Tuscany. The word immediately brings to mind cliche’ visions of rolling hillsides, vineyards and sublime sunsets, all in a classic, rustic Italian setting. So, when I heard visited the region, I was truly eager to see these things for myself, if not a bit sceptical of its lofty reputation. Italy is packed with beautiful locales and incredible cuisine, so what it is about Tuscany that is so special?
My first destination was the town of Montepulciano. Situated high on the steep hills overlooking the Chiana Valley, the town’s streets wind and climb up the terrain, converging at the town’s summit; Piazza Grande. This is where I met Marco, my guide for a tour through the historic Ricci family wine cellars. As we walked down Via Ricci to the glamorous Palazzo Ricci, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the Ricci family carried a pretty big stick around these parts, and probably have for quite some time. It turns out they settled here about 700 years ago, and the name is still met with warm regards from the community.
Tuscany’s reputation as a stellar wine region, and fertile farmland for olives, wheat and grapes, dates back to the 7th century, and, like the Ricci name, remains in very good standing. Not much has changed in the past 1400 years. The soil still to produce the same exquisite grapes, the farmers still tend to the same crops and the same Tuscan sunset still washes the fields in an ethereal golden hue. It’s a beautiful and simple life here that produces some otherworldly food and wine.
I took a moment to enjoy the exclusive view of the valley from within the walls of Ricci estate before slowly descending to the subterranean cellar, 75 feet below the city’s cantinas and cobblestone roads. The spiral staircase’s broad steps and slow decline was designed to facilitate the pack mules that would shuttle hulking wooden barrels up and down this passageway.
The Ricci cellar is a dank and craggy cavern, gothic chandeliers hang from the ceiling like bats in slumber. Smooth pillars and arches offer stark design to this cold space, standing alongside immovable masses of warty bedrock. Enormous, 10,000 liter wooden barrels fill the voids between the pillar shafts, lined up like creaky battleships docked in harbor. Made of a particular Russian wood, these gargantuan barrels are reconstructed and replaced, on site, only twice a century.
Beyond this main chamber is another, where smaller barrels, used for the second stage of the wine’s aging process, sit on clunky wooden racks. We wormed our way through the damp air of the cellar, passing a bulging limestone formation protruding out of the wall above a dusty old barrel. Marco informed me that the city’s founders chose this very stone to be the symbolic foundation that Montepulciano was to be built upon. It seemed like a good call since the only part of the rock I could see would have dwarfed a dump truck. Hunched over, I waddled down a small tunnel into our last stop, the Etruscan Cave. Dating back to about 5th century B.C., an ancient well still sits in the center of this jagged den, a silent reminder of this place’s archaic past.
The Ricci’s historic cellars continues to produces new vintages of their wine. Currently their proudest offering is the 2007 Reserve Briareo Vino Nobile. The Vino Nobile varietal is produced exclusively in this region from the Sangiovese grape, a prized specimen in this land. Marco said the ‘07 Reserve is Ricci’s best wine in the last 12 years. I settled in for a post-tour food and wine pairing. Thinly sliced cuts of capicola were folded upon itself in frilly little piles on my plate next to delicate slices of pecorino cheese and a soft, earthy pink, spreadable pâté. These confluence of flavors drove the point home that Ricci’s wines are phenomenally crafted, with centuries of love and labor filling each glass.
I stepped outside onto the veranda to take in the sunset over the lowland valley. With its patchwork of yellow fields, green vineyards, blue skies and orange rooftops, I wondered if the people living in that house over there knew how freaking awesome their backyard view was at sundown.
A simple life, or at least an appreciation for the simple things in life, can have profound rewards. There is a striking, undeniable natural beauty to Tuscany. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that this renowned area lived up to its glowing reputation, while also revealing much more than I expected. I saw a bond between the land and its people. Italians embrace the philosophy that promotes quality over quantity. There is a true respect for produce that is in season and for foods particular to a region. Ultimately, I found that there is a respect for the enjoyable, the beautiful, the admirable. Giving due credit to a brilliant glass of vino nobile, a perfect pairing of prosciutto with seasonal figs, or soaking in an ancient thermal bath, fed by natural hot springs, are important activities in this culture. That’s really living in the moment! Americans may look at this as poncy, lethargic, lolly-gagging, but people here are happy, honestly happy. Montepulciano, and countless other cities in Italy, look and feel the same now as they did centuries ago. They’re not fixing certain things here because not much is broken. The nation’s economy could certainly use some help, but we’ll just stick to good food and wine for now.