Much of Tuscany is dreamscape – especially now, in Autumn, with this warm rosy light drenching the vineyards. The leaves on the vines are throwing colours before they drop from their trunks, a dramatic visual swansong. Have you seen how the leaves are moving from green to yellow? Depending on the grape variety, some leaves will go red – you can spot now where Colorino and/or Merlot are planted in the vineyards as they will be a fabulous, glamorous extrovert red. This year, 2019, their work changing all that sunlight into sugars for the vine has paid off big time: most producers harvested very high quality grapes, and it looks set to be a great year for wine.
It was difficult to keep my eyes off the leaves and on the road as I drove from my home in Siena to the hills North of Florence for a winery tour and tasting at Villa Medicea di Lilliano, an historical villa, the 17th century country retreat of the Medici rulers, with foundations that date even further back to the 11th century. I felt giddy as I stepped out of the car, “Jove help me” I thought, this is before I’ve even tasted anything!
I was to meet Diletta Malenchini, the fourth generation of Malenchinis who have owned and loved the estate for over two centuries. Diletta is responsible for the winemaking and olive oil production. What a cool woman. I don’t know what the female version of a bromance is but i have that for Diletta. She is so down to earth, but her home is a Medici Villa!! and the environment she has grown up in is pure fairy tale: gardens, courtyards, swimming pools all surrounded by 70 hectares of vineyards and olive groves, with the city of Florence a mere 15 minute drive away and the top of the Duomo even visible from the balconies of the estate. If I were her I would be completely carried away by the grand and magical surroundings of this villa. I would greet guests in full gown, and with a white wig on. And a beauty spot planted somewhere on my face. (I’m not sure that is a Medici look, but I’d work it anyway).
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Diletta was not sporting an 18th-century frock and hairpiece when we met. She looked elegant as seems to be the inherent vibe of the Italian people. We began with a tour of the villa. It is a heavenly place. Unsurprisingly, while i was there preparations were being made for a destination wedding later that day. Lucky guests to party here. Partying is something that I believe you could do well at Villa Medicea di Lilliano. It is not a stuffy place, Diletta tells me it has a history for parties – King Frederick IV of Denmark and his retinue was entertained at the villa during his state visit to Florence in 1709. The stone walls seem to exude a warmth: after centuries of absorbing gaiety, they now radiate it. Any guests unsure how to party properly need only look to the wall paintings that line the hallway between the courtyard and the gardens. The paintings depict the end of the grape harvest. Handsome men and women celebrate, drinking and dancing. They do both with abandon, offering very merry instruction to the visiting guest.
Long tables were being set between avenues of lemon trees for the wedding that evening. Speakers were being set and checked for the dancing later. We headed through the winery – a functional, smart space, to the peace of the cellar underground, where large barrels quietly house Chianti Colli Fiorentini – made mainly from the noble grape, Sangiovese. We stepped even further below ground to where the olive oil was once stored in great terracotta urns.
A kitchen wine tasting
Returning to daylight, we headed for the villa’s kitchen for a tasting of the estate’s Malenchini wines. I love to taste wines in a kitchen, the heart of a home, and wines I hope reflect a sense of home, of place and people and therefore heart. Good wines must have heart, and engage the taster/the drinker’s heart – sometimes they make it beat faster, sometimes they make it stop altogether they are so glorious. Kitchens are good for getting you in the mood to connect with a wine and find it’s pulse.
So to find a pulse in a wine is the first tick for me – a joie de vivre about the wine – the desire to drink more because that first sip was so pleasurable. It also matters to me that the first wine, or rather the wine made in the greatest quantity by an estate, is delicious. If it is only an estate’s most expensive wine that tastes good, then I am suspicious as to the motives of the winery. Though the Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva from Malenchini is an excellent wine, poised and silky in texture, their entry-level wine, simply a Chianti Colli Fiorentini, was for me even better – in that I could happily drink this easy going, easy drinking brightly perfumed and vibrantly fruity wine every day, at any meal time.
Both the Chianti Colli Fiorentini and the Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva are made predominantly from the noble grape variety, Sangiovese. They have both an elegance and energy that I recognise in Diletta, who sits opposite me at the kitchen table. They also produce a Canaiolo Nero – I was super happy to see this variety “in purezza”, unblended. Usually Canaiolo Nero is seen in a supporting role to Sangiovese, as part of a blend, and rarely gets screen time on it’s own. Yet it can really shine given the space and opportunity. Ian d’Agata in his wonderful book “Native Wine Grapes of Italy” writes that Canaiolo Nero is one of Italy’s “most misunderstood and less appreciated varieties” but not at this estate. It is celebrated. The wine this grape variety makes has a “power and clarity” to it, “refined, with a lightness of being” that d’Agata mentions is characteristic of Canaiolo Nero wines. The Canaiolo Nero from Malenchini has these great qualities, it is refined and refreshing too – I could smell and taste Christmas – the spices of that season – cloves and nutmeg, fruits fresh, dried and candied. This wine, though still had a bubbly character – it was lively, animated, a great guest at a Christmas meal.
A very strange thing happened towards the end of the tasting, with the final wine. I found myself enjoying a Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Usually I turn my nose up (perhaps unfairly) at Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blends. I find the Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the conversation, and I prefer the more quietly spoken, less punchily aromatic and flavoursome (yet equally intelligent, tannic and acidic) Sangiovese. However, the “Bruzzico”, Malenchini’s IGT – a wine made without having to adhere to the DOCG rules defining what grapes and what percentage of each variety are allowed in the wine, was, gosh, whisper, maybe my favourite. No. the Chianti Colli Fiorentini was. No, the Canaiolo Nero was. Arggh. But the Bruzzico was great fun, a shoulder padded powerhouse. The Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in the 1980’s, in 1984 (appropriate given those shoulder pads), and they yield now fruit that is exemplary of Cabernet Sauvignon, deep in colour and luscious in flavour and texture. I could have sat there at that kitchen table with Diletta and the Bruzzico all morning, but I had to drive back to Siena, through the performing leaves. I could not stay, this time, to party at Villa Medicea di Lilliano.
I am thrilled to be teaming up with Diletta Malenchini and her staff for the first WSET courses that I will be teaching in Florence, organized by Alexandra of (this blog) ArtTrav. We will be staying at and learning in the great salon – right near the kitchen, so close to the heart – of the Peruzzi Residences in the Santa Croce area, their recently opened boutique residence. We’ll be including one Malenchini wine in the course, probably the Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva that I liked so much.
The first class we’ll hold is the WSET Level 2 on November 15-17 2019. If you’re interested in taking this or future courses, see this section of my website and sign up for the newsletter to find out about future dates.