Val d’Orcia – Montalcino

Montalcino sits on top of a steep hill with acres of olive groves and vineyards surrounding it. It was heavily fortified behind defensive walls and an imposing 14th century fortress topped with tall lookout towers built in 1361 to a pentagonal plan.  It is famous for the production of Brunello di Montalcino.  My favorite!

Fields of Sunflowers cover the breathtaking countryside from Siena to Monte Amiata called the Val d’Orcia.  Sunflowers often appeared in the background of Renaissance art works. This area has flat chalky plains with fortified medieval settlements on top of hills. Everywhere you look there are rows of those iconic cypress trees.

Sunflowers in the Val d’Orcia
Cypress trees
Cypress trees

Chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso is a Roman Catholic church located on the Via Spagni.

Chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso

As with other Tuscan towns there are a multitude of Catholic churches.

Chiesa di Sant’Agostino
Sun setting over Montalcino

Some history on Brunello:

“Tuscany is one of the best wine destinations around the world, with its triangular shape it seems made for cultivating vineyards. In fact, wine is produced in all ten of the region’s provinces. There are more than 70 DOCG wines in Italy, 11 of which are produced in Tuscany. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or controlled designation of origin guaranteed) is the highest recognition that can be awarded to a wine.”

Brunello di Montalcino (normal and riserva) is obtained from Sangiovese grapes. Did I say enough it is my favorite wine ever!!!

“The Brunello di Montalcino is a visually clear, brilliant wine with a lively garnet color. It has intense, persistent, wide and ethereal scent. We recognize scents of undergrowth, aromatic wood, small fruits, light vanilla and composite jam. The taste is elegant and harmonious body, nerbo and breed, it is dry with long aromatic persistence. Due to its characteristics, Brunello di Montalcino has long aging, improving over time. Hard to say how many years this wine improves in the bottle. This, in fact, depends on vintage. It ranges from a minimum of 10 years to 30, but can be kept even longer. Of course, it must be kept in the right way: in a fresh cellar, but above all at constant, dark, noisy and no odor; the sealed bottles.”

Matching food with Brunello di Montalcino

The elegance and the harmonious body of the wine make it possible to combine with very structured and composite dishes such as red meats, feather and coat, possibly accompanied by mushrooms and truffles. It also finds optimal match with international meat dishes or sauces.

Brunello is also an excellent wine with cheese: seasoned tomatoes, Tuscan pecorino cheese, structured cheeses. Moreover, because of its characteristics, it is also enjoyable as meditation wine.

The Brunello di Montalcino wine should be served in glass-shaped glasses with a wide, stitched shape, in order to be able to grasp the composite and harmonious bouquet. It should be served at a temperature of about 18 ° C-20 ° C. For very aged bottles it is advisable to decant in crystal carafe, in order to better oxygenate it and propose it in its total purity.”

Characteristics and requirements for Brunello di Montalcino 

The Brunello di Montalcino – Below are the rules laid down in the current Disciplinary Code as provided by Decree 19/5/1998.

– Production area: Montalcino commune – Vineyard
: Sangiovese (named, in Montalcino, “Brunello”)……
– Minimal wood finishing: 2 years in oak
– Minimum bottle aging: 4 months (6 months for Riserva type)
– Color: intense ruby ​​red tending to garnet for aging
– Smell: characteristic and intense aroma
– Taste: dry, warm, slightly tannic , robust and harmonic
– Minimum alcohol content: 12.5% ​​Vol. ……
– Bottling: only in the production area
– Consumption: after 5 years from the vintage (6 years for Riserva type)
– Packaging: Montalcino Brunello can be marketed only if packed in Bordeaux bottles.”



Looking for more on Italy? Check out Florence, Venice, Siena, Amalfi Coast

You get the idea there are tons of towns to explore here!

Val d’Orcia – Montichiello

The entrance to this village is through the Porta Sant’Agata (know as the ‘city gate’) and offers absolutely stunning views across the valley to Pienza from its perch high on a hill overlooking a magnificent valley. This extraordinarily beautiful region of Tuscany, the Val d’Orcia, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.

