Friday, June 27, 2014

Spirit of Italy - Harvest Italia Olive Picking Tour

Vicky Gray-Clark of Spirit of Italy tours is organizing this year's Harvest Italia tour to Tuscany (October 28 – November 4). Her guests will be picking olives in the Val D’arno region of Tuscany and enjoying the area during the Fall harvest. Vicky and I worked together when I guided her six guests on her previous tour in 2012 and we'll be working together again this tour.

Here is a promotional card with details of her 7 night/8 day tour. To book the Harvest Italia tour or for questions, visit her site – or contact her at

You can also contact me at

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Inconsistent quality in Chianti wines

As I'm always singing the praises of Chianti wines, I think it would be coherent to mention what's not so good too. However nothing that will make me lose my love for one of the best dining wines in the world.

There are approximately 570 estates in the Chianti Classico appellation, ranging in size from tiny landowners  to large corporate concerns. Of these 350 actually produce a bottled wine with an official Chianti label, while the the others grow grapes. Chianti has eight production zones, and experts generally concur that wines from the Chianti Classico zone are those that offer the highest standards of quality, along  with Rufina. Look out for these words on the bottle, it does make a difference.
Chianti bottles bearing the official logo and D.O.C.G. seal
Chianti has come a long way in the last twenty years, and the vast majority of estates offer a high quality product. Even the corporate wineries  have improved their offering, some  reaching high degrees of excellence. However others are still geared to producing cheaper average wines for bulk sales. Consequently one of the criticisms moved towards Chianti is that quality is inconsistent, and unfortunately it’s true. Though I care to add the wines are never bad.

The reason is simple; the making of Chianti is governed by a set of rules called a disciplinary. It defines the minimum, but not maximum standards for wine to be called Chianti. Defining minimum legal standards is a good thing, it ensures the consumer he’s drinking an authentic wine. A wine can only bear the name Chianti, if it’s made to disciplinary standards. It will also have the D.O.C.G. acronym on the label. However a wine made to the minimum requirements will never be a top wine. It certainly won’t be bad, but not excellent either.

The problem is political and economic. The disciplinary is defined by a consortium of producers, and industrial wholesalers (non producers) where the large commercial concerns have more voting weight when defining the rules. Large producers and wholesalers are primarily interested in quantity and low prices. The small boutique wineries who produce quality wines have less weight financially, and due to the political structure of the consortium, their opinions and votes have less importance too. 

As producing cheap wine isn't economically rewarding for the boutique wineries, they’re often in heated contrast with the consortium as they advocate far higher standards. They have nothing to gain by producing cheap wine (they make money only if the prices of their limited production is higher), and they make it a matter of pride too. For them wine making is art, love and passion. They take far more care in the three important phases of wine production; viticulture, cellar techniques and ageing. This of course increases costs, but they  produce wines that rival with the world’s best. Just read a few reviews in the press to see scores of 90+ being given to wines from Chianti Classico, a thing unheard of twenty years ago

So there you have it, cheap average wines on one side, while on the other, top quality and 90+ scores. How do you find the better wines? Well trial and error basically, though reviews in the press can be helpful. Despite the legitimate suspect that reviewers can be biased, I've found they don't give high scores to average wines. I'd stick to Chiantis from the areas of Classico and Rufina too, (you'll find the names on the bottle) which are almost always of the highest quality. Alternatively you could take a tour with me and try the wines for yourself, look here:

Sergio Ceccherini

Friday, February 28, 2014

Restaurant recommendations Tuscany Chianti

For a great eating experience while in the Chianti Classico region, these are two restaurants in the heart of Tuscany in the tiny village of Panzano. I visit them frequently on my tours and my customers always enjoy their experience immensely. Both focus on traditional Tuscan Cuisine, with a la carte or economic light lunch menus. I won't bother with the addresses, Panzano is so small you won't have problems finding them. A little further down the road is Monterinaldi winery, which is also well worth a visit.

Oltre il Giardino:  The owner is a sommellier so there's a large choice of wines, but you're in Chianti and there's only one wine to order. The view is gorgeous too. Only Genuine Tuscan dishes with no concessions to international tastes, and the bill is reasonable too. What could be better? Tel 055 8528 28 English spoken.
Oltre il Giardino restaurant
La Cantinetta Sassolini: A family run restaurant with a young chef who does personal interpretations of his grandma’s home cooking. A great combination of modern methods, and traditional Tuscan cuisine. As always in my recommendations, prices are reasonable. Tel. 055 8560 142 English spoken.
Cantinetta Sassolini restaurant
Monterinaldi winery: An interesting variation could be lunch in the 18th century villa of Monterinldi winery just a little further down the road. (Localit√† Pesanella, Radda in Chianti. Tel 0577 733 533) Here you can have a tour of the winery before your meal and then sit down to a genuine Tuscan home cooking feast with accompanying wine for €35. Reservation necessary.
The 18th century villa at Monterinaldi winery

Sergio Ceccherini

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to pair Chianti

Before we talk of how to pair Chianti, a few words of introduction. In a distant past wine was often consumed because it was cleaner than water, and for the peasants In Italy, it was just calories to put on the table. Often it was used as a flavoring for water to quench the thirst of the farm workers in summer. ( By the way I sometimes still do this; a third wine two thirds water is a very refreshing drink).

