5th October, 2014

WineGeese Society Tour of Rome and Tuscany 2014

Although the tradition of the Winegeese is to seek out wineries throughout the world with Irish heritage, we visit Italy this year just because…

It is October, potentially the middle of the grape crushing season in Tuscany. The WineGeese, a collection of wine-lovers from The Ireland Funds, begin their pilgrimage in Rome. An itinerary has been compiled around strategic venues which will educate our minds and satiate our palates.

We stay close to the Pantheon, built some two thousand years ago, sporting a concrete dome which still today is the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. A tour of some of the city’s lesser known historical sites sets us up for our Italian experience.

A visit to the burial site of Hugh O’Neill puts into historical perspective the name “Winegeese.” O’Neill was one of the original Wildgeese who fled Ireland in the early 1600’s to gather continental armies in Ireland’s fight against King James I.

Dinner on our first evening consisted of the best of Irish cuisine. Hosted by the Irish Ambassador and his wife, Bobby and Mary McDonagh, we enjoy dinner and entertainment in magnificent Villa Spada, which houses the Irish embassy in Italy.

Our second day in Rome starts with a small number of us rising before dawn to experience mass in the Hibernian crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City—and to savor the square and vast edifice as dawn breaks before the crowds roll in. The word which comes to mind is Ethereal!

The gardens at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, are now open to the public and we enjoy this sojourn to the outskirts of Rome for a private tour of this manicured green haven.

For dinner we are transported to a palazzo hidden away in the heart of the city with family records dating back over a thousand years. Our beautifully restored dining room offers us a chance to connect with life in the Renaissance era.

But we must move on—we are here for Toscana and its wines!  En route to our hotel we pause for lunch at Avignonesi—a well-known producer of Super Tuscans. This winery practices biodynamic methods, using cow manure or quartz packed into cow horns, buried in the ground, then crushed with water and later sprayed on to the ground or vine leaves. A Belgian lady, Virgine Saverys, recently from the shipping industry bought the struggling winery, which she then rejuvenated with these ecological techniques.

Our borgo at San Felice, outside the quaint town of Castelnuovo Beradenga, is typical of Tuscan architecture. Pale sandstone blocks adorned with dark green shutters, pink potted geraniums and terra cotta roof tiles complete the vision of Tuscany at its best. The separate buildings, housing just a few rooms each, rest in tranquility amongst the vines which are just starting to turn autumnal in color—some still with luscious purple grapes clinging to the lower trellises awaiting their harvest. We watch the harvester culling these last few vestiges of nectar before they are shaken and sucked, minus stems and seeds, into the machine and then the press, for their journey to the wine glass.

We now embark on three days of wine-tasting in some of the most prominent wineries Tuscany has to offer. A visit to the medieval town of Montalcino sets the scene for our appreciation of the Sangiovese grape. The Biondi Santi winery has been in the same family for over 300 years. In 1870, Ferruccio Biondi Santi decided to use only 100% Sangiovese grapes in his wines, and thus Brunello was born. The present owner, Jacopo Biondi Santi, kindly invited us to taste, among others, his 1975 Riserva—a shade under a thousand euros a bottle!

Thank goodness we take a break from three-course fare. In the nearby village of Montisi we relax in an enoteca for a talk by Maurizio Castelli, Italy’s leading guru on Tuscan wines, in particular Brunellos and the Sangiovese grapes. As we taste, we learn just what makes these wines so special. Not to be outdone by the wine industry, Maurizio’s wife, Antonella Piredda, is a connoisseur of the local cheeses. After plates of antipasti—meats and salads—we are treated to a platter of eight different cheeses, their qualities and composition explaining their attributes.

The Chianti region summons us and our day begins in the cellars of the Antinori family at Badio a Passagiano. Twenty-six generations of the Antinori family have been in the business of creating today’s 20 vineyards and over 200 labels. Chianti Classico today is made up of 85% Sangiovese grapes, plus a blend of Cabernet and Cabernet Franc, thus creating the famed Tignanello—a far cry from the plump, straw-encased bottles of Chianti Classico we all grew up with in our early days of wine exploration!  We hit upon the busiest day of the year at Antinori. A very wet summer had persuaded the vintners to leave the grapes on the vines longer than usual and now some (because of the recent humidity) show signs of mold. Watch out for 2017 releases—higher prices and less inventory.

Lunch is the treat of all treats. Olive oil and honey are produced here too so we get to taste three different oils for starters and our cheese course is laced with two flavors of honey. Of course, the whole lunch was paired with delicious wines—Chianti Classico, Tignanello, Brunello, and Solaia, to name a few!

Leaving behind the “traditional” wineries of generations past, the three daughters of the Antinori family built the winery of the future in Bargino. This state-of-the-art complex greets the visitors with a grand circular steel staircase leading up to a “factory” of glass with psychedelic lighting and quirky-colored cushions. Yet do not doubt, this Antinori plant houses the biggest of all stainless steel vats:  610 hectar liters, or 8,200 bottles of wine per vat. From all of their estates combined, Antinori bottle more than six million bottles per year. This complex alone is capable of bottling 5,000 bottles of wine an hour. We taste again, dessert wines too this time, and we fall asleep on our drive back to base.

Dinner tonight is at the famed Michelin star restaurant, La Bottega del 30, a family owned restaurant visited some 15 years ago by the writer when it contained a renowned culinary school and a museum of cooking utensils. Its reputation has only grown with age and a wonderful dinner was left to our memories.

Our last day: We have a leisurely morning arriving at Casali di Bibbiano where owner, Alberto Guadagnini, welcomes us for a short tour of his winery and lunch on the terrace. He owns two restaurants in the States and is already a friend of the WineGeese.

We journey on to Siena for some shopping and a rest on Il Campo, the medieval town with the familiar sloping central piazza. It’s home to Il Palio, a horse race held twice a year in this circular “basin.”

As we return to our home away from home for our farewell dinner—it has to be mentioned—our bus breaks down. We pull off the autostrada and wait for help. Nicki Lynch, from our Dublin office, our most proficient and stand-in-at-the-last-minute guide, calmly takes control of the situation and three smaller cars soon arrive to take us onwards.

At dinner that evening we toast Ted Murphy and his wife, Garry, who were unable to join us on this trip. Ted put so much effort into compiling the history of the WineGeese, and the second edition of his book, “A Kingdom of Wine”, was presented by us to each of our hosts at the various wineries, with thanks for the occasions they afforded us.

It is always sad to say arrivederci to friends and fellow WineGeese, but this we must as we depart from another memorable trip. Our local guide, Camilla Baines, gave us insight and local knowledge to all these places. Elisabet Bordt, yet again, did an outstanding job organizing the wonderful locations, and Nicki our “Lynchpin” saw to it that everything played out according to plan and no one went missing. A huge thanks to all these ladies for another successful chapter in the annals of the WineGeese from twenty of its most avid and “wine-soaked” supporters.

Alla prossima!

Author Pauline Ryan is a member of The Ireland Funds WineGeese Society and a Board Director of The American Ireland Fund.

For an expanded account of the 2014 trip, visit her blog at http://www.winegeeseintuscany.blogspot.com/