It is magical living in a part of the world where everyday events are considered reasons for celebrazione (celebration)! Perhaps the Tuscan’s aspire to the Roman philosopher Seneca’s belief that we should “begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.” That certainly gives one reason to pause and reflect on how we are spending our days (no pressure).
In Tuscany there are so many celebrazione: for the changing seasons; the wine; the harvest; the olive oil; the truffle; the chestnut, Roman / Etruscan / medieval traditions, life events and on and on it goes.
My husband celebrated a compleanno (birthday) in May and we decided a Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello of Montalcino) wine tasting at the Fortezza Di Montalcino (Montalcino Fortress) was fitting for a Seneca styled celebration.
We choose to drive the scenic Via Cassia which follows the movement of the hills and therefore winds its way through the Val d’Orca. The Roman built road at that time opened travel through the Apennines and was built by Cassius Longuius in 107 BC. I suspect the Romans who built the road anticipated it would remain in use (they were efficient) however they maybe awestruck with the rhythmic dance occurring between the motor cyclists, cyclists and vehicles as they move in tandem on it.
My anticipation for the wine tasting was growing as we drove by the many wineries and vineyards dotting the landscape. The vines in May are in a fast growth period with spring flowers sprinkled with abandon in the surrounding fields.
The bright green leaves of the vines just danced and swayed in the light breeze as I held my hand out the window to feel the air move between my fingers.
There were men and women in the vineyards tending the vines, clip, clip, as they removed dead vines and cleared foliage, all whilst securing the stronger vine limbs. It was a warm day at 28 degrees and I couldn’t help but think, how much work and dedication goes into a bottle of wine.
As the vehicle inched its way up the steep hill to Montalcino, my husband maneuvered a right turn and then the daunting 180 degree hairpin turn to the left and then a right turn onto the round-about. After an admonishment for my heavy sighs and front seat driving, we pulled into the free parking under the shadow of the Fortezza.
Geographically, Montalcino sits 564 m above sea level and is nestled in the heart of the glorious Val d”Orca. Due to its hill-top position, Montalcino literally finds itself wrapped in 360 degree panoramic views of which dreams are made. You can see the hills of Maremma, Crete Sienese, Mount Amiata and Val d’Orca in the distance.
Montalcino itself is a beautifully preserved hilltop town that attributes its wealth to the wine industry delivering one of Italy’s best-known 100% Sangiovese wine, the Brunello (to me heaven in liquid form).
Montalcino found itself caught between the Sienese and Florentine battles for dominance and although the town was conquered at various intervals, the Fortress never fell.
As you approach the giant ramparts of the Fortezza castle (built-in 1361) it is hard not to be impressed.
Standing inside the arms of the fortress you can understand why it remained intact, the ancient structure provided a sense of safety within its grasp.
The tall, smooth stone towers seem to reach into the clouds while the piccione (pigeons) found areas to roost in small openings.
The views from the ramparts provided heart thumping vistas from the highest position in Montalcino.
I suspect Sylvia Plath, American poet and novelist may have recited from her novel The Bell Jar “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, This is what it is to be happy.” I would have been in total agreement.
Endoteca Fortezza Di Montalcino is situated in a corner of the Fortezza. It is a well stocked Endoteca with so many varieties of Brunello, you need to take the time to look and then to taste — don’t rush the experience.
So how much does it cost for a Seneca styled celebration?
> €9.50 for 2 medium level Brunello, €13.50 for 3 medium level Brunello, €19.50 for 5 medium level Brunello,
> €19.00 for 2 top-level Brunello, €27.00 for 3 top-level Brunello, €39.00 for 5 top-level Brunello
We decided on 5 medium level Brunello and 5 high-end Brunello. As this was the only thing on our list today, we were going to savour the wine and our time together. We also ordered a selection of local pecorino cheese and cured meats to enhance the experience.
We sat at the outside tables with tourist and travellers from all over the world who were sipping Brunello while emoting “ahh’s and oh’s” between tastings in various languages and accents. Wine tasting seems to have its own universal language.
The cyclists we passed ascending the daunting inclines had settled at the table behind us. I guess this is “heart smart cycling” and supports why one should have a glass of red wine a day! You have to admire their convictions!
My husband and I had both read the 2003 novel Vanilla Beans and Brodo: Real Life in the Hills of Tuscany by Isabella Dusi, which provided an excellent history of Montalcino, its residents and their culture. We started asking “Jo” the server about the impacts to the tastes of the wines due to growth on the north, south, east and west sides of Montalcino. Tell us about…?..yes and…? Jo appreciating our interest began providing additional details outside the standard wine information provided during the tasting.
Ten glasses of Brunello appeared (arranged in a flight based on our conversation) and with absolutely no sense of shame the festivities began.
The garnet liquid pooled in the extra-large wine glasses waiting to be aerated.
Sitting across from each other, we decided after each sample we would write down the various qualities we liked or not (colour, bouquet, legs, alcohol content, tannins, finish, overall taste, good to drink now or lay it down).
Jo provided a complete overview of the areas wine history, each particular wine, growing areas, barrel use (french or not), traditional vs modern Brunello (Super Tuscan), and discussed our musings on the wines we sampled. We made our way through each wine twice and came to realize we are lovers of the traditional Brunello. I have come to believe, if you like a certain Italian wine varieties, no one can convince you other wise. It’s in your taste buds, just like whether you like mashed peas!
After three hours of wine, education and talking to Jo we learned his non tourist name and about his family, their roots and his personal love of wines. The key to the experience was moving from a tourist to a traveller in the eyes of the well-educated server.
Tuscan’s take their wines seriously, have expert knowledge to impart and if your participation is not just a check mark off a “tourist to do list” they will spend the time with you.
We purchased several bottles of wine to drink now and to lie down. Our wine consumption made the final tab easier to “swallow” and it was truly a special compleano celebration.
Upon leaving the Fortezza we wandered the stone based streets of Montalcino for a few hours. We saw flowers falling over themselves in window boxes, on honey hued stone walls and by doorways. Flags were flying, clothes were hanging and visitors were beginning to fill the alleyways, enjoying the gift shops and starting to take seats in the Osteria with the magnificent views.
The wine shops on the street corners were filling with visitors clamouring to try a sample, buy a wine or leaving with their purchases safe in hand, secured in carrying cases. We entered one wine shop and purchased a few more bottles of Brunello (no judging) while listening to a conversation between a tourist and a shop owner. The tourists primary concern was that she “..would not find any of the wines she was drinking (like shooters) at home if she purchased them.” Upon asking the owner five times this same question in between gulps, he calmly stated “Signora, it is more important you love the wine first …” we left before we could hear her answer. I couldn’t help but think “For when the wine is in, the wit is out.” Thomas Becon (1512–1567), Catechism, 375
* Moral Letters to Lucilius ( Letter 101. On the futility of planning ahead) by Seneca
* The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
* Vanilla Beans and Brodo: Real Life in the Hills of Tuscany by Isabella Dusi