Living the fantasy on the Etruscan Way
Sometimes, at the end of a busy trip, I look forward to the comforts of my own home, and my own bed. Get “back to reality,” as they say. Yet, after a week in Italy on the Etruscan Way, I’ve decided I’d be more than content if I just kept living the fantasy.
That I found myself sculling in the proverbial Fountain of Youth around midnight under a bright crescent moon and a star-filled sky was perhaps a wonder unto itself. The volcano-heated pool of Tuscany’s Terme di Saturnia Spa and Golf Course shuts down at around 7:30 pm to let guests refuel with an extremely well-crafted meal before doing whatever they feel like doing with the rest of the evening. (I spent it drinking top-notch grappa, then the aforementioned paddling). Mostly, I think, they were looking from their windows at me and wondering how the hell I was pulling it off.
Ah. Connections are key to this sort of thing. Think CIA and ITA, also known as the Confederazione Italiana Agricoltori and the Italian Trade Agency, respectively. Hardly sinister and secretive, these organizations offered me hands-on insight into the Etruscan Way. Together, they arranged an amazing vinous/gustatory/cultural/historic tour of Etruria, the region inhabited by the ancient Etruscans delimited by the Arno and Tiber rivers.
I spent a week indulging in the spectacular beauty of the region in all its manifestations. Gorgeous scenery, magnificent architecture, incredible wine and food (the latter occasionally in incredible quantities), unforgettable accommodations and some of the most amazing hospitality I’ve yet experienced.
If you feel like royalty at the opulent Terme di Saturnia, where guests are ferried to and fro via Lamborghini SUVs, you’ll probably feel a bit more … well, like family at Agriturismo L’Elmo. Agriturismi — farm stays — offer some of the most authentic and relaxing (not to mention affordable) accommodations in Italy. Though some can rival the best of the world’s swank hotels (we’ll visit Tenuta di Montecucco in a bit), most, like L’Elmo, offer cozy rooms and beautiful scenery.
Eating in Italy is like hitting the highs of some gastronomic nirvana. Dinner at L’Elmo, with its antipasto starter featuring a range of succulent regional morsels followed by fresh pasta, meats and sweets, shone the spotlight on the gastronomy typical of Umbria. With dinner under my belt and the spring night air wafting warm around me, I shuffled off to bed. Beyond my window lay hazelnut groves. And amongst the trees, the cinghiale partied.
Those who know Italy know of the cinghiale (aka, wild boar). I’m not sure if it’s actually Italy’s national animal (shouldn’t such a beast be more, well, regal?), but it’s certainly Italy’s national pest. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the cinghiale (in my mind) is to Italy what the racoon is to Canada. They’re large, belligerent, pretty destructive and, when you are desperate for sleep, damn noisy. But there is a major difference between the two creatures.
Admittedly, I’ve never eaten racoon. However, I’ve eaten cinghiale in many (always delicious) forms. So, enjoy your fun in the hazelnut grove tonight, my friends. Tomorrow you might be dinner. Oh, how I hope!
New Discoveries with an Old Friend
It’s a beautiful drive up the undulating Umbrian hills — past shimmering olive and majestic cypress trees — to Tenuta di Salviano, a winery perched high above the azure waters of the Lago di Corbara. The June sun warms me as I step out of the vehicle to be greeted by my old friend Guido Orzalesi.
I first met Orzalesi while visiting the rather prestigious Brunello-producing winery where he, at that time, toiled. To connect with him over a decade later in Orvieto gives the term “it’s a small world” new meaning. The wines of Orvieto do not (yet) carry the international prestige of Brunello, though in many cases they should. Orzalesi brings me up to speed.
“When you talk about the wines of Orvieto, you have to remember that 80 percent of all production leaves the region as bulk wine to be bottled by large companies that seem to be more concerned with fast profit than quality,” he laments. “Only 20 percent is produced by small estates like Salviano that strive for quality wines that express the unique terroir of Umbria.”
It’s a quick drive from the Salviano estate to that of Tenuta di Titignano. Though I’m but a day into my trip, I’ve determined, gazing over the vineyards that cascade down to the shores of Lago di Corbara, that I would never leave Italy. The glass of 2014 Tenuta di Salviano bubbly in my hand has a lot to do with that decision. The wine’s fine effervescence and spring-fresh aroma lull me into that kind of zen state of happiness that some people search for their whole lives. The property — once a town unto itself — is under the same ownership as Tenuta di Salviano and acts as an agriturismo (one of the first to be established) to those looking for a glorious place to relax.
