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The Scenic Route to Tuscan Shiraz

It is not often that you come across a little known and exciting pocket of shiraz. But a spot of early autumn tourism in Italy led to just that. It was a bit off the beaten wine track, and, like stumbling on a cache of porcini for a risotto, was an unexpected and delightful surprise.

If you take the train from Rome to Florence, and get off at the little stop of Camucia, which feels in the middle of nowhere, you will shortly find yourself in the charming town, or “city” as the inhabitants insist on calling it, of Cortona, not far from Tuscany’s boundary with Umbria. Layers of history reveal themselves as you walk the cobbled streets. The Etruscans were here; Medieval and Renaissance buildings overlay Roman remains. It all adds up to the sort of place where it is quite natural to gravitate towards the beautiful main square of an evening for a glass or two of wine, drifting on to eat a meal which will certainly start with bruschetti, followed by pasta, then something meaty -Tuscans do love meat - some local cheese and a dolce, a dessert, even if only a glass of Moscato with a sweet biscuit or maybe some ripe figs from a nearby tree.

So far, so tourist-y. Pleasantly so, you will feel as you eat your dinner sitting in what could be an opera set. Urchins are playing with skipping ropes and balls in time-honoured ways, and surely a tenor will emerge to sing his aria on the steps of the Palazzo Communale. Actually, this does sometimes happen as towns all over Tuscany provide the backdrop to opera performances during the summer season.

At first sight this is a long way from the wine route. The Super Tuscans are all further north; the great names of Chianti may be on the wine lists but what wine visits can you make right here? Marco Molesimi is the man to tell you.

On the Piazza della Republica is his Enotecca with an impressive selection of Italian wines. He is on a mission to inform, and he decides to take us in hand. He’s a bit like a benevolent volcano, erupting with facts and folklore. Driving down the hill from Cortona he points out the Etruscan boulders at the foot of the town ramparts, and how you can see where the next builders placed their quite differently shaped stones on top of them. Then we are into family history – generations of Molesimis have kept a grocery store, still in business across the way from his wine emporium.

What really excites him is the way the area is emerging as a very good place to plant syrah/shiraz. We are on our way to visit two winemakers who are producing what Marco considers to be the best examples, in rather different styles.

He has digressed conversationally to give us a quick history of the local geology. It takes a few minutes to realise that we are several millennia too late to see the water that used to cover most of this region. The final draining of the then mosquito ridden plain was accomplished by Mussolini. This left rich agricultural land evidenced by fields of sunflowers and other crops that we pass.

We are heading to the higher slopes with its poorer soil and suitable geology for vines. We get lost, in the nicest possible way – there are vines, and dirt tracks, all looking much the same, no signs. The scenery is great.

Stefano Amerighi turns out to be a bearded young man passionately evangelical about biodynamic methods of cultivation. He has chosen to plant the Serine variety of Syrah, as used in Cote Rotie and Cornas where he has spent some time. His small winery with 8.5 hectares is ecologically sound in every possible way. From his highest point we can see the hill of Montepulciano in the distance. Tasting the 2012 DOC Cortona, some from concrete vats and some from oak barrels in two sizes, these are obviously works in progress. They are already elegant, fragrant, and well balanced.

Following twisting roads for a few kilometres, we find ourselves at the ornamental iron gates of a more traditional establishment, Tenimente d’Alessandro. This is a well-established estate of 37 hectares, who pioneered the planting of syrah here. Over many years they used one plot as an experimental vineyard, till they felt able to demonstrate that this is the right vine for the Cortona terroir. In doing so they may have shown the way to lift the local wines from somewhat ordinary reds overshadowed by the well-known names to the north. In the hands of careful winemakers, Cortona’s reputation is growing and people are seeking out these syrahs.

The wonderful thing about wine tasting in Tuscany is that when you are fatigued you are never far from a gelateria, for an astonishing choice of ices, or a cultural highlight to lift your energy levels. Back in Cortona, there is time to see Fra Angelica’s stunning depiction of the Annuciation, all glowing reds and gold, in the Museo Diocesano de Capitolo, built in 1495.

A few steps away Marco Molesini has set up a tasting outside his store and is busy introducing more visitors to the wines of his favourite producers. Soon he will be selling them tickets to a “wine dinner” in a nearby trattoria. Here they will drink the wines he has selected to match the dish of wild boar which roam the heavily wooded steep slopes above the town, served with some of those creamy Tuscan beans.

You could say that there are two branches of wine appreciation. One is quite analytical in style; these people take pleasure in tastings, Master Classes, following blogs, comparing scores, tracking prices, checking auction results. Others prefer to pursue the more scenic route, getting out and about to visit vineyards and meet wine-makers in situ, drinking the wines over dinner at local restaurants. Call me a romantic, but this experience - highly subjective I know - beats the analytical approach hands down.

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