Montalcino – Tuscany, Italy

A Wine Town and Its Showpiece

Local legend attributes the founding of the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), though the present building dates back only to 1118. Sitting alone in an olive grove along the old pilgrimage road linking Rome to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, it was built of local travertine and luminous, honey- colored alabaster from nearby Volterra.

The abbey is most beautiful when warmed by the late-afternoon Tuscan sun, a glowing example of medieval Romanesque architecture, one of the finest in Italy. The seven monks of the Morbertini order, who live in a nearby farm­house, fill the cavernous church daily with etherial Gregorian chants at regular intervals, evoking a sense of history and mystery that transports visitors back to the Middle Ages.

Is it by some divine chance that all seven monks sing like cherubim? They’ll convince you it’s the acoustics: they’re perfect. After vespers, it’s just a ten-minute walk to II Molino, an ancient stone mill turned hotel that most likely dates back to the abbey’s 12th-century origins.

Rebuilt in 1606, it worked as a water mill until its 1998 restoration. Overnight guests settle into beautifully refurbished rooms on peaceful grounds shaded by olive and fruit trees.

The next day, venture into the town of Montalcino for sightseeing and for tasting the premier DOCG Brunello wine and its lighter-weight cousin Rosso di Montalcino. Montalcino is a small, sleepy, but well-to-do hill town that is little changed since the 16th century.

At 2,000 feet above sea level, it offers lovely vistas over faded terra-cotta roof tiles, a timeless landscape covered with vineyards yielding the sangiovese grosso grapes used for the Brunello wine, one of the most distin­guished reds produced in Italy.

Hike up to the 14th-century Fortezza that moonlights as the town enoteca for Brunello tasting by the glass or sit for hours in the Piazza del Popolo’s 19th-century Cafffe Fiaschetteria Italiana.

The local tourist office will supply you with lists and maps of the dozens of local wine pro­ducers, world-recognized and not, whose rolling estates make up much of this idyllic 12-square-mile comer of southern Tuscany.

If you have time, consider staying at a dream villa: the exquisitely refurbished 18th-century stone farmhouse Poggio di Sopra sits grandly on a hilltop amid the extensive vineyard belonging to the new but highly regarded wine-producing estate Castello Romitorio.

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