However with the passing of time, wine making evolved, and in particular it evolved around the food of every region. Then just like the theory of evolution, only those wines, or wine making methods that better adapted themselves to the situation (food and taste buds) survived. In some cases it may not have been a conscious process, while in others it was, but it’s undeniable that it was taking place.
Aged cheeses a perfect match for Chianti
The evolution of wine has been going on in Europe for hundreds of years, and it’s not a coincidence that the wines from Bordeaux or Reoja are perfect matches for lamb dishes which are part of the cuisine of those areas. In the New World wine making is a relatively new experience and not related to the cuisine in any way. Though it would be perhaps true to state, that wine making was introduced to South America mainly by the Spaniards who also introduced their food. That said, wine hasn't evolved with the cuisine as in Europe.

So let’s talk about how to pair Chianti. Chianti is light, dry and acidic, and if consumed on its own not particularly pleasant (this is true of many Italian wines). It’s difficult to appreciate at a wine tasting too, but don’t see this as a lack of quality. Local winemakers know perfectly well how to make a big easy wine,  but they don’t. In fact there is some controversy among producers about making Chianti easier to drink, as this would also make it easier to sell. However most of the top wineries (I say thankfully), refuse to do this.

Bear in mind that in Italy, maybe more than anywhere else in the world, wine has always been synonymous to the dinner table, and deeply part of every dining experience, even the most simple. So it stands to reason that Italy’s wines have been crafted to this end. Italian cuisine varies greatly from region to region, however it’s generally savory (salty), with animal fats in the north and healthier olive oil in central Italy and the south.

So here’s the reason for the dry acidic wines: tannins are perceived as velvety in combination with fats, and acidity is perceived as sweet with salt. If you don’t believe me, try an orange with salt sprinkled on it.

So in a nutshell you have an answer on how to pair Chianti…salty fatty foods. So meats in general, bacon and sausages are ideal, cheese and rich cheese dishes, red sauces (if with olive oil or other fat), pizza. These foods may not necessarily be Italian, just remember the salt and fat rule and you’re unlikely to go wrong. Even a hamburger will go down just fine.

What to avoid with Chianti? Perhaps it’s easier to say what not to eat with Chianti. Well the first thing that comes to mind is anything sweet, Chianti will taste horrible with cakes and pastries. Be careful that your main course doesn't contain anything sweet either, for example tomato ketchup.

Fish rarely goes well with Chianti because of its iodine content. The combination will make the fish taste even fishier, and the wine becomes unpleasantly metallic.

Some foods have bitter back tastes which in turn will increase your perception of bitterness in Chianti too. This last aspect is very important, as we’re not always aware of bitterness in our food. If ever you drink Chianti with a meal and it tastes bitter, before you throw it down the sink, try it with something else.

As a regular Chianti drinker, I think it’s one of the world’s best wines with a meal. It never overpowers food, becoming smoother as the meal progresses, spicy or fruity depending on it's age.

Sergio Ceccherini

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The History of Chianti Wine

The history of Chianti goes back a long way. The world famous wine takes its name from the Chianti region in central Italy. It’s based on the Sangiovese grape in percentages which go from 80% to 100%. It can contain other varietals usually Cabernet or Merlot up to 20%. Chianti is dry, high in acidity, with an alcohol content of about 13.5%. The aromas and flavors tend to be fruity of cherries when young, and of ripe plums and spices when aged. Read this article for your enjoyment, and if you'd care to for a Tuscany wine tour, you can find me here.
The New Logo for Chianti Classico
Chianti wines have a number of denominations depending on the area where they are produced, but the only two to consider (in my opinion) if you want a high quality wine are “Chianti Classico” and “Rufina.” Chianti Classico is the wine made in the original historic wine making zone which was legally defined in 1716. As Chianti became more popular but centuries later, in 1930, the original geographical boundaries of the Chianti wine region were extended, and a further seven sub zones (denominations) were added. They are: Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Montespertoli, Rufina.

In the 1600’s, wine coming from a well defined zone, made from 100% Sangiovese grapes and called Chianti was being exported to England, so it’s been around with some form of regulation for a long time. In the 1840s, Baron Ricasoli, owner of Brolio Castle and the Brolio estate, did many experiments in wine making. He came to the conclusion that blending the autochthonous Sangiovese grape with 30% white varieties would produce a better wine and deposited his findings. However the Italian government ratified Ricasoli's formula into law only in 1966.

Unfortunately bad farming practices only concerned with quantity, and the addition of low quality white grapes resulted in low quality wine. As you may well know, it was bottled in a fiasco, the straw-covered bottle and “candle holder” which epitomized cheap Italian wine in the late 1960s. The reputation of Chianti sank to an all time low, and sometimes it’s still thought of this way.

