I recently returned from a 2-week trip to Italy and Geneva. The main first week of the trip was spent touring Tuscany with friends whom I met through Cellar Tracker. My friend, Tina, from California was with me, and we also visited Venice and Switzerland in the second week.
The idea to tour Tuscany was hatched about a year ago. Shortly afterwards, I reached out to Wine + Art and Longboarder for their insight into the area. We broke up the trip into two sections - stay in Florence for four nights where we would visit wineries in Chianti and Bolgheri and then stay in Montalcino for two nights to visit various Brunello producers. On our last night, we decided to spend one night in Siena because we had plans to do a quick tour of the city and to eat at my favorite restaurant - Osteria Antica da Divo.
Here's a summary of where we stayed, wineries we visited, places we ate, and wines we drank.
My friend, Tina, and I stayed at the Palazzo Magnani Feroni (Florence) which is on the Oltrano side of the city. For about 150 euros per night, we received a large suite with a separate living room and bedroom areas. A full-breakfast was included in a lovely room with a huge Murano chandelier. A Nespresso in the lobby was available to guests which we used a couple of times each morning. One of its best features, however, was the rooftop terrace with sweeping views of the city. Highly Recommend.
The rest of our group stayed at the Hotel Baglioni and the Westin Excelsior. I've stayed in the latter, and it is also a lovely hotel but much more expensive than PMF. The lobby of the Baglioni was charming and very close to the train station.
Il Giglio (Montalcino) - the group stayed here for two nights, and we would all agree that it is a very lovely and charming hotel. The rooms were on the small side but was cozy and with great views of Val d'Arbia and terracotta rooftops below. It was great waking up in the morning and looking out the window. A continental breakfast was included in the 135 euro rate. Highly Recommend.
Palazzo Ravizza (Siena) - the group stayed here for 1 night. The hotel has rooms in the back that have views of the countryside. I opted for the cheaper room that faced the opposite side for about 80 euros. The room size was bigger than the one at Il Giglio. The hotel is within the city walls and has free parking, making it convenient for using Siena as a base for day trips to other towns or Montalcino. It was a 15- minute walk to the Osteria Antica da Divo, the Duomo and Campo. Highly Recommend,
Hotel Ai Reali (Venice) - another excellent hotel that was 5 minutes to the Rialto Bridge and 10 minutes to St. Mark's. I reserved their Classic room, and it had plenty of room with a large chandelier. I prepaid at 150 euros per night, and it included an excellent full breakfast. One of the nice features was the on-demand music that had Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Rhapsody in Blue, and other great classics that made getting ready in the morning or decompressing at the end of day easier. Stayed 3 nights. Accessible by water taxi which we took when we arrived and departed. Highly Recommend.
Buca Mario (Florence) - the group kicked off our trip on a Sunday night . Friendly staff. Very good wine list and ordered the 2011 Guado al Tasso Bolgheri Superiore (B-), 2009 Campogiovanni Brunello (B), and 2001 Luciano Bruni Brunello Riserva (A-). Since it was truffle season, I ordered the tagliarini with shaved truffles (awesome!) as a starter and an osso bucco (very good). 125 euros each (I believe).
Olio e Convivium (Florence) - Tina and I enjoyed their four-course, 45-euro tasting menu that was a welcome departure from the heavier Tuscan cuisine. The best dish was the dessert of green apple gelato with a white chocolate sauce.
Gelateria La Carraia (Florence) - had gelato twice. I don't understand the high ratings from Tripadvisor. The gelato was too airy IMO. Grom, which is a national chain, has better product. I'm sure there are much better options in Florence, the birthplace of gelato.
Mercato Centrale (Florence) - went here once for gelato (very good) and hot chocolate (also very good) along with some sandwiches to take with us for the train ride. It is a food hall essentially with the bar and prepared foods upstairs and a food market on the ground floor. If you want something quick and tasty, this is a pretty good place to go.
