Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sticky Stuff in Montalcino

The village of Montalcino is rightfully famous for Brunello. If you visit the village you'll notice the town celebrating its notorious wine thanks to which it has flourished from a poor medieval village to one of the most important wine villages in Italy. Montalcino counts more wine shops than any other village I know of in Tuscany - so the wine theme can't escape you.
But if you look really close in those shops you may also find a selection of local honey production. In fact, Montalcino is officially a Town of Honey (Città del Miele) and a yearly honey-festival inside the fortress of Montalcino in September displays all the different products that derive from the bee-keepers.

In medieval Europe sugar was really expensive, so honey was the most common sweetener. Today the situation has reversed which is a shame because honey also reserves us health benefits that refined sugar doesn't.

Each hive is populated with an average of 25.000 bees. The queen lies eggs her whole life while other females look after the larvae as they hatch and feed them nectar & pollen that other females again go gather in flowers surrounding the hive. They don't fly too far from the hive and navigate by the sun.
The males role is to fertilize eggs - that's all!

This shows before and after; the larger is a clean plate before it is put into a hive - and the smaller one displays all the work done by the bees.

Bee pollen is recommend as an energizer and to avoid allergies (and much more) - a spoon a day - and just think it takes one bee a month of 8 hr work days to collect that spoonful.

Propolis is also extracted and is hard at room temperature. It will liquify by heating and alcohol is added to keep it in liquid form and is used against colds.

Bees wax is scraped off plates and they are inserted in round stainless steel vat in the background.

The stainless steel vat will swing round in circles and by force of gravity the honey will flow to the bottom.

What is so neat about these honeys is that they are often jarred as a monovarietal - so min 60% of the nectar coming from a specific flower. The bee-hive is simply placed in an area with a majority of one kind of flower as for example rosemary.

You'll also find lavender, thyme, sunflower, heather, clover, acacia, chestnut, honeydew, strawberry tree (corbezzolo) and more...

Each one is more or less intense yellow-orange color and also can have different consistency (solid versus liquid). And more importantly, they taste differently - some are sweeter than others - some more floral and others more fruity. Chestnut honey is rather bitter but a great accompaniment on top of Tuscan pecorino cheese.
On a side note, each kind of honey has health benefits varying from anti-bacteral, anti-fungal, preventing cancer and heart disease, reducing ulcers and gastrointestinal diseases, etc.

We taste honeys on our Montalcino wine & food tour on Fridays from Siena! Or you can taste them at our wine school in Siena!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy Anniversary - the first decade!

Wow! Tuscan Wine Tours has now been around for 10 years! I can't believe it!
Here's a brief chronology of most important events!

- After half a decade of working in a Florence wine bar/ restaurant called Enoteca Baldovino, I ventured as a wine distributor and created my own little company that I called Vinalità (Winality). Venturing into a business that I hardly knew was exciting but also frustrating, especially when I discovered what bad payers restaurants are around here - ha ha!
- One day I met wonderful Bob & Sally from BC at a winery and before I knew it we were touring around to some wineries I knew. It was so much fun that the first next step was registering the site (later officially trademarked in 2006).

The very first home-made logo:

- A crazy busy time of building up the business and figuring out the (complex) Italian ways. What a period of learning and determination! Meeting of wonderful people from around the world and establishing relationships with some of Tuscany's best small wineries.
- Still selling wines from same small wineries, but now to wine lovers around the World:

Loving the wine jumping photos!

- Opening of Restaurant Officina della Cucina Popolare - now one of the most popular restaurants in our little village.
- Wine maker Pierre comes on my tour. We fall in love and he moves to Tuscany from Bordeaux. Whole blog post if you wanna read that story...

Here's our restaurant sign that takes inspiration from Italian artist Carosello famous for La Linea.

- Opening of the first Tuscan Wine School - a place of encounter for the traveler who loves or wanna love Tuscan wine in the beautiful town of Siena.
- We create and brand our own olive oil, called Olivoglio from the very best olives in Tuscany, the label is designed by Alvalenti of Siena (famous in Italy for his filù)
- We make an independent Tuscan Wine Map - updating it with the new entries of wine regions admitted in recent yrs on our territory (with huge help from my friend Raffa)

New (much more professional) logos are created both for the wine school and for the wine tours.

