Living the Dream in a Relais & Chateaux in Tuscany 

My first year as an International Active Tour Guide took me to a place where I had only dreamed of living: Tuscany! It seemed too good to be true: My company was paying me to go the land of vineyards, cypress trees and medieval villages where little ristorantes cook up fresh pasta and the wine flows like water. How dreamy! All I had to do was lead some walking and biking trips and enjoy myself! Sounds easy enough…or so I thought. 

Photo credit: Borgo San Felice

Reality kicked in when I found myself driving an oversized van pulling a trailer on a tight schedule without a clue as to where I was going. I pissed off more than one Italian and embarrassed myself regularly! Often I had guests as passengers who peppered me with a million questions that I didn’t know the answers to.  I tried to play it cool when I took wrong turns, blocked traffic, and couldn’t answer what this or that structure was. 

As a “Guide” I am expected to be skilled at pretty much everything, from maneuvering a van and trailer to pulling together a beautiful picnic to bike mechanics. As a guide I should be fun and engaging, have a strong athletic ability, excellent customer service and problem solving skills and of course be fluent in Italian. Not to mention I should be well versed in the history, architecture, culture, food, wine, geography, etc. etc. How in the world did I end up here in this position? I was sub par at all of the above! 

To compensate I studied my notes late every night, trying to absorb as much as I could. I tried to maintain a calm and confident demeanor in front of guests, even though I was freaking out and having mini heart attacks on the inside. Days were long and I had several back to back trips, all with different itineraries. I found myself increasingly tired, overwhelmed and stressed out for the first few weeks. 

My turning point came with a bottle of Chianti Classico and a dear friend who was a fellow guide. We were guiding two different trips that crisscrossed at one of the most beautiful hotels in Tuscany: Borgo San Felice. It’s more than a hotel; Borgo San Felice is a medieval village from the 8th century that has changed very little and now functions as a five-star Relais and Chateau. It’s surrounded by vineyards and produces beautiful, award-winning wines, including their Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. 

At that point I had been in Tuscany for nearly three weeks and I hadn’t enjoyed myself much.  I was so tense and stressed from the pressure to learn everything and perform well for my new job. I was completely exhausted. The night that our guests stayed in the beautiful Borgo, I was supposed to drive an hour back to the ‘leader apartment’ that sleeps 12 on bunk beds. (It’s not the most desirable place to end the day, to say the least). Just as I was about to start the drive my friend Arly messaged me that she had been given a room all to herself at Borgo San Felice and that I should join her. She also mentioned that she had a bunch of picnic leftovers that we could snack on. 

Photo credit: Borgo San Felice

Without hesitation, I parked the van and headed to “our” room in the gorgeous Borgo. I parked across from the vineyards where the sun was setting, creating a red skyline and casting a yellow glow on the vines; such a sight to see. There really is something extraordinary about the Tuscan light. To get to our room I had to walk through narrow cobblestone streets and I imagined a village of people living there hundreds of years ago. I passed by the enoteca, a little wine shop, filled to the brim with bottles of wine from the estate. After taking a few steps past the entrance I turned around and went inside…why not? I picked up a bottle of their 2010 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selizione. 

Sunset in Chianti

Wine in hand, I stepped into our elegant room with tall wooden ceiling beams and sturdy, oversized furniture. My eyes were drawn to two plush leather chairs and a solid round table piled high with a spread of bread, salami, grapes, tomatoes, and several aged pecorino cheeses. Perfect for Chianti!  I could hear music and singing coming from the bathroom; my friend was taking a bubble bath! It was an incredibly indulgent scene…and amazing! I opened up the bottle and poured myself a glass: 

Wow…so rich, velvety and powerful! It had notes of ripe blackberries and mocha! I immediately felt relaxed and very grateful to be in such a place. Soon Arly joined me and we toasted to our amazing luck to find ourselves with a free room in the only five star Relais and Chateaux in Tuscany! 

Arly’s jovial and free spirit really inspired me. She made the most of this opportunity that we had been given to live and work in Tuscany and she was fully enjoying herself. She encouraged me to lighten up and do the same. We were guides, not brain surgeons! She was totally right! It was the best advice anyone had given me. That night is one that I will always remember. We thoroughly enjoyed the wine and charcuterie spread, really taking our time to appreciate it. We told stories and sang and danced and laughed at ourselves. It was exactly what I needed. From that moment on, I spent less time worrying about every detail in my notes and more time taking in my surroundings and enjoying myself (and enjoying the wine, too; I was in dreamy Tuscany after all!). 

About the Wine: Il Grigio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG 2010

Made up of their finest estate-grown grapes, including 80% Sangiovese and 20% native grapes (Abrusco, Pugnitello, Malvasia Nera, Ciliegiolo and Mazzese). The grapes are fermented and macerated in steel tanks for 22 days, followed by 24 months of barrel aging (50% in large Slavonian oak and 50% in small french barriques). The wine is then bottle aged for 8 months before it is released.

