Italy

Wine tasting in Italy is fun

Last fall, I convinced my husband that he really needed to experience Umbria and more wine tasting in Italy. I had traveled throughout the region when we lived in Italy, but he had never seen the true Italian countryside. So we set off to tour a few wineries in the region and received the VIP treatment. As we all know, Italians are passionate – they are passionate about love, their food, their fashion, but I got to see first-hand just how passionate they are about their wines, especially those who produce the great wines of Italy.

I promised my husband that wine tasting in Italy would be a truly memorable experience. Our tour began at Roccafiore in Todi, where the winery’s commitment to sustainability is evident, as the parking area overlooks a field of organic vineyards and dozens of solar panels. Roccafiore, launched in 2000, is a real blend of technology and traditions. The company goes to great pains to maintain the traditions of Italian vinology but employ some of the latest technology (especially where sustainability is involved) to produce great wines.

Our hostess Laura is studying to be a sommelier so her detailed knowledge of the wine-making process was a highlight. We were fortunate to be at Roccafiore in mid-September as grapes were being harvested – all by hand. We tasted the Grechetto and Moscato grapes fresh off the vine, and watched as the workers poured barrels of grapes into the presser to extract the juice. We then moved to the main production facility underground, another Roccafiore tradition of maintaining original winemaking standards. As the grapes are processed through the pressing machine, the juice falls directly into tanks below ground, using gravity to move the musts and skins from the upper floor to the lower floor – again, part of Roccafiore’s commitment to maintain the traditions and best practices of wine production. Laura walked us through a labyrinth of underground rooms as she explained in great detail the different storage and fermentation processes (practicing for her sommelier exam, I’m sure).

Our tasting of Roccafiore wines took place in the winery’s very modern and industrial commercial building, where they host special events from art exhibitions to winemaker dinners to weddings. Laura also has a culinary background so her knowledge of food/wine pairings was a great compliment to the tasting experience. My favorite wine was the Rosso Roccafiore, a 100% Sangiovese, but the FiorFior, a 100% Grechetto, was a close second. I could easily drink these every night of the week. Prova d’autore, a blend of 40% Sagrantino, 30% Montepulciano, and 30% Sangiovese, was intense, but definitely requires the appropriate food pairing to appreciate it the most. The winery’s luxury resort, Roccafiore Residence and its famed FiorFior restaurant are located on a hill just a quick drive from the winery.

We had another tour scheduled for our wine tasting in Italy at Lungarotti was scheduled to begin at 10:30 and I was a bit concerned about getting in the mood for wine that early. But the initial wine tour, led by the most gracious Grazia, took well over an hour but was so detailed and educational, that I wanted more. (Grazia actually visited the winery with her school when she was only six years old and today, leads the company’s hospitality efforts). The tour led us through rooms full of casks, maceration tanks and French barriques. With so many varietals of grapes being harvested – Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Colorino and Syrah as red varietals with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio as the whites – organization is definitely key. The highlight of the tour was the visit to the winery’s safe, where vintages leading back to the winery’s opening in 1962, are stored. Some years, there were only four bottles remaining (a good year) and other years, there were dozens of bottles in the bin. They’re stored, sold and enjoyed for special occasions with some bottles commanding upwards of $1,000 a bottle.

Founded by Giorgio Lungarotti, the company is now led by his daughters Chiara Lungarotti and Teresa Severini, while his wife Maria Grazia runs the foundation. We were quite fortunate to meet both Chiara and Teresa who are actively involved in the day-to-day activities at the winery and resort. After learning so many fine details of their wine production and the passion poured into making Lungarotti wines, I was excited for the tasting.

We started with the Torre di Giano and Torre di Giano VIP. The VIP was my favorite of the whites, with 70% Trebbiano and 30% Grechetto. But the Aurente (derived from the Latin word for gold) intrigued me to the point that I’m still wanting another taste of it a week later. It’s a deep and rich gold wine with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto. It was definitely one of the most interesting wines I’ve tasted and I think I’ll be ordering more because I’m so curious to have it again.

Then, we moved on to the reds, the Rubesco, Rubesco Reserve (my favorite) and the Sagrantino (my husband’s favorite). We didn’t taste the San Giorgio (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo) but according to Grazia, this wine is drinkable for up to 50 years. (Note to self: taste this on your next visit!)