- Already mother of Louise, I'm double blessed when Julian is born and my husband and personal wine hero takes over the tours to our guests' content.
- First vintage of wine for Julian was harvested and aged at our friends' natural winery Colombaia. The wine ends up with the name Jollie, because straight after Julian is born, Oliver is on his way (triple blessed)!

The idea for the label for Jollie comes from my love for the French book "The Little Prince" - very appropriately French as the father of my little princes!

- Opening of the second Tuscan Wine School - this time right next to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
- Official naming of our tour agency Grape Tours to manage brands as the original Tuscan Wine Tours,  new Tuscan Wine Time & Champagne Wine Tours.

Our agency logo features my husband and myself (in case you hadn't figured that out!)

Our front door in Florence to a 15th century building:

Life is Grape! We launch our philosophy of joy for life and wine with wonderful logo created by great artist Bo Bendixen.
- We start getting a great team of people with us, and we are now working with well regarded wine critics / wine makers / journalists directly on our team.

Our own DOCG quality mark for the mother site (to distinguish from imitators):

- New Food & Wine Tours from Siena, alongside frequent tours to Montalcino with one of the top producers of the region.
- From Florence, we add to the already popular Super Chianti tour a new tour to feature cooking and foods in Tuscany with artisans: Cook'in Chianti. This latter tour is logo'ed by another great local artist, Luca Carfagna. We celebrate 10 yrs of Tuscan Wine Tours with a 10 euro discount for early birds on the latter tours.

Here's a photo of the original:


So far this has been a great life journey, hopefully many more years to come!

Thanks to great staff & partners without whom the wine wouldn't shine!!! (Ilaria, Matteo V, Aasa, Kimberly, Sarah, Riikka, Johanna, Bernardo, Mark, Matteo P)

A big huge thank you to all the lovely people who've come our way & who've helped us grow in a good way. A special thank you to the fantastic wine producers who are producing fantastic wines and keep their enthusiasm high. We love coming to you and bringing our lucky guests (and we love drinking your wine, too!)

We continue to look for local (and non) artists who express passion for food or wine! Here's art you'll find in the wine schools from artist Cassandra Wainhouse.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tuscan Foreigners

The longer you live in Italy, the more you realize that you'll never be Italian if not by pedigree. It's a distinct mentality to be Italian, and you don't even get it by birthright. My 3 children were all born here, but none of them are Italian because us parents have other nationalities. So they grow up on Italian soil, in Italian climate, with Italian schooling and Italian friends. Italian is the language they speak best (with a distinct Tuscan accent!) Yet, they are somehow still foreigners...

Cabernet Sauvignon
 grows in many different countries, as well as in Italy, is originally from the region of Bordeaux in France. Its parents are said to be Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, hence the name. Today it has reached an enormous popularity throughout the World, both wine makers seem to love to make as do drinkers love to drink it.
In Italy it's it's considered a French grape variety even if it has grown on Italian soil for centuries. The origin of Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany goes back a few hundred years as it was imported by the prominent Medici family who planted it inside the walls of Barco Reale in Carmignano. In fact, Carmignano DOCG, a small area of great Tuscan wines, has in its original recipe a small part of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The most notorious Cab Sauv based wine is Sassicaia which has now obtained its own DOC status. It reaches sky-high prices and is considered by many Italy's top wine.
We feature small organic wine estate Montecalvi's tiny production of a Cab Sauv from a small vineyard outside Greve in Chianti, which is beautifully concentrated and representative of its terroir in style.

Merlot, originally the blending partner of Cab Sauv in Bordeaux, has a similar long and uncertain history in Tuscany. It was for certain grown around the hills of Lucca more than a century ago, though never really recognized equal to a local grape. It wasn't really noted until the era of the Super Tuscans a few decades ago where it finally got notoriety because suddenly fashionable - but mainly with the rest of the World - not really with the Tuscans themselves. It is now grown abundantly throughout Tuscany often being an important part of some Super Tuscans (or wannabe Super Tuscans). As merlot likes sand and ripens early it has found a particular nice habitat out by the sea in the area of Bolgheri where it gives birth to one of Italy's most expensive wines; a Super Tuscan by the name of Masseto (the Italian answer to Petrus!) - one of the few great examples of a pure Merlot in Tuscany.
We feature Mantus, a lovely Merlot made in Montalcino by Maté.

