The International Writers Magazine:Italy
Guilt Free Glutony
Walking & Wine-Tasting in Montepulciano
Southern Tuscany is undoubtedly one of the most gastronomically satisfying places on earth. Aroma’s drift from every corner of it’s cobbled streets - pecorino cheese, sizzling pomodoro tomatoes, garlic dripping in thick melted globules, and of course the most important ingredient of all, the musty sweet smell of aged Sangiovese grapes.
It’s all too easy to get swept away in the deliciousness of it all. So it was of no great surprise that, while holidaying there recently with my family, that is exactly what I proceeded to do. Indeed I was feeling positively piggy when one of life’s great ironic cruelties suddenly dawned on me: the rate at which my metabolic rate is slowing seems to be inversely proportional to the rate at which sitting still quaffing oodles of lovely food and drink constitutes my idea of a good time. So although I was hedonistically satiated by all the decadence that Italy can, and should, provide - I was simultaneously annoyed with myself about it, ceaselessly haunted by masochistic calculations of the time I would have to spend on the treadmill when I got home. Something needed to be done, and so, with the realisation of this great cruelty, the idea of a day of guilt free gluttony was born.
Let me paint a picture: imagine a balance between calories burned and calories consumed, a harmony of head aches and head clears, a day that is at once spiritually nutritious yet hedonistically refined. What I proposed was a new kind of Italian day trip – one that replaces gastronomic guilt with the kind of inner smugness that one only truly get from walking long distances for the sake of it. Our plan was to get up early, walk to our tourist destination of the day, and in so doing burn off enough calories and generally feel good enough about ourselves to be able to spend the rest of the afternoon, in peace, eating and drinking what the bloody hell we like there.
But can it work? Well, we were going to find out and - we hoped - learn a thing or two about wine on the way – because there’s surely no better way to start a day of tasting the stuff then walking the country from which it is grown, and when it comes to wine there really is nowhere better to start, we were soon to find out, then one of southern Tuscany’s absolute gems - the beautiful hill top town of Montepulciano, whose Vino Nobile must surely be considered one of the world’s finest drops.
We set off at dawn from our family encampment in Bertolle – a small, decidedly untouristy village about an hour south of Florence, which turned out to be perfectly placed for day trips into the old authentic heart of Tuscany. From there we drove half an hour south to Pienza, a delightfully picturesque renaissance inspired town, parking our car at the far edge so we could stroll through it’s narrow cobbled streets, soak up the atmosphere and stock up on bread rolls and it’s famed - locally produced - Pecorino cheese whose distinctive smell seemed to waft from every corner and shop front we passed. On the outskirts of town, about a fifteen minute walk away, a well marked dirt track – constituting part of the national trail that cuts across this province of Sienna - wound gently down into the valley, the sun just rising above the edges of the far hills and casting long golden rays back down across us, illuminating every texture in it’s early morning light. It would be four hours from here to Montepulciano.
||We walked all morning, past charming stone farmhouses with chickens and neatly laid rows of Cyprus trees, past lines of ripening bright green vines and wildflower meadows with hordes of sunlit butterflies and impossibly purple plum trees. The setting was beautiful but the heat was everywhere around us and by 10am it was like a warm blanket had descended, shrouding the details on the far valleys horizon and lowering our heads to the glare.
Eventually we reached the merciful breeze of the plateau where we could just make out our destination crouched on a hill in the distance.
Montepulciano is truly a special place, set high on a lone hill surrounded by wonderful renaissance palaces and boasting views of gently rolling farmland and neatly manicured vineyards angled in every direction across the Sienna plateau. We climbed hard to it’s top, sweltering in the midday heat as we pushed ourselves along it’s too hot to touch stone walls. Wine makers, leant out of shop windows on every corner as we approached, extending their hands and gesturing for us to come in, the melody of their language beckoning us like sirens, “just a sip senor, with some crackers and oil perhaps, homemade, of course”. But it wasn’t until we took a chance and stumbled into the smallest most discrete store hidden behind the main square halfway down a non-descript alley that we really hit jackpot.
