After bouncing in the back of a van for 20 minutes on a questionable dirt road through hills and mountains, I was beginning to wonder when the glamour of Tuscany was going to show itself.
We were headed for a winery called Livernano near Radda in the heart of the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. I had visited Tuscany before, but had never ventured far off the well-paved if narrow roads snaking along the beautiful hills and valleys of the famed wine region. This, however, was like being in the wilds of the Mayacamas. We didn’t pass a home or barn, just trees and hills and muddy creeks.
We finally turned up a final hill and saw our destination: It was a picture postcard villa in Tuscany, a complex of stone buildings capping the hill.
Livernano was an ancient village dating to Etruscan, then Roman times; its small church was built in the 11th century.
The borgo (burg) later served as a fortified outpost during the wars between Florence and Siena; then it was a farm hamlet until after World War II when the traditional system of sharecropping or virtual serfdom ended and the countryside of Tuscany sank into grinding poverty as the farmers left. The village was abandoned in 1953.
Restoration began in 1990, and the estate now contains 38 acres of vineyards plus fruit and vegetable gardens and 1,000 olive trees on 130 acres, most in forest and meadow.
Two of the large houses of the village have been turned into luxurious accommodations for visitors, seven in all, and a pool adds to the luxury.
The property is owned by Bob Cuilo, a friendly and expansive American former auto dealer turned Broadway and off Broadway producer, and his Austrian wife Gudrun. They have a large estate nearby, too.
Cuilo first bought the property to make wine, and the estate produces fine wine mostly from the local sangiovese grape that’s the key part of all Chiantis, but he also makes wine from “international” varieties such as cabernet and merlot. The estate even makes a rare Tuscan white, an oaky, California-style blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, definitely not traditional in the area.
Cuilo would fit in well in Napa, a wealthy retiree who can’t retire, pursuing his second or third dream in the vineyards. Many others, mostly Italians, have also bought what was once depressed property in the area to make wine — and enjoy the lifestyle that accompanies it.
He and other producers in Chianti naturally focus on their famous Chianti Classico wine, although over the years, they’ve modernized it, mostly abandoning an old formula that called for a variety of local grapes including a white wine. Instead, they use merlot or cabernet to complement the sangiovese, and a few even make wines from the pure grapes.
They’ve also modernized their winemaking. One example: They taste the grapes and measure the sugar and acid before picking; in the past they picked on a certain date. They’re also using temperature control and better sanitation, and many are now using small oak barrels for some wines instead of the large casks that were traditional.
Most are also experimenting with other red varieties besides sangiovese, sometimes bottling them on their own, and an increasing number also produce a rosé to meet demand for a lighter wine as an aperitif and to drink with lighter foods.
Another American with a similar aim to Cuilo is Frank Grace, an Ohioan who owns Il Molino di Grace winery near Panzano. The first foreigner-owned winery honored as newcomer of the year by Italy’s leading wine magazine, Gambero Rosso, in 2004, il Molino di Grace makes big traditional Chianti Classicos in a cramped building restored before Grace bought more vineyards nearby.
Obviously, not all boutique wineries in the Chianti Classico region are owned by Americans, although many likewise drip with history.
Vignamaggio near Greve is an old palace that was the home of Mona Lisa — yes, that Mona Lisa — in the 1400s. So picturesque that it was used as the setting for Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 film “Much Ado About Nothing,” it’s now an agritourismo, a vacation villa with rooms in the palace and nearby in large farmhouses typical of the area.
The villa produces Chianti Classico as well as a bit of rosé and some other wines. One of its specialties is vin santo, a dessert wine of dried grapes much loved in Tuscany. The owner also makes balsamic vinegar using the traditional processes that calls for aging in numerous casks of different woods.
Another historic building nearby is the Castello di Meleto near Gaiole. Available for weddings as well as accommodations, the picturesque structure stands on a hill overlooking 500 acres of vines used to make classic local wines.
One other winery we visited in the Chianti Classico region was different from the others. Castellare di Castellina is modest in size — and its vineyards are organic. It even features endangered local birds on its labels (plus the pest blackbird or merlo on the merlot wine).
They admit that there’s not much call for organic wines in Italy, but find Northern Europe and the U.S. are increasingly interested.
The winery uses the sangevelo grape, a clone of sangiovese that’s been grown on the property for 100 years; they take cuttings from the old vines to replant the vineyards as individual vines die.
The winery also grows international varieties and makes some unusual wines for the region. It’s owned by a Milanese educator, and consists of 200 acres of land, about 75 planted.
One other winery in the region deserves a note. It’s not in the Chianti Classico region, however, but “only” in the larger Chianti area.
Italy is chopped up into many appellations, most irrelevant to anyone except the winery owners, but Chianti and Chianti Classico are important.
Traditionally, the Classico region had much stricter standards — the appellations aren’t just geographic like they are here, but specify the grapes that can be used to make wine and other conditions like yields — and simple “Chianti” wines were lighter and less expensive.
However, Tenuta Setteponti, which is just outside the classic region near Arezzo, produces very impressive wines.
The estate consists of 750 acres, only about 80 in vines, and dates back to 1935, although most of the vines were planted in the ’60s. Antonio Moretti, the owner, also has wineries in Sicily and along the Tuscan coast in Maremma, and has experimented extensively with different grapes.
Like other wineries in the Chianti region, Setteponti is trying to marry the best of tradition with innovations that improve its wines and make them more appealing to customers. Like Napa, the area is one of the top wine areas in the world, and it intends to stay that way with small producers leading the way.