Osteria di Passignano (Chianti Classico) - the group had lunch here as part of the 150 euro fee at Antinori for lunch, wine tasting, and winery tour. The 4-course meal was paired with Antori's top wines - the 2011 Antinori Tignanello (B), 2011 Guado al Tasso (B), 2009 Pian Delle Vigne (B+), and 2011 Solaia (B+).
Altiero (Chianti Classico) - a small winery (less than 7K bottles) that we visited where they prepared a 4-course lunch. The highlight was a braised chicken in Chianti wine.
La Locanda del Castello (San Giovanni d'Asso) - apparently the town has an annual white truffle festival, and we were lucky to find a poster of it while exploring the tiny village of Sant' Angelo in Colle. We ordered a variety of dishes and paid for the extra shavings of truffles -- risotto with truffles, ravioli with truffles, and hamburger with truffles (mine). All were excellent. We had a bottle of sparkling NV rose. I think it came out to about 30 euros each.
Il Giglio Restaurant - the only thing I remembered about this place were the wines on the list and the tagliolini pasta with shaved truffles that I regretted not ordering! We thought we were bad asses when we all chipped in for a 2009 Masseto (picked up in a wine shop in Bolgheri) and asked the owner if he can serve it blind to us along with another bottle from Bolgheri (2010 Le Macchiole Messorio, B+). When we opened the wine list, we saw the same Masseto at 60 euros less than what we had paid. The wine list was excellent, and we ended up ordering the 1995 Gaja Sperss (flawed), 1996 Solaia (A), 1997 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuovo (A-), and a 1999 Ornellaia (A). The Masseto was good, but at this age, it didn't do a whole lot for me.
Osteria Antica da Divo (Siena) - this was my third trip and remained as one of my favorites. I've always enjoyed the food, and the staff was great in accommodating our group. They allowed us to bring in a magnum of the 2005 Argiano Suolo (A) since we ordered several bottles from their reasonably priced wine list - 2004 Philipponnat Grand Blanc (A-), 1999 Col D'Orcia Olmaia (B+), 2010 Fontodi Flacianello (B+), 2008 Castello della Sala Muffato Umbria IGT (B), and 2006 I Sodi Vin Santo (B+).
Alle Corone Restaurant (Venice) - the restaurant was inside the Hotel Ai Reali where we were staying. Ate twice because it was good and we didn't have to walk too far. We had their chichetti sampler twice, and it included a variety of seafood that was each prepared differently. The risotto with mackerel and red wine reduction sounded weird but was delicious. Bacon-wrapped monkfish was excellent.
Le Leman (Nyon, Switzerland) - Tina and I visited her brother and partner who was working for the UN. Nyon is a charming hamlet on the lake just outside of Geneva. We had the traditional cheese fondue that was delicious. The surprise dish of the trip was their version of pizza and a topping of filet of the local perch. It was excellent. We had a local white wine from the Valais region.
For our other meals, the wineries we visited typically provided some kind of snack that generally consisted of bread or crostini with fresh olive oil, salumi, and local cheese. There is no place in the US that can come close to the quality of these food items.
Wineries We Visited
Antinori - it was our first stop. We initially went to the more modern and newest winery. This was interesting but a little too corporate and sterile. Lots of big windows to see the vineyards. Our appointment was at the original location - Badia di Passignano. The tour was very good, and the property very pretty. As mentioned above, we paid 150 euros for the tasting of Antinori's top wines and a four-course lunch at the Osteria.
Bello Stento - this was a small winery arranged through our guide, Viaggi d'Ambra. The owner and winemaker who greeted us was enthusiastic and engaging although we had our guide to translate for us. The owner prepared a very nice "snack" for us while she described the various wines we were tasting. 2009 Toscana IGT (B-), 2011 Colli Sienese - Rutilio (B-), 2010 Chianti Classico (B), 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva (B+), 2010 11 Marzo (B), and 2006 Vin Santo (B+). These wines were much better with food, and with an average price of 15 euros, it was a great deal.
