I am sitting facing the Chianti countryside at 11pm – a balmy silent cricket filled night. Like a triptych painting in a portrait gallery, an ocean ripple of sooty hills stretches before me, lit up by villages glinting and sparkling like spot fires along the crest.
I can’t remember being in such a peaceful setting for years. The silence is disturbed by the distant but very Italian sound of a lonely dog barking into the fields – all the more irritating against the bucolic backdrop where my only companion is a fir tree rising up like a lollipop over my deck chair.
I didn’t expect such blissful escapism from the crowds in Tuscany. Approaching Florence from the north, the industrial belt of Emilia Romagna is all of a sudden replaced by the dense round thickets of hills of Tuscany.
20 miles south of Firenze, the countryside takes on another dimension – of manifold pleats and folds, impenetrable forests and small roads threatening constantly to lead you off in the wrong direction.
We do so a couple of times before arriving in the tiny community of Panzano di Chianti – a splash of vino on the map – and one which I confess I had never heard of on previous trips.
It’s so refreshing to find oneself in a place in which forest still thrives, as much if not more than tourists, and one which is relatively lost to the world – niched amid a picturesque landscape of micro crops, as varied in design as a cross stitch. Here a lozenge-shaped patch of vines – there a rectangle of olive groves – apricot trees – vegetable patches – rosemary and thyme … All that dotted by graceful sentinels of cypress trees stretching to the horizon.
Biodiversity is one of the big hooks of my trip. A bit of research shows a palpable green swell among Chianti’s agriturismi farm stays. Not only can we look forward to downing copious amounts of wine and food, but in keeping with my predilections, it could be organic – or biologica as they say in Italy.
I hone in on two areas where there seem to be pockets of agriturismi making organic wine and olive oil – firstly Panzano, 35 km south of Florence, then Castellina in Chianti about half an hour’s drive further south towards Siena.
And so it is that having driven from France, we wind our way in the growing dark along the Via Chiantigiana, knitted in green on both sides like a woolly cardigan.
The more recently baptised Strada del Vino e dell’Olio Chianti Classico traces over the ancient Roman route, passing through Greve in Chianti – the so-called gateway to Chianti – then around a kind of toy race track setup of tightly swerving narrow rural roads, progressively spiralling deeper and deeper into the heart of the countryside.
Having reached Panzano township, we evidently go round and round in circles for half an hour. I say this because I see the same Dario Cecchini butcher shop at least three times. The minor navigational troubles are not helped along by a dragon woman, standing outside a bar, and breathing fire at us.
I have always considered Italians very amiable, and according to many of them I speak “molto bene Italiano”. Yet my friendly question to her – “Where is Via Case Sparse per favore?” – is met by a volley of abuse culminating in an exasperated “Tutti … tutti … tutti sono Via Case Sparse!”
I am momentarily stunned and perplexed. Was she saying that this tiny patchwork countryside was cookie-cuttered with strada (and perhaps smaller olive groved stradette) – all called for some strange reason Via Case Sparse?
(True, we seem to encounter the Via Chiantigiana over and over – but that is probably because we hadn’t left it in half an hour) …
Pressing on we finally fall upon a sign whose plethora of possibilities includes Il Palagio Cantina – cellar door.
How is it that the smaller a place gets, the more road signs it has pointing to other places – clustered on a signpost like bats to a tree. (It hardly minimalises the confusion, quite the opposite. Though it does add to the charm!) The fact that Panzano in Chianti is called a ‘frazione’ of Greve in Chianti says it all.
It feels we have come almost to the end of the road. A gravel road slopes down through terraced hills of olives to a mottled giraffe-stoned farmhouse.
We are much later than expected – and our host Monia Piccini has left us a lovely welcoming note on the door. Our bolthole is La Capanna – a rustic chic old barn of the original farmhouse with wood beams, whitewashed walls, sink-in sofas. Outside there’s a garden hedged terrace and chunky wooden table perfect for cricket-humming warm nights like this. The lodgings are stony-historic but fresh in feel, with a minimalist luxury (dishwasher, microwave etc) – all you need and more when the real luxury is the landscape.
The indescribably splendid scenery unfolds before us every day and night – in the garden and by the pool – perched over the valley. The gardens skirt the hillside punctuated with vine-plunging panoramic terraces, sculptures, herb gardens, shady wooden canopies and private reading nooks – and wind up at the cellars.