The result is a rich and velvety wine with flavors of dark ripe fruit, toasted coffee beans, mocha and tobacco. Smooth tannins are balanced with modest acidity, creating a powerful yet elegant wine. It’s a perfect pair with salami and pecorino cheese! It would also be great with grilled meats and game and it has enough acidity to pair nicely with tomato based sauces. Fresh pasta with wild boar ragù anyone? 

About Chianti: This is a wine region within Tuscany, basically between Florence and Siena. Chianti wine has been made since the mid 1800s and was traditionally a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia (a white grape). Nowadays, Sangiovese is usually blended with up to 15% international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 

About Chianti Classico: This is one of seven sub-zones within the region of Chianti. Chianti Classico is the small hilly region that historically has made the richest, most prestigious wines. By law, wines from this zone with the Chianti Classico label must be made up of 80 to 100 percent Sangiovese and up to 20 percent native or international red grapes. 

About Gran Selezione: It was explained to me at Borgo San Felice that the label Gran Selizione denotes the best that a winery has to offer within Chianti Classico. Gran Selizione is a new(ish) classification in Chianti Classico DOCG that represents the top tier of Chianti Classico wine. It was approved in 2014 and the earliest vintage that can have this label is the 2010, provided that it meets all the requirements.  As with Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, 80% of the grapes must be Sangiovese, however all of grapes must be estate grown. The minimum aging is 30 months (compared to Chianti Classico at 1 year and Chianti Classico Riserva at 24 months.) Other differences can be seen in the chart below:

Wine chart courtesy of Italianwinecentral.com

About visiting and tasting wine in Chianti: If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend a trip in Chianti. Cycling is hard to beat: The smooth roads slither up and down the undulating hills strewn with vineyards, olive groves and Cyprus trees. If cycling isn’t your thing, rent a car and roll down the windows as you wind your way among the beautiful countryside. Every hilltop seems to have a medieval village with old stone architecture, cobblestone streets and enotecas. Be sure to take a moment to watch the sunset and witness the sky transform into a painting. Most importantly, taste the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, preferably with a good friend. It’s an unforgettable experience. 

Cheers!

PS: For the first time, I am joining a blogger’s group: The Italian Food Wine and Travel group! Other bloggers will also be sharing their Chianti stories and we’ll have a discussion on Twitter with plenty of food, wine and travel inspiration! You can join us too! We’ll meet on the first Saturday of the month at 9AM MST. Just look for the #ItalianFWT hashtag on Twitter!

Other #Italian FWT participants include:

Jeff from FoodWineClick who will serve as our guide to Exploring Chianti Rufina with Marchesi Gondi.

Jennifer from Vino Travels will be Venturing through Chianti with the Sangervasio Winery.

Katarina from Grapevine Adventures brings us 2 Chianti Classico Wineries, 2 Different Sub-Zones at #ItalianFWT.

Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla offers up Sangervasio Chianti with a Soup from Brazil.

Gwendolyn from Wine Predator will tempt us with Four Chiantis and a Vermentino Paired with Puttanesca (#ItalianFWT).

Lauren at The Swirling Dervish will compare Two Weeknight Wines: Chianti Classico and Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva 
About the Italian Food Wine & Travel group:

We’re a group of food and wine writers who are passionate about all things Italy. In an effort to further our education on Italian culture, winemaking, and cuisine, each month we study a particular region, grape variety, or style of wine. In December we’ll indulge in Christmas Feast Wines, hosted by Susannah of Avvinare. Our posts go live and our Twitter chats occur on the first Saturday of the month, at 11 am ET and 9AM Mountain Standard Time. Come join us!

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10 Comments

  1. Yes Bella!!!! Such a fun read 🙂 wish I could’ve been there. So happy you relished this season!!

    • Thanks lady! And thank you for all of your previous comments on other posts. I’m just now figuring out this WordPress thing, haha! I think a trip to Italy together is somewhere in our future!

  2. Gloria Kaasch-Buerger

    Beautiful! And I remember a guest asking me how many sattalites were in the sky. I laughed and told him 300, he believed me. I love your courage and composure through tough circumstances!!!

    • Haha! Yes, those funny moments as a guide, when sometimes you just make it up! It’s nice to have a friend who can relate!

  3. Lovely story, Tracy – you really are living the dream! Nice to have you as part of Italian Food Wine and Travel.

  4. What a great evening you and Arly had Tracy! And that Chianti sounds like it was a gem, hitting the spot. Nice to have another #ItalianFWT member ;-D

    • It was a gem indeed! I love how wine can add so much to those pivotal moments! It was fun to chat with you all the other day!

  5. Welcome to our Italian Food Wine & Travel group, Tracy! I loved reading a bit about your background. Your friend Arly was so wise, although I think you had a masterstroke celebrating your good fortune with the top wine from the Relais! I hope you’ll continue to join us.

    • Thank you for the warm welcome Jeff! It’s inspiring to connect with you and other successful wine bloggers – and also to see all the delicious food and wine that you’re tasting!

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