Syrah is another French (Loire valley) origin grape that seemingly has long roots in Tuscany, especially around the area of Lucca. Today the best results come from area of Cortona (where the book Under the Tuscan Sun was set and written), but producers also venture pure Syrahs or use Syrahs in blends for Super Tuscans in other parts of Tuscany. Cortona's first celebrity Syrah was Il Bosco by Tenimenti d'Alessandro already a highly regarded super tuscan in the 90'ies. Today the most interesting Syrah is beyond any doubt Stefano Amerighi's Syrah Cortona DOC, a wine that's also made byodynamically and with lots of passion & skill.

And then probably the most surprising grape to find in Tuscany is the Spanish Tempranillo that made it's way to Tuscany centuries ago on the ancient trade routes, but until recently was mistaken for Malvasia Nera (still is mistaken for it in many places). Even if similar in characteristics the leaves have different sizes, and the result is in the wine is different. It's now been acknowledged as a grape that can be officially used for making Toscana IGT and is made especially by a firm believer named Pietro Becconcini in the area of San Miniato. He makes a fresh pure Tempranillo which is deliciously spicy and then he makes an Amarone-style (dries the grapes for around a month) and it's deep and concentrated and very surprising.

So somehow we feel a bit like these grapes. Even though we live here, breathe the Tuscan air, respect the environment and accept the Tuscan ways, we'll probably always be considered foreigners just like these grapes that have however found a place for themselves and are well-respected. But neither us nor the grapes will ever be Tuscan - not even after hundreds of years of growing in Tuscan soil.

We love our Tuscan Foreigners just as much as we love the classical Tuscan wines made with native grapes. So some of these wines we'll send (or have already sent) to our happy wine club members. See more on

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The kind of hunting I dig!

Winter is passing by unnoticed in this part of the world. It's rained so much that the soil is saturated. Very mild temperatures - we're almost not bothering with winter jackets... So as soon as the sun gives a break from the rain, what better activity than go truffle hunting?!
We meet up with our truffle hunter and his very excited dog. It's rained for days and the dog is so excited to get out in the forest that he's literally jumping up and down like a kangaroo! While we walk around the wet forest floor searching for a hidden truffle, it's fascinating to hear the stories of the truffle hunter. Very knowledgeable and passionate.
Truffles grow spontaneously underground in specific areas around Tuscany, starting to the North in an area called San Miniato and then continuing all the way down South to the Crete Senesi to San Giovanni d'Asso. The area is famous because it's one of the few places in the World where the precious white truffle can be found in the fall.
Truffles grow under specific trees like for example oaks and soak up the flavor (and sometimes color!) of the surrounding habitat. The soil has fossil shells in it (dating back to the sea covering the area billions of years ago) and the microclimate is another determining factor. 
Then there are the different varieties of truffles, as the aforementioned white truffle which is sought after in the finest restaurants around the World (and reaches prices of around 3000 euros a kilo!), but it's only available in the fall. In the springtime we may find the Scorzone truffle (also called bianchetto), and then the least precious is the black summer truffle. I personally love all 3 - so easy to please :)
Truffles are best fresh and they don't stay fresh for long which is the trouble and also why most people who don't live in a truffle growing area may never get the chance to taste them in their best state. 
Furthermore, truffles are aromatic (garlicky earthy flavor), but quite delicate. Usually when truffle is transformed it's freezed first where it looses some of its aroma. People somehow expect them to be extremely fragrant. This has led the truffle transformers (so whoever makes truffles into jarred products) to add flavoring of truffle (either natural or synthetic). This is for example very true of most truffle oils you can buy out there - so, consumer be aware! Sadly even in restaurants in Tuscany itself - eager to say they serve truffles but not willing to pay the price - dishes that claim the fame of truffle are "sophisticated" with aromatized truffles.
After our truffle hunt we go to the home of our hunter and enjoy a tasting of the fresh spring truffle. Nothing beats the real deal! Fresh truffles are truly divine - so subtle and so delicious you just have to try it! 
So don't settle for the aromatized stuff. If any truffle product has added "aroma" you're being given a pumped product (the silicone lips of truffle!). Demand the real thing!
In fact, right after our heavenly morning with the truffle hunter, we decide to try a restaurant and are offered a menu where truffles are sprinkled on top of pretty much every dish - and quite cheaply. First we want to avoid because of our knowledge of truffles being pricey. But then tempted by the deliciousness of our previous tasting we try. And the difference is that the perfume is penetrating almost sickening (kind of like people who overdose themselves with perfume). My husband said, this is the exact reason why I didn't think I like truffle. But, of course, now we know better!

