Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chianti Classico

Our foremost stopover on our way to Chianti was the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial. The 70-acre site sits in a wooded bowl at the top of the Chianti Valley just south of the autostrada. It includes a symmetrical array of 4,402 headstones that march up the hillside to a white marble World War II memorial on which are inscribed the names of the missing. The aggressively pruned plane trees that line the central pathway and were still stark and bare in early March, adding to the air of melancholy. Many of the U.S. Fifth Army’s military dead were originally buried between Rome and the Alps. Most died in fighting after Rome had been captured in June 1944 but many were casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennine Mountains just before the May 2, 1945 German surrender in northern Italy. We wandered among the uniform Latin cross and Star of David white marble gravestones, carefully reading the names and dates of death and imagined every one as an individual – each with a family, each with a story, and each of whom died for his or her country. We’d been watching the Ken Burns documentary, The War, the account of the Second World War as remembered and recounted by individuals from four American towns and their stories were fresh in our minds. About half the size of the American Cemetery in Normandy and the final resting place for just under fifty percent of the number of dead on the bluff above Omaha Beach, the Florence American Cemetery was deserted the day we visited. We appeared to be the lone callers that morning, in contrast to the cemetery on France’s northern shore, which draws almost a million and a half visitors every year. Perhaps it is overlooked as tourists flock directly to the vineyards, thirsty for wine, but we were indeed honored to have been able to stop and pay our respects.
Justifiably somber with tears in our eyes and lumps in our throats, we left the cemetery and drove south into the heart of Chianti, the wine-producing area between Florence and Siena. When we’d asked directions after lunch in Greve in Chianti, the principal town in the region, to Tavarnelle, the location of our hotel, we were directed well back north, almost as far as the cemetery to a main road since the local passage was “difficult.” Such an admonition had never stopped us before so we searched out the route used by the natives and once we found it, almost immediately started climbing. The “thoroughfare” alternated between mostly paved and barely navigable, but after a few rough spots, it took us uneventfully to where we needed to go. We passed by the walled village of Montefioralle, reported to be the birthplace of Amerigo Vespucci, and then tiny Passignano in Chianti with its 11th century Benedictine Monastery. Neither hamlet generally makes it onto a tourist map since they are little more than clusters of buildings, but they both cry out for photos and the landscape in which they’re found is classic Chianti. Dirt roads behind us, we continued to Tavarnelle, just outside of which our hotel sat on a hill facing west, overlooking a broad valley: perfect for gorgeous sunset viewing. Over the next three days we got a good feel for the area by visiting several wine villages including Radda and Castellina, each with the suffix “in Chianti,” just so you remember where you are. We traveled the backroads of Tuscany, up vineyard-covered hills still in drab, late-winter brown (it was hard to believe that in six shorts month the gnarled black vines would be filled with red and green leaves, heavy with ripe fruit ready to harvest) and through lush pine dales.

Our brief time in Chianti included visits to two fortified hill towns: San Gimignano, famous for its medieval towers of various heights and Volterra, with its 1st century BC Roman amphitheater. The Etruscan mystery people (the origin of the appellation Tuscany), who existed prior to the Roman Empire and about whom little is known, originally settled the two towns in the 3rd century BC. We had an interesting visit to San Gimignano’s main basilica, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, and received a lovely entry coupon in exchange for three euros fifty. One side was graced by a full-color image of a medieval painting, thus winning the most beautiful ticket award; it was ready for its very own miniature gilded frame. The church interior was richly decorated on every available inch of space. Frescoes of Old Testament scenes filled one side, the life of Christ covered the other and the most graphic -- a horrific depiction of the Last Judgment with deformed nudes committing or on the receiving end of all variety of violence – was reserved for an elevated back wall; it was a ghastly visual interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. Volterra was the quieter, and for us more appealing, of the two walled towns with its 13th century Palazzo dei Priori town hall of crenelated stone (the oldest in Tuscany), thick Etruscan walls and dramatic cliffs. Important scenes from the Twilight series vampire novels take place in Volterra and it’s understandable why author Stephanie Meyer chose the location. It’s easy to imagine walking in the footsteps of Bella and Edward as they make their way through the dark, narrow alleyways of the ancient town.

Tuscany is known for its dry red Chiantis, but Joe and I may have been the only people in the valley drinking white. The warmer weather made us thirsty and after all the reds we’d enjoyed in southern Italy, our palates needed a change. We discovered the deliciously refreshing Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the star of Tuscan whites, and now have a new favorite Italian wine. We went into our Chianti visit knowing little about the wines of the region but came away with a much better appreciation of the nectars it produces. We learned about the different appellations and disabused ourselves of the misconception that Chianti Classico (usually identifiable by a black rooster, the gallo nero, on the label) is necessarily a better wine than a plain old humble Chianti. It’s simply a different terroir and designation, like Chianti, Chianti Rufina and Chianti Montespertoli, with no indication of quality inherent in the name.

Chianti was indeed lovely and I suppose I shouldn’t feel guilty for having my viticulture favorites, but the vineyards of France, the Loire and Cher Valleys, Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Saint-Émilion, just to name a few, and those in Napa and Sonoma in California, remain at the top of my list.

Pictures of our adventures:

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