Winery visits come in all shapes and sizes. At one end of the scale, you get a couple of glasses set on top of upturned barrels in the cellar for your tasting, as at the lovely Mas Lou in Faugères, or in the old days chez Rolly Gassmann in Rohrschwihr (Alsace), where Madame Gassmann used to poke her head up from the cellar and invite you down to taste armfuls of bottles, with a big red bucket set on the dirt floor for spitting.
Then there are the wineries that have decided they need a decent space for visitors and built (or repurposed) a cool, luminous tasting room with good glasses and spittoons – Domaine Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim in Alsace’s northern vineyards is one of my favourites.
At the other end of the scale are the full-blown visitor centres (Per Karlsson of BKWine Tours calls this “Disneyland wine tourism”, while stressing he means no disrespect), where large groups of people are escorted through cellars full of mile-high stainless steel tanks, or packed into small trains which tootle their way through the vineyards to a pre-recorded commentary: good examples are the Torres visitor centre or the Codorniu cava plant, both in Catalunya, or the majestic Salentein in Argentina’s Valle de Uco.
I prefer the first two kinds – no surprise there if you’ve been reading any of my wine-inspired posts. If you take the trouble to call ahead and make an appointment (remember: these will be small estates and the people have to make their wine as well as welcoming you), you’ll be able to chat to the winemaker about what’s up in his/her vineyards this year, what are their specialities, why their wine is different from the neighbour’s, what their soils are like and so on.
Visitor centres don’t really do it for me: they’re too big and too impersonal and it’s rare that you get to talk to the people who really matter. But a recent visit to the über-gorgeous, architect-designed Antinori winery in the Chianti hills on the way to Siena forced me to re-examine my prejudices. (I have to declare an interest here: we were guests of the winery, though the visit as described is offered to the public.)
What sets the Antinori in Chianti Classico winery apart? Lots, in a word. First there’s the building, by architect Marco Casamonti, which was seven years in the making. Designed to gather together under one roof all the administration and marketing side of the business with the wine-making operations, previously scattered all around Chianti, it fairly hits you in the solar plexus. Glimpsed from the Florence-Siena motorway which passes beneath it (the blurry pic below is scanned from their newsletter), the fleeting impression is of two earth-brown, snake-like slashes in a green vineyard canvas – a deliberate echo of the slashes in a Lucio Fontana painting. Even when you approach from the car park, you can barely see the long, low-slung, terracotta-coloured building, so discreetly is it settled into its hillside. You can only guess at its presence by the tiny signposts that point you on your way.
A dramatic, rust-coloured spiral staircase leads to the upper reception floor. Here the view out over the vineyards to a range of distant hills is mirrored along the entire length of the building in such a way that you barely know what is real and what is reflection.
The whole thing fuses and blends perfectly with the surrounding countryside; earth colours predominate, in contrast to the lush green of the vines and the forested hillside. The lower floor is where the wine is made. On the next layer are the barrel cellars with an asymmetrical vaulted roof in Impruneta tiles. Suspended above the barrels are two glassed-in ‘tasting pods’, where we adjourned for the second part of the visit, a tasting of four Antinori wines (notes below).
Finally, perched up on the top floor on the roof of the winery building, comes the food. The restaurant, named Rinuccio 1180 after the founding Antinori ancestor, does delicious, osteria-type food that is all of a piece with the place, the scenery and the wines. Sitting out under the restaurant’s tent-like arrangement surrounded by vineyards, feasting on brilliant-saffron-coloured cappelletti stuffed with courgette blossoms in a herby sauce and a salad of pecorino with pears, refreshed by an array of mister-fans puffing delicious cool air, I was forced to eat not just my lunch, but also my words, as far as big, beautiful visitor centre-wineries are concerned.
A little aside on Sangiovese, on which the wines of Chianti are based. When allowed to over-produce (which it does, given a glimmer of a chance) it can be thin, tart, tannic and unlovable – traits that are accentuated when you sip it solo. Sangiovese-based wines cry out for a plate of peppery , fennel-flavoured salami, or local pecorino cheese or a robust dish of pasta with a sharp tomato sauce, or a stew of cinghiale (wild boar) to bring out the best in them. But this was a proper tasting (without food, though unsalted Tuscan bread is provided), and we were here to learn about the wine. We went to work, perched in our fabulous tasting pod, under the tutelage of Sara Pontremolesi, the estate oenologist (there are 14 employed by Antinori, one for each different estate), who provided a fascinating and instructive introduction to Sangiovese, aided by four wines.
[Note that Chianti Classico (CC) is by definition a blend, where Sangiovese – which must make up at least 80% – is fleshed out with local (Canaiolo, Colorino) or international (Cabernet, Merlot) varieties. Some white grapes are also permitted, though this practice is now largely discarded/discredited.]
Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2013
From 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, grown on stony/clay soils in two different vineyards (including the famous Tignanello estate responsible for Antinori’s so-called Super Tuscan). Rather pale, tannic, astringent and acidic, definitely in need of some salumi (and fresh figs).
Marchese Antinori CC Riserva 2014
Same composition, all grapes from Tignanello, barrel-fermented (Hungarian and French oak) and aged in barriques. A deeper colour and quite different nose from the first, similarly tannic, though a little less sharp and drying on the tongue – would be good with a furious pasta (arrabbiata)
Badia a Passignano CC Gran Selezione 2012
100% Sangiovese grapes aged in Hungarian oak barrels, a proportion of them new. Deep ruby, perfumed, a rich mouthful with kinder, “sweeter” tannins (pass the wild boar stew, please…)
One of the first Super Tuscan wines, pioneered by Antinori in 1971, this one from 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cab Sauvignon and 5% Cab Franc. Deep reddish-purple, a lovely mouthful of (sour) cherries and (sweet) spices, complex, explosive and long-lived. I dreamed of drinking (rather than just tasting) it with a rich lamb stew or with pieces hewn from a hunk of aged Parmesan.
Cantine Antinori in Chianti Classico,
Via Cassia per Siena, 133 Loc. Bargino
50026 San Casciano Val di Pesa, Florence
Visits from €30 to €150, depending on wines tasted and whether or not lunch is included