“Would you like a taste?” The young man behind the counter of Talosa vineyards modest shop offered hopefully. When we agreed he suddenly changed his mind “Even better, I give you a personal tour” - of what, we were thinking, this tiny shop?
||Christian, his name as we were later to find out, locked the main doors and motioned for us to descend a hitherto unnoticed staircase behind the till. The stairs wound steeply down for an impossibly long time, the walls abruptly changing to bare rock and the temperature dropping by 10 degrees. So this is how it happens, I say to myself – a misspent youth watching horror flicks and still I fall for the secret torture room under the stairs. Suddenly the lights went on, and, as I breathed a sigh of relief, we saw beneath us a vast open room with giant wine barrels stretching out in ever direction.
What proceeds next, I can only say is the most excellent and impressive wine tour we could ever have hoped to enjoy. As it turns out the cellar is over 20 meters deep and has been used as a kind of natural refrigerator – housing everything from grain to local olives and tomatoes - for at least the last 500 years. And the place is huge – it is impossible to imagine how this quaint little shop could hide such a vast secret under it’s timid front – literally dozens of enormous oak barrels are stacked up floor to ceiling each one holding 11,500 litres of wine or roughly 15,000 bottles. Christian explains how a wine can only call itself Vino Nobile di Montepulciano if it is grown within the strict confines of this region and contains at least 80% Sangiovese grapes. The Rosso, the youngest version, is then kept in the oak for a year, with the Nobile staying for two and the Reserva a full 36 months to allow complete development of it’s flavour. During this time a process of meticulous tasting and blending is continually carried out in order to ascertain correct mixes and maturation time.
Next we are led down an even smaller corridor where eventually we had to crawl through a tiny opening that gradually widened into a larger cave. Embedded in the walls and ceiling around us were the fossilized remains of small mollusks and pre-historic sea creatures, remnants from when the ocean, now hundreds of miles to the West, once laid claim to this piece of rock. Soon, ahead of us, we see old steps carved into the stone and leading down into an even smaller cavern, no bigger then a few meters across; above it we see the faint etching of a cross. “This has been used for religious ceremony for many hundred years” Christian says, and we can instantly see why. There is a tremendous sense of peace emanating from the whole place; as if you can almost feel the process of time, frozen as it is in the walls and harnessed in oak, slowing around you.
When we finally surface back to the store front, we duly combine our newfound Zen sanctity and broadened knowledge of wine, to experience first hand as much of the Talosa Vineyard’s masterpieces as we can, and it doesn’t disappoint each one more delicious then the last. Scents of fresh juicy berries and deep earth fill the room, the sweet musty oak of the wood and complex spices too. Under Christian’s expert direction the tastes seem to grow in the mouth, changing as they pass from the initial spark on the lips developing to a wider finish that expands as it slips down the throat before finally disappearing in the last to a tiny teardrop, lingering on the back of the tongue. We stumble out some time later, laden down with bottles, thanking Christian profusely and roll into the rest of our guilt free day – taking our time over a fabulous three course meal in a leafy corner just off the Piazza Grande and gliding around the rest of the afternoon stopping regularly for more tastes of cheese and oil, general indulgences of all varieties and of course, glass after glass of the good stuff.
|So, what’s the conclusion to all this – is there such a thing as guilt free gluttony? Can I recommend a day such as this for your next holiday, or even better would I suggest turning the walking and wine-tasting combination we had in Montepulciano into your next weekend break? The answer is an emphatic yes. And the great news is there’s loads more to do – wonderful walks through Brunello country just a few kilometers to the east, and of course the gorgeous vistas and well known delights of Chianti only a couple hours north as well. They say in life all things are relative and this was definitely proved true for us. The walk was made sweeter by the thought of all the food and wine to come, just as the gastronomic delights were accentuated by the hard work that preceded them.
On top of all this, cursed thoughts of treadmills and other sobering realities now seemed like the distant memories of some other less rugged kind of guy. Perhaps we’re really onto something here, I found myself thinking as the sun started to descend over Montepulciano at the end of our perfect day, perhaps this is the start of a whole new way of approaching holidays, weekends, life even! I am just about to announce the profound lifestyle shifts that my family and I should immediately adopt when my plate of homemade pici ragu arrives and I see my wife’s hand going up - pointing the waiter to another bottle of the Nobile - and suddenly I lose my train of thought completely. Oh well I sigh, chin chinning glasses and stuffing a delicious fork full into my mouth – life may have a cruel sense of metabolic irony, but it also doesn’t get much better then this.
© Aaron Millar Feb 2011