Lausanne . . . Heidelberg . . . this weekend it was time for me to visit another old European town of a few hundred thousand population: Florence! My favorite Wingman was going to be in Tuscany anyway for a wedding (Not his!) so he came in a few days early, giving us a chance to do things up right.
Cox arrived early Sunday morning and brought perfect weather–the natural precursor to the Perfect Storm–with him. I had originally thought that we would leave immediately for Florence, but flight schedules changed such that we had some time for him to get to know Lausanne. We walked around the old part of the city, nourished ourselves, and listened to Jimmy Buffett throughout the morning.
Then we headed down to Vidy for some beach volley. Cox and I have a long history of playing beach volley together. We’ve done very well at several tournaments in Houston and Galveston and we’ve played together in five different countries. What’s more important is that we’re always Team Having More Fun Than The Other Guys and Sunday was no exception. We played for a full three hours, going 5-1, losing 21-15 to two very strong open players–not bad for two guys who haven’t played together since Marseille last July. After a refreshing dip in the lake and hurried showers, we were off to the airport for a quick flight to Florence.
Arriving in Florence around sunset we went to pick up our rental car. When the woman at Avis advised us that she had no reservation for us, Cox pulled out his mobile phone and triumphantly showed here his email confirmation. She had the last laugh, though, when she informed him that she found his rental car reservation in the system . . . for Florence, ALABAMA!!! Thank goodness this was the only task I had given Cox for trip preparation–sheesh, consultants . . .
Fortunately Avis had plenty of cars so we picked up a Fiat 500 and made our way into town to find our hotel. This was easier said than done as Florence’s narrow alleyways blocked our GPS satellites and Italy’s soccer match meant that many people were partying in the streets, blocking our passage. However, between the GPS, Google Maps on my phone, Cox’s great driving, and some blind luck, we circled in on our hotel, the Bernini Palace, which I had booked on hotels.com.
Once we arrived at the hotel, we were thrilled to find that it was located only a block away from the Piazza della Signoria. Furthermore, the hotel itself was really nice. In Italy I’ve found that hotel ratings rarely correspond with reality but this place was very deserving of its four stelle. Add to that the fact that it’s bar/restaurant was named Brunello and we were off to a good start!
After checking in with the office (Just because it’s a Sunday night and I’m on vacation is no reason not to be working, of course!) Cox and I headed out to destination number one: Salamanca. Salamanca was one of my favorite bars when I lived in Florence and it has the distinction of being the place where I first tried sangria. If only I had known back then what a profound impact that would have on the subsequent several years of my life!
Salamanca was still great. Cox and I shared some tapas and a pitcher of sangria while I regaled him with stories from my time there. A man at the bar was falling asleep–presumably due to sangria consumption–so the bartender shot him with the water gun. The bartender was either a bad shot or was interested in us because the stream of water went right over the sleeping man and hit Cox. Given the heat, though, and lack of A/C in the bar, Cox didn’t seem to mind the cold water. With an early rise the next day and an aggressive wine tasting agenda, we called it a night and were asleep before 2.
Monday we woke up and struck out for Montalcino. After two hours of driving through the beautiful Tuscan countryside, we arrived at our first stop: Valdicava. Valdicava was the quintessential Brunello di Montalcino producer: small, natural, and 100% committed to their wine. The philosophy there is to make do with what nature gives them. No pesticides are used and the soil is not tilled because they believe the herbs and wild plants imbue their flavors to the grapes. Then vinification is very simple. There are two fermentations (separated by a pressing) over seven months but, after that, they basically leave the wine alone in large wooden casks. It seems very Italian to me: simple, natural, and accepting that good things take time–four years of aging for their standard Brunello, five for the riserva. We tasted two vintages of each straight from the barrel. They were still very raw but their potential was clear. Just as clear was the difference a year of aging made between each. Valdicava: I’m a fan.
After a lovely lunch in a villa overlooking the vineyards, we moved on to Casanova di Neri. We received a nice tour of a facility that clearly had a different philosophy. As opposed to Valdicava’s 17,000 bottles/year from a small plot of land, Neri produced 200,000 bottles from several vineyards around Montalcino. They also used much more sophisticated technology for vinification. The result: good wines in a modern Brunello style but I preferred Valdicava.
