MONTALCINO, Italy — You might say that a fatigue of Florence landed us in this little town, and we were quite glad of it.
Four days amid the Florentine noise, auto exhaust and crowds had put us in a depressed funk. A jaunt through the Tuscan countryside appeared a possible remedy. I had heard of Montalcino because its wine, Brunello di Montalcino, is regarded as one of the best--and costliest--of Tuscany.
We took our rented car and meandered over the hills south of Florence, heading toward Siena en route to Montalcino. This is Chianti Classico country and it's thought to be one of the prettiest wine zones in the world. Rambling, decadent-looking villas sit on the highest hills, surrounded by vineyards and woods.
First stop was Greve in Chianti. Our timing couldn't have been better: lunchtime. The town accommodated us with a fine little country restaurant, the Albergo Verrezano, right on the main square.
Following the Script
Everything was going according to script. We began with the obligatory Tuscan appetizers, crostini de fegatini (rounds of fire-toasted bread spread with tomato sauce, anchovy butter or liver pate) and ended with bistecca alla Fiorneina (the famous steak of Chianina beef).
Several bottles of 1982 Fontodi Chianti Classico were called upon to wash down this gigantic beef chunk. The bill was about $25 per person.
We continued to Montalcino, bypassing Siena, and booked a room at the first hotel we came to, the Hotel Giordano ($30 a night).
Later, a sunset walk around Montalcino proved that it could serve as a model for all the hilltop towns of Tuscany. It has all the expected appointments: 15th-Century battlements, towers, churches, winding streets and red-tiled houses.
Every place in town seems to have a view of the Orcia, Arbia or Ombrone valleys. Take your choice. Frankly, we liked the feel better than Florence.
Worth noting: the Ristorante Edgardo, owned by Edgardo Sandoli. It's one of the best in Tuscany. It has a carefully considered list of Montalcino wines and is more or less "wine central" for the area. So it might serve as a guide center for your winery visits.
Wine tourism in Montalcino is still in its formative stages, especially if you compare it to California or the main regions of France. Signs everywhere point to wineries, but most aren't waiting for visitors. Several wineries we visited were surprised, almost dumbfounded, that we would come 5,000 miles to see them. This, of course, is what makes visiting Brunello country so nice.
Another good place to prime your wine palate is the Cantina del Brunello, located about 50 feet from Edgardo. It offers a wise selection of wine by the glass in an old cafe setting. Cantina is not quite as stylish as Edgardo, but it does have an appealing kind of simplicity.
Here are some strong recommendations for winery visits. They offer a good beginning. But be adventurous. Italians admire that "Che bravo!"
Organized for Visitors
Fattoria Barbi: a good place to break the ice because it is organized for visiting. The restaurant serves very good meals, prepared with the estate's cheeses, olives and wines. The owner, Signora Colombini, is the wine maker.
Fattoria Barbi has one of the largest varieties of wines--various Brunellos, Vin Santo (dessert wine) and Moscadello, a fruity white wine that was in vogue for centuries before Brunello took over earlier this century.
Winery tours and tastings are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Check in advance, if possible, to make sure they are touring your day. English is spoken. The winery is in the vicinity of Podernovi.
Step Back in Time
Canalicchio di Sopra: A visit here is a step back in time. The owners, brothers Primo and Rosildo Pacenti, are characters from another age. They are warm, sincere people.
The Pacentis make only Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, young red that does not have the mandatory 3 1/2 years aging in wood.
"We must sell some wine young to get the money," Primo says. The 1985 Rosso is splendid. Buy as many bottles as you can carry (about $4 U.S. a bottle).
The brothers speak only Italian, but they make an effort to communicate with foreign visitors. If you speak no Italian, you might have your hotel call for an appointment. Or you might just drive in. It's just down the hill from the village and worth the effort.
A Day Outing
Lisini: A visit here can be a day outing combined with a stop at the hilltop village of San Angelo in Colle. Surrounded by vineyards, this village is one of the most beautiful in Tuscany. How about a picnic in the vineyards?
Taste the 1985 Brunello from the cask, and buy some of the 1982. They are both beautiful wines, but the 1985 has not been bottled yet. An appointment is necessary. Call Lorenzo Lisini Baldi. The winery is approximately four miles south of Montalcino, off the road to San Angelo in Colle.
Altesino and Carpazo: These two wineries may have the greatest reputation of all in America. They are next to each other, so if you visit one, you might as well visit the other.
These are also two of the most forward-looking of all the Brunello makers. Many of the wines are aged utilizing the modern method of small oak barrels, as opposed to the old method of giant casks. The wines are elegant and international in style. Each produces many special lots and reserves. Look for the La Casa from Carpazo and Altesino's riservas.
It's best to call before arrival. Both wineries are large for the region and professionally staffed. At either, you can usually find an English speaker. They are located north of Montalcino, just off the Siena road.
For further information on the Tuscany region of Italy, contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108; call (415) 392-6206.