We then ventured to my new favorite town in Italy, and one I plan to revisit with more time, Torgiano. Grazia treated us to a lunch at Le Melograne, the restaurant at their 5-star spa resort, Le Tre Vaselle, where the chef personally gave us his menu recommendations. Our time was limited so we missed a visit to the Wine and Olive Oil Museums, but they will definitely be on our next itinerary, as will the resort’s spa where guests from all over the world come for vinotherapy treatments. We also took a short drive to Poggio alle Vigne, the country house set among the Lungarotti vineyards which is a popular destination wedding spot. Torgiano is a popular shopping destination for cashmere, so Lungarotti also arranges cashmere shopping tours as part of their packages. (Note to self: don’t miss the cashmere next time I go wine tasting in Italy)

How to go wine tasting in Tuscany

I love wine and I love to travel. So what could be better than combining the two with wine tasting in Tuscany and Umbria? Just like culinary travel and adventure travel, wine travel is gaining popularity. Wine travel offers enthusiasts the opportunity to truly experience the wine production process, and if you travel at the right time of year, to actually be part of harvest and production. As a former Italian expat, I was excited to go back “home” and tour some of the luxury wineries and resorts for wine tasting in Tuscany and Umbria and experience some wine tastings in Italy.

When people think of Italian wine and wine tasting in Tuscany, their first thought might be the robust Chiantis. Having lived in Italy, I kind of felt “been there, done that.” But on my return, I was excited to learn, and taste, how Tuscany is embracing luxury wine travel.

My adventure in wine tasting in Tuscany began at the Baracchi estate, which sits high above Cortona, up narrow, winding roads that even our GPS couldn’t keep up with. It was a constant barrage of “turn right”, “turn left”, “turn right”, as we made the hairpin turns. But the views of the Valdichiana Valley, when we arrived at the top, were all worth the nauseating drive.

Founded by Riccardo Baracchi, the winery is a small, boutique producer of one of the region’s only sparkling wines and some fabulous blends. We were greeted by Benedetto Baracchi, son of the winery’s founder, who started our tour in the sparkling wine room where the Baracchi Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico is produced. A single worker was painstakingly turning each bottle ¼ turn, as he does daily for 45 days, to allow the sediment from the Trebbiano grapes to settle at the top of the bottle. There, it is ultimately frozen and forced out. As a small producer, Baracchi takes great care and pride in this hand-processed production of one of the region’s only sparkling wines. Our tour ended with a tasting of the sparkling wine, paired with pecorino cheese produced at the resort. I enjoyed the Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico tremendously, perhaps because I could really respect the great care taken in its production.

Guests of the winery stay at the luxury Il Falconiere resort, part of the prestigious chain Relais & Châteaux, located just beyond the vineyard. There the resort’s traditional Etruscan spa is the spectacle. This resort truly felt like an escape, perched high on a hilltop, surrounded by lush vineyards. I wanted to plant myself at the pool adjacent to the spa and just waste the afternoon sipping wine and enjoying the view. Instead, we were then treated to lunch at the resort’s outdoor café where the weather was perfect but views of the surrounding vineyards and valley were even more perfect– location, location, location. It’s one of the best places to stay if you’re planning wine tastings in Italy.

Cortona’s most popular resident, Frances Mayes of “Under the Tuscan Sun”, is prevalent throughout the resort. Silvia Baracchi hosts cooking classes at the restaurant and at their cooking school, Under the Tuscan Sun. Baracchi produces a number of wines from Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet  and Trebbiano grapes, in addition to olive oil and my husband’s favorite, grappa.

I lived in the north of Italy, Milan, and saw much of the country, but didn’t truly experience Umbria until this trip. When people plan wine tastings in Italy, they don’t often think of Umbria as a region to explore. The tiny rural town of Todi is home to Roccafiore, a winery committed to sustainability and producing organic wines. Roccafiore is a real blend of technology and traditions, as the company goes to great pains to maintain the traditions of Italian virology, but also employs some of the latest technology to produce great wines, sustainably. We were fortunate to be at Roccafiore in mid-September, as grapes were being harvested – all by hand. We tasted the Grechetto and Moscato grapes fresh off the vine, and watched as the workers poured barrels of grapes into the presser to extract juice. We then moved to the main production facility underground, another Roccafiore tradition of maintaining original winemaking standards. As grapes are processed through the pressing machine, juice falls directly into tanks below ground, using gravity to move musts and skins from the upper floor to the lower floor – again, part of Roccafiore’s commitment to maintain the traditions and best practices of wine production.

The tasting room is housed in a modern, industrial building, where they host special events from art exhibitions to winemaker dinners to weddings. Roccafiore produces a number of wines from Sangiovese, Grechetto, Sagrantino, and Montepulciano. The winery’s luxury resort, Roccafiore Residence, and its famed FiorFior restaurant are located on a hill, just a quick drive from the winery.

Our next stop was Lungarotti, near one of my new favorite towns, Torgiano. Our hostess, Grazia, actually visited the winery with her school when she was only six years old and today, leads the company’s hospitality efforts. It’s these types of personal stories and connections that fuel my love for travel.