Pienza blog-3Montichiello is a perfectly restored village set among the 15th century landscape with its dotted cypress trees and farms and in the shadow of Pienza and Montepulciano.  It is a small village and easy to explore.


The Church of Santi Leonardo and Christoforo, is Roman-Gothic in style and dates back to the 13th century and can be found in the center of Monticchiello and is the principal historic monument containing ancient frescoes.

Pieve dei Santi Leonardo e Cristoforo


The remaining towers were originally fortifications to defend the village. As with many towns throughout the Val D’Orcia one can imagine these towns have changed very little over the years.

As you wander around you can’t help but notice the pride these towns’ people take in their homes. Lovely flowers overhang the balconies and surrounding the doorways.    Just like in Siena the laundry hanging overhead tells the story of the residents within and invites you to explore further.





The view from the Porta Sant’Agata looking over the Val d’Orcia toward Pienza.

Montechiello towards Pienza
Pienza from Montechiello


Did you miss Montepulciano, Pienza or Siena in the Val D’Orcia region of Tuscany?  Here are links to the those blogs.  From there you can also find Blogs not he Amalfi Coast, Venice, Florence, Lucca, Pisa and the Puglia region.  Next up is Montalcino.

I am off to Italy in January so stay tuned.  Headed back to Venice, Vicenza and Verona.

Pienza – Val d’ Orcia

Pienza is a small town located in the Val D’Orcia, (2004 UNESCO World Cultural Landscapes) in the southeastern area of Tuscany. Situated between Montepulciano and Montalcino and South of Siena it is an easy day trip if your home base is anywhere in Tuscany. In 1996, UNESCO made the center of Pienza a World Heritage Site. I recently learned exactly what this means: “considering that the site is of outstanding universal value as it represents the first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design, and as such occupies a seminal position in the development of the planned “ideal town” which was to play a significant role in subsequent urban development in Italy and beyond” (source: 

Pienza is one of the best examples of a Renaissance planned town that has survived relatively intact from ancient times. The streets have such romantic names like Via dell’ Amore (love street)!

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It was the home of Pope Pius II who was born here. Pienza means “the city of Pius”. Construction began approximately in 1459 on top of the ancient hamlet that existed and lasted about 4 years. Check out the old well in the Piazza Pio II main square named for Bernardo Rossellino, the architect who had previously worked with Alberti on the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

This town was the first to be constructed using urban planning techniques and was planned around the Piazza and all the town’s main monuments are located on this square; the cathedral and three other palaces: Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Borgia, and Palazzo Comunale.

Palazzo Piccolomini

The Roman Catholic Cathedral [Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta) built on the remains of a Romanesque church stands in the main square and includes many works of art including five altar paintings from the Sienese school. The facade is typical of Renaissance architecture. Supposedly the Pope wanted the cathedral to tower over the other buildings as a sign of faith. The Duomo is one of the first Renaissance cathedrals with stained glass windows and a classical interior.

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Palazzo Borgia is another important building on the square and now home to a museum.

Palazzo Comunale is the town hall and has a loggia and a facade decorated with a scratched plaster technique and a brick bell tower.

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This town is so beautiful as is the countryside surrounding it dotted with cypress trees, hayfields and winding roads.

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Pienza is the capital of pecorino cheese “sheep’s milk cheese” and has a distinctive sharp and salty taste acquired from a particularly aromatic milk courtesy of the sheep pastures in the Val D’Orcia region. You can be sure we brought some home!

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Be sure to walk around the views are amazing!

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Historical Sources: Wikipedia, Fodor’s and


Did you miss Pisa?  Here is a link: Pisa


Siena is often described as Italy’s best preserved medieval city! The streets are steep and narrow with the fan-shaped sloping Piazza del Campo (known as il Campo) and the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s subtly curved town hall since the 1300’s at the historic center. The Palazzo Pubblico with its Torre del Mangia, the second tallest medieval 330′ tower in Italy soars over the Piazza del Campo in one of the finest public squares in all of Italy constructed near the end of the 12th century.  You can walk to the top of the tower with commanding views of the city. The city itself is very modern with many famous designer shops.

