I have always found it a special outing when we visit some small winery and chat with the owners or winemakers about grapes, wine, and life. Whether in California, Burgundy, or Sicily, each winery is unique, often run by passionate people who love not only wine, but also food and life.
Tuscany’s wines vary greatly with its regions. I try to give a sampling of each, basing my recommendations on three things. First, is the quality of the wine: all the wineries mentioned have made internationally-acclaimed wines. Second, is the beauty of the location. In each of the five zones represented, I tried to pick a place with the best views or settings to enrich the experience. Third, is the winery itself—how memorable the architecture and how welcoming and informative the people.
I’m sure everyone has their own favorites and so it should be, for nothing is more satisfying than discovering an unheralded winemaker of your own. Sampling different zones is the best way to get to know a range of wines, and a good excuse to roam the countryside. The wineries vary greatly in size from giant Antinori, to tiny Capo d’Uomo. While the smaller growers might be architecturally less impressive, the attention is more personal, the experience more memorable. Isn’t that what life is about?
With an unobstructed view of the most dramatic hill town of Tuscany, full of towers and spires, this winery, now in its 30th year, produces truly interesting wines. Most commendably, it does so in the most environmentally-responsible fashion, for which it received the prestigious Gambero Rosso Award for Sustainability 2014. The wines they produce besides their Nobile, are primarily from Sangiovese grapes, most of them aged 18 to 24 months in wood. The elegant winery is topped with a terrace where lunch is served daily. The hospitality is easygoing, and all the food is from local producers.
San Guido Sassicaia (Bolgheri)
On the Etruscan coast, between Livorno and Grosseto, lies the world-celebrated Bolgheri zone, home to such revered and pricey labels such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The holdings of San Guido, home to Sassicaia, comprise over 5,000 acres from the sea and 1,200 feet in altitude, so they had the ideal selection of land in which to plant 75 hectares of Sassicaia. This winery began in the 1920’s, as the dream of a noble family to create their own unique wine in the same type of rocky soil and seaward climate as Bordeaux. Over the decades, they perfected through various aging in wood, the now-admired Sassicaia. For the first 40 years, only the family and friends drank the wine on the estate, then in 1968 it was released. While an absolute must for wine aficionados, the estate also has a fascination with nature trails and ancient buildings.
While in the zone, do try and see Angelo Gaja’s masterfully designed winery Ca’Marcanda. It is underground (not a small accomplishment in a flat valley) with an ancient grove of olives replanted on top of it. Hats off to architect Bo and Angelo.
Capo d’Uomo (Argentario)
OK. So this may just be the most beautiful spot on earth. At the end of the bucolic Argentario peninsula, on the edge of Mediterranean scrub forest, with nothing but limestone bluffs and sea and sky, is a dramatic estate—the name means Man’s Head Cape. How it’s maintained reflects the uninhibited passion of the Grimaldi family. The vineyards, spread on small, narrow terraces—must be seen to be believed—are all worked by hand producing very fragrant grapes. They produce a white and a red, each named after the predominant winds that aerate (to put it mildly) the peninsula. The white, Africo, is a blend of Ansonica and Traminer grapes; the red, Maisto, is a Super Tuscan mix of Cabarnet, Sagiovese, and Merlot.
The winery—innocuous from outside— is a dream. Everything is tiny but brilliantly and tastefully executed. There is nothing superfluous but everything is beautiful. No wonder; the Grimaldi’s daughter Camilla is a noted art gallery owner.
Antinori (Chianti Classico)
Hold onto your hats: architecturally, this is the most stunning winery in Italy, perhaps the world. Visible as a mere slit in the Chianti hillside, with vineyards planted over it, this sensuous stream of concrete steel and glass, is worth visiting even if you don’t like either wine or architecture but enjoy being dazzled. Enormous (Capo d’Uomo winery would fit in here 100 times over), it shows the almost unlimited Italian capacity for visual genius.
The Antinori wine business began with Giovanni di Piero Antinori in Florence. The year was 1385. Their vineyards now span the world, but the Chianti winery is the best of the family jewels. The restaurant is well spoken of although it’s hard to keep your eyes off the architecture.
Máté Winery (Montalcino)
If you come here after visiting the Antinori memorial, you’ll be re-living Charles Dicken’s The Prince and the Pauper. But the view is majestic—eleven layers of hills to the sea— the grounds romantic, and the family a hoot. Hidden at the end of a gravel road, the seventy acres span two hills and overlook a gorge with waterfalls. The thirteenth-century friary with its guard tower and courtyard was barely standing when we purchased it twenty years ago. Three years of hard labor and a few primal screams later, we managed to rebuild the friary, plant seven fields of vines, and take apart a hill, build a winery, then put the hill back over it. But the wines, we are told, are truly unforgettable: Brunello di Montalcino, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet, steadily receive between 90 and 95 points. The gardens are lush and the views endless. Candace, the winemaker, will greet you warmly and chat about wine and the world; our son Peter, the cellar master, will talk your ear off in three languages; and I—when caught trying to escape—will happily autograph books and be the perfect host à la Fawlty Towers: “Thank you so very much for coming… Now go home.”