Tuscany: enjoying the dark days of early winter

Nina Caplan returns to a destination that outperforms most when the days draw in, providing a reminder that the cold and dark can be restful and rejuvenating if you pick the right places

Words by Nina Caplan

Sunrise in Tuscany
The sun rises over Tuscany during Nina Caplan's latest trip to Italy (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

There are a very few places in Europe that are actually improved by the dark days of early winter and most of them seem to be in Tuscany. One year at this time, I went to Bibbona, to one of Marchese Lodovico Antinori’s estates, Tenuta di Biserno, its vineyards cooled by the Tyrrhenian sea.

It was sunny, cool but not cold, and I went for runs through the forest (until I spotted boar scat and went into abrupt reverse) and drinks in Enoteca Tognoni in Bolgheri, Bibbona’s far more famous neighbour, a bottle-lined bar that looked simple until I examined the list of wines by the glass, which included the original Super-Tuscans, Sassicaia and Ornellaia (also created by Marchese Lodovico, although no longer owned by him). Last November, I stood on chilly hilltops in Chianti Classico, learning about the new UGA classifications. I have a photo from that trip where Tuscany’s wonderfully distinctive cypress trees point at a sky that seems to glow like a holy revelation in a Renaissance painting.

A chef prepares lampredotto on the Pollini 'tripe truck' (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

And this year, drawn like a salmon upstream, I went to Florence, to admire the Duomo for its unchanging magnificence and walk across the Ponte Vecchio – the only Florentine bridge to survive the Nazis – which has jewellery shops clustered on its western edge, the jewellers working in calm indifference to the beauties of the Arno river behind them. I reserved tickets to visit the Pitti Palace only to find it closed by strike action. It isn’t just the cathedrals and palaces that don’t change here.

Still: if the powerful Pitti family would recognise the palace they built nearly 600 years ago, much would now be unfamiliar to them, from the Pollini tripe truck serving glorious lampredotto (cow stomach slow-cooked in a herb broth and served in a bun accompanied by cheap red wine) to the new La Gemma hotel, decked out in emerald green, just four minutes’ walk from the Ponte Vecchio. (What was this building before, I asked Eduardo Cecchi, the young adult son of the family that owns the hotel, which has been elegantly updated but is clearly very old. A Zara Men, he replied, rolling his eyes.)

Castiglion del Bosco's Michelin-starred restaurant is overseen by Tuscan-born Matteo Temperini (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Our room had a small outdoor area with sofa, clearly intended for smokers or soaking up Tuscan sunlight at other times of the year, but it was raining hard when we arrived, so we turned away from the darkened windows and went down to the restaurant, where light emanated from a mouth-watering row of wine fridges and candles flicked shadows over a superb meal: amberjack curled to resemble a budding flower, succulent lobster with pumpkin and ‘nduja, delicious pigeon cappelletti (also the surname of the talented chef, Olivia)…

At the table, I learned that the Antinori family, in addition to helping upend Tuscany’s ossified classification system by creating wines from Bordeaux varieties (the aformentioned Super-Tuscans) back in the 1970s, makes a great Franciacorta, Cuvée Royale, at their Montenisa estate up north. Also that Maso Toresella, a Trentino winery I’d never heard of, produces a Chardonnay Riserva that is rich and lasting with hints of vanilla thanks to eight months in barrique and a satisfyingly pithy backnote. And mainly, I was reminded that, in our era, in which indigenous varieties are all the rage and Chardonnay is supposed to forgo oak and stay lean and mean, wariness about wine fashion is as essential as good glassware. The only absolute in wine is that it must be made well. And even that can mean different things to different people.

At the table, I learned that the Antinori family makes a great Franciacorta

Just across the Arno, facing the river, is the home – or rather a home, as they have several – of the Ferragamo family. The ground floor has now been turned into a private tasting room for the family’s wines, including those of Castiglion del Bosco, the estate that Massimo and Chiara Ferragamo bought in 2003 and transformed into an extraordinary hotel – on 2,000 hectares, much of it wooded, all of it UNESCO-listed. Italy’s only private golf club is there and so are several vineyards in the Brunello di Montalcino appellation. And a winery, which I entered via a walkway beneath arching vines, their leaves, at this point in the year, the flaming colour of sunset. Inside, along with the usual barrels and tasting area, is a private room for their very exclusive members’ club. Circular, tobacco-toned, it has locked shelves shielding wines of, I’m sure, inestimable value. It resembles a particularly lovely library, with bottles instead of books.

The private room at the Castiglion del Bosco winery, which is reserved for club members (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

The property was recently sold, to a company that chooses not to divulge its name, but the Ferragamos (Massimo is the son of Salvatore, the famous shoemaker) are still involved. The abandoned village and lacklustre vineyard they purchased is now a series of exquisite rooms and scattered villas, with a Michelin-starred restaurant overseen by Tuscan-born Matteo Temperini, a bistro and a small but delightful spa. One pool had been given a transparent temporary cover for the winter but we ran down to the other, still heated despite the season, and bathed in the open air with views of trees just touched with tawny beneath a glowing sky, before tearing back through the frigid air to our luxurious – and warm – accommodation.

We bathed in the open air with views of trees just touched with tawny beneath a glowing sky

The Campo del Drago vineyard was planted in 1988, before the Ferragamos’ arrival, but they saw its potential – 430 metres above sea level, south-west facing, volcanic soils – and that night, trying the 2016 with Temperini’s rabbit ravioli, decadently supplemented with foie gras and the salt tang of mussels, so did I. Here was a dinner to delight any gourmet, from the Renaissance to the present, although the Pittis and Medicis probably never had a Negroni trolley wheeled to their table. Even the vermouth was Tuscan, while the wines ranged from young and local to eminent and distant: that lovely Brunello, a mineral mouthful of orange peel and black cherry; a savoury 2022 Bakkanali, Sangiovese rosé fermented with indigenous yeasts and grown on the volcanic soils of Mount Amiata, 33 miles from Castiglion del Bosco; and Paul Jaboulet’s legendary La Chapelle vineyard beside the Rhône, a rare treat from 1997 and a reminder, in its delicate vibrancy, that there are gifts that come only from the passing of many seasons, every one of which had its moments… After all, it is the cold and dark that allows the vines to rest and replenish. We could do worse than follow suit.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.