Insider tips: treat your taste buds in Siena

by Laura Gray on April 11, 2011

My NY colleague, Mandy Presser, put her time in Italy to good use and was kind enough to share the details of her classes at the Tuscan Wine School in Siena.

Read on…..

Freshly arrived in Montalcino and eager to learn about Italian wines from an Italian perspective, I signed up for two classes at the Tuscan Wine School in Siena. Just a short, scenic drive from Montalcino, the Tuscan Wine School is in the heart of Siena, steps away from the Duomo and il Campo. Set in the back of a retail shop, the classroom is easy to find and provides an intimate learning experience. Of the four classes that they offer, the afternoon Tuscan Wine Class is the most popular, according to Maria Luisa, my knowledgeable and friendly teacher for the day.

In the morning, I took a two-hour class on Wines of Italy. While it was an open class, it turned into a one-on-one lesson, as I was the only one to have signed up for the morning session. The course would cover the different areas of Italy (though it did not touch on Tuscan wines) and offer tastes of wines and grapes that were characteristic of each region. Starting with a taste of Tuscan olive oil (typically fruitier and more delicate than the olive oil produced in the south, where instead of picking the olives from the trees, they wait for the olives to fall), we dove into our first wine, a prosecco from the north. Maria Luisa explained the different ways to make a champagne/sparkling wine, both the classic Champenoise method, which takes a minimum of two years in bottle to age, as well as the quicker Charmat method, which is more typical of Italian proseccos.

From the prosecco, we moved on to taste a D’Antiche Terre Sannio Falanghina 2008, a typical white wine from the area around Naples. The soil from Mt. Vesuvius has left the region very fertile and given it a unique terroir, though the heat in the south causes the grapes to ripen earlier than in the north. With a dark yellow color, this is a white wine with lots of structure and depth, and less aromatic than the wines from the north. While the course centered on wine and not food, it was interesting to see how crucially important wine is to shaping the foods of the region. Because Naples and its surrounding area can produce white wine, they also specialize in fantastic seafood. Tuscany, for example, with its long coast line, could easily focus on fish or seafood, but because its red wines are superior, the typical Tuscan cuisine has developed into red meat, wild boar, rabbit, etc. that matches with the wine the area produces. The food is adapted to the wine of the region, and which wine grows best dictates the local palate.

Next, we tasted a 2007 Allora Primitivo from Puglia, a dark, garnet colored wine with a strong nose, often compared to a California Zinfandel. That was followed by a delicious Vigneti Cerreto Barbera D’Alba 2007 from Piedmont. Despite its intensely dark color, this wine had low tannins and was a fresh wine that was pleasing to the palate and very easy to drink. Our fifth wine, a Langhe Nebbiolo S. Francesco Fontanazza, was made from the nebbiolo grape that grows in the high altitudes and the limestone of the north. A wine with high levels of alcohol, acidity and tannins, it has all the elements to age well. The last wine of the Italian Wines class was a 2006 Marco de Bartoli Passito di Pantelleria, grown in the south of Sicily from the Zibibbo grape, that was very dense (it poured like syrup) and very sweet, with a strong nose of alcohol. Full of wine and an understanding of the different wine regions of Italy, class was over.

After lunch, a stroll through town and a gelato while sitting under the warm sun in the Campo amongst tourists, locals and students, I returned for the afternoon course, Wines of Tuscany. Starting once again with the prosecco, as is tradition in Italy, the small class (it was myself and an Australian girl) moved on to try the 2009 Cesani Vernaccia, a varietal found only in San Gimignano (though with clones found in Sardinia). Currently aged in steel, the Vernaccia can be found in records dating back to Dante and weddings of the Medicis. As the only Tuscan DOCG white wine, it must contain a minimum of 90% Vernaccia grapes, though it is often blended with other grapes such as Chardonnay to give florals and to soften its characteristic acidity and mineral taste. It is unique because it is a white wine that has enough structure to also be paired with meat. Moving on to the 2008 Romeo Rosso di Montepulciano, we learned of the different types of Sangiovese grapes, and then tried the 2007 Casa Sola Chianti Classico. As an early precursor to the official levels of DOCG, DOC, IGT and VDT, Chianti was first classified as a region for wine production by Cosimo III de Medici in the 1700s, and has a black rooster as a trademark of the region, which one can find both on wine bottles and on signs in the region. Our fifth wine of the afternoon was a Super Tuscan, a phrase understood but not normally used by Italians to describe the Bordeaux style wines that transcend the DOCG rules of wine for the region and typically mix both traditional Tuscan grapes with international grapes. The 2006 Sassotondo San Lorenzo was very smooth, robust but not heavy, and would have been great paired with a Florentine steak!

The last wine of the day, the 2001 Casa Sola Vin Santo del Chianti Classico, was a dessert wine that combined Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes to produce an amber wine that is harvested at the end of the season. The wine is kept in small barrels in the worst room in the house (one where it is cold at night and warm in the day), and by design, the fermentation of this wine starts and stops often with the temperature changes to produce the desired result.

At the end of the day, I left the course with a better understanding of the differences in wines between the regions, the importance of the wine to where it is made, the process of making the wine and the impact that subtle differences have in the long term results. My classes at the Tuscan Wine School were both informative and delicious!

To make reservations, contact Rebecca at the Tuscan Wine School at or go to their website at

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