Growing up in America, I wasn’t exactly prone towards appreciating good wine. Let’s be honest–on a college budget, I thought it was classy when I showed up at a house party that had Bud Light instead of the typical PBR or whatever else was on sale at the supermarket that week. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that Italians take their wine as seriously as a heart attack. Getting a chance to hike around the vineyards of Chianti, one of the most famous wine-producing regions of Italy, and have lunch with a wine tasting in a private villa was the perfect way to learn how Chianti got its reputation.
Our group started off the day with an hour-long bus ride out into the countryside. Despite the early start time (7.30 am), the views of the sloping green hills as we drove along the winding roads were a breath of fresh air from the usual grime and traffic of city-living. We got off the SITA bus at Panzano, which is one stop past the more famous Greve, and stopped to get a quick coffee and croissant before heading off down a dirt road into wine country.
The breakfast carbs came in handy about halfway through our hike when we encountered the upward climb towards the little church of Pieve di San Leolino. Originally built in the 8th century, it was rebuilt again in the 12th century in a Romanesque style. The church was simple, with wooden benches and a sparsely decorated altar, yet somehow it struck me as more beautiful than Florence’s Duomo. Rather than being hugely overwhelming, the church had an intimate and personal feel, and I could see why the people of Panzano had kept such good care of it.
After taking a few pictures (without flash, of course) of the Giovanni della Robbia tabernacles inside the church, we walked out into the sunshine and continued back on our loop towards the center of Panzano, where we met our gracious host, Lorenzo Sassolini, at his villa for our lunch and wine tasting. With his crinkled linen shirt and long pony-tailed hair, Lorenzo fit right in with the countryside that he grew up on. He started explaining the process of his wine-making as his sister began bringing out platters heaped with cold cuts of prosciutto, sliced salami and tuscan bread. After the food came out, it was hard to pay attention to the whole reason we were there in the first place–the wine!
Lorenzo walked around the table and filled our glasses with the first wine, the Chianti Riserva. He explained that the wine was made with a hand-picked selection of grapes and aged according to regulations set by the Italian government, but all I could hear was the clinking of glasses as people eagerly sniffed their wine and swirled it around before trying it. After following the 3 rules of wine-tasting (see, smell, and then taste), I happily swallowed my wine and starting filling my plate with the the meats and olive-oil soaked bread on the table.
After another 2 wines and 2 courses of pasta, my stomach was straining against my jeans in protest of the huge meal. With everyone stuffed to the brim, Lorenzo brought out the final topping to the lunch–a shot of Grappa, a traditional digestive liquor that Italians drink after enduring an eating marathon. The reaction of the girls as they tasted the potent liquid in their glasses was priceless–everyone immediately began sputtering and coughing as the Grappa hit their throats, and there was definitely more than 1 glass that was left unfinished.
Once everyone had finished up their meals and wine, the group split off as people crowded around Lorenzo to buy wines and others wandered off into the garden to take pictures of the incredible view of the hills. As I took in the panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside, I couldn’t help but think that Italians definitely knew the secret to living the sweet life–all you really need is a little wine and some good company.