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Classic Tuscany: Wine, food and shoe-shopping

The best excuse to drink and eat more than you should (and never skip the bread basket)

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Finally, a castle -- or "castello" en italiano. I'll admit, and my husband would agree, that I can be a bit of a princess at times, so a romantic holiday at a 12th-century castle in the Tuscan countryside, followed by sightseeing in Florence, suited my elevated tastes.

If there's a pea pod under my mattress, I'll know.

The Castello di Gabbiano had all the right elements -- ancient stone walls, gorgeous views of the vineyards and olive groves, guest rooms with a walk-in closet, and the sense of calm that comes with a country location. This is the heart of the Chianti region, in the gentle hills stretching from Florence to Siena, touted as the best locale for growing the Sangiovese grapes used to make the signature wine.

With holidays being the best excuse to drink and eat more than you should (and never skip the carb-loaded bread basket), we were certainly in the right place.

Castello di Gabbiano, first a nobleman's home, became a farming estate in the 1300s for wine and olive oil, along with produce and livestock. The property holds true to its traditions with a vineyard that produces the Bellezza and flagship Chianti Classico Riserva. There is an on-site tasting room and restaurant where you can drink them -- and not be shy about ordering a second bottle and a grappa chaser.

I quickly learned that I want to be a director of a Tuscan vineyard.

"The beauty of the landscape is unique," Ivano Reali, managing director, says, taking us on a tour. His wife Cornelia is the hospitality manager.

They live in a village outside of Florence and never worry about city traffic. We're here in late October, after the grape harvest and just before the olives are to be picked for pressing.

The estate manages about 140 hectares of prime terra with vines spaced two metres apart in arrow-straight formation. Sangiovese grapes thrive here because of the balance of soil, altitude and easygoing climate.

"Sangiovese needs to be in the hills, it comes out better when it is about 300 metres above sea level, but not above 500," Reali says. "Tuscany can go to 800, but it's too high because of frost. We are about 300 metres at the highest point. If you go higher you run the risk of losing grapes.

"Even though the Chianti Classico region is not big, the wine can change depending on the location, depending on altitude of your land, the soil and so on."

We tour the production facility, just a short walk from the castle, where the wine is fermented in huge steel tanks. The Pinot Grigio and Rose -- a spectacular dry rose -- are almost ready; they take the shortest time, about two months, to prepare. Every morning the winemakers come here to taste and critique. It's a process of testing, tasting and tasting again.


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"If someone tells you he thinks he knows everything about wine, it's not true," Reali says. "Even with 50 years of experience, there's still more to know. With nature, you never know."

We also tour the castle cellar, where the wine is aged in French oak barrels and large casks which suit the Sangiovese because it is so delicate and easy to over-oak in the small barrels.

The best follow-up to learning about winemaking, of course, is wine tasting, with Reali and an appearance by winemaker Giancarlo Roman who's been working with the vineyard for 19 years. Roman drinks two glasses of wine a day for pleasure, preferably from Italy. "There is Sangiovese all over Italy, but this region has the perfect microclimate and soil. Superior," he says.

With the Gabbiano label introduced in Canadian restaurants several years ago, and now in liquor stores, Roman says we should be relishing the unique Sangiovese from Tuscany -- the traditional Chianti Classico, the elegant Bellezza and the black label Riserva, an impressive full-bodied deep red that makes you want to sit down and dig into a roast pig.

While a roast was not in our future, a Tuscan cooking class with Chef Fabrizio Candela at the estate Restaurant Il Cavaliere was on the agenda. Chef Candela was in the mood for pasta, specifically, the long, tubular Pici.

"Pile flour. Make a hole inside the mountain, add a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt in the centre," Candela says. "Now we put water. It's a funny thing. Today is a rainy day so you put less water, because of the humidity." He shows us how to use the index finger to move the liquid in little circles, mixing in the flour.

"People are too careful with dough. When it comes to pasta and pizza and bread be aggressive. If you come in angry, it's good to make pasta."

When the estate olive oil is ready, Candela says he makes incredible ravioli filled with the fresh oil. "I love olive oil. I could swim in it."

It's very much a hand-rolling process -- so be prepared to get floured. Candela has been making pasta since he was eight. Before his mother would come home from work, he'd call his grandmother who lived next door to come and help him finish. Now he says those traditions are fading and most people in Italy buy pasta ready-made.

He's worked in kitchens in Paris and Amsterdam, but a class with him is all about celebrating the rural landscape -- herbs and cabbage from the kitchen garden, and local cheese and meats. Tourists choose Tuscany because of the good wine and food, he says, and he doesn't disappoint.

We make four courses, including the Pici with cinnamon-spiced sausage, tomatoes and wine, and have them for dinner in the restaurant. I finish off several servings of bread, double-dipping the fragrant olive oil, and the robust Chianti tastes even better with food, as Reali had said it would.

There's more bread, wonderful meats and cheese for breakfast in the castle, so don't hold back, just expect to require a nap or a jog to re-energize. Our spacious bedroom had terracotta floor tiles, a high ceiling and tall windows to admire the fruit and fig trees outside.

While I lounged, my husband headed outside for a run and recommends bringing a GPS along, because if you make a wrong turn you'll have to run up hills and then more hills to get back on track.

Give yourself at least a day here to explore the winding roads and villages by car. Being crazy North American types, we hiked over two hours to the town of Greve, devoured bruschetta at a cafe in the piazza, and sampled a coconut gelato. Our goal was to eat gelato every day.

Then there was Florence.

The hustle of the city, shoe-shopping and a pause-and-sigh view of the Arno River from the balcony of our room at the Plaza Hotel Lucchesi. From there, you can also see the Piazzale Michelangelo and the church of San Miniato al Monte.

We caught several of the must-sees on this first visit to Italy -- the Uffizi where the Venus rises from the seashell on canvas, the Accademia with the real David sculpture by Michelangelo inside, and the Duomo cathedral, all in the historic city centre and a quick walk from the hotel. We plotted our days over the complimentary mimosas at the Lucchesi's posh breakfast buffet.

The best part, in the still-warm October weather, was relaxing in the piazzas. We had an amazing berry tart at Gilli, a cafe and pastry showcase since 1733 in the Piazza della Repubblica, and the most delicious gelato ever at Grom gelateria behind the Duomo, known for its organic ingredients and seasonal fruit.

We had actually planned to go earlier in the fall, but it turns out that latish October is just fine. The Tuscan temperatures are far warmer than Canada and the crowds have died down. And of course, the wine flows year-round.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 D4

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