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We had a wonderful guide here in Siena (Donatella- named after the famous Donatella) who made the city come alive for us!  I cannot stress enough how valuable it is to hire a local guide.  You miss so much if you are just trying to follow along in a guide book although they do provide some great information. If you need help planning your trip send me a note and I can connect you with a wonderful agent who can arrange a trip tailored just for you. Be prepared to walk and in comfy shoes and in June it was very hot so we went thru almost more water than wine, ALMOST!!!

Of course, if you have ever heard of Siena you have heard of The Palio.  A famous crazy horse race that takes place twice a year on July 2 and August 16th representing the Medieval Contrade first run in 1310. All over the city you see the Medieval Contrade banners of the 17 neighborhoods which have divided the city since the Middle Ages. When we were there a few days before the Palio they were in evidence everywhere. Loyalty and rivalry runs deep in these neighborhoods. This is a crazy, insane event and the festivities kick off 3 days beforehand.  The il Campo is transformed into a horse track, if that is what you can call it.  The race is over in just a matter of minutes when the wild celebrations commence. There are 3 laps and it takes about 90 seconds! We spent time in the Contrade neighborhood of the Chicciola (the snail).

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Catherine was the Patron Saint of Europe and her Cathedral was in Siena. The Duomo’s Gothic baptistry was built in the 14th century and is certainly one of the finest Gothic churches in Italy. The stripes you see on the Cathedral were influenced by Constantinoble and one of the most detailed facades anywhere. There are magnificent Renaissance frescoes here in excellent condition.

The inlaid marble floors in the cathedral are covered up most of the year for protection. The floor is full of stories created with yellow marble which is the most precious and was mined in the surrounding area.  The painter created the design on a piece of paper first then with a hand chisel the lines were filled in with black marble dust. The stories were 15th century Pagan philosophies and had never been seen before in a Christian church. Fascinating stories surround the marble carvings on the floor depending on your point of view.

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After the Palio all come there and the archbishop waits for them commencing 2 months of celebration but first they give thanks to the Virgin Mary.  There will be restoration going on here for another year.  It is very difficult due to the different kinds of marble and dirt and figuring out how to clean it.

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The Duomo’s interior has black and white striping throughout with a coffered and gilded dome. There are panels of stained glass and is the oldest example of stained glass in Italy finished in 1288.

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Two popes paid a fortune and created a crypt that was never used but the frescoes in there are in remarkable condition having never been restored and have maintained the vibrance of the colors since there was no dirt from people breathing and candles. Twenty two years ago the room was opened and people can only go in and out.

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Before starting the David, Michelangelo had begun 4 other sculptures that he started 4 months before but never finished since he left and went to Florence.  It seems the alcoves were not deep enough to accommodate his style.

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Siena was an essential stop on a prominent medieval road that went between  – Scotland and Rome used by thousands of Christians on their pilgrimage from Europe to Rome. Thus Siena grew to great wealth and power, developing a banking system, with one of Europe’s oldest working banks in the world – Monte dei Paschi, still in business. Siena dominated the wool trade, and became an art, textile and trade center establishing itself as a rival to Florence until it succumbed to Florentine rule in the mid-16th century.

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In the architecture they were influenced by the French which we see in the pointed Gothic Arches. Many individual homes were created as forts where oil and arrows protected families were released from the top of the crenelation on the houses.  We saw this also in Florence.

San Martino is a Roman Catholic church located in central Siena.  The Baroque facade hints at the beauty within.  Take time to stop in and visit if the doors are open. You will not be disappointed. A church stood on this site by the 12th century but was rebuilt in the 16th century.  The Bell tower was completed in 1738. Adjacent to the church is the Renaissance style Logge del Papa erected in 1462.

