The Small Pleasures of Chianti
“In the 1600s, this is where the goatherds would stop for the night,” said our host and winery manager Sandra Sandrelli. My friend and I were standing on a high point overlooking a patchwork of olive groves, vineyards and fields in the beautiful valley below.
“They sought shelter here, and paid for their accommodation with milk from the goats,” she added. Shading my eyes from the midday sun, I could see why a young goatherd would choose this location, nestled against the side of the hill, safe from the elements.
When Luigi Cesari purchased the property in 1960, he captured its natural beauty with the name “Concadoro.” Today, this “golden valley” is still home to vineyards and olive groves, which underpin the Concadoro Winery’s array of authentic Chianti Classico wines and olive oils.
And there’s much more: If you are seeking refuge from a busy life, you can come to Concadoro and stay for as long as it takes to relax and breathe more deeply. The original farmhouses and other ancient buildings have been painstakingly restored and renovated into ten uniquely private, spacious apartments. Ours was in a larger building called Naccolino, and it had everything – two huge bedrooms with private bathrooms, a massive common area with kitchen, dining and living areas, and a gorgeous terrace overlooking the valley. The nearby swimming pool beckoned, although the autumn air was just a bit too chilly! Above us, at the very top of the hill, the stunning 1878 villa (now the private home of the Cesari family), made a proud sentinel over the entire expanse.
My friends and I arrived the previous night to a warm Italian welcome from site manager Allessio. He waited in his car, perched on the edge of the hill at the property entrance, for us to drive up before he escorted us along the narrow driveway to the farmhouse. After generously sharing a few supplies from his own home to help us get started, he left with a cheery “Buonanotte!”
Concadoro is in the heart of the Chianti Classico region. Nominated by America’s respected Wine Enthusiast magazine for Best Wine Region of the Year 2014 (along with high profiles contenders such as Champagne and Sonoma), Chianti Classico is enjoying a well-earned renaissance. Wine lovers from around the world are coming to rediscover this wine known for its ruby-red tones, fruity/floral aromas and characteristically balanced flavor. The Sangiovese grape comprises a minimum 80 percent of any Chianti Classico wine. Some say it is rare to find a grape varietal that so faithfully interprets the characteristics of the region in which it grows. Sandstone is responsible for the wine’s flowery bouquet, and the soil produces scents of both berries and tobacco. Wines labeled “Chianti Classico” come from the strictly defined original production area of Chianti, and are certified as authentic by the distinctive black rooster (gallo nero) seal on the neck of the bottle.
Over several days we had the opportunity to sample the wines of Concadoro. Our first taste was during an extraordinary lunch at Pestello, the property’s own restaurant and pizzeria, just a few steps up the road from our accommodation. (Here’s another reason you need not stray very far from Concadoro once you are ensconced!) The restaurant is a casual “tavolo” with a cheerful ambience. After we sat down, Sandra ordered a bottle of Concadoro Chianti Classico DOCG (the latter initials standing for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita - another element of quality control within the region.) Immediately upon pouring, we were struck by the bright ruby color of the wine. The aromatic bouquet conjured scents of cherry, tobacco and oak. A pleasantly light flavor was fruit-forward. This wine was the perfect choice for the cavalcade of dishes that followed!
Chef Maria Pia personally brought course after course to our table, starting with a platter of cured meats including finocchiona, a local salami made with fennel. A creative bruschetta featured broccoli with white tuscan beans, and pecorino cheese was served with Maria Pia’s richly spiced marmalade di cippoli (onion marmalade). Not one but two pastas followed – homemade gnocchi with sautéed arugula, and an extraordinary treat, pasta with shavings of rare white truffle. The distinctive truffle aroma – hay, wild garlic, soil and honey – rose up from the steaming plate and the earthy flavor gratified all the senses.
The kitchen maintained its momentum and Maria Pia continued to ignite our taste buds, with platters of seared steak topped with a mountain of arugula salad, roast potatoes accented with sage, and lightly fried seasonal vegetables including a brightly flavorful pumpkin and tart green tomatoes. The Chianti Classico complemented each and every course, proving that the wine and food native to a single region often make a perfect marriage.
At the end of lunch, we tempted the sweet end of the palate with a tasting of Concadoro’s Vin Santo, made from hand-selected grapes left to dry and concentrate the sugar before being juiced and aged in barrels for a minimum of four years. The intense straw color gave rise to heady notes of dried fruit and a warm, sweet flavor. Locals love to dip biscotti into their Vin Santo for a perfect ending to a meal.
That afternoon, we made the easy drive into neighboring Castellina in Chianti, only seven kilometers away on a pretty country road. Castellina is a small town, defined by the Via della Volte, an ancient tunnel/street that encloses the delightful town center. Here we were able to purchase all the supplies we needed to be self-sufficient in our own lovely farmhouse kitchen.
The next morning, we threw open the shutters and let the Tuscan sunshine stream into the windows. Fortified by breakfast in our apartment and strong coffee on the terrace, we hiked across the valley to check out the Casa Al Bosco (house of the woods), the most recently renovated Concadoro farmhouse. Here we toured four freshly decorated apartments with working fireplaces and new kitchens and bathrooms – all with incredible views from this highest point overlooking the valley.
Later, we walked over to the winery, meeting with Sandra once again. She guided us through a tasting of two more Concodoro wines. Having already tried the Chianti Classico, we stepped up to the Chianti Classico Riserva. Made with 90% Sangiovese grapes according to the strict rules, the Concadoro Riserva offered a dark garnet color, spicy aromas and a deep, luxurious taste that lingered pleasantly.
“Taste one more here and take one away with you,” Sandra said as she opened the Chianti Classico Vigna di Gaversa. “This wine might have the most international personality,” she explained as she poured. “Because we blend in 5 to 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon from our own vineyards, we create a full-bodied, fruity wine with a well-rounded appeal.”
The Vigna di Gaversa did indeed seem to round out some of the more distinctive Chianti notes, with more fruit, a little less tannin and a longer finish. Sandra recommended it with meats and full-bodied cheeses.
“The last one is for the real wine connoisseur,” Sandra said as she gave us a bottle of the Concadoro Chianti Classico Caravaggio. “Take this with you and have it with strong cheese or even wild game,” she advised. We were intrigued by the label, which featured a dramatic painting by Caravaggio, a 17th century Italian painter favored by the winery owner.
After the tasting, we took a short drive to Greve in Chianti, known for its town square, which hosts a wonderful Saturday market. Another attraction in Greve is the large “Coop” supermarket, featuring a fantastic selection of regional food and wine at great prices!
Upon our return to Concadoro and after a well-earned “sonnelino” (nap!) we laid out a platter with salami, cheese, olives and bread collected from our trip to Greve. Sitting on the terrace, we opened the Caravaggio and decanted it. Ruby red tones shone in the waning daylight. One deep inhalation filled my senses with memories of plum and cherry against a backdrop of oak. The taste portrayed this wine’s nobility with great structure, fine tannins and lingering fruits and spices. Such a graceful wine was a perfect partner to our Tuscan picnic!
As the sun started to set over the ‘golden valley,” I reflected on our stay. I loved the alluring simplicity of our holiday - the elegant rusticity of the farmhouse, the deliciously satisfying Tuscan food at Pestello, the lovely towns and markets within an easy drive, and the wonderful Chianti Classico wines of Concadoro.
If you want to experience the best of Tuscany you might just want to stake out your corner in the golden valley that is Concadoro. Your body, mind and spirit will thank you!