Tuscany isn’t a destination so much as it as a feast for the senses. Your eyes marvel at the rolling landscape. Medieval fortresses crown successive ridgelines. You taste cured meats, pecorino; pappardelle with salty olives, sprigs of fresh basil and dried oregano mingle on your palate. You nose notes of sour cherry, red pepper, balsamic. It’s coming from the glass in your hand. In it is Brunello di Montalcino, one of the region’s signature red wines, fermented from the rugged Sangiovese grape which proliferates here. There are more than 200 producers in existence, majority of them participate in the annual Benvenuto Brunello festival in mid-February–when the most recent vintage goes to bottle.
With so much stimuli competing for your attention, Podere Le Ripi is combining them all like no other. The operation started by Italian coffee scion Francesco Illy is one of Montalcino’s only certified biodynamic wineries. It’s also home to one of the area’s only vineyard cooking classes. If you’re lucky (and wise) enough to reserve the “Garden Experience” here, prepare yourself for sensory overload.
The unique wine and food program on offer here is the result of a friendship between winemaker Sebastian Nasello and Simone Amorico, co-founder of luxury travel service Access Italy. “It started three years ago when I met Sebastian in my Rome office,” Amorico recalls. “We were introduced by a mutual friend and I was looking for an authentic winemaking experience that my clients could appreciate.” Working with exclusive clientele, including Hollywood A-listers, Amorico needed to avoid the overtly commercial atmosphere found at an increasing number of Montalcino tasting rooms. Upon visiting Podere Le Ripi, he was immediately drawn to its rustic vibe and earthy ethos. The vineyard’s makeshift helicopter landing pad didn’t hurt, either.
But it took time for a formal program to emerge. “Our first year working together, we would just have a wine tasting and head elsewhere for lunch,” says Amorico. “Clients kept asking me for cooking classes, so Sebastian decided to create an alfresco kitchen directly above the cellars.” That’s when all the puzzle pieces finally fit together. Since the property already held an organic garden and working farm, guests could now build an entire Italian feast, all on-site. Given a penchant for playfulness, Amorico and Nasello were determined to have a little fun with it.
“The cooking classes are done at lunch or in late afternoon, early evening,” Amorico explains. “Since Montalcino is a city of many farmers, we dress the clients in boots, shirt, hats, gloves–to make them look the part. They pick and choose fruits and vegetables from the farm and check with Sebastian to see what foods will work with which wines.” It’s less buttoned-up affair and more light-hearted learning experience.
The scene goes down in a brand new kitchen, set atop a nautilus-like edifice. Under your feet is Podere Le Ripi’s gracefully-rendered aging facility, spiraling deep into the limestone earth below. Inside steel and concrete storage containers solemnly guard red liquid that will one day transform into the brand’s flagship labels, including Bonsai and the bold, beautifulLupi E Sirene. Nasello is also experimenting with an orange wine which he intends to bottle this spring.
While you cook your meal, you are tasted on some of the more spectacular vintages that have emerged here–the 2005 being among the most elegant expressions of Brunello on the market today. Sip and savor while admiring the setting: a river valley drops steeply at your feet, giving way to the horizon and revealing the hilltop profile of Montepulciano in the distance.
“This is authentic. This is local,” Amorico says of the experience. “This is Tuscany.”
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