It takes a lot for me to squeeze my butt onto a minivan with eight other adults for the day. Big money, for example. Brandishing a loaded weapon often will do the trick. Or, if all else fails, the promise of a glass of wine.
Gusto Wine Tours
Which is why I found myself hauling my bulk into the front seat of just such a vehicle (I at least had the foresight to call shotgun) recently for what turned out to be an absolutely delightful day with Mark and Giselle Stafford of Gusto Wine Tours. After living in the area for years, during which time they have developed quite a knowledge of and rapport with the local wine producers, this trasplanted British couple has founded a tour company which offers, as they say, “an informal day enjoying the best of Umbrian wine and food.” To introduce their new venture, they organized a promotional day tour for a group of local innkeepers who, as luck would have it, are also a bunch of lushes (hey, we weren’t driving).
And We’re Off…
We began the day at midmorning by meeting up at a central location in Santa Maria degli Angeli (though Gusto Tours can also arrange free local pick-up and drop off), where I was able to meet the affable Mark and his bubbly wife Giselle. Mark functions as driver and tour guide, while Giselle generally handles the office work and client contacts. Mark loaded us into the aforementioned minivan (Giselle, who would be meeting us later for lunch, sped off in her cherry red convertable sport coupe while we tried not to look after her longingly) and we were off. Gusto Tours visits vineyards primarily located in and around the town of Montefalco, famous for its full bodied Sagrantino, light Grechetto, strong grappa, and high quality olive oils.
Our first stop was Romanelli, an organic cantina run by a three generation family of the same name, who were the archetipical example of Umbrian hospitality. The tasting took place in their living room, with Nonna and Nonno looking on as wife Anna Rita offered her home-made pinoli and Sagrantino cookies and husband Costantino presented their wines, oils, and talked to us about their growing business. The Romanellis began putting their wine on the market just a few years ago (they produce around 35,000 bottles a year), but we tasted their first issue Sagrantino which was—okay, I know I’m not supposed to swear—but it was effing awesome. Like that scene in Ratatouille when Remy starts describing the fireworks that go off in his mouth when he bites into a strawberry and a chevre at the same time (I have preschoolers now…I don’t cite Tarantino anymore.). Totally a Sagrantino to watch.
Next we stopped by the tiny, homey Cantina Sant’Anna (the smallest cantina producing a DOC Sagrantino in Umbria). If you want to check out a typical Umbrian family farm, complete with friendly yapping dogs and a standing room only tasting space which is pretty much a repainted garage with a couple of wine posters and the requisite picture of the Pope (John Paul…nobody really likes the new guy that much) hung on the walls, you’ve come to the right place. Francesca and Andrea only bottle about 10,000/year and most of their sales are to locals who come armed with their own containers. We sampled their home-made salami and fresh bread with a wonderfully smooth 2007 Montefalco Rosso. But what really brought down the house was their Dolce Novembre (a Sagrantino Passito which, since it is aged only two years instead of the compulsory 3, cannot carry the protected denomination)…wonderfully full sweetness that paired perfectly with the tozzetti made by Nonna Maria.
At this point the group was beginning to ease itself from jovial to raucous, so our intrepid (and foresightful) guide Mark steered us toward some carbs to soak up a little alcohol. We lunched at the charming Fongoli vineyard and agritourism, again right outside of Montefalco. This family enterprise produces Sagrantino (both dry and sweet), Montefalco Rosso, and a Grechetto and the charm of its tasting room, crammed with antique farm tools and winemaking accoutrements and adjacent to the ageing cellars with oak barrels larger than our minivan, was matched by the quality of their wines.
During lunch (an endless procession of coldcuts and bruschette, a Sagrantino risotto, grilled meat, vegetable gratin, and the ubiquitous tozzetti), we sampled a series of vintages paired with each course and were most struck by the Rosso Riserva from 2004. Just when we were entering a numerous wines + large meal + ample conversation + crackling woodstove fire induced contemplative state, Mark announced that we were headed to a final cantina. Despite our initial shock and awe, we rallied well and no one had to be bodily carried to the minivan.
Cantina Colle Ciocco
And lucky we were that our initial protests were ignored…Colle Ciocco was a delight. Run by the charming brothers Lamberto and Eliseo—who began their production as a post-retirement hobby—this farm also produces award winning Sagrantino, three types of extravirgin olive oil, and grappa. We were pleasantly surprised by their incredibly smooth, almost buttery, Clarignano white…an evolution of the traditional grechetto which uses a blend of voigner grapes, one of the few in Umbria. I especially enjoyed sampling and comparing their three olive oils, each produced by a different pressing technique which yields oils that are both top quality yet very unique. We finished the day with a oak barrel aged Sagrantino grappa…at which point we did risk having to be carried to the minivan.
The bottom line
I should mention that at all four estates we visited the wines, grappas, oils, and other products (Romanelli, for example, also produces a fabulous honey) are available for purchase (parcels are initialled by Mark to avoid confusion and stored in the van) and that Mark translated the presentation of each winemaker from the native Italian into English for our group. He also had bottled water along for us and Bloody Mary mix for hair o’ the dog. (Just kidding.) They can also customize the itinerary of the cantinas included in each day tour based on the interests or requests of their clients.
Aside from being just plain fun, the day organized by Gusto Wine Tours was a unique way to discover a series of small, off-the-beaten-track wineries and sample some of the best wines and oils Umbria has to offer. Mark and Giselle managed to surprise me, even after living in this area for more than 15 years, with their inside knowledge of the local cantinas and backroads around Montefalco. I highly recommend checking out one of their tours…but remember to call shotgun!