In the 1970s, a small number of wineries in Chianti, and other areas of Tuscany adopted different wine making philosophies. They foresightedly focused on quality rather than quantity, and stopped following the production rules of the time. They included Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in their wines, and excluded poor quality white grapes from their blends. They also introduced ageing in small 225 litre barrels. The aim was to produce wines in the style of the top French wines for a more international appeal. Some felt (and still do) that by blending "international" grapes with Sangiovese, the tradition of Chianti was being lost, and they chose to bottle 100% Sangiovese wines, however for the rules of the time, this too was not permitted, because Chianti had to include white grapes.

Not following the rules, the new wines lost the right to be called Chianti, and they had to be marketed as table wines, which is the lowest definition of quality in Italy. However once the American press got hold of them, and realizing the undeniable quality, they were dubbed "Super Tuscans" as no other official term was available, and the name stuck. Today the Italian government has coined an officila denomination for Super Tuscans, and they go under the general name of IGT’s, which is an acronym for “Typical wine from defined geographical area.” As often happens with Italian rules, IGT means everything and nothing, wines of great quality, or junk. You’ll have to take a trip with me to find the good ones, and fortunately they do exist.

On the wake of the success of the Super Tuscans, the regulations of Chianti have been changed to accommodate the new vinification techniques. White grapes are no longer allowed and they have been substituted with international grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot (up to 20%), and infinite care is taken in the vineyard and cellar. Today Chianti is one of the world’s better wines and  has little to do with the past.

As mentioned earlier I feel the best comes from Chianti Classico and the Rufina areas. Unfortunately they are also the most expensive. If you want to spend less, try the wines from the other sub zones which considering the price, won’t disappoint. if you'd like to learn more on the History of Chianti, click here:

Sergio Ceccherini

Monday, February 17, 2014

Where is Chianti, is Florence in Tuscany?

Among the first questions I get asked on my Tuscany wine tours are: is Chianti in Tuscany, is Florence in Tuscany? So here’s the answer.

Chianti is a geographical area located south of Florence in central Italy. Chianti and Florence are both to be found in Tuscany which is one of Italy’s twenty political regions. Florence is the capital of Tuscany. See the map below, Tuscany in brown and dot in the middle is Chianti.

Due to Italy’s highly varied geography, the twenty regions also offer very different scenery, not to mention culture. Tuscany has been blessed by the gods, and is Italy’s (and perhaps the world’s) richest region in terms of art, architecture and culture. Not to mention the gorgeous scenery of Chianti and Val d’Orcia.

Excellent wines are produced here too, the most famous being Chianti and Brunello. There’s also an important amount of light industry and services. In fact though we know Tuscany best for tourism, culture and wine, these are secondary in gross income to industry.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

When to take my Photogaphy tour of the Val d’Orcia

Choosing the right time for your photographic tour of the Val d’Orcia is very important. The Val d'Orcia has ever changing colors depending on the farming cycles. The classic photos of green fields are taken from March to May. Then from June to mid July we have the gold of ripening wheat, and from mid July through October the less interesting time of brown ploughed fields. Be sure to keep these aspects in mind before booking your tour.

 As we all know, the best time for landscape photos is early morning and late afternoon.  Due to work commitments, I can’t offer these times. We instead arrive in the area about 11:00am, and leave around  5:00pm. The tour is therefore a compromise, If you’re looking for the dramatic scenes of the professionals, this isn’t the tour for you. By the way, even the professionals sometimes need weeks to get the perfect picture.

The photos below are all taken by me with a compact digital camera. They were taken between 2:00pm and 4:30pm and represent what to expect if the weather is favorable.
Classic photo of the Val d'Orcia from March to May
Another important aspect to consider is; most of the famous sites have the sun looking into the camera in the morning, so the best landscape photos are to be had during the afternoon. How many scenes we photograph depends on how long we stay at each site. We can spend longer getting an alternative viewpoint, or be happy with the first shot. This choice is up to you and you may decide freely.
Classic Val d'Orcia photo mid June to mid July
Many people ask me about photos of Poppies. Well they bloom throughout May, but rarely do they grow in the same place twice, so I don’t know in advance where we’ll find them.
Classic Val d'Orcia photo in August
Another common request is for sunflower scenes. Unfortunately sunflower scenes are not part of the Val d’Orcia, the crop here is wheat, plus a small area of vineyards around Montalcino. We may however find some fields on our way south from Florence, and if the farmers have been kind to us, we may still get that much desired picture.
On the way to Val d'Orcia we found some sunflowers
So why take the tour with me? Well firstly there aren’t many offers for this type of tour…so you’re sort of stuck with me anyway. If you’re looking for professional results, I can't help you, however I believe there are a couple of professional photographers who may be able to help you, and they can be found on the net. If on the other hand you’re just a person who enjoys taking photos from time to time, then I’m the man to contact. I don’t profess to know every corner of the Val d’Orcia, but I’ve hunted down a number of the best scenes over the years and I’ll give you the benefit of my experience. You’ll get more with me in an afternoon than in several days on your own.

You could even turn your photography tour in a wine and photography tour. Take a look here:

Last but not least, be prepared for some discomfort, mud, dust, heat and the sharp cutting edges of the wheat when harvested. Bring comfortable but dispensable footwear.
The price of a good photo in Val d'Orcia

Sergio Ceccherini