Feature: A Tale of Tuscany

Tuscany is still a land unspoiled, with deeply gratifying wines, ancient farmhouses and villages with vineyards that sweep to the sea.

By Valerie Waterhouse

As you wind between curvy hills striped with olive groves and vineyards, your eye pulled skyward now and again by a lone cypress tree, you find it hard to believe that anything in Tuscany has changed for centuries. Yet during the past decade a series of barely discernible shifts in the region’s wine-producing territories have reshaped the traveler’s experience—most often for the better.

Sparked by their exponential success, several wineries have debuted spectacular new showrooms, while others have expanded their art collections. Meanwhile restaurateurs and artisans in nearby towns and villages have updated their own traditions, infusing ancient techniques with state-of-the-art innovation. Here we share the best of the old and new of the idyllic region.

The Basics

Tuscany, near the center of Italy, has 3.8 million people, 380,000 of whom live in Florence, the region’s capital. Delta offers nonstop flights from New York’s JFK to Tuscany’s Pisa International Airport; otherwise you can catch an indirect flight to Rome or Milan and connect to Pisa or Florence’s Amerigo Vespucci Airport. Alternatively, you can hop aboard a high-speed Frecciarossa train. Renting a car is the best way to get around the Tuscan countryside. If wine is your focus, head to the Chianti region; the coastal area around Bolgheri; and Montepulciano and Montalcino, in the pristine Val d’Orcia zone.

Classic Chianti

Chianti, a nebulously defined region between Florence and Siena whose rolling hills are topped by crumbling castles and terra-cotta towns, is what comes to most people’s minds when they imagine Tuscany. Made from at least 80 percent sangiovese grapes and blended with other varieties, such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon, the area’s full-bodied Chianti Classico wines vary tremendously in flavor, but hints of irises, violets and red berries, especially cherries, come to the fore.

After 26 generations in the business, it’s no wonder the Antinori family sets the bar, at Antinori nel Chianti Classico (133 Via Cassia per Siena, Bargino; 011-39-055-2359700; antinorichianticlassico.it; tastings, from $30; lunch for two, $88*), their recently opened winery. Just off the Florence–Siena highway, the structure, designed by the Florentine architectural firm Archea, required that an entire hillside be excavated, but its earthy walls are barely visible until you get close. Vineyards march across the building’s green roof, and doors open to reveal French- and Hungarian-oak barrels in terra-cotta-clad caverns. Consider booking the 90-minute tour, which includes a tasting in a glass-fronted room overlooking the cellars. Chase the fruity Pèppoli Chianti Classico or the oakier Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva with the dessert white Vin Santo del Chianti Classico. Or splurge on a tasting paired with ravioli in sage pesto in the rooftop restaurant.

Half an hour away, the terra-cotta towns of Greve and Panzano in Chianti spill down their surrounding hills. Saturday and Sunday are market days, and artisans sell everything from spicy olives to cashmere sweaters. Cheese specialist Moreno e Giacomo (011-39-055-858047) sells pecorino speckled with pungent truffles from the region’s Monte Amiata zone.

Beneath the portico at the square in Greve, the family-owned butcher shop Antica Macelleria Falorni (71 Piazza Giacomo Matteotti; 011-39-055-853029; falorni.it; lunch for two, $45) has stocked prime cuts of meat since 1806. Close by, the same family runs Enoteca Falorni (2 Piazza delle Cantine; 011-39-055-8546404; enotecafalorni.it), a wine bar in a brick cellar where Enomatic machines dispense more than 100 wines by the glass. Connoisseurs sit on leather sofas and compare wines, like Antinori’s prestigious Tignanello and Ornellaia, a Super Tuscan from coastal Bolgheri.

In the neighboring village of Panzano, Falorni’s rival, Dario Cecchini, whom Newsweek recently dubbed the world’s most famous butcher, opened Solociccia (5 Via Chiantigiana; 011-39-055-852727; dariocecchini.com; dinner for two, $65), a sleek eatery serving off-cuts, such as snout in lemon broth.

“Everything begins and ends with the vineyards,” says Lorenza Sebasti Pallanti, co-owner of Castello di Ama (Loc. Ama, Gaiole in Chianti; 011-39-0577-746031; castellodiama.com; tastings from $40; dinner for two, $80), a half-hour drive from Greve. The winery incorporates art installations, a restaurant and three suites strewn with Persian carpets and family heirlooms in an 18th-century villa. Visits begin with a walk through the ancient stone borgo (village) to the maze of cellars, where mineral-rich reds are aged in French-oak barrels. Works of art include a mystical pool of red light by Anish Kapoor on the floor of the on-site chapel. The restaurant spotlights simple dishes, like pappa al pomodoro, a palate-tickling bread-and-tomato mush, but the emphasis is on wines, like Rosato, a rosé made mostly from sangiovese. Another hit is Castello di Ama San Lorenzo, an elegant blend of sangiovese, malvasia nera and merlot whose 2010 vintage Wine Spectator named the world’s sixth-best wine in 2014.