After a long drive to the opposite end of the commune of Montalcino, Castelgiocondo was a huge disappointment. Their PR director had screwed up our reservation so she was able to provide a quick tour but no tasting. She claimed that their grapes were picked by hand but we called her out on the mechanized grape-harvesting equipment we had seen during our drive through the estate. At 1,000,000 bottles per year of production and as part of a large Italian label (Marchesi di Fresobaldi) they were an order of magnitude larger than most Brunello estates. I can’t speak to the quality of their wine but, given what we experienced, I’m not a fan of the organization.
The bright side of a short appointment at Castelgiocondo is that it gave us enough time to swing by nearby Castello Banfi, the iconic producer that is responsible for something like 20% of all Brunello production by volume. Banfi is as close to a Napa estate as you will find in Montalcino; it is set up for a high volume of tourists to its beautiful castle estate. They have a large cantina with tasting flights and wines by the glass; we skipped the tour and made our way immediately there.
First off, the 2007 Rosso di Montalcino (sangiovese table wine) was excellent. This could make for an excellent Hassin house wine. Next we tasted the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino against the 2004 single vineyard Brunello di Montalcino Poggio alle Mure. Both were way too young, of course, but they tasted like quintessential Brunello to me. We ended by tasting the 1999 Brunello di Montalcino against the 1999 Brunello di Montalcino Poggio all’Oro Riserva. The basic 1999 Brunello was excellent and was drinking well. I had had this once before at Gargoyles in Boston and I remain a huge fan. The riserva, though, was positively sublime: rich, complex, and with a texture that made me want to carry it around in my mouth for the rest of the day. This was my favorite wine of the trip.
It’s amazing that Banfi keeps the quality so high given the millions of bottles they produce each year. Clearly quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive. Although I prefer the philosophy and style of the old boutique vineyards, it is great to know that modern, smart vineyards can produce a great product as well.
Back in Florence we found a restaurant with local fare that set us right for the evening. We then found another old haunt of mine: Art Bar down by the Arno. We bar hopped a little, eventually settling in a pub with very personable bartenders. As is our tradition, much Guinness was consumed. As is our tradition, many shots were taken. When the bartender asked what we wanted for our first shot, I told her “qualcosa interesante,” something interesting. She seemed to take that as a challenge and prepared for each of us a “scaldino.”
It was a base layer of cointreau with a top layer of sambuca. The sambuca was lit on fire then the drinker was to cover the glass with his hand, snuffing out the flame and creating a crazy suction effect on his palm. Then the shot was taken and the glass was immediately recovered by the drinker’s hand. Finally, with a straw poking through his fingers, the drinker breathed in the air trapped in the glass. I still don’t quite understand it all but hey, it was weird and cool. After watching the US go ahead of Italy 1-0 in soccer and then lose 3-1, we closed down the bar and called it a night.
Tuesday was nice; we just walked around Florence all day. We began with breakfast at Vivoli, the world famous gelateria. Cox had raspberry; I had dark chocolate and hazelnut. We visted the leather school at Santa Croce, the Duomo, and then walked all the way up to Villa La Pietra, where I used to live. Unfortunately after the hour-long hike uphill we were disappointed to learn that the grounds are now closed without appointment. After 9/11, apparently they tightened security significantly. Oh well, next time! At least the little sandwich shop across the street as still open (and air conditioned!) so we had a nice respite before our trek back down into the city.
We walked through the market and refreshed ourselves with sparkling white wine (that came out of a tap!!!) before heading into the Accademia di Belle Arti to stand before the awe-inspiring David by Michelangelo Buonarotti. He completed it before he was 30–what the heck have I done with my life?? After that we cafe-hopped a bit and just people watched while sipping on local wines before departing for our respective desinations–Cox to the wedding and I back to Lausanne.
It was only a short trip but it was great to spend some time with my good friend in such a wonderful location. Mi manchi, firenze!
Pics are in my facebook album.