Chianti, an area of Tuscany located between Florence and Siena, is beautifully grooved with vineyards over wide rolling hills. Castles often decorate the tops with their surrounding estate of vineyards full of grapes grown plump and aromatic under the warm Tuscan sun. Castello Di Verrazzano, overlooking the town of Greve in Chianti, is one of them.
The “vineyards situated in Verrazzano,” are mentioned in a manuscript dating back to 1170, preserved in the Abbey of Passignano. Olive groves are recorded to have been growing on the estate simultaneously.
Today, the Renaissance villa is built around the tenth century tower. Originally, the castle was an Etruscan, then a Roman settlement until the Verrazzano family acquired it in the seventh century.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, born in the castle in 1485, was a Florentine navigator who explored the bay of New York and most of the East Coast of North America in the early 1500’s. Not one to keep a low profile, while seeking entrance to the Pacific Ocean near South America on his third and final voyage, he mistakenly landed on an island with cannibalistic natives. End of story….almost. New York immortalized him by naming their double-decker suspension bridge the Verrazzano-Narrows in 1964.
The Verrazzano Estate’s boundaries have not changed in over one thousand years.
Today the Cappellini family runs the estate after acquiring it in 1958. At the time it was in a neglected state and needed repairs. The villa was restored and the surrounding 220 acres of land reorganized, nourished and replanted in vines which are replaced every twelve years. A system of thorough organic fertilization as well as the practice of agronomic techniques has contributed over time to superior wines. The harvest is done exclusively by hand through a careful selection of grapes.
Most good stories have a great ending, and this is no exception. In my next post you are invited to come along with me on a wine tour of Castello Da Verrazzano. I promise a dungeon with cells, but no dragons! Stay tuned…..coming this Wednesday!
” ‘Andiamo,’ let’s go, the sound comes out at a gallop.” Frances Mayes
Imagine riding horses under cypress shadows that fall in wide bands across a sunlit pathway that meander over the hillsides of Tuscany. Endless blue skies blown clean of clouds frame medieval villages and vineyards. Birdsong and breezes gently caress your senses and nature is suddenly all around you.
Have any of you, like myself, ever dreamed of riding from castle to castle on horseback? Recently, I have fallen in love with a similar idea. Riding from winery to winery on horseback. But the very best is to combine the two of them together and ride to castles and wineries on horseback! And what better place to journey through than Tuscany.
Tuscany is a primeval land full of history, legends, and ancient peoples. Pathways wind through meadows and forests that pilgrims walked many centuries ago. Olive groves, vineyards and cypress trees embellish the landscape in the most striking tones, giving a balance of beauty that soothes and refreshes the soul.
Chianti is a region in Tuscany located between Florence and Siena. Steeped in ancient history, the land has grown wealthy from wine. Today the vineyards produce an excellent quality. This was not always the case. Many of us remember the cheap Chianti encased in a wicker bottom with a candle sticking out of it, displayed in Italian restaurants years ago. However, the wine has changed with time and today has become some of the best in the world. Classico is a term used which means that the wine is grown in the oldest zone of origin. The map below shows the area.
Chianti wine was first mentioned in a document from 1398. The above outlined Chianti area boundaries have been fixed since 1932 and have stayed the same. But not all are Chianti Classico. Divided into 8 sub-zones, each one produces its own Chianti wine. As you ride through the region, you will find many farms and wineries along the road offering wine tasting.
There is no better way to experience the sights, smells, and tastes of Tuscany than on horseback. Enjoy a day under the Tuscan sun and experience the ambience close up and personal. Below I have listed a few recommended riding experiences that offer wonderful horses that anyone can ride. Click on the titles to open the websites. I have provided a brief description after each title.
After riding for two hours through the Chianti hillsides, you will return to the stables and enjoy a robust Tuscan lunch of salamis, cheeses, meats, fresh vegetables and wines from the same vineyards you just rode through.
Beginning with a one hour ride through vineyards, olive groves, and medieval villages to a 17th century Villa’s estate, you will be taken on a guided tour of the ancient cellar. The unique process of making olive oil and wine will be discussed, followed by tasting the olive oil and several wines. A Tuscan lunch, consisting of bruschetta and pasta, or dinner for the pm ride, will be served afterward.
What did the earliest Roman wines taste like? Were the highly appraised wines of the first century really worth their legendary status? Will we ever know?
List of suggested wines at bottom
When Vesuvius blew in August of 79 AD, ash covered the entire area of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The thriving seaport towns, once bustling with activity, became graveyards of civilizations frozen in time. There it lay undisturbed for eighteen centuries until it was excavated by Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of excavations from 1860 to 1875. Under twelve feet of solid ash, he discovered the decayed bodies of thirteen men, women, and children huddled together next to a stone wall inside their garden, where they suffocated in the swirling volcanic air.