It’s worth rising early to visit the ColleVilca (24 San Marziale, Colle di Val d’Elsa; 011-39-0577-927204; collevilca.it), a crystal-blowing workshop an hour west of Ama where skilled maestri twist red-hot molten glass into the famous Enoteca Pinchiorri goblets (from $40 a glass).

Best of Bolgheri

The rustic villages along Tuscany’s pine-fringed Mediterranean coast have a laid-back vibe. So it comes as a surprise that some of Italy’s most ambitious winemakers hail from here. It all began in 1944, when the marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta grew tired of the strict regulations governing Chianti wines and planted cabernet sauvignon vines near the small town of Bolgheri. In 1978 Decanter named his Sassicaia best cabernet in a blind taste test against 33 other blends from around the world. Wines from this area often mix French varietals (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah) with native sangiovese grapes, but each blend has its own complex formula. Tastings typically deliver the sweet blackberry flavor associated with Bordeaux mingled with wild balsamic notes from the Mediterranean.

Owned by fashion and real estate entrepreneurs Corrado and Marcello Fratini, Tenuta Argentiera (412a Via Aurelia, Loc. I Pianali, Donoratico; 011-39-0565-773176; argentiera.eu; tours and tastings, from $45; lunch for two, price on request) is one of the area’s newest and most esteemed wineries. Built to look like a Tuscan fortress, the winery’s picture-perfect cellars house French-oak barrels under looping vaults. For lunch you can feast on handmade pasta with wild-boar ragù in the tasting room while sampling wines, such as the award-winning Villa Donoratico, known for its tongue-tingling licorice flavor.

The streets of the elegant village of Bolgheri are lined with low stone houses and benches painted a rebellious red. In the central square Acqua di Bolgheri (Largo Nonna Lucia; 011-39-0565-762-075; drtaffi.com) sells perfumes made in a nearby workshop from local plants. With notes of lemon, jasmine and white musk, Indaco is reminiscent of Tuscany. A two-minute walk away, Enoteca Tognoni (5 Via Lauretta; 011-39-0565-762001; enotecatognoni.it; lunch for two, $68) serves generous platters of cold cuts, like fennel-flavored finocchiona and bruschetta topped with chopped liver, paired with Super Tuscans, such as Sassicaia and Guado al Tasso (from $10 a tasting).

The hilltop village of Castagneto Carducci has a handful of noteworthy artisans. Consider dropping by Emilio Borsi (5a Via Garibaldi; 011-39-0565-766017; borsiliquori.it), a craft distillery that makes liqueurs, like Grand Liquore del Pastore, which is concocted from lemon and milk. Below the village, Osteria Caccia al Piano (281 Via Bolgherese; 011-39-0565-763-203; aziendafuselli.co; dinner for two, $80) serves tagliolini with zucchini flowers on a terrace in an olive grove. The restaurant also sells olive oil in a frantoio (olive mill) presided over by Pepito, the resident parakeet.

Val d’Orcia’s Noble Vines

A patchwork of golden wheat fields, grassy meadows, vineyards and olive groves, the rippling hills of Val d’Orcia undoubtedly afford the most Instagram-worthy vistas in all of Tuscany.

The austere hilly township of Montepulciano is where you’ll find the fruity Rosso and elegant Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; the latter’s silky texture springs from pairing the prugnolo gentile (“fine plum”) variety of the sangiovese grape with the sandy terroir.

Twenty minutes outside town is Avignonesi (4 Via Colonica, Valiano di Montepulciano; 011-39-0578-724304; avignonesi.it; tastings, from $11), which Belgian shipping heiress Virginie Saverys took over just a few years ago. All the estate’s vineyards will be certified organic by 2016. Recalling a Spanish hacienda, the buildings sit above labyrinthine passageways where the wines are aged. But the star of the show is the ground-level restaurant, which serves beef tartare and buffalo mozzarella in a glass-walled room with spectacular views of Monte Amiata. The cellar’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is subtle and fruity, with a hint of eucalyptus. But the Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo di Montepulciano is truly astonishing, and priced accordingly: At $240 it’s one of the country’s pricier wines. The sweet, thick purplish elixir emits a swirl of aromas including chocolate, figs and red fruit.

