Escape the stress of city life in Tuscany’s Montalcino, where great wine, good regional food and relaxation are always in fashion.
Have you ever had a fantasy about living in a Tuscan castle with a handsome prince (or princess)? If so, Il Borgo is the place for you. You may indeed meet your prince there – when I visited, Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa was staying there. But to be on the safe side, take your loved one with you – and spend a long weekend pretending to be lord (or lady) of the manor. There are hill towns to visit, classic Renaissance views, wines and grappas to taste, and home-grown balsamic sauce and olive oil to buy. Il Borgo stands proudly over the Castello Banfi wine estate, one of the most renowned in the wine zone of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. The Mariani family, who created the Castello Banfi winery and then opened Il Borgo in 2007, has made this a place for indulgence. Even for the wasps. There’s nothing so crude as fly spray here. At breakfast the wasps have their own little bowl of Parma ham to lure them away from the pastries and jam served to guests. The 14 bedrooms and suites of Il Borgo are located outside the tiny village that grew up beside the castle in the 17th and 18th centuries.
After breakfast the hotel manager will try and tempt you into planning a flight in a hot air balloon or a mountain biking expedition over the rolling slopes and woodland. He’ll suggest a cookery class, or plan a wine tasting and a trip to some local wineries if you’d like to learn more about the region’s top wine: Brunello. Or – as a tennisplaying Spaniard – he’ll talk about Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. If football is your thing, then this Barça fan will discuss the finer points of the Premier League and Gareth Bale’s recent transfer to Real Madrid. Frustratingly, he is very discreet, given the celebrity guests. Felipe Massa had come with his family for a wedding nearby – and there could not be a more lovely place to be married than this countryside, hardly changed, except for the cars, since the 15th century. The wedding party had dinner one night in Sant’Angelo in Colle, a tiny hilltop town. You sit out in the square, with the town’s two restaurants vying for your business, while the locals are perched on the walls eyeing up the flood of cars parked perilously on the slopes. Next day Massa was again hard to miss in his shiny Ferrari tourer with its Monaco number plates. He was visiting Montalcino, a town that is inevitably touristic but remains picturesque despite the visitors. Montalcino has a splendid small fortress, which was the last stronghold of the people of Siena in a savage stand-off against the Medici of Florence in the 15th century. There’s a fabulous view of the countryside beyond from the battlements. Below you at the foot of the castle is a film-set of a medieval Italian village, and forests. The Romans were here, too, and the Etruscans before them. Montalcino gets its name from Ilex, the Latin for the holm oak, a tree that still blankets plenty of the area.
Brunello di Montalcino
In the past, the Sangiovese grape – the variety that makes Chianti and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano great – was named differently from one region to another. In Montalcino, it was known as Brunello, and today Brunello has to be 100 per cent Sangiovese by regulation. It’s a late arrival to the fine wine scene, first making itself known in the early 1960s, but it is now up there with the best Pinots and the best Barolos in the world. The region is roughly square, bounded by three rivers. Within this small zone there is a wide variety of microclimates, and of soils. Banfi mapped 29 different soil types on its own vineyards alone. What makes Montalcino so special is that when the mountains were created, the sea retreated and then covered Montalcino again, several times, building up very diverse layers of soils of different ages. If the best wines reflect their terroir – and they do – then Montalcino has terroir in spades.