Here we find Monia in action, clambering energetically up ladders and on top of the wine tanks, and swishing and swilling the vino with verve. An absolute dynamo – mother, winemaker, tour guide, culinary regina, art class organiser and agriturismo operator – she has also been busy along with husband Franco helping turn
Panzano into a little powerhouse of organic production at the heart of Chianti coun
tryside. Far from what I call “candle bottle Chianti” – the industrial Raffia bottle plonk of the 70s.
“Even a Chianti Classico of today compared to 40 years ago is very different, when it was just a basic vino di tavolo,” she says.
Ironically Monia’s dad was more into mass production – whereas she is devoted to the green ways of her grandfather. “Of course my nonno was organic because that’s the only way they knew then … When you use chemicals you destroy the soil and the ecosystem.
“Of 20 winemakers in the local consorzio about 80% of us are organic … Me and Franco both believe very strongly in the future of this region through a return to the roots – to a simplicity of flavours and life. Go into the gardens and take a tomato!” she urges. (And I do, and basil and rosemary – all of which go straight into the dinner pot!)
In her tours and her cooking classes, it’s all about organic local produce – wines, cheese, olive oil, even organic cosmetics. She’s also busy flying off on European delegations to show that the Black Rooster is increasingly a green one.
The iconic gallo nero is the symbol of D.O.C.G Chianti Classico. According to the Consorzio di Vino, which represents all the denomination’s winemakers, the rooster’s DNA lies in a legend of the warring cities of Florence and Siena in the Middle Ages.
“Knights from these cities had to leave their hometowns at cockcrow to settle their differences, and their meeting place would mark the border between the two republics. Siena’s citizens reared a beautiful white rooster, which grew big and fat. The Florentines chose a black rooster but never fed him.” (Perhaps he chose only to drink … like many people in Chianti).
The famished cock started to crow well ahead of sunset, allowing the Florentine knight to meet his foe in Siena in Fonterutoli – just twelve kilometres from Siena. “Which is why almost all of the Chianti territory was united under the rule of the Florentine Republic,” explains Davide Gaeta, the company’s CEO.
“The artist and historian Giorgio Vasari painted the Black Rooster on the ceiling of the Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio as an allegorical representation of the Chianti region. So we chose this seven century old symbol as the perfect symbol of the quality of our wines.” A very cocky one at that I might add … and these days, proudly green.
The organic ascent is such a positive evolution in such a highly consumed area. We all want a share of Chianti in wine and olive oil form – it seems fair that we should also pay an interest in preserving the countryside that produces it.
The next day I go walkabout and end up doing one of my favourite things on earth –strolling along seemingly empty country lanes – not a soul in sight – through olive groves and lemon trees, and stumbling upon a mini capanna in a clearing.
I want to hang up my hat and call it home immediately. Probably the stone hut was once used as animal’s quarters – but in this glorious spread of tranquil Chianti countryside it would suit me just fine.
Later in the afternoon Joseph and I head further along the now infamous Via Case Sparse – which sounds to me like it means “the road of sparsely scattered houses”. Suddenly he leaps out of the car and plonks his easel and butt in the fields along the roadside – in scorching heat. (These are a couple of his croquis de voyage produced on the trip – the original of Il Palagio on the left naturally was sent to Monia).
I continue on to what turns out to be the actual end of the road. About half a mile (and indeed no more than a couple of houses on) from Il Palagio I come by chance to another organic agriturismo.
Renzo Marinai was founded by a pioneer of organic wines in the area, whose philosophy went along the lines of “How do you die without ever having kissed a flower”.
Here they plant ancient noble wheat varieties between the vines and olives says the manager Jan. So the azienda produces organic pasta as well as vino and olio, on a small property of just 12 hectares. The apartments offer spartan rural stays. Not dissimilar to casa Monia with the wood beams, white walls and stupendo poolside views.
At the cellar door there are many whimsical touches conveying an earthy ideal. Humorous illustrations of getting a right Chianti Classico drenching (way to go!) – and a sign announcing: “A place where wine listens to music”. Down in the basement the bio-dynamic wines sitting in their oak barrels are wired to Mozart – and apparently loving it.
The organic resolve of the region keeps falling serendipitously in my path, as though out of the sky. From the time I started my planning for the trip, until now.
The wine I take away with me – in keeping with the scenery – is a totally heavenly natural drop, with that clean green goodness as well as smack on berry flavour. Chianti Classico is known to range from medium to full-bodied in style, and is usually made entirely from Sangiovese grapes.
