Living in Rome is a cyclist’s paradox. Rome is to cycling what Bangkok is to skiing. It’s one of the least cycling friendly cities in the world. There are no bike paths. The cobblestones are brutal. The drivers are worse. Cycling in Phnom Penh is better. However, I’m only a short ride from some of the most beautiful cycling terrain in the world.
Cycling Around Tuscan Wineries
Going cycling around Tuscan wineries is such a remarkable experience it’s almost a cliche. But like all overused terms, the core is truth. I recently took my first Tuscany bike ride. In Tuscany, cycling takes on a different quality. Wineries dot Tuscany like raindrops on a windshield in England. You can’t ride more than 30 minutes without seeing neat rows of grapevines behind an 18th century house teasing you with outdoor tables and a view of a deep green valley.
I went with a company called Bike Florence & Tuscany ([email protected]). Piero Didona and his wife, Elena Boscherini, started the company three years ago after Piero ran a bike shop for 20 years. This isn’t just a business to them. Cycling is their passion. Piero told me when he’s not leading tours, he’s riding, sometimes up to 100 kilometers in a day. Riding in Tuscany always appealed to me. But one thought haunted me as I took the dawn train ride 90 minutes from Rome to Florence.
I haven’t even sat on a bike in three years.
Piero told me not to worry. It isn’t difficult. He did offer a pseudo warning.
“You have to be fit,” he said. “Tuscany isn’t flat. Some people think they’re fit because they bike 150 miles per week but they’re riding in Florida. It’s very flat. After the first hill they about die: ‘We don’t have this at home.’”
I wasn’t concerned. After all, if we’re cycling around Tuscan wineries, I’ll find that extra gear.
Elena met me at the Florence train station and a young couple from New York later joined us as we drove up the winding hills to the town of San Donato where we met Piero and a family of five from Chicago. This is where we would start our adventure. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The trip is basically a wine tasting with cycling thrown in. We covered only 13 miles, mostly downhill. We started at 1,800 feet and ended at 600. You do the math. They even bill it as a “bike tasting” tour.
Chianti Wine Region
The entire trip is done in the famed Chianti region which spreads like a wine stain over nearly half of Tuscany. One of the major things I took away from this trip — along with two terrific bottles of wine — is the difference in Chiantis.
Chianti is the pride of Tuscany and one of the prides of Italy. And it is massively popular around the world. Every year this small region produces 8 million cases of wine. Not all are the same. Pay attention and impress your friends at your next dinner party:
A simple Chianti is a blend or consists of some grapes found outside the designated regions.
b. Chianti Classico
The grapes come only from a Chianti sub-region in Chianti’s heartland. Only Chianti from this area can use the black rooster seal (the gallo nero) on the neck of the bottle.
c. Chianti Reserva
Is aged at least 38 months instead of the usual four to seven. At least one year must be stored in wood.
d. Chianti Gran Selezione:
Made with the very best grapes from the same vineyard as a reserva and stored at least 18 months.
San Donato is a good place to start. At 1,800 feet, it felt cool despite the beaming sunshine. I strolled through the village which was about 100 meters long. I heard roosters crowing. I saw old men chat in front of a cafe. I looked down from the height over an array of purple wildflowers and saw vineyards and meadows and forests. All I needed was a glass of wine.
The bikes loaned to us were high-end Specialized, the American bike company that’s the top selling bike in Italy. Mine was a 27-gear hybrid that felt like a Maserati after 40 years on my old 1974 Raleigh 10-speed. We wheeled down the hill, going just slow enough to take in the incredible green panorama below us. With so few hills, it was like driving through Tuscany in a convertible and at the end of a 20-minute ride one of the best glasses of wine in the world waited for us, not to mention Simone, their assistant, handing out wet towelettes.
We came into the town of Castellina in Chianti. Its one main drag is lined with Italian specialty shops ranging from espresso makers to dried risotto to leather belts.
Aleandro opened Le Volte Enoteca in 1960 and is still running around the store in his wine apron to this day. Aleandro’s burly French assistant, Gilles Kehren, started us off with a Vernaccia, the famed white wine from San Gimignano, the Tuscan town known worldwide for its massive towers. It’s as good a white wine produced in Tuscany and one overlooked by those drowning themselves in Chiantis and Montepulcianos.
I fell for a wine I’d never heard of: the Bolgheri. The Bolgheri Superiore is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s deep, rich and full bodied and well worth the 31.50 euro retail.
Back on our bikes and thankfully still sober, we wound down the hill over some lovely long stretches of flat road where each turn offered new villages in the distance to see. We could even see San Donato high above us but just below us around the next turn was our destination.
Lornano is a winery/agriturismo outside the town of Monteriggioni. An agriturismo is like a villa but in a farmhouse. A sparkling turquoise swimming pool overlooked the rolling green Tuscan countryside. The stone buildings housing the rooms looked like something where Leonardo Da Vinci may have stayed while resting from painting Madonnas.
Angioletta took us into the crispy cool storage areas where she explained the fermentation process. She showed us a glass designed by Michelangelo that takes the excess gas from the wine barrels. We had tastings of a whole array of Chiantis which became extraordinarily educational for someone like me who has made wine one of my four major food groups.
The first Chianti Classico I had, a 2012, was 100 percent Sangiovese and absolutely terrific. Rich enough to serve with spicy Italian sausage but light enough to drink with crackers and cheese. It was an absolute steal at 19 euros.
I tried the Chianti Gran Selezione. Its classy gold label well represented its 62-euro price tag but I’m not discriminatory enough — or rich enough — to tell much of a difference. I had to wake from my daydreaming to get back on my bike for our last stretch. This one consisted of three little hills that wouldn’t rate a Category 5 on the Giro’s Cat 1-5 mountain chart (5 being the easiest) but did rate a warning from Piero that anyone not feeling up for it can ride in the chase car. One woman did.
We managed to make it to the village of Monteriggioni, a medieval walled town founded in 1215 and mentioned in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” It’s still populated by only 42 people. Over a bowl of pappardelle cinghiale, one of the trademark dishes of Tuscany, I asked Piero about the massive popularity of cycling in Tuscany.
“More people are looking for beautiful places to express themselves,” he said. “More tourists are bikers.” His company organizes tours 12 months a year and have all levels of routes, including some similar to the Giro stages for the serious masochists.
We went upstairs to our last wine tasting. Monte Chiaro Terre della Grigia is in the first building in town, built nearly 1,000 years ago. Seila Bruschi is a wildly enthusiastic blonde sales manager who gave us the rundown. She had me try a Malvesia Nera. It’s 100 percent Pinot Noir, exactly the same as my native Oregon which boasts — and I agree — the best Pinot in the world. The Malvasia was close. Adding chunks of Chianti-induced pecorino, I knew what I’d have on my terrace the next time I got home.
Cycling around Tuscan wineries was more fun exercise than a workout but the biggest surprise wasn’t the ease of the cycling but the reasonable prices of the world-renowned wines. The Tour di Tuscany is a very tasty ride.
John Henderson is a freelance writer living in Rome. Follow his travel blog, Dog-Eared Passport, at www.johnhendersontravel.com.