Altiero - an even smaller winery that our guide arranged. The lunch was excellent. We literally ate in their dining room. The owners were a bit shy in front of us. The wines were slightly below Bello Stento probably because we were drinking wines whose glue on the labels had barely dried. 2013 Sangiovese Rose (C), 2012 Chianti Classico (B-), 2012 Chianti Classico Riserva (B), and 2012 Burasca (B).
Ornellaia - beautiful property with interesting artwork especially the water features representing the four seasons. The tasting at 60 euros was okay, and it included the recent vintage of their flagship wine. It was nice to see the vineyards, but it was like visiting Opus One. 2012 Le Volte (B), 2012 Le Serre Nuove (B), 2011 Ornellaia (B+)
Sassicaia - the least enjoyable of wineries we visited probably because our guide was almost 25 minutes late. The tour was brief, and the tasting was straightforward. At 40 euros, I guess we couldn't expect a bit more. I would skip this one and find a smaller winery in Bolgheri. It wasn't worth the time to get there. 2012 Le Difese Toscana IGT (B-), 2012 Guidalberto (B), 2011 Sassicaia (B+).
Luce della Vite - we had a tasting and lunch that was excellent. It's a very beautiful property with sweeping views of the Montalcino vineyards. The staff was excellent and very accommodating. We were about 2 hours late because of a snafu with GPS. We were fortunate that there wasn't another group who reserved after us, or else, we would've been SOL. The lunch was delicious. Our guide was very gracious and even opened a new bottle of the Brunello after we drank the first one. 150 euros pp. 2010 Leonia (sparkling wine from Tuscany, B+), 2012 Attems Collio Cicinis (Sauv Blanc from Fruili, B+), 2012 Lucente Toscana IGT (B), 2011 Luce della Vite Toscana IGT (B), 2009 Brunello (B+), 2006 Quaranta Altara Vin Santo (B).
Argiano - also a very beautiful property with great views. The reason we chose it was because of their Suolo bottling. Unfortunately, they had ran out, and we were able to taste their 2012 Rosso (B-), 2009 Brunello Normale (B), and 2012 Solengo (B). The guide was very good and engaging. 30 euros pp.
Querce Bettina - a fairly new winery that was started in the 90s but only started producing Brunello with the 2004 vintage. Roberto was very gracious in showing us his beautiful property. He prepared a traditional Tuscan snack to eat while we tasted his wines. 2008 Rosso (B), 2007 Brunello Normale (B+), 2006 Brunello Riserva (A-), 2005 Brunello Normale (B+). 20 euros pp.
Col D'Orcia - if this was the first winery we visited, I would have been more impressed. It was still pretty with 100-yr old olive and cypress trees on the property. The wines were very good and had a lot of history, but it just suffered from tasting exhaustion and from the truffle festival that followed. 2012 Rosso (B-), 2010 Banditella (B), 2009 Brunello (B), 2010 Sant' Antimo Nearco (B), 2006 Brunello Riserva Al Vento (B+), 2010 Muscadello Pascena (B-). 30 euros pp.
Traveling to Italy and Tuscany in November has a lot of benefits. It is much less crowded. The colors on the vines were spectacular. Hotel rates are at least 40% cheaper. Wineries are much more open to visitors. And, it's the start or the middle of white truffle season. Weather can be dicey though.
Visiting the smaller wineries were a lot more fun than the large, established ones.
Montalcino is a beautiful town and such a great base for visiting nearby wineries. There are 2-3 enotecas every 50 yards! The town must get a lot of business to support all of them. The Fortezza was a great place to taste. Climbing up the ramparts was also fun where there were some great views!
Venice was simply gorgeous and so much better than the summer time. It was great walking around Murano, Burano, and just getting lost. We got lucky with the weather as it was pouring rain when we arrived in the evening, and it was sunny for the next several days.