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Chiesa di San Pellegrino alla Sapienza – There was originally a hospital founded in the middle of the 13th century on this site. The 18th century Gothic style facade is home to a Roman Catholic church.

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Since Siena is one of the best preserved medieval cities it has a network of medieval tunnels that feed water to Siena’s fountains and until recently provided the only supply of running water.  These tunnels are called ‘Bottini’.

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Here in southern Tuscany the windows are often closed as the sun is so strong and ruins the furniture. A funny antidote we heard was when they hang laundry out is how you know what is happening in a family, like the birth of a baby. Too funny!

This area of Tuscany is perfect for growing and is planted with vines and olives.

Many famous painters and sculptors worked in Siena including Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo and Pisano who was the creator of some of the greatest sculptures in the world in the 13th century.  They were the forerunners of the Renaissance.  They started to show expression in their works. They were all in Siena but the masterpieces were in Florence and Rome.

Sadly in 1348 the city was decimated by the Black Death and then fell into decline thereafter.

In 1995 its center was declared part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Are you loving stories about Italy? Did you miss Venice, Florence or Chianti.  Click on the links! Next up we continue in the Val D’Orcia region. Stay tuned and be sure you are following the blog so you don’t miss any upcoming stories!





Antinori Vineyards – Passignano, Italy


DO YOU LOVE WINE? Well we certainly do!

What a wonderful wine tour and tasting we experienced here. You are surrounded by eras of ancient history.  The Badia di Passignano is located in the heart of Chianti Classico in Tuscany. The Badia dates back to 395 when it was founded by the Archbishop of Florence and is still inhabited by monks. Can you even fathom that! The Antinori family owns the vineyards surrounding the monastery producing Chianti Classico Riserva “Badia di Passignano” here.


The Badia di Passignano is located halfway between Florence and Siena. Passignano is a tiny town with only about 13 permanent inhabitants but is a popular vacation getaway for the Florentine community.

The Osteria di Passignano itself sits in the middle of the vineyards that surround it with lovely views. There is an antique press in the center of the elegant dining room reminding us of the past as well as the vaulted ceilings and ancient stone walls. The Osteria was awarded a Michelin Star in 2008. The menu here is based on local fresh ingredients paired perfectly with the Antinori wines and highlighting Tuscan flavors.



We started our tasting with a tasting of Olive oils from various countries served with a Cervaro Della Sala 2015.  Our next course was a Wild Herbs Flan, crispy egg and Parmesan fondue (pictured below) served with Chianti Classico GranSelezione Badia a Passignano 2012.  Did you know to only buy Chianti Classico that has the Black Rooster to indicate the DOCG designation as authentic Chianti Classico. Our next course was The Passignano vegetable garden with zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper and sweet onion ravioli served with their premier Tignanello 2014.  Is your mouth watering yet.  This meal was insane!! Our main course was a Roast Veal shin, celery, carrots with candied lemon serviced with Brunello di Montalcino pain dell Vigne 2012. OMG I love Brunello!!! Last, but not least, dessert was a cheese selection with pear-filled puff pastry and honey (pictured below) served with Muffato Della Sala 2011 and then winding down with Petit Fours and Espresso.

We were treated to a tour of the vineyard and the ancient vaulted cellars. The cellars are beneath the Abbey of Passignano where about 2000 barrels of Chianti Classico are aged. It is a true flashback to the Middle Ages. Production began here 2000 years ago.

The original part of the cellar is under the monastery and was originally built in the 15th/16th century.  The walls are 12′ thick.  When they were smoking the prosciutto below the heat rose thru holes above that allowed the spaces above to receive heat.  The walls are black here due to smoking the hams.

In the cellar, the floors are washed down to keep the humidity level up sometimes twice a day in summer. The grapes need the sweet perfume of the oak barrels but this varies by vintage and determines whether they use larger or smaller barrels depending on how “Oakley” they want it.


Italian food uses a lot of lemon and oil and needs refreshing wines to go with the meat and cheese (protein).  The tannins in the wine help with digestion so Chianti Classico with meat- YUM! and melts the proteins.  Who knew?? This is why Spanish and French wines are totally different and pair differently with foods.

