19 June 2016

Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, May 10-12: In search of wine

I have to admit that this was the most poorly planned part of our trip to Italy in May. Not that we didn't have fun. We had lots of fun and saw some great sights. We ate delicious food and drank wonderful wine. It's just that it wasn't the experience we had planned when we set up our itinerary. 

Here's what I wanted - to stay in a small town in Umbria to use as a base for exploring the Umbrian wine region and sampling some new wines, especially white wines. The town I picked was Civitella d'Agliano. I picked it because it was close to Orvieto, which was appealing because I was familiar with the Orvieto white wine. However, I quickly discovered a few facts. The town is actually in Lazio. And except for Orvieto, we were quite far from the main wine producing part of Umbria. And most of the wine we drank was red wine. And we also concluded that it's possible for a town to be too small for a tourist destination. 

This part of the trip started with a long drive from Cinque Terra. It took about 4 hours, and despite using Google Maps, we did miss one turn after we got off the Autostrada in Orvieto. We ended up going out of our way a few kilometers before we realized our error. 

When we finally arrived in Civitalla d'Agliano, what we discovered was that except for the agriturismo where we were staying, there wasn't really much else to see or do in the town. That included restaurants. But that wasn't too disconcerting. After all, we did have a car and we had planned to take day trips during our stay. 

On Day 2 of our stay, we planned to visit Orvieto. We also got some recommendations from the proprietor of the agriturismo. We started the day by driving 15 km to Civita di Bagnoregio, the so-called dying town. It was founded more than 2000 years ago by the Etruscans. But since it's built on a highly erodible cliff, the town is gradually falling into the valley below. Still, for a dying town, it seemed pretty lively. There were a lot of restaurants and shops for tourists, and apparently there still are about 50 people living there.
Orvieto's Duomo

Next we went on to Orvieto. We followed Rick Steves advice and parked for free at the train station and took the funicular up to the town. It was a very nice hilltop walled city. Rick Steves raves about it, calling it "What an Italian hill town should be." But we felt it was too touristy and not as nice as Sienna, which we saw on our previous Italy vacation. And we didn't drink any white wine there. 

After we left Orvieto, we had time so we drove to Todi. Todi actually is in Perugia. We liked that town quite a lot. It was small and quaint, touristy for sure, but not obnoxiously. There apparently was some kind of youth concert going on because everywhere there were groups of kids hanging out and being rambunctious.

That evening, at the restaurant in Civitella d'Agliano, we had a bottle of Montepulciano wine. We really liked it. So the next day, since we were going to have to drive anyway, we drove north an hour to the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. Linda always was disappointed that we didn't get there on our last trip, and I was happy to try their local wine.

The drive went smoothly; Google Maps did a good job getting us there. We drove thru some rain. But when we got there, it didn't look very threatening, so we left our umbrellas in the car. Bad decision. We were in the main plaza when it started to pour. We ducked into a cantina and sampled their wine while waiting for the rain to stop. We didn't particularly like the wine, so didn't buy any. When it quit raining, we went back to the car and got our umbrellas. Naturally, we carried them the rest of the day and didn't need them. The village turned out to be much smaller than we expected, and it didn't take us long to pretty much see it all.

By now, I was getting frustrated by our difficulty in finding wine to taste. I'd read about one winery, Gattavecchi, that had good reviews on TripAdvisor. We passed it while walking thru the town. But when we stopped in, we were greeted by an elderly woman who spoke no English. We finally figured out that there was no wine tasting there. 

Then I remembered that the winery had two addresses, one a business office and another a cantina. So we made our way across the village again and found the cantina. No one was in the room when we entered, but we followed some stairs up to what I thought was the 'sala degustation.' When we got up there, a very harried person told us they were in the middle of serving lunch, so no tasting. 

Disappointed and confused we turned to go. But as we reached the bottom of the stairs, another woman who spoke very good English swooped in and took charge. She turned out to be Daniela, one of the Gattavecchi family members. She showed us their cellar and offered us a tasting. We loved the wines and had a very pleasant conversation with her, during which we learned that their wine is carried by Total Wine in the U.S. We bought 2 bottles. Since returning home, I've had a chance to see how much the wine is at Total Wine. I was surprised to find it was not much more than what it cost in Italy. 

Hotel: We stayed at La Tana dell'Istrice (the porcupine's burrow). It is an agriturismo with the guest rooms located in family manor in the ancient square and watchtower of Civitella d'Agliano. Driving into the square is quite daunting. You have to steer thru a very narrow passage and up a steep hill. We were offered a beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the town and the valley below. We had dinner the first night with the family and one other guest. The food was delicious and was paired with various wines from the family's vineyard (Sergio Mottura). 
Dinner at La Quercia. Note the fried artichokes - delicious!

Restaurant: As I noted earlier in this post, we didn't have too many options for dinner in town. The first night we ate at the agriturismo. The second night, we found a local restaurant called La Quercia. It was quite an experience. We were the only customers for the evening. We arrived at about 8 pm and when we left at 9:15, no one else came in. We started with an appetizer plate of cheese, several different kinds of sausage, two different bruschettas with tapenade, and fresh fava beans with honey. For her entree, Linda had grilled squid and shrimp. As a side she had fried artichokes. Excellent. I ordered ravioli, with hazelnuts and black truffles. I thought the ravioli was filled with meat. But it was some kind of fish. Very unusual and good.We liked it very much so we returned on our last night in town. On our second visit, our starter was tortelloni filled with wild boar and dressed with butter and sage and a bowl of grated Parmesan to top it off. Linda had a repeat of her squid and shrimp. I had 'filletto' of beef with porcini mushroom sauce. Another very good meal. 

Click here to view an album of photos from our stay in Lazio-Umbria-Tuscany. 

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