Il Palagio describes its drop as such: “The colour is ruby lightly red, the perfume is persistent and harmonious, enriched by elegant notes of oak and red fruits. The structure is medium, with a balanced acidity and hints well polished tannins, savoury and durable at the end.”
Sounds good to me – tastes even better!
Both these vineyards are located up in the micro-climatic heights of Panzano from where the best wines tend to come. As an article in Forbes reported recently, “Chianti Classico has improved out of all recognition over the last couple of decades, but its standout virtue is as vivacious, every-day wines”. On top of that, some exceptional more complex wines are increasingly hitting centre stage.
Il Palagio does both. From its ‘basic’ Chianti Classico quaffing drop at around 12 euro a bottle with some 18,000 bottles produced a year – to Il Palagio Reserva, 19 euro a bottle (5000 bottles a year) – and the top shelf Le Bambola – almost edible in name alone, and with a delightful label illustrating the ‘dolls’ of its name – probably inspired by Monia’s doll-like daughters. (100% Sangiovese, the ‘gran selezione’ sells at 41 euro).
“We don’t do expensive wines,” Monia says, “We are not very well known” she maintains – though a Google search would have one believe otherwise. Still it’s a certain kind of notoriety – among the still far from mainstream sustainable club … In essence, this is a small family-run vineyard with a deeply personal touch lying in a sun-drenched Chianti backwater.
Actually the real end of the road for us is in Castellina further south. A similar scenario awaits us at Il Piaggione di Serravalle – even more lost in the woods and vines and its own gardens of truly unruly biodynamic plants and outlandish sculptures.
Hard to believe you could get so lost in these days of GPS – but we do. It’s such a labyrinth area, tucked in the valleyed folds between the near-invisible Sienese frazioni of Cignano, Vagliagli and Castelnuovo Berardenga – and accessed along a mix of sealed and unsealed roads.
Camilla Curcio, polyglot Siena tour guide (and winemaker and cook extraordinaire), and Alberto Ingelsi, sculptor, run a rather eccentric though highly simpatico place. Our quarters – appropriately called Belvedere – have panoramic views over the pool to the valley beyond from the second floor of the main farmhouse. Other digs include the cosy ‘Hunting Lodge’ – nestled in the gardens – and the former manor house La Nostra with its massive hearth, a kitchen table made from a 13th century church door, sprawling private terrace and a barbecue.
Again deeply green, the place runs largely on solar panels to keep those carbon emissions low, and has a Zen attitude – embodied in the libertine sculptures by Alberto, and the nymphaeum-like spa – a silent inner sanctuary of stone, wood and plants.
I love their philosophy that plants and animals lie at the centre of the universe … “They have always been treated like human beings and thus have the best care and attention in order to achieve excellence as well as authenticity … The seasonal cycle of activities here start in spring with the most suitable positioning of the plants …” (All of which are saying grazie in unison and us with them, for the superb fruits such an eco-intelligent approach bears from the garden to the vines).
The distance from this planted paradise to Siena (if you don’t get lost) is just right for a perfect day out. For me this is the most exquisite mid-size city in Italy – if not the world. Returning to Il Piaggione, you truly feel you have come home – it’s easy to settle in here, so natural, relaxing and restorative.
But it’s when you pull the cork out of the bottle of Chianti DOC – thoughtfully left ready and waiting in the living room – that you will feel most at home. After tasting it, you may never want to leave.
(Load up your boot because here it would seem that the farm gate is the only place to buy these divino wines).
- More Info For the entire region: www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/en and www.discovertuscany.com/siena/
- For the southern region http://www.terresiena.it/en/chianti
- Chianti Classico http://www.chianticlassico.com/en/ The headquarters are in Florence
- Il Palagio Agriturismo & Estate Via Case Sparse 38, Panzano in Chianti +39 (0) 3383997004 www.palagiowineandoil.com firstname.lastname@example.org GPS: 43.547726,11.300703
- Renzo Marinai Aziena Agricola /Agriturismo San Martino A Cecione Via Case Sparse 6, Panzano in Chianti, +39 0558560237 www.renzomarinai.it email@example.com
- Azienda agricola il piaggione Strada comunale di Cignano, Castelnuovo Berardenga +390577288073 http://www.ilpiaggionediserravalle.it firstname.lastname@example.org