You know you’ve arrived in old-world Tuscany when you ask a gorgeous young man for directions and he only answers you back in Italian. Just like everybody else you already have spoken to because you decided to go “old school” and navigate with maps instead of GPS.
Text and photos (c) Bettina M. Gordon
TUSCANY, ITALY – Driving south we left Florence, Siena and surely millions of tourists behind and arrived in the tiny village of Sassofortino, in the area of Maremma, arguably the last part of Tuscany unspoiled by waves of foreigners and the need for learning a second language.
The gorgeous young man points me towards the Valdonica vinyards, the new Boutique Hotel a friend and fellow journalist told me about. “There’s something special about this place”, she said. She wasn’t kidding. Here are my top five reasons for checking it out yourself on your next trip:
I.) Valdonica sits on prime real estate.
Maremma is the southwestern tip of Tuscany, bordering the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas and northern Lazio. If you fly into Florence or Rome you can reach Valdonica within a couple of hours – unless you make frequent compulsive photography stops (and have a very tolerant husband) like I do. Maremma boasts picturesque hilltop villages with colorful names like Pitigliano, Roccatederighi, Cinigiano, or Campagnatico and has more medieval castles then my camera’s memory card could hold at that point.
This area was once the heart of the Etruscan empire before the mysterious Etruscan people vanished 2000 years ago and their highly sophisticated infrastructure broke down and rotted away. The secluded Maremma became wild and unfarmable again and laid dormant for hundreds of years. I think the land preserved itself for later glory, which totally works out in my favor now as it has become the insiders’ choice for Tuscan hospitality and wine making.
Maremma is earthy, rugged, unpretentious and rich on traditions. It’s where spoiled Romans go to relax and indulge. Think New York’s Hamptons many decades ago.
II.) Valdonica is owned by a transformer – of the human kind.
Valdonica’s owner and in-house physician Dr. Martin Kerres was once the founder and CEO of a large hospital management company that employed 6,500 people in three countries. Stressed out and looking for a place to relax and spend the winters, Martin came to visit Maremma and check out Valdonica. Moved by the beauty of the land he spontaneously bought the property and suddenly owned 200 acres of wilderness. What now? Well, the land whipped the man into shape, so to speak.
On a fateful day in December 2005 Martin left his CEO position, status, power and frequent traveler miles behind and moved to Tuscany for good. He started to put his money, sweat and blood into farming Valdonica and turning it into a bio-dynamic, energy efficient estate that now also welcomes guests. “I’ve become the steward of this land, not the owner”, he says, happily sharing it with as many people as would like to drop by. The Doctor will see you anytime – unthinkable, huh?
Warning: Maremma is conducive to life changing thoughts and subsequent actions – read my in-depth interview on how Dr. Kerres turned his life around here.
III.) Valdonica is a prime example of what stewardship of the earth can look like:
Rocks from the land were used to build the two guest villas and main house. The 10 rooms are a tasteful mix of Tuscan architecture and modern, energy efficient interior. Guests sleep in beds made of old wine barrels. The floors look like finely polished stone and wood panel doors keep the place cool and comfortable. Linens and bathrobes were handmade by small businesses in the area and are so comfy you have to pry yourself out of bed.
As I swung the terrace doors of my room wide open I discovered dozens of colorful butterflies swarming huge lavender bushes; tail wagging dogs of my next door neighbors patrolling the property; two little girls playing with a cat in the sun; and a woman named Carla, whose heart beats with joy when she wanders through the vineyard tending to “her” grapes and singing old Italian songs to the vines evoking plentiful harvests and happy families.
Supposedly there are also horses and sheep roaming the property, but at some point I had to draw the line. I stopped exploring and opened the bottle of Valdonica Arnaio, the welcome gift for new arrivals. It was time to ease into the evening.
IV.) Valdonica is the opposite of a sterile hotel-chain experience.
We arrived on a Thursday, which means that 30 lucky people were to gather around the communal table for a once a week four-course Italian dinner that Sassofortino local Angela prepares following her nonna’s recipes. Martin hosts these evenings himself and welcomes all visitors, not just Valdonica residents (the feast costs $43 including wines; half price for kids.)
Angela gracefully let me taste the Chingale Cacciatore on the stove – I seriously considered running off with the pan all by myself. I love that about Maremma: her people are homebodies and cook the way it was always done.
The locals here still don’t like to leave their home – a trip to nearby Rome or Florence is usually undertaken for medical emergencies only – and are proud of their ancient traditions. They cook the dishes of their grandmothers. They hunt wild boar. They smile a lot. They open their kitchen pots and hearts to their guests. Case in point: guest manager Massimo showed me a three minute video of his newborn baby girl doing – well, nothing. Like pots that overflow, a new father´s heart can easily overflow with love by the sheer sight of his baby. In a video. Doing nothing. Just the thought of Massimo’s deliriously happy face makes me smile now.
In short: Valdonica is the opposite of a sterile chain-hotel experience (big hotels are banned by law in Maremma to keep the region’s uniqueness in tact). It’s human, unpretentious, hearty and surprising.
In an unexpected twist, Valdonica turned out to be the stronghold of languages of all of Maremma: the team speaks Italian, English, German, Spanish, French, Hindi and Sanskrit. Yes. Sanskrit.
V.) Robert Parkers Wine Advocate raves about Valdonica’s chief winemaker Tim Manning: ”Manning makes some of the most exceptional balanced, harmonious wines in Tuscany.” I would agree.
We drank wines from the regions traditional grape, Sangiovese, that taste of red cherry and fruits of the forest and spent 18 months in Barrique barrels without any additives or wood chips (which is the industry standard). The wines have colorful names like Saragio and Baciolo and Mundus Vindi rated the Saragio 2008 among the Top 25 of Tuscan Wines.
So if you’re wondering how to bio-dynamically grow wine, here´s Valdonica´s secret in layman´s terms: cultivate the virgin soil, plant the vines and hope the roots grow quickly to get the nutrients from the earth, keep wild boars from eating your vines by fencing in the saplings, leave only two grape clusters on each vine for superior quality, pray that the weather will be conducive to wine making, be patient, let Mother Nature runs its course and, most importantly, have Carla sing. Love and song seems to seal the deal.
Or you can order a bottle or case of Valdonica’s best wines here:
For deliveries within the USA:
THE VINE COLLECTIVE
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Category: Explore the World With Me