Where It All Began is a multi-part series written by Ian Hanna – a story of the early days of John Hanna & Sons and our history as wine importers in Canada dating back to the 1970s. You can click here if you’d like to start from the beginning of this series.
Departure for Italy was early, after a typical breakfast of Pastries and Coffee. Heading south towards Avignon and then east towards Nice and Marseille – the sun was shining and the weather hot. We made good time passing Monaco, reaching the Italian frontier just before noon.
Traversing this part of Italy by car, past Sanremo and Genoa towards Pisa can be challenging. The e80 Autostrada is a highway of bridges and tunnels and on a very sunny day one travels from bright sunshine to the darkness of the tunnels then and back into the brightness, over and over. Combine that with speedy Italian Porsche or Audi drivers appearing in the rear view on the left side (seemingly out of nowhere) and alternately with slow, puttering Fiat drivers accessing the motorway on the right from the shortest onramps anywhere in the world – and you can imagine the sensory overload offered by this otherwise spectacular route.
We managed to navigate this challenging route through to Pisa with it’s iconic leaning tower where we turned inland to Florence and ultimately south to the fabulous Tuscan city of Siena.
From Siena, we traveled back north (on the east side of the Chianti Classico) past the villages of Montaperti, San Piero and Bossi to finally arrive at Borgo San Felice about 20 km northeast of Siena.
We had represented the wines of Agricola San Felice in Ontario since 1985 when I originally met the irrepressible Gianfranco Campione who was the export director for this amazing wine estate. Gianfranco had been with Castello di Brolio for some years before moving to San Felice. We were introduced by our common friend, Bernhard Horstman, who had a small boutique wine importing firm in Manhattan whilst visiting Vinexpo in Bordeaux, that year.
Though I had visited San Felice a couple of times, Marit had never been to Italy, let alone Borgo San Felice. This was destined to be an amazing introduction to this country and the gorgeous Chianti Classico area of Tuscany. Borgo San Felice is a medieval, hilltop village completely dedicated to the wine estate and Relais & Chateaux Hotel located therein. It is closed to cars – you are welcome to walk throughout the village and it is really one of the most enchanting places we’ve ever visited.
We had a few days to tour the area from Castellina and Radda in the north to Gaiole and Castagnoli and Castlenuvo Berardenga, further south. We stopped at the magnificent Castello del Brolio – perhaps the most famous of the Chianti Classico wine estates, of all.
Gianfranco had highly recommended a countryside ceramics producer by the name of Rampini along the road between Gaiole and Radda. We stopped in and fell in love with the stunning pieces made here and over the years, we’ve built and collected a full service of dinnerware and many other pieces of Rampini “Grapes and Roses” ceramics. We value all of these pieces highly and love to use them for our very nicest meals and when guests join us at home.
After a couple of days touring the Tuscan Countryside, we had a full date dedicated to business. Our morning meetings with Gianfranco and winemaker Leonardo Bellacini were followed by a tour of the vineyards and winery – and then, of course, a full tasting of San Felice wines. These included their Chianti Classico’s and Reservas, their famous IGT called Vigorello, various white wines of the region and their Vin Santo. Finally, we also tasted their terrific Brunello di Montalcino – Campogiovanni. With the tasting completed, we moved over to the Hotel’s outstanding restaurant for a delicious, albeit long, lunch. At the end of lunch, Gianfranco asked us to be ready by about 7:00 PM to depart to join him and his wife Gigliola for a special dinner at a casual restaurant in Montaperti. Joining us would be Leonardo along with the President of San Felice and Wine Spectator journalist James Suckling and his wife. It would also be the first opportunity of all of us to taste the very first vintage of Brunello Campogiovanni Riserva produced by San Felice, called “Vigna del Quercione”, soon to be released for sale.
We arrived at the restaurant at about 7:30 and after introductions, took our seats for a perfect, country Italian meal featuring an amazing array of older vintages of San Felice wines. Finally, Leonardo broke out the Brunello Riserva (1990 vintage – now ready for release) and we all savoured this fabulous nectar and shared our comments around the table. Marit was seated next to Mrs. Suckling who asked where we were headed next…. Marit told her we were expected for dinner in Langon (just south of Bordeaux) the next evening so we would be leaving early in the morning and making the trek back around to the French border and then traversing the Mediterranean coast of France and heading north at Narbonne to Bordeaux.
Mrs. Suckling, looked at her, aghast and loudly and firmly announced that this was “impossible – it can’t be done”!! She strongly admonished us to book an Hotel in Aix-en-Provence “or something like that” but insisted it was impossible to drive all the way from Borgo San Felice to Bordeaux without stopping in between.
Marit assured her we were used to long drives, and we were confident that it would not be a problem. However, she would not let it go and continued to make her point in what became a rather annoying way. I had images in my mind of a front-page picture on the upcoming Wine Spectator of a rather sheepish looking women, band-aid on her nose and two blackened eyes followed by the headline, “Canadian Wine Importer floors Wife of Respected Wine Reviewer with Roundhouse Left at Dinner in Tuscany”!!!
Luckily, dinner finished without incident and we returned to the Hotel for a good night’s sleep before our “impossibly” long drive ahead.
Ian Hanna – John Hanna & Sons Ltd.