So far we have briefly explored Asciano, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and Bounconvento. Our final leg takes us towards a fabulous finish where each stop tops the last.
Montalcino — From Buonconvento a 30 minute panoramic drive leads up to the fortified medieval hill town of Montalcino. This famous wine capital is a fair sized town of about 6,000 souls perched on a vine laden hill. Exquisitely wine, dine and view the panorama from a table at Poggio Antico. If pressed for time you may purchase wines, oil and Grappa from the restaurant's little shop. As with most wine purveyors shipping your finds back home can usually be arranged. A far less expensive option is Osteria Porta al Cassero, a few steps from the town's imposing fortress. The peasant cooking is magnificent, the pasta is homemade and its plain Jane ambiance is sought out by both residents and visitors alike. This casual trattoria on Via della Libertà opens for lunch and dinner and closes on Wednesdays.
While Piedmont's Barolo may be known as the king of wines and the wine of kings, Montalcino's Brunello is often referred to as Italy's best vintage. Produced in relatively limited quantities from San Giovese varietals, Brunello has an intense ruby red color and aroma. It is at once warm, dry, robust and harmonious with a persistently lingering flavor. if your taste buds overrule your pocket book, seek the added refinements of a Riserva. Inversely, the much younger, less expensive Rosso di Montalcino employs the same grapes as the more costly aged Brunello's — aged one year as opposed to a minimum of four.
Wine buffs will want to sip and shop their way through both Enoteca la Fortezza and the historic Caffè Fiaschetteria Italiana for a complete wine roundup. With time on your side, a visit to Montalcino's Glass Museum will reveal far more than ancient flûtes, goblets and bottles. A collection of Venetian blown glass and works by Picasso, Dalì and Jean Cocteau are well worth a stop.
Strong Detour Suggestion - If by some reason you either missed the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore or went gaga over its austere beauty, then take a wander six miles south from Montalcino on SP55 to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo — Italy's most tranquil and picturesque abbey.
Pienza — A half hour drive east of Montalcino's vineyards leads to the small, enchanting Tuscan town of Pienza. For anyone with mobility issues, Pienza is an ideal place to get out and roam about as this hill town is as flat as a pancake. Pienza is the birthplace of Pope Pius ll who transformed the village into a planned Renaissance city. If Siena is Florence without the traffic jams then Pienza is Siena without the crowds. While Pienza has only a couple of thousand inhabitants it offers a number of architectural similarities to its far larger cousins such as Palazzo Piccolomeni which uncannily resembles Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. While the draw of Pienza is clearly the architecture a gelato break at Dolce Sosta is mandatory. If you have time, take a quick stroll about the grounds of Il Chiostro di Pienza hotel, if only for the views.
Another reason to visit Pienza is to pick up some exquisite cheese. You will find caseifici (cheese makers) everywhere along the routes heading in or out of town. Tuscan Pecorino now better known as Pecorino di Pienza typically comes in 8 to 10" wide wheels — perfect dimensions for stuffing them in suitcases. The incomparable taste of a Tuscan Pecorino may be due to a couple of factors: a) the amazing properties of the le Crete area and its peculiar effect on local sheep and b) the age-old traditions of Sardinian shepards that helped transform this part of Tuscany. Whatever the reason, there's a Pecorino suited to your taste buds. Pecorino can be sweet and semi soft, stronger and semi aged or extra aged and unforgettably piquant. It may be cast plain or infused with truffles or black peppercorn. It's flavors may be enhanced by aging wheels in ash, wine must or walnut leaves. Eat it fresh. Drizzle it with honey or marmalade or grate the very aged ones over a favorite dish. Our favorite cheesemaker is Caseificio Cugusi. The holy grail of Tuscan cheese is Pienza and you will find this caseificio roughly half way from Pienza on the way towards Montepulciano.
Montepulciano — Of all the towns along the route, Montepulciano offers me the most perfectly balanced Tuscan experience. The town is gorgeous to look at both from inside and seen from afar. The shops, cafes, piazze and sights that line its steep lanes are intriguing and not overly commercial. Some of my fascination with Montepulciano comes from its size. Being as large as all the previous towns combined, Montepulciano simply offers visitors more attractions. While large, with nearly 15,000 inhabitants, it feels remarkably small and personal. The sensation I get is one that's unhurried, friendly and brimming with low keyed enthusiasm — my favorite kind of place. Another worthy attraction is the wine. Unlike Brunello and Barolo, Montepulciano's vintages do not scream: "I am the best", they are just simply good — very good indeed. Again, in my mind, its all about that quiet confidence I sense all around that seems to whisper: come, try me and you will not be disappointed. Even San Biagio, its most beautiful church, sits quietly by itself at the foot of the town awaiting your visit.
Osteria Acquacheta, tucked away in a small neighborhood near the center, is one of my favorite steakhouses anywhere. The Fiorentina steaks are carved in front of your eyes and grilled to perfection. From mouthwatering pasta to simple veggies everything is beyond delicious and quite reasonably priced. For something truly out of this world, try the Pecorino baked with pears.
Heading home from Montepulciano a 30 minute drive will have you back at the junction of the A1 and the Siena/Bettole highway whisking you back to your point of origin. Happy touring.
Coming up next: A veteran Parker staffer experiences the Cinque Terre for the first time.