This is truly a special cultural and gastronomic experience that will stay with you for a long time. Should you want to hunt truffles in Tuscany, shoot us an email on

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tuscany's chocolate country, too!

When you think of Italy, chocolate may not be one of the first words that come to mind. Wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, truffle, parmigiano, gelato and caffe espresso probably win the top spaces of a long list. Eventually someone would mention Nutella though, which doesn't really classify as chocolate I suppose (since the main ingredients are palm oil and sugar), but it would tell you that Italians make chocolate and are one of the historical countries in Europe for specializing in it.
Chocolate is made from Cocoa beans from the Cocoa tree that contain cocoa butter and cocoa solids. There are 3 varieties of trees: Forastero which is the hardiest and hence the most common, Criollo gives a less bitter fruit considered the finest but only makes up for 10% of world production and then there is a hybrid made from the two varieties called Trinitario. So before beans are roasted and separated (almost even in quantity) the substance inside the bean is referred to as chocolate liquor. In Europe something can be called "chocolate" if it contains at least 67% of chocolate liquor - and then in various measures according the kind of chocolate denomination.
So in theory ingredients of "white chocolate" should be cocoa butter (min. 20%) milk and sugar; "milk chocolate": cocoa butter, cocoa solids (min 25%) milk and sugar. "Dark chocolate"  is similar but contains less milk and is to be made with at least 35% cocoa solids for European regulations (for the US there is no official regulation for how much cocoa solids should be in chocolate of any denomination - e.g. Milk chocolate must contain min 10% chocolate liquor).
So all in all the definition of chocolate may vary from continent to continent, and often it contains different fats (not just the natural cocoa butter) and also an emulsifier such as soy lecithin, and other ingredients.

So yesterday we went to Tuscany's most notorious artisan chocolate maker named Amedei. A lot of the great chocolate makers in Tuscany are situated around Pisa somewhere. I'm guessing because of the vicinity to the port so beans can be shipped in readily.
Amedei has a short history of about 25 yrs but has distinguished itself for it meticulous search for excellence. A large part of the beans utilized are grown on propriety groves in the country of origin and supervised by own agronomists so that the quality of bean is ensured to be the best with no parasite problems. After fermentation and drying the beans reach the destination at Amadei where they are roasted and grind into a paste at 13 microns (extremely tiny bits) to separate the butter and the solids. Then chocolate making can be initiated. Brown caster sugar is used in order to obtain the most genuine result and no emulsifier is used. Their most well known chocolate is called Toscano Black and is a dark chocolate (70%) of incredible persistency. Bitter to the right point. Packaging is done entirely by hand, so if you appreciate high high quality stuff, I think Amedei might be right up your alley.
By the way, on request we can organize tours to Amedei. Email us with your special request - just bear in mind that visits are only organized on special request for private groups (and aren't cheap!).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mastering the wine @ the Tuscan Wine School

What fun it is when we are asked to set up a special tasting for someone. It usually means you have people come who are already excited by wine and then our task becomes quite easy; to present, serve and discuss (and maybe taste a bit ourselves!).

Today we did a Master Class for 20 Australians (wine lovers/wine makers) and we cracked open 20 lovely wines, diverse in typology, from cheaper to very expensive wines. And we had the story of the wines reveal themselves inside the glasses. It was definitely magical!
Great wines amongst which were the favorites: San Polino Brunello 2007, Bruno di Rocca 2000, Sassicaia 2009 and Vigna d'Alceo 2008 (100 points!)...