The Tuscans planted the first vineyards here and they trained them as trees.  Today they train the vines differently to enhance the sugar in the grapes. Previously the grapes were so heavy they would pull down the tree.  They planted both vines and olives until the 20th century.  They felt the quantity was more important than the quality.  What they didn’t understand is that if the plant was feeding all the grapes the level of the sugars, the acidity, the aroma of the grapes would become much lower and eventually become vinegar because the level of the sugar was 6-9% alcohol without antioxidants there was not a way to preserve. Now chemicals can be added and influence our health.

Most wines in Italy are very good at small trattorias since they are consumed quickly – no headaches!!!  They suggest not to buy table wine in the US since chemicals are added like sulphate for preservation and that is what gives us headaches!  They also feel it is best to eat local just like we encourage people to. Fresh is best!

Wines from Italy have classifications which identify the region it is from. We learned that Super Tuscan is not an actual classification. DOCG is the designation you look for when buying wines. Different regions have varied climates. For example, Montalcino is warmer than Chianti so the Sangiovese is different from different regions. DOCG has been professionally tasted and analyzed.  “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) This is the highest classification Italian wines can be awarded. It means that there are (controllata) controlled production methods and (garantita) guaranteed wine quality with each bottle. “May 16, 2016 (Wikipedia) Here is a link to DOCG designation wines.


There are rules to follow when producing a Chianti Classico Riserva.  The altitude of the vineyard is determined and is between 260-600 meters. There is a controlled number of plants per hectare. The vines to be used must be declared and 2 bottles per plant maximum are all you get in order to have enough sugar. Every 45-50 years the vines must be replanted. They graft the top on a healthy root when necessary.



Antinori planted 5000 new plants on February 27th of this year but it was so extraordinarily dry in March andApril that they received special permission to irrigate the new vines so they wouldn’t lose them.  If you lose the vines you would be out of business for 5-8 years. (pictured below on the right)



The best Sangiovese grapes are found near the trunk of the plant vs. the grapes at the top of the plant so the grapes are selectively thinned feeding the remaining grapes better. Irrigation is not allowed but the oldest vineyards have it there for emergencies. The plant sends out all the sugars that turn the grapes from green to pink to purple and then to black in about 100-200 days to fully ripen depending on the weather.  They say about 1,640 hours of sunlight has been calculated for Sangiovese which is the grape of Chianti Classico. Stones are placed next to the weaker plants to reflect the sun back onto the plant.


The first grapes on a plant are not worthy of wine.  There are different temperatures in different parts of the same vineyard and the amount of sun varies too.  Some grapes mature differently and when it is too sunny they need to cover the grapes with the leaves to shade them.  In France this year we learned that they lost 50% of the champagne crop due to a strong frost but the French warned the Italians so they got their workers up in the middle of the night and lit fires to heat the vineyards.

Usually by the end of September the grapes are ready to harvest but all things must fall into place at the same time: the air temperature must be really low when harvesting and not humid; you need the workers immediately available and they pick by hand here and you can’t pick after noon time since it is too hot. So many factors go into selecting the right moment, literally, when to pick the grapes.


The largest predator for the vines is the wild boar who breaks the plants.  The wild boar are a problem because there are no more wolves since it is too warm so they have left the territory and they are the only predators of the boars. The boars though are actually only looking for the truffles and are not intent on destroying the vines. Of course, they have lots of swallows which eat a lot of the fruit flies. Bats are protected since they also eat fruit flies and with all that sweetness around you can be sure they are lots of them. If the swallows leave before the harvest only the bats are there to control the fruit flies.


I hope you enjoyed this short history of winemaking and I hope I did justice to our wonderful tour host.  I took serious notes and hopefully I got the facts right! The Antinori family owns many vineyards around the world and produces a wide variety of wines.

Chose your favorite and let me know which you prefer!  We loved the Tignanello!


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