Over a fantastic lunch on Titignano’s outdoor terrace, we taste Silviano’s crisp, mineral-laced 2016 Orvieto, featuring nuances of fresh melon and orange rind; the rich, fragrant 2017 Silviano di Silviano — a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc-based white that treads a perfect line between elegance and power; and the blueberry/truffle/sweet leather-scented 2014 Solideo, a smooth, silky red that aptly proves that the Lago di Corbara DOC is one to watch.
Orzalesi tells me that some of the smaller regional producers are starting to band together to promote the quality wines of the region. “Some of us are,” he confirms. “But not as strongly as I would like. Communication is never easy, especially nowadays. And remember, the 80 percent is always against us; they do not want to change anything.” One person who unequivocally sides with Orzalesi is Giovanni Dubini.
A Taste of Orvieto
In an ancient Etruscan cave bored beneath a chestnut forest into the volcanic hillside of his Palazzone estate, Dubini carefully pours a sample of his 2015 Musco, a white wine crafted from indigenous grapes using a method he remembers seeing as a child. Musco is made in a similar way to “natural” wines, which require hardly any human intervention. It’s mineral-laden, earthy, slightly sherried and a touch funky. On its own, it’s a bit challenging, but with food (in this case, some excellent chicken liver pâté) it shines.
Later, as the sun sinks into the Orvieto hills, we enjoy a superb, multi course (as always) dinner featuring a range of Palazzone’s wines including the 2017 Grek and 2017 Terre Vineate, followed by three vintages of the amazing Campo del Guardiano that capped with the wonderful 2001, replete with complex, nutty, crème brûlée and caramel nuances. Though red wines may win the international popularity contest, the whites of Orvieto represent a world unto themselves.
“In Orvieto, we mainly deal with white wines,” Dubini asserts. “As I’m sure you are aware, they are more difficult to position in the international market, which seems to prefer reds.” Like Orzalesi, Dubini seeks to up the ante when it comes to worldwide recognition of the quality whites of Orvieto. “The road we are following, along with other small- and mid-sized producers in the area — Salviano, for example — is to show that the quality wines of Orvieto are every bit as good as the most fashionable white wines of Italy.” Or better, from what I’ve tasted.
Besides the wines, the region has other experiences to offer, to wit, the city of Orvieto itself. The best way to do explore the city is via a guided tour from a knowledgeable guide like Lucianna Coppola of the Umbria in Tour company.
Perched on a plateau of tuffaceous rock, Orvieto is as spectacular underground as it is above. Lucianna took me through the underground Labirinto di Adriano, an Etruscan wonder discovered in the 1980s beneath the floors of the popular Pasticceria Adriano pastry shop. It’s hard to believe that such an elaborate series of tunnels, caves, rainwater cisterns, grain silos and wells, which now lie some 20 metres below the streets of Orvieto, were forged in the 5th century BCE.
Now, all that touring builds up an appetite, especially if you decide to follow the 248 steps down into Pozzo di San Patrizio — Orvieto’s impressive well that was commissioned by Pope Clement VII in 1527. Of course, it’s the 248 steps up again that really gets you. The Etruscans were advanced builders, sure, but expecting an elevator is a bit of a stretch. In any case, as you head out of town, pop in for lunch at Locanda Rosati, a beautifully renovated stone farmhouse located on the road between Orvieto and Bolsena. Thusly fortified, you’ll be ready to experience some of the region’s other liquid treasures.
Thunder rolls through the valley, and ominous, gunmetal grey clouds billow overhead. I stand amongst 7,000 olive trees. Accompanying me is Alessandro Ricci who is both a journalist and producer of terrific olive oil. “Everything is about timing and temperature,” he explains as he details the finer points of harvesting olives at optimum ripeness for extra virgin olive oil production.
Young, polished and extremely articulate, Ricci leads me through a tasting of both his blended and mono varietal oils back at the mill. I settle on the grassy, green, peppery/fruity Fantoio-based expression as my favourite. As with wine, tasting quality olive oil on its own can be an educational experience. But for a truly sublime experience, the best way to really enjoy both is to marry them with food.