And then, to change completely subject, don't forget that this is the time to order your new fresh olive oil 2013! The site is - we need orders in by Nov 25th if you would like to receive them for xmas!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Amalfi coast wine tour

Just home from a long week-end at the Amalfi coast. Finally, after 18 yrs in the country, I get around to organizing a trip with Pierre and the boys. Organizing is a big word, perhaps, as the boys are in an age that it's hard to organize any grown up activity, so we left the details to last so that we could have a look at how to spend the days after having understood the terrain of the area (e.g. strollers didn't allow us to hike or climb up in the villages). In fact, I surprised myself so much by not planning far ahead for a winery visit that I feebly researched some on the highway down there and hooked up with Vigne di Raito for my bday - Sat 2nd of November (an otherwise depressing day in Italy as people go to the graveyards to remember the dead on this day).

But back to day one when we were driving to the Amalfi from Tuscany. First of all, it's much further than I had originally thought. So as I was a bit bored, I looked up info on the area and of course stumbled into Rick Steves' valuable words on the first page of the google search about Amalfi. I read it out loud to my husband who was driving and we found it quite amusing that Rick's advice was not to visit the much appraised island of Capri. I had heard that you can see it and die (!) - and furthermore I had the idea that there would be many a restaurant featuring the Caprese salad - hence the word.
So, ignoring Rick completely, our first day was entirely wasted on going the 1 hour (beyond) boat ride from Amalfi to Capri (and back), starting at 9.30 and heading back at 3.30 pm. You arrive in Capri around 11 and even if the boat ride is pretty, it is looong and your initial excitement fades quickly. Upon arrival you immediately discover that the port is a tourist trap with cafes and taxi drivers waiting to suck your money out of you. So you quickly must figure out that you need to take the funicular to arrive to the top of the village where the views and fashionable shops are.

It dawns upon you that either you hike the island (if you are a hiker or in the condition to hike) or you are enclosed in a large tourist trap. Our first stop was a beer for 8 euro a piece. Only beaten by an equally expensive beer a few yrs ago by the tower of Pisa. It's funny how you feel even more ripped off when you live here and know the price of things. After a 20 euro boat ride (each way) the reward was a bit disappointing!
I'll let the rest of my thoughts about Capri condense into a few words: I was not impressed. Only great thing was that we hit a great place for lunch. Actually it's a bakery/gelateria, but you can eat there. It's called Buonocore - everything was absolutely delicious. And not a rip off! So thanks to this little place we felt saved from a complete waste of a day.

Next day absolutely had to be better, and luckily it was. It's always a positive experience when you hit a farm, I think. You get to meet someone from the area who knows it from the inside and who can give you a personalized non-touristy perspective. For me it's even better because I love the subject of wine, but I would say it's great for anyone as you get to feel the terrain in peace and away from the crowds, enjoying exclusive views and products from the area.

Vietri sul Mare is the first village from Salerno that makes up the long and windy Amalfi coast line. It's particularly famous for its ceramics, in fact the village is packed with colorful ceramic outlets. Raito is a little village atop and gives a beautiful vista over the Salerno bay. The roads to get there don't fit normal cars. All cars around there wear the signs of wars against stone walls and crazy turns up mountain roads.

The slopes here are grown to Aglianico - a famous red grape of the area of Campania in general, and to Piedirosso, a varietal that can be used to soften the Aglianico a bit and to give it a lighter character (above is Piedirosso which is trained in "pergola"). There were a few grapes left on the vine to our sons' delight and from being bored with the situation they lighted up and ended up enjoying maybe even more than us!

 When you see the slopes you realize the amount of work that goes into tending to the grapes in such a place. It's very rocky, vines are on steep terraced slopes, this year they suffered from the same dampness that we experienced up here in Tuscany. No irrigation is used and the farm is even organic.

The wines were delightful and so was our hostess and owner Patrizia. Along with the tasting of 4 wines come local produce as olive oil, cheeses and more... This day was by far better than the touristy Capri. We relaxed, talked and enjoyed every moment. Do the same!