A steep street leads to the Piazza Grande at Montepulciano, dominated by the unfinished raw stone duomo. It’s worth the climb to visit the enoteca of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (7 Piazza Grande; 011-39-0578-757812; consorziovinonobile.it), which sells wines from 21 members of the area’s wine consortium (from $3 a glass). It’s currently housed in a former prison but will move to the nearby fortress this coming spring. For lunch or dinner, Osteria Acquacheta (22 Via del Teatro; 011-39-0578-717-086; acquacheta.eu; dinner for two, $80) serves giant Florentine steaks grilled over an open fire.

It’s a two-mile drive along dirt roads to the all-female producer Casato Prime Donne (17 Loc. Casato; 011-39-0577-849421; cinellicolombini.it; tastings, from $14; lunch for two, $60), 10 minutes from the windswept village of Montalcino. But when you arrive you are rewarded with a tour of the cellars, which are filled with wines aged in large tonneaus that prevent the fruit from being overpowered by the wood. Lunch in the farmhouse living room is a friendly affair featuring cold cuts, cheese and salad plus tastings of their big, bold wines. Sip the Cenerentola (“Cinderella”), a tinder-y mix of sangiovese and native foglia tonda grapes. Then savor the Brunello di Montalcino, whose initial sweetness explodes in notes of berry and spice.

In Montalcino, order aperitifs at Caffè Fiaschetteria Italiana (6 Piazza del Popolo; 011-39-0577-849043; caffefiaschetteriaitaliana.com), an Art Nouveau café with mirrors and red velvet sofas. On the road between Montepulciano and Montalcino, the Renaissance town of Pienza, commissioned by Pope Pius II in the 15th century, is a great place to shop. Make a beeline for Officine904 (16 Via Dogali; 011-39-0578-1900817; officine904.it), a Pienza-based company that sells colorful leather bags and enamel bracelets that combine high design with a traditional Tuscan sensibility. Across the street, mother-and-son team Paola Perugini and Mattia Giovannoni weave rustic-chic linen table runners and shawls in an array of hues on looms at Aracne (25 Via Dogali; 011-39-329-9895547; aracnepienza.it).

North of Pienza, the village of San Giovanni d’Asso is home to the Museo del Tartufo (Truffle Museum) (1 Piazza Gramsci; 011-39-0577-803-268; museotartufo.museisenesi.org; open weekends only). Call beforehand to book a visit and a truffle-tasting tour with a truffle hunter and his trusted hound. It’s yet another way Tuscany spoils your senses.

STAY
RCI affiliated resorts in Tuscany include:
Il Poggio—7 Days Halfboard 6286
Unwind in this picturesque hideaway set in a small medieval village surrounded by rolling hills. San Casciano dei Bagni
Member Review: “Spectacular mountain setting.”
La Ferriera Halfboard Service 7496
Guests can enjoy cooking lessons, wine tastings and cultural walking tours at this historic property. 4 Via La Ferriera
Member Review: “A great location for exploring Tuscany!”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.comor call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
RCI Tip
Did you know RCI Weeks® and RCI Points® subscribing members can rent a car through RCI Travel to explore other popular cities in Italy like Rome or Florence?* The RCI Travel Best Rate Guarantee on flights, car rentals, hotels and more can save you the hassle of searching with other travel providers.1

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Tuscany include:
Villa Bordoni
There’s a pool with countryside views at this 11-room country villa, and the restaurant serves burrata flavored with truffles gathered from the grounds. Excursions to forage for your own can be arranged. 31–32 Via San Cresci, Greve; 011-39-055-854-6230; villabordoni.it; doubles from $200 a night
Villa le Luci
There are seven rooms at this turreted Art Nouveau villa. For breakfast, owner Giovanni Bellagosti Bianchi serves homemade cakes and jams in the kitchen or in the palm-studded garden, which overlooks the sea. 47 Via Umberto I, Castagneto Carducci; 011-39-0565-763601; villaleluci.it; doubles from $145 a night
La Bandita Townhouse
This 500-year-old former convent is now a 12-room hotel with pops of orange and freestanding Corian tubs. There’s a lovely courtyard garden and a vaulted stone restaurant that serves hamburgers made from Chianina beef. 111 Corso il Rossellino, Pienza; 011-39-0578-749005; labanditatownhouse.com; doubles from $275 a night
  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • 1 For terms and conditions for the RCI Travel Best Rate Guarantee, go to RCI.com/BRG.
  • *For RCI Travel terms and conditions, go to RCI.Travel.com/terms. RCI Travel and the RCI Travel Best Rate Guarantee are administered by an independent third party under contract with RCI. For more information, visit the Air, Car, Cruise & More Tab on RCI.com.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2015