’Alfiero and Riserva (both 100% Sangiovese) with Pecorino di Pienza and bread doused with estate olive oil, followed by Valdipiatta Vin Santo and biscotti. This experience was wonderfully rare because of the man and his meticulously crafted wine.
Two days later, we enjoyed a tasting of Barone Ricasoli Chianti Classico and Riserva (with Sangiovese, some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), and a Supertuscan (Merlot) at Castello di Brolio, the 2nd oldest winery in the world, near Gaoile in Chianti. Bettino Ricasoli is credited with the first Chianti in 1872. An over-the-top picnic prepared by the chef for the two of us was shared overlooking the vineyards.
We had the opportunity to tour the immense castle grounds before we made way to Firenze in the Fiat.
Stepping out to these five distinct vineyards, the terroir beneath our feet, sensing the history, recognizing the training configurations on the vines and methodologies for quality and preservation of treasured estates, taking in the cavernous, hushed cellars and aromas emanating from the select wooden barrels, having the opportunity to meet and interact with these passionate vintners, and tasting their wines first-hand – this was rich. Our understanding of clones, blends, the aging process and wine classifications grew remarkably.
There was a wee bit more to our stay at the stone cottage than extraordinary regional food and wine. Good sunsets, breakfast or snacks on the patio as spring declared itself, walks among the olives, impromptu naps and relaxation by the fire framed our days.
Driving the Fiat was an adventure in itself. Our pre-loaded Nuvi from home, the Michelin Toscana map and guidebooks were supportive to an extent, but frequent name changes and split-second decisions kept us guessing and laughing. And on these torturous, hilly roadways, a single man or woman would emerge, walking. I now understand my Italian-born grandfather much better.
A soak in one of the many thermal baths or “terme” near Monte Amiata is great for muscle soreness from walking on uneven stones. Both tourists and Tuscans find the waters beneficial. St. Catherine of Siena is said to have bathed in Bagno Vignoni. Though this is closed, we enjoyed the calcium-rich pools at Piscina Val di Sole with a view of towering Rocca D’Orcia.
Exploring medieval Seggiano on foot was good exercise for the mind and body. Irises and rosemary peek out among the stone walls. Boxes of primula, pansies, roses and flowering vines adorn the homes. There are four massive stone churches in the town, an olive oil museum and one bank. Placards cite Seggiano’s history to the middle ages.
At the top, Antico Borgo, in Piazza Umberto Primo, features a clear view to an Etruscan well below your feet at the entryway. Our last evening was spent in this ancient taverna with a bottle of our new favorite, Vino Nobile and yet more sensational pasta.
From the stone cottage in Seggiano, Italy, we sensed all of Tuscany in our backyard.
Photos by James and Lisa Richardson.