Our visit to the Amalfi coast this time only included the Southern coast line as we had just 2 days. Next time it'll be the Northern side with Sorrento, Pompei, and, who knows, maybe we could find a local Limoncello producer to visit?!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Love at first sip!

One of the things that trill me the most when I meet people on the tours I run is to hear the life stories of my guests. I’m fascinated to know who they are, where they are from, what they do (OMG, so many jobs out there I didn’t realize existed) to how they met or unmet their significant others. There’s always something new to learn and that makes it exciting!

I once before attempted to write about how Pierre and I met, because it is indeed a very sweet story that must be told. I called it a drunk romance, but in fact we are for the most time quite sober so I'm summing it up quickly and changing the title!
It was back in 2009 and I was running day tours to various regions and every day was like mentioned atop – a discovery of people and a sharing of wine stories in the Tuscan wine country. One morning, as usual, I’m picking up my group of people who are yet unknown to me and we head out to the Chianti Classico region. On the tour is also a French wine maker and I’m a bit nervous thinking he could come with questions I couldn’t answer. Luckily he kept low profile for the most part and I could proceed normally with my tour explaining the area to people with and without prior knowledge about wine. Pierre did ask me what Chianti meant, something we still joke about today – as I wasn’t quite sure and said something along the lines of it being a place name for the district with probable Etruscan origins. I wasn’t completely convinced myself of the correctness of the answer, but luckily it proved to be quite right.
Second day went to Montalcino with a new group of future friends. Pierre was with me for 3 days and so this second day was pleasant as the group was smaller and we had a better chance of talking. I discovered that Pierre was studying Master of Wine and head enologist of a winery in St. Emilion – that was why he had come to Florence to study Italian wines.
The third day was a discovery of San Gimignano’s white wines. Again we had a new group of fellow wine tourists, and Pierre and I definitely had a good feeling going on. The group was very animated (and quite drunk by the end of the day). Pierre attempted to see the bottling room at Panizzi winery to which he was shown to the bathroom (little incomprehension of his charming French accent). That provided us all with some good laughs.
After the tour ended back in Florence Pierre and I went for a glass of wine at my favorite wine bar La Volpe e L’Uva and had a chance to talk and get to know each other. We tasted a few different wines together. It was definitely love at first sip!

And so this is how the story begins for us 2 winos. For a year Skype was really useful to keep us in contact between Bordeaux and Tuscany. Frequent trips were made back and forth. Pierre finally wraps up his work situation and moves to Tuscany, but not before proposing! And so out the window with my independent woman “I’m never gonna get married”-crap. Two little boys later here we are, happily living our common life wrapped in good wines and foods in the midst of Tuscany. Best thing is that we both get to share our passion through our travel agency “Grape Tours” through which we now both run wine tours in Tuscany and in France (that would be me and Pierre on the grapes:)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

4 day full immersion Tuscan Wine Tour!

Last week we hosted 4 wonderful couples from the US for our new 4-day Tuscan Wine Tour program, a first-time experience for us - and it was simply a wonderful week!
We picked up our guests in Florence on a real warm Monday evening - meeting in the Piazzale Michelangelo in the shade of the David statue. On the way into the Tuscan country side we got to know each other briefly and we checked our new friends into their hotel and made sure their dinner reservation was taken care of.
The next 4 days we toured all the historical Tuscan wine regions, visiting small wineries around San Gimignano, Chianti Classico, Montepulciano and Montalcino, enjoying wonderful hosts with colorful stories, wines and great foods wherever we went.
At the end of the trip we felt like friends and, in fact, next year we'll plan a trip to Bordeaux together.
This experience was inspiring and we definitely want to propose it in the future for real enophiles like ourselves :)

Despite the intense July heat, we managed to keep the van cool, cellars were cool, and so were our fantastic wine producers! We met with the smallest and most reputable wine producers in Tuscany, who were happy to get off the hot fields with a good excuse of presenting their realities to our eno-curious guests.

Here are a few photos of our week with a big thanks to our very special new friends from Texas & Washington DC!

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