The puffs of mist in the picture are nothing to do with cloud - they are the steam rising from the thermal waters in the Hotel Adler Thermae close by the village of Bagno Vignoni. There's been a tank in the village since the sixteenth century where people have been bathing for centuries in the mineral-infused hot springs. Eminent visitors who have taken the waters in the past have included (pre-tank) numerous ancient Romans and Etruscans, then (in the tank) a few Medicis and Pope Pius II. Not at the same time.
Bagno Vignoni is in the middle of the Val d'Orcia National Park in Tuscany and it's feeling decidedly chilly and autumnal here at the moment. It's the same temperature as London though that's where the similarity ends. Rather than hordes of miserable commuters shivering on Southern Rail platforms, the season is evidenced here by people with baskets of fantastic funghi they've collected from the surrounding hillsides, trees weighed down with pomegranates and wine making in full swing.
There are more than two hundred vineyards around the main town of Montalcino which is a mecca for wine lovers and particularly those enamoured of the Brunelli wine made from the local Sangiovese grapes. The most fascinating of these wineries for me was Podere le Ripi where wine maker Sebastian Nasello showed me round. It's an unusual place. It has a winery shaped like a beehive with a long spiral walkway down to the heart of the beehive where wine ages in barrels listening to Pavarotti. The approach is not just organic, it's biodynamic so it's a way of producing wine that involves the ecological and the spiritual in nature. I think there might be something involved that concerns the phases of the moon and there are certainly different (all natural, obviously) preparations applied to the growing plants at different times of the year. So there's manure in cows' horns buried underground, yarrow flowers in stag's bladder and liberal spraying of valerian flower juice. I did read once about farmers testing the temperature of the earth with their bare bottoms but I suspect that's quite spurious and certainly Sebastian made no reference to it. Obviously grapes are hand picked and everything else is done by hand, too.
The resulting wine is wonderful and, under the influence of the vineyard owner, Francesco Illy (he of coffee fame) has been given delightful names. Amore et Folie (Love and Madness - because the two are interchangeable and therefore to be celebrated) is the most affordable and delicious even if it's not a proper Brunelli di Montalcino as it uses Syrah grapes. Lupi et Sirene (Wolves and Mermaids) is the real Brunelli deal and absolutely gorgeous. But the king of the vineyard is Bonsai, so called because they pack some 65,000 plants into a hectare – they don't grow tall but they produce a wine of real intensity that comes in at £100 a bottle plus. Treble that if you buy it in a London restaurant. Worth coming to Tuscany for really....
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