Lungarotti produces a number of wines – Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Colorino and Syrah as red varietals with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio as the whites. The highlight of the tour was visiting the winery’s safe, where vintages leading back to the winery’s opening in 1962 are stored. Some years, there were only four bottles remaining (a good year) and other years, there were dozens of bottles in the bin. They’re stored, sold and enjoyed for special occasions, with some bottles commanding upwards of $1,000 a bottle.

I was surprised by how different the wines tasted between Umbria and Tuscany, despite using many of the same varietals. I still think of Lungarotti’s Aurente (derived from the Latin word for gold), a deep and rich gold wine with 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto.

We enjoyed a decadent lunch at Le Melograne, the restaurant at Lungarotti’s 5-star spa resort, Le Tre Vaselle.  Our time was limited, so we missed a visit to the Wine and Olive Oil Museums, but will definitely visit on our next trip. We also took a short drive to Poggio alle Vigne, the country house set among the Lungarotti vineyards that is a popular destination wedding spot. Torgiano is a popular shopping destination for cashmere, so Lungarotti also arranges cashmere shopping tours as part of their packages. (Note to self: don’t miss the cashmere next time.)

Right along the Italy-France border in the Val d’Aosta region in Courmayeur, a destination popular with celebrities, sits the tiny little town of Entrèves. And in this tiny hamlet, is one of my favorite European hotels. Auberge de le Maison, a cozy little alpine chalet with the most gorgeous views any season of the year.

We usually opted for the two-story family room that included a loft for the kids. The bonus was the balcony overlooking either a snow-filled or green grassy meadow, along with views of the Mont Blanc range

There are cozy little sitting rooms throughout the property. In the wintertime, it’s so great to sit by a warm fire, with a nice cocktail and just connect with people coming and going.

In the evening, the bar sets out a host of snacks and people from all over the world (including my then 7-year-old daughter) gather at the dark wood bar to exchange stories. Val d’Aoste has some of the most interesting foods, a blend of Italian, French and Swiss cuisines. My favorite was always the polenta with sausages.

Just around the corner from La Maison is La Palud, the base station of the Funivie Monte Bianco, the cable car to the Pointe Helbronner of Mont Blanc. I’m terrified of heights so I never made the trek so I was always the photographer.

In the winter, you can ski the famous glacial ski run of the Vallee Blanche and ski from Italy to France. Nearby Courmayeur is also home to one of the big film festivals where Hollywood descends on the region.

While living in Milan, I spent many weekends exploring the small enotecas and private vineyards throughout Tuscany. On this visit back, I was interested in seeing a boutique winery, enjoying a few wine tastings in Tuscany and learning more about how Tuscany is embracing luxury wine travel and wine tourism.

If you’re looking for an authentic Tuscan wine tasting experience, I recommend the Baracchi winery and resort. The Baracchi family is very passionate about their wine business but also about ensuring that guests have the most luxurious experience at their resort. The drive up to the Baracchi estate reminded me a bit of the Road to Hana as we winded and twisted up the narrow roads to Cortona. The GPS was a constant barrage of “turn right”, “turn left”, “turn right”, as we made the hairpin turns. But the views of the Valdichiana Valley when we arrived at the top were all worth the nauseating drive. We were greeted by Benedetto Baracchi, the son of the winery’s founder, Riccardo Baracchi, and joined a small group tour. Baracchi is a small, boutique producer so the tour was brief but offered us a very personal glimpse into this family’s pride and passion. We first visited the sparkling wine room where the Baracchi Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico is produced. A single worker was painstakingly turning each bottle ¼ turn, as he does daily for 45 days, to allow the sediment from the Trebbiano grapes to settle at the top of the bottle where it is ultimately frozen and forced out.

As a small producer, Baracchi takes great care and pride in this hand-processed production of one of the region’s only sparkling wines. Our tour ended with a tasting of the sparkling wine paired with pecorino cheese produced at the resort. I enjoyed the Brut Trebbiano Metodo Classico tremendously, perhaps because I could really respect the great care taken in its production.

But the real highlight was our visit to the luxury Il Falconiere resort located just beyond the vineyard where the resort’s traditional Etruscan spa is the spectacle. This resort truly felt like an escape, perched high on a hilltop, surrounded by lush vineyards. I wanted to plant myself at the pool adjacent to the spa and just waste the afternoon sipping wine and enjoying the view.

We were then treated to lunch at the resort’s outdoor café where the weather was perfect but the views of the surrounding vineyards and valley was even more perfect. Location, location, location. Being in Cortona, the Baracchis have capitalized on the success and recognition of “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes. Silvia Baracchi hosts cooking classes at the restaurant and at their cooking school, called Under the Tuscan Sun. The resort’s restaurant also boasts a selection of dishes inspired by “Under the Tuscan Sun.” We tasted the winery’s most popular wines with each course of our meal. We started with the Ardito, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, a great peppery wine to wake our tastebuds. Throughout the rest of the meal, we tasted the single grape Smeriglio wines include a Syrah, Merlot and Sangiovese. A beautifully prepared dessert plate was presented at the end of the meal but we opted for espresso instead of grappa, especially given the winding drive home.