Orchard of the Fugitives
Today the garden has been named the Orchard of the Fugitives. But instead of death, it is filled with green grass, robust grape vines, and fruit trees. Within the ruins of Pompeii, vineyards are being revived in an attempt to recreate the wines of the ancient Romans according to old Roman methods. In Pompeii’s heyday, vineyards grew in abundance in and around the city. The Villa dei Misteri, the project shared between the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii and Campania wine estate Mastroberardino, has been examining ancient frescos, root imprints, Roman authors, and DNA to identify the original grape varieties cultivated in Pompeii.
Is it actually possible to recreate the ancient Roman wines? Do the vines still exist?
Piero Mastroberardino, the winemaker in charge of the renown Mastroberardino winery in Campania, has been replanting vineyards in Pompeii using the same ancient grape varieties, viticulture and winemaking techniques of that period. Since the early 1700’s, the family has been dedicated to Aglianico, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, among other varieties brought to Campania by ancient Greeks, producing consistently good quality wine.
Pompeii’s Applied Research Laboratory, founded in 1995, discovered plots of land pockmarked by holes that were evidence of vines and their supporting stakes. A year later these vineyards were replanted. The laboratory discovered that many of the green areas within Pompeii had been planted with grape vines. A dense concentration of them were situated close to the arena. In fact, all five vineyards discovered by the research lab were located near the coliseum.
Ancient Roman wine was very strong, but it was usually diluted with seawater before drinking. It was also used for medicinal purposes. Spices were added, or medicinal herbs to cure sickness. The Romans clearly understood alcohols ability to extract essential elements from herbs.
Pliny the Elder
Ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about wine. In his book Naturalis historia, he lists the grape varieties that were in common use. These were Greco, Fiano, Aglianico, Piedirosso, Sciascinoso, Coda di Bolpe, Caprettona, and Falanghina. These eight grape varietals are grown in Pompeii’s vineyards. Interestingly, it was the frescos found in Pompeii that partly identified the grape varietal as they each have their own shape. Studying DNA only gives the species, not the variety. Scientists at Pompeii were able to decipher the grape varietals through ancient texts, root imprints, and studies on climatic change as well.
“Campanian wines were considered the wines of the emperors, the wines for events,”states Mastroberardino. “They were the first to introduce the DOC,” he claims, referring to the rules that govern viticulture and labeling practices in Italy today. “On the amphorae of that period, you find the geographic origin of the wine, then the bolla, which is the seal of the producer, then the vintage.”
Today, restaurants and wine distributors carry Mastroberardino’s wines with honor. Their committment to tradition and cultivation of ancient grape varietals, and their ability to blend modern technology with time-tested techniques has placed the Mastroberardino winery as one of the most excellent in Campania.
So, here is your chance to taste the wines of the ancient Romans, made of the same grape varietals that were used over two thousand years ago, though not as strong, thankfully. Cultivated on the same soil around Vesuvius and nourished by the warmth of the sun, these wines are sure to please. Indulge in a glass and let your mind wander among the streets and shops of ancient Pompeii.
All wines may be purchased through wine shops or restaurants.
Recommended Mastroberardino Wines:
2011 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco DOC $23–made entirely of an indigenous varietal called Coda di Volpe,it is a soft pale yellow in color with aromas of pears and apricots.
2011 Mastroberardino, Greco di Tufo DOCG $28–One of Italy’s most ancient grape varietals, Grecohas been grown in Campania for thousands of years. It is an elegant, soft-bodied wine with a texture held together by a zesty acidity.
2011 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC $23–The red brother to its white sister, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso shares the same legend and origin. An intense Ruby color, aromas of cherry and red berries, and soft flavors of plum, raspberry, and black pepper, this is the result of the Piedirossograpes of this wine.
2010 Mastroberardino, Campania Aglianico IGT $28–Made from another ancient grape of Italy, Aglianicothrives in the volcanic soil and terroir of Campania. Blackberries and violets are the aromas one can find in a glass of this wine.
“It has passed into a proverb, that wisdom is overshadowed by wine. Pliny the Elder (Caius Plinius Secundus), Roman officer and encyclopedist, (23-79)
The properties of wine making are very possibly Rome’s most lasting contribution to the world today. What began as wild grapes that grew throughout the mediterranean region, cultivated by the Greeks and Etruscans, and embellished to an art by the Romans, is now considered an essential ingredient to socializing and fine dining.
