Nittardi, Michelangelo and Papal Nectar
It’s pouring with rain, a howling gale, branches down everywhere, bins blown over and anyway if you go out you get arrested, fined or virused. Time to sit in front of the fire and dream of summers past and, hopefully, future. And where better than Tuscany, rolling hillsides of vineyards and sparkling olive groves, elegant avenues of cypress trees smartly at attention. A place of wild boars, porcini and beef, of Chianti and Brunello, of virgin oil and culture, and, gran Dio, what culture, the home of the Renaissance. Art and architecture that has inspired writers, film makers and tourists for centuries, and will continue to do aeons after even the longest-lived vintage has turned to vinegar.
And if you fancy that inimitable Tuscan blend of art, history, scenery and wine, plus hospitality and a relaxing escape to the middle of nowhere, you should head down to Castellina in Chianti and then switch off Waze or Google Maps as they will send you in circles. Finally, finally, you will find yourself on a narrow dirt track that carves through a dense scrubby forest to nowhere until a small turret appears, guarded by a two headed sculpture and pots of flowering oleander.
The defensive tower dates back to 1183 and was known as ‘Nectar Dei’ nectar of the gods, later transcribed to Nittardi when the Italian language took over from Latin. In the sixteenth century the estate was owned by an artist who became rather well known for the Sistine Chapel, David and La Pieta. Yes, Michelangelo liked wine as well as art, and sent Nittardi to the Pope (today the first bottles of the flagship Nectar Dei are still sent to his eminence every year).
In 1982 a German art dealer took over, and it was his son who met us in the sculpture garden once we had eventually circumnavigated the hills of southern Chianti a few times. The only relief was that Mark Williamson (of Willi’s Wine Bar and Maceo renown in Paris) had got equally lost and he’d been there before.
Leo took us past a couple of life-sized stone lions (found by Steven Spurrier in Lucca) and stood us by an equally large scaled chess set whilst we overlooked the olives across the valley to the road we should have taken (and saved us twenty minutes and several hairpin bends). In hand we had a glass of Ben, their new white vermentino from the Maremma coast, fresh, fruity and uncomplicatedly nice. Perfect, though vermentino always seems to taste better with either a Tuscan vista or a few centuries of architecture in front of you.
The basic chianti, Belcanto, sings straight from the hills, younger vines full of energy and Italian sunshine, a bricky colour and taste of cherries. For me, the flagship wine is the Casanuova di Nittardi, a single vineyard sangiovese from vigna doghessa. Every year an artist is selected to paint the label, but also the wrapping paper, double art for the price of one. Just like Mouton-Rothchild and its famed labels, I believe the artist is remunerated in wine, though I think the 2005 doyenne (Yoko Ono) took olive oil instead.
It is easy to become bewitched here, by the hospitality, the secluded peace, the unspoiled views, the ubiquitous art (not to mention the history) and of course the chianti. The oil too is excellent. A cooling glass by the pool anyone?
I like vermentino as it’s great value and refreshingly delicious, and chianti for me should be the soul of Tuscany, palish wines of crisp elegance and balance that age remarkably well, sour cherries and sun-baked earth, wines that have the acidity and creamy ripeness to take a Bistecca Fiorentina. I admit that I am not a fan of many of the new gran selezione wines as they seem aimed at the US market and the desire for dark colours, sweetness and alcohol. Of course, they garner high point scores and sell for silly prices, which hopefully leaves the real traditional wines at a price that real wine lovers can enjoy. But when chianti becomes dense, dark and chocolatey, I head for the hills. Give me tipicita over ‘international’ every time. Why bother travelling otherwise?
In similar vein, I struggle to see the point (other than the commercial one) in throwing French grapes into Tuscany when there are so many excellent ones in Bordeaux. Do we really need more? Nittardi adds some merlot into its chianti riserva and then goes the whole hog for its premium wines from the Maremma, Ad Astra and Nectar Dei, a mix of Bordeaux grapes and syrah. It’s all a matter of taste, but for me, give me the glorious views, the irreplaceable art and a few centuries of growing sangiovese. After all, surely you should send the blood of Jesus to the Pope, not rival grapes of France? And, in true Italian style, clothe it in art…