Ask anyone who knows Italy the question “where should I eat?,” and you will probably not be steered towards a restaurant. No, they’ll tell you to find a family to take you in for the kind of home-cooked meal their nonna makes. The dinner being served to me by the Ricci matriarch is nothing short of spectacular. The freshness of the ingredients, the colours, aromas and flavours bely the simplicity of preparation. And every dish — and I mean every dish — receives a finishing dash of Ricci olive oil. If you haven’t yet embraced the Italian ritual of applying a splash of high-end EVOO to finished dishes, get into it, pronto. Great-quality Italian olive oil is an amazing flavour-enhancer.
My final night in Umbria was a memorable one, full of animated conversation and gorgeous flavours. Now it’s morning; time to bid ciao to L’Elmo and hit the Etruscan trail once again.
On your way out of Umbria, I highly suggest two things: dropping in for a tour of La Scarzuola — the City Theatre — and grabbing a bite at La Casella. The first is a Franciscan convent. Founded in 1218, it was acquired by Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi who created his “ideal city” on the monastic grounds. The second is a 350-hectare albergo diffuso (literally, “scattered hotel”) where you can bond with nature in a most relaxed way, and dine on regional specialties made with the best the land can offer.
Brunello and Beyond
You won’t notice a striking change in geography when you cross the border from Umbria into Tuscany. Yet there is a definite difference in stature. If I were to use a crude analogy: Tuscany is a diamond with facets admired by the world. Umbria is a jewel in the rough awaiting (and deserving of) international discovery, but with potential rivalling its more famous sister. Another way to see it: one is Napa to the other’s Sonoma. Whatever. I would not say “no” to another tour of (or a country estate in) either region. A country estate like Tenuta di Montecucco, for instance, would be perfect.
Part of the Castello ColleMassari — what would you call it? empire? dynasty? — that not only includes the Montecucco estate, but also the wineries Poggio di Sotto and San Giorgio in the Montalcino area, Grattamacco within the Bolgheri DOC and ColleMassari in Maremma, the Montecucco property bills itself as an agriturismo. However, the splendour of the estate and the high quality of the meals served in its restaurant suggest to me that the focus here is much more luxury turismo than it is agri.
Made from the Brunello grape — a clone of the ubiquitous Sangiovese — Brunello di Montalcino was Italy’s first wine to be granted DOCG status (the highest Italian rank). It’s a wine coveted by oenophiles, and when you taste those of Poggio di Sotto you start to see why.
The di Sotto cellar is a refreshing respite from the soaring temperature and wilting humidity outside. Slumbering within massive Slavonian oak barrels, the Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino Reserva develop complex aromas and sublime flavours that reflect the distinctive microclimate the estate enjoys. “We believe in letting our wines express the vineyard’s unique terroir rather than relying more on winemaking technique,” emphasizes my informed host Luigina Villadei. Commenting on my observation on the temperature, she admits, “the climate really is becoming more unstable.”
I think about these things while tasting some regal red wines. A couple of things dawn on me: first, that a well-made Rosso di Montalcino really can offer the poise and complexity (almost) of Brunello di Montalcino proper — at a far more doable price; second, that it must be something of a challenge to be a terroir-driven winery when yearly temperatures are becoming harder to predict.
Villadei explains that each parcel of vineyard on the di Sotto property has its own rustic/modern character, soil composition and aspect. Only by understanding the nature of each plot can you determine how best to treat the vines based on weather conditions, among other variables. Considering these sites all seemed to be a stone’s throw from each other, telling them apart might be a challenge similar to knowing the exact personality of each of your many children, and being able to understand them as they grow up in an uncertain world. (Another reason I’ll stick to simply enjoying wine rather than entertaining any thoughts of actually trying to make the stuff.)
After devouring a rustic regional lunch, and enjoying some superb wine, first-rate olive oil and potent grappa, there was really only one sensible thing to do … rest! Yeah, right. No, my friend, the correct answer: visit another winery.