The rise of the ancient Roman Empire saw an increase in technology and awareness of wine making which spread to all parts of the empire. Because the Romans held the attitude that wine was a daily necessity of life, wine became democratic and available to everyone regardless of class. By the 2nd century BC, wine and grape production soared. Large slave-run vineyards dotted the peninsula along the coastline. As the Roman empire expanded, wine and viticulture was introduced throughout the regions to ensure steady supplies for Roman soldiers and colonists. Conquered territories, such as France, Germany, Portugal and Spain traded with the Romans for wine even before the Romans annexed the regions and cultivated vineyards.
Unlike the Greeks and Etruscans, the Romans took a deep interest in the art of wine making. They cared about the quality of the wine, its taste, its aroma and its flavor. Some of the earlier wines, which tended to be harsh, could be ignited due to the high amount of alcohol, so it was necessary to dilute wine with seawater. Flavor changing properties were added to wine including honey, herbs and/or spices of all sorts, and chalk added to reduce acidity.
Roman historians Pliny the Elder and Horace claimed the best wine to be Falerno, produced in northern Campania, the region of Naples. Martial, however, prefered the wine of Albano, from the same area south of Rome that today produces the popular wines of the castelli romani. And finally Horace, who was fond of Caleno (a wealthy persons wine), Massico, and Cecubo, produced near Fondi, in the south of Lazio, which he considers “generous and strong.”
Almost all of these wines were preferably stored for generations in beautiful amphorae, slender and elegant, with elongated handles and necks. Horace gives specific instructions on how to taste aged wine, stating the best to be the Albano which was aged for nine years. You sip the wine, he says, together with your lover.
So how has all of this Roman viticulture carried down through the centuries to our wine making practices today?
To begin with, they developed the attitude that wine should be available to everyone (populi) and established its importance in everyday life. As a result, vineyards were planted and cultivated throughout the Roman Empire whose borders encompassed most of Europe. As far as wine production, they introduced props and trellises in wine growing, improved the presses used for extracting juice, and classified which groups of grapes grew best in which climates. They sought to develop a better taste with aged wine, and they were the first to store it in wooden barrels. It is likely that they were the first to store wine in glass jars with corks.
Many thanks to monks in European monasteries who, after the fall of Rome, kept the art of wine-making alive and well.
Today, wine consumption is still enjoyed by many and brings a strong connection within the realm of socializing. It is continually being improved upon and perfected by wine-makers all over the world. And to this day, as Horace instructed, wine is still to be ‘sipped together with one’s lover.’
I found myself relaxing at a quiet taverna in Naples one evening while watching the sun set over the boundless sea. Musing, I noticed that my glass of Verdicchio dei Castelli began to create a sparkling prism effect on the white tablecloth. As the sun continued to set, the golden shafts of angled light became even more magnificent. Mesmerizing. Engaging.
When did wine making begin in Italy? And where?
Well, what I do know is that the Greeks, always admired by the Romans, began cultivating grapes in southern Italy well before the first century. They called Italy “Enotria,” the land of wine. Their wine techniques spread northward to central Italy, which were adopted by the clever Etruscans.
In time, the Romans grew wealthy from conquests throughout the Mediterranean, creating markets to invest in vineyards. As a result, vine-growing became very advanced as the Romans knew which areas produced the best wine.
Wine was exported in exchange for slaves to cultivate the large estate vineyards, which grew even larger. People were forced off their land and emigrated to Rome. By the first century Rome was a metropolis with one million inhabitants!
“Imports of wine are absolutely forbidden…it makes men soft and unequal to hard work.” Caesar
For a time, Caesar prohibited Roman wine to pass the borders into Germany. But, Roman vines did spread along the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Trier, on the slopes above the Moselle, began growing grapes as early as the second century. Today these predominately white grapes are a vast supplier of some of the best white wine from Germany.
Pliny, Roman writer and historian, noted that wine-producing had spread like wildfire, covering much of Gaul by 71 AD.
By this time, the Romans had developed over 50 distinct varieties of grapes. The best wines came from Campania, north of Naples on the plain between the sea and the mountains.
Wine was available to all societal levels, like a sacred right. There was, of course, no tea, chocolate or coffee, no soft drinks or spirits. And beer, though it did exist, was considered a barbarians drink. Imagine that!
“Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.” Homer, Greek poet
As we all know, wine was a huge part of the Roman’s daily life. So, how did they stay sober?
Romans never drank wine ‘neat’, but diluted it with water, usually one part wine and two parts water. They sometimes used seawater or sweetened with honey. The Greeks diluted their wine even more.
The intention was to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of the wine while at their symposium by becoming intoxicated just enough to enjoy spontaneity and converse freely. The Roman counterpart, called the convivium, was not as tame. In each society it was considered disgraceful to become intoxicated in public and was not the norm.
How did all of this culminate into the wine we drink today, almost 2,000 years later?
In my next post I will share popular wines we drink today that are the very descendent of these Roman vineyards. You won’t want to miss it so…stay tuned!