A wine old time
The Italian grape-growing region of Chianti celebrates its 300th anniversary
I trudge on to the terrace looking like a sweaty beetroot in shorts. “Some bread and olive oil to help you recover,” says Gianni Mucciarelli with a smile. With his bronzed skin and dapper red loafers, the Dievole Winery manager has the look of a man who doesn’t fall off bicycles.
“A pleasant ride?” he asks, as I slump in a chair and dab at my grazes. Initially it had indeed been a pleasant ride. Butterflies flitted, birds trilled, and all around were rolling vineyards and the smell of baked earth. But when my bike bucked at a loose stone I was left with bloodied knees, a punctured tyre and an 8km walk back to the estate.
I’m in Chianti on a pretty significant anniversary. It was 300 years ago that the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, officially classified the boundaries of this wine region between Florence and Siena. Yet I wanted to see what there is for visitors beyond the usual wine-tasting experiences. Hence my first stop at the hamlet of Vagliagli, and this new 25km Natural Path around Dievole’s vine-clad slopes.
Strictly speaking it isn’t that new. The path was used by sharecroppers for nearly 1000 years, and monks cultivated grapes here as early as 1090. However, now there are signposts and maps to follow and, though it is a private estate, anyone is welcome to ride the trail.
All this was the idea of Leonardo Petri, a worker born on the estate, who knows the land like the back of his sunleathered hand. The project is part of a broader focus on agritourism at Dievole that includes accommodation built with local stone, a restaurant serving local food and a small farm. “Visitors are coming for the trail, then staying for the wine,” says Gianni, uncorking a bottle. It’s a Chianti Classico — sangiovese grapes aged for 14 months in French oak followed by at least six months in the bottle. Wine proves inescapable in Chianti. On arrival at my villa I am immediately handed a bottle by Alessio, who manages the property and the small wine estate wrapped around it. When I buy a painting from a shop in nearby Castellina in Chianti, the owner insists on sealing the deal with a complimentary wine-tasting.
In the archaeological museum housed in Castellina’s medieval castle, the star attractions are relics from Etruscan tombs built nearly 3000 years ago. Among the precious things placed with the dead for their final journey, such as a gold earring and a bronze belt, are items showing the importance of wine in the lives of well-to-do Etruscans. “Wine was a sign of status, and drunk at rituals and ceremonies,” my guide Francesca tells me as we admire an amphora decorated with a scene of revellers at a feast. Typically the wine was mixed with honey and spices but there was also a version featuring grated cheese.
If there’s a man who would approve of Etruscan experimentation with unusual flavours it’s the owner of the region’s best ice-cream shop. Simone is waiting for me at the door of Gelateria Castellina, dressed in a burgundy apron and white peaked hat. Little does he know that on his narrow shoulders rest my hopes of salvaging something wine-free from my Chianti trip.
Simone has been making ice-cream for 20 years. He spends his mornings in the glass-walled kitchen at the back of the shop, moving between machines that pasteurise and churn and blast-freeze, while curious customers watch him concoct the day’s ices. And what ices they are. Thick ice creams of chilli and chocolate, ricotta and fig; and sorbets of lemon and sage, lime and basil.
Simone says he even made an anchovy and spring onion sorbet — just the once.
His favourite creation? “Ah,” he says dreamily, “that would be cantucci [almond biscuits] and vin santo ... with sweet Tuscan wine!”
And with that I give an inward shrug. In Chianti everything’s about wine, even when it’s not — and on the region’s 300th birthday, I’ll raise a spoon to that.
THE EVENING STANDARD • visititaly.com.au
Chianti vineyards in autumn, top; Castellina, above left; Gelateria Castellina, above right