Travaasa Austin Certified Sommelier, Edward Morgan, embarked on a two-week long journey through Italy, learning the intricacies of Italian winemaking along the way. His adventure has taken him through Piedmont, Veneto, Verona, Emilia Romagna, Reggio Emilia and Abruzzo. Here is an excerpt from his incredible Italian saga highlighting his time in Montalcino.
Atop of the high hills and winding roads of Montalcino is the Fortress of Montalcino, the last Sienese stronghold against the Medicis. Today, this battle is considered one of the final great conflicts of the region until the amalgamation and ultimate unification of Italy occurred 500 years later.
When you arrive at the steps of the outer curtain walls, you begin to understand why an outnumbered army of only a few hundred men held out against a league of thousands of Florentines for nearly four years. Just getting up these hills of nearly a 20% grade would take you some time, then there’s negotiating the city and eventually the baileys and towers of the castle itself. The advantage definitely went to the Sienese.
We arrived in Montalcino just after 5 p.m. on a Monday settling in at The Hotel Capitani, once known as a place of refuge for the fleeing Sienese and more recently as the Castato Leopaldini, a survey carved out of the Duchy of Tuscany as a keepsake left by the Medici. Now some five centuries later, it would be our home for our final descent into the land of the Etruscans.
Montalcino is a town of about 3,000 people set amidst the backdrop of Mt Amiata, an extinct volcano responsible for carving out much of the countryside. The streets are long, steep and narrow and without proper attire, health included, most of your days will be spent admiring the landscape from your hotel window.
We climbed an avenue toward the center of town just below the castle of Montalcino and stepped into the Alle Logge di Piazza, an unabashed social hub known for its coffee, aperitifs and, you guessed it, local fare. After a more abridged meal highlighted by a type of boar pasta known locally as pinci, we head off to enjoy a cocktail and a night’s sleep before the final march on Montalcino began.
The following morning I made some time for myself. The city was just waking up and the sun had begun to warm the city. Golden glints of sunlight spilled over the hillside and fractured the narrow thoroughfares now and again, peaking around corners and displacing the chill of the shadows that the high angled buildings embraced. The smell of espresso, fresh bread and commerce began to funnel through the cobblestone corridors. It really was what you expect, what you envision an old Italian town of less than a few thousand people to feel like. Off in the distance, Mount Amiata watched over her creation and the sun bleached the hillsides where the clouds broke.
Later that morning, Lars had a special treat for us within the walls of the castle. As in any historical artifacts, much of the exterior is left intact. However, gift shops and coffee stands line the interior and bring us back to the reality of our world we currently reside. Beyond a velvet rope and up a narrow staircase, however, Lars had procured a small space to host a 14-glass flight of the best Montalcino had to offer, blind of course.
We finished our journey through the blood of Jove and headed to Saint’Angelo in Colle, a small municipality outside the city walls with a population of just over 200.
A common thread was woven throughout the cloth of our journey through Italy. In many of the piazzas near the churches that adorned them, large placards of names were carved into the walls watching over the town squares, each representative of a specific branch of service and all dated during WWI. If there was ever a time when one could say sacrifice was made on the backs of a people, Italy is a country that has given herself to the cause every time she has been called with such great sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Even now, while strolling through the city of the Holy Angel on the Hill, a placard with nearly 60 names on it scribes a dark time in history. For a town of only 200 people, this is something to fathom.
Just before we sat, a glass of wine was poured, and I quietly thanked the angels of our better selves for the opportunity to share this moment in such a fine city. We dined in a modest café in the Piazza Costello enjoying fava beans with pecorino, fried zucchini flowers, prosciutto, cantaloupe and Steak Florentine, which, when done right, can simultaneously take you back in time and change your religion. John Franco, the proprietor of “Il Lecchio” came by to greet us and welcome us to his fair city, while his son stayed in the kitchen preparing these beautiful delicacies of local flavor. As the local retired gentlemen found a moment out of the house to congregate in the plaza, we bid John “Arrivederci” and schlepped it back to town.
I managed to steal away a few more moments between lunch and dinner, enjoying a cup of tea on the hotel terrace overlooking the Tuscan countryside. Our journey was coming to a close and I needed to remind myself to hang on to this.
Just before dinner, we met up with the Managing Director, Enrico Viglierchio of Banfi and Silvio Solari, who just happened to be in town and just happened to be walking by. This is important as it gives you an idea of just how small Montalcino’s inhabited areas are and just how lovely a city Montalcino is – even the Sicilians come to play. After enjoying a bottle of Gosset outside Alle Logge with our new friends, Lars sheathed the saber, and we headed to dinner at San Giorgio, a local pizzeria abiding locals and tourists a like. It was a fine evening of conversation and remember-whens that seemed to go down even smoother with the two bottles of Brunello we had procured earlier in the day.
Our journey had taken us quite far over the course of the last two weeks; far enough to recall when we were still negotiating terms with each other through the exchange of witty banter to codify our friendship, yet only a moment in the span of our lives to say, one day, we must do this again.
Tomorrow is the big trip to Banfi. Sleep well my friends, from under the Tuscan stars.