Montalcino was a tiny walled city. Evidently, the rich folks from Sienna holed up there during various inter-city wars in the way-back. There is a fortress when you can pay a few Euros to climb up to the walls for an awesome view. The whole focus of the area is on wine — Brunello di Montalcino. Delicious and not cheap (though pretty reasonable there, at the source). They also make a cheaper, less aged Rosso di Montalcino which is quite good as well. We tasted a bunch of great stuff. There ia a wine bar in the fortress itself where you can do tastings. Unlike in the US, they don’t just pour some wine into glasses and say “This is the ’08.” They actually explain each wine — the type of oak used, traditional or modern methods, where the vineyard is on the map, which years were the best vintages and why. Very enjoyable.
To visit wineries, you need a reservation. I made one through email with Castello Romitorio. It was amazing. The owner is evidently an artist and there were scuptures and paintings everywhere. Daniele, our host, was super nice. Took us through the facility (even though it was during harvest), explained everything and then poured us our tasting. Which included some nice cheeses, bread and olive oil. We tasted two Brunellos (one a reserve) and then a wine they make in the Saturnia area, as we told him we were headed that way. He was busy preparing for a large group of his distributors from Switzerland, so left us alone and told us to help ourselves to more wine if we wanted. After tasting, we walked from the tasting room up to the castle. A view of the Tuscan hills. Really a wonderful morning.
Our lodging was an agriturismo on a working vineyard. They were harvesting one of the days we were there. The folks there were very gracious and gave me a bottle of wine for my birthday. The apartment had modern conveniences but some furniture from the 1700 and 1800s. Really charming. A hot tub and pool onsite too. The restaurant on the property was delicious, home of the semifreddo made with local honey and served with a grappa cream sauce. Oh my. The night we ate there, we were one of only two couples in the place.
About 12km from Montalcino is the Abbey of San Antimo. Originally built in the 900s, then re-done in the 1200s. It was closed in the 1300s by one of the Popes but evidently opened sometime afterward. It was a place where I felt such a sense of peace. Incredibly beautiful view of the hills, vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees, hill towns. We went back to the Abbey at 1900 for Vespers. The monks (there were four) sing Gregorian chants (in French?). It was sooo cool, very meditative. Dark in the chapel, with only a few lightbulbs, moonlight coming in as well. I have no idea what they were saying but I could have listened to it for a long time. Evidently, there is a pilgrimage walk that people do from SIena to this Abbey (and perhaps beyond?). I bet it would be a beautiful experience.
Just down the road from the Abbey was a restaurant, Locanda San Antimo. One waiter for the whole place — the hardest working waiter in all of Italy! We had wonderful pasta. The simple “cacio e pepe” (cheese and black pepper) sauce is delicious beyond words. Served on the thick, homemade spaghetti noodle they call pici.
We took a scenic (for me, the passenger!) drive to Montepulciano as well. Larger than Montalcino, they also have a focus on wine — Nobile di Montepulciano. Also delcious. We tasted wine at a little cellar near the town square where the owner is famous due to Rick Steves’ TV shows and guidebooks. His assistant was not impressed with this fame and the tourists wanting their photo taken with him. She was rolling her eyes at the mention of Rick Steves, and both of them were saying (in Italian) that it is a miracle that the owner is famous. It was so funny. We should have asked to have our photo taken with her, but I didn’t think of it until later. Of course, she was the one doing all the work, pouring the tastings, taking money for wine purchases. Earlier that day, some tourists from Texas had come in and given her a lapel pin featuring the US and Texas flags. Because, you know, Texas is its own country, a republic and all.
The other day, we found a Rosso di Montalcino at a local store; we were too cheap to buy the Brunello they had! Still, the Rosso was delicious and served well to help us remember our wonderful time in Montalcino.