I lived in Milan for more than two years and despite its reputation as a high powered business destination, there really are a few great sites to see. For most, it’s just a layover destination as they connect to Venice or Florence. But here are a few reasons why spending a day in world’s fashion capital is worth it.

Coffee
Start your day at an authentic Italian coffee bar. If you want to blend in with the locals, order your coffee properly. There’s no such thing as American coffee and you can’t have a cappuccino after 11am. And don’t sit at a table (you’ll be charged to sit down). Stand at the bar along with the rest of the Italians.

The Last Supper
Perhaps the most famous, and overlooked, tourist attraction in Milan is Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. You’ll need an appointment to see this world famous fresco. Only small groups of 20 people are allowed in every 15 minutes (also be sure to request an English guide). It is recommended that you book tickets at least two months in advance.

Duomo
You can’t miss Northern Italy’s iconic site in the city center, Piazza del Duomo. Milan’s Duomo is the third largest church in all of Europe and took more than 500 years to construct with its imposing white marble facade. The interior is magnificent and as they say in Italy, “look up”, at the spectacular ceiling. Climb the stair to the rooftop for 360º vistas of the entire city.

Shopping
If window shopping was an Olympic event, Milan’s famed fashion district would take gold. Stroll along  Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga where you’ll find the world’s most famous designer storefronts including Prada, Bulgari, Tod’s, Hermes, Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.

Food
If foodies had a playground, it would be Peck, located on Via Spadari, just a few blocks from the Duomo. Just like the Milanese, the food at the deli-style counters is presented in high fashion with displays that are works of art. Enjoy a light lunch in the café on the top level and be sure to visit the underground wine cellar, featuring some of the world’s most exotic, and expensive, wines.

La Scala
Spend the afternoon at La Scala, the world-renowned opera house built in 1778 that has hosted performances of Rossini, Puccini, Verdi and Toscanini. You can take a guided tour of the performance venue and visit the museum to see artifacts and learn about the history of opera.

Giardini Pubblici
Unwind your day with a walk through Milan’s largest public garden. It’s where Milanese while away their afternoon by strolling through the tree canopies and enjoying a gelato. The garden is also home to the Natural History Museum and Planetarium.

Aperitivo
End your day of Milanese exploration at one of the many coffee bars for aperitivo. It’s the Milanese version of happy hour where you can enjoy a glass of Barolo and help yourself to an expansive spread of tapas.

When I was living in Italy as an expat, Tuscany became our escape from the hectic and hurried life of Milan. After a few visits, we considered ourselves “locals”, so staying in a tourist hotel was beneath us. That’s when I discovered the Tuscany agriturismo culture. 

Agristurismi are accommodations on a working farm in Italy. The agriturismo program was codified by the government in 1985 as a way to increase agricultural tourism for the countryside farms in Italy. Land owners were subsidized to build apartments and villas on their properties to house guests who wanted a more authentic Italian experience.  According to the website, “Agriturismo” is synonymous with free time spent in the open air, at one with nature, immersed in a social-rural environment abounding in culture, authentic traditions, and quality agricultural food products. All of the companies listed on Agriturismo.it offer this type of hospitality, as well as a variety of prices and services that meet a wide range of needs.”

One of my favorites is Tuscany Agriturismo Belagaggio in Montefollonico. The accommodations are modern and accompanied by plenty of amenities including pools, fire pits, barbecues, walking trails, horseback riding and much more. It’s kind of the all-inclusive resort version of Italian vacationing.

I took my mom and two kids for a week to really fully immerse ourselves in the Tuscan culture. We spent our days visiting wineries along the Chianti Trail and exploring Tuscan hillside towns, then we’d retreat to the farm’s pool every afternoon with an assortment of wines, cheeses and cured meats we’d picked up in our travels. The farm housed eight different families so the best part of the day was gathering around the pool to share stories of the day’s adventures and discoveries.

Being a foodie, I would often stand in the cucina and watch our hostess, Antonella, prepare the evening meal. From chopping unfamiliar vegetables to plucking the chickens, I was eager to learn everything I could about this way of life. I would follow her down to the cellar where prosciutto hung from the ceiling while curing. My children enjoyed exploring the wide open fields and on occasion, watched as Antonella or Nonna would choose one of the chickens who would be our dinner “guest” that evening.  I’m not sure they realized the cute bunnies were also on the menu.

On our final evening, the family hosted a dinner for all of the guests which included an extravagant, multi-course meal with copious amounts of wine, followed by live entertainment from Nonno’s accordion. 

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