Wealth may not buy happiness. What it will buy is four artistically stunning wineries, a residence in a refurbished castle and a spectacular agriturismo, all nestled amongst your meagre, 1,200-hectare chunk of Tuscany. In other words, if, with all this you are still unhappy, then at least you are miserable in a very nice neighbourhood. I somehow doubted the family behind Domaine ColleMasseri were miserable. Nor was I at my final winery visit: the beautiful flagship of the “domaine,” Castello ColleMasseri.
There are many unique things about Castello ColleMasseri. The winery itself is a study in bio-architecture. Its four descending floors ensure that gravity, not pumps, moves the fruit and must to the fermentation tanks. The cellar — possibly the most visually stunning of any I’ve seen — sports a down-home connection. My guide, export manager Laura Breschi, reveals that the wood lining the cellar is, in fact, Canadian cedar (a known antibacterial medium).
A winery, however, is only as good as its wines. Those of ColleMasseri are, well, as finely crafted and elegant as the winery itself. We taste through the range — from the crisp, floral, flinty/mineral Melacce and Irisse Vermentino and Vermentino blends, respectively, through the charming Grottolo rosé. Then onto the reds: Rigoleto, ColleMassari and capping off with the complex Poggio Lombrone — a 100 percent Monteccuco Sangiovese Riserva DOC, redolent of dark chocolate, cedar, black fruit, mineral and violet.
As amazing as the liquids of Etruria are, people have to eat, and on this tour, I’ve eaten very well indeed. So, it’s instructive for me, on the last full day of the tour, to actually see where some of the ingredients for my many incredible meals originate.
Loaves and Fishes (and Cheese)
Sunlight glints off the silver sides of sea bream gorging on food pellets scattered into the clear water. Pier Luigi Piro, president of I Pescatori di Orbetello, guides me around the company’s manmade pools that are part of the aquaculture facility. There’s a long tradition of fishing in and around the ancient town of Orbetello, with its iconic windmill that juts out of the lagoon. Piro tells me not only about the importance of the fishery to the economy, but also the importance of sustainable fishing. The co-op embraces both modern methods and ancient traditions when harvesting and preparing the finned bounty of the region.
I enjoyed some of that bounty — including a velvety tartare of smoked mullet, silky pasta with fish ragoût and white truffle, and a mixed platter of sea bass, eel and bottarga (an Orbetello specialty made of salted, cured mullet roe) at the charming, seaside restaurant I Pescatori. An added bonus was that all this was prepared by Michelin-star guest Chef Moreno Cardone, who gave me a personal cooking demo prior to my amazingly fresh (of course) lunch.
I leave I Pescatori (and Orbetello) the way I’ve left most meals here: happy. And full. Unfortunately, the sun is setting on this journey, but one more gustatory stop is in order. Some might argue that fish and cheese don’t really mix. Well, today they are getting along famously.
It’s probably wise to leave all pretences of fashion (and any semblance of vanity … and all your personal microbes) at the door when you prepare for a tour of the cheese-crafting plant that is Caseificio Sociale Manciano. As strict hygiene is the order of the day, I don one of those disposable hazmat thingies one is obligated to wear when entering an environment that needs to be kept uber-sterile or where certain politicians have slept (okay, sorry).
Walking with me between rows of the world-renowned Pecorino Toscana cheese in various stages of aging — some just reaching six months, others passing their first birthday — are Claudio Capecchi, president of CIA Grosseto and member of Caseificio Sociale di Manciano’s Board, and Production Manager Fabio Villani. They lead me through the expansive warehouse, and through the history of the company.
Founded as a co-op in 1961 by 21 local dairy famers, the company today has a membership of 250 small- to medium-sized farms and manages a combined flock of some 60,000 sheep. The eight million or so litres of milk they produce annually is used to produce the company’s flagship Percorino Toscano PDO — about 435,000 wheels of it.
Back in my civvies, I taste through a range of Pecorino Toscano, from creamy and young, to well-aged and piquant, capped off with some sweet and marvellously rich Ricotta, all chased down with local vino (of course).
The moon wanes and the stars glimmer as the night segues into a young morning. I float serenely in the cocooning warmth of the Terme di Saturnia pool reminiscing on the week that has passed, and on the unfortunate reality that in not so many hours I’ll have to leave this amazing region with nothing but memories, photographs and a bottle of Grappa di Brunello di Montalcino Riserva stashed in my luggage. Though the latter will likely not last long, the former will last as long as I do.