Neil Sowerby discovers his inner Renaissance man in the hidden heart of Tuscany
UNREAL. Like a film set. Noon in a village of ghosts on the brow of a Tuscan hill. A church, chapel and separate bell tower testify to a prosperous past for the borgo of the Villa Saletta estate. Yet look closely and decades of decay are all too apparent. Peeling facades in faded ochre and pink, the crumbling brickwork, the boarded windows. For safety reasons the barrack-like farm workers’ quarters and barns are fenced off, the palazzo above opened only rarely, at the whim of Saletta’s owners.
I feel more like an extra in a murder mystery movie. You know the ones, where the cast gather in the drawing room while Poirot or some other canny sleuth solves the impossible crime
The cat that eyes us stealthily surely belongs to the hamlet’s sole inhabitant, an elderly lady in the church caretaker’s lodging. It’s deathly quiet. Time to shut your eyes and try to imagine Saletta in its 16th and 17th century heyday as the country retreat of the Riccardi family. Banking was in their blood. In the Middle Ages they’d bailed out Kings of England, now they were trusted financial advisers to the Medicis ruling Florence, the great Renaissance city under a day’s ride away.
Not that the Riccardis were mere apparatchiks. They acquired a Florentine palace off that ruling dynasty and created an architectural masterpiece. They transformed Villa Saletta into a productive model farm. You’ll find their family crest, a hefty key, prominently carved on the village church and elsewhere. It’s also on the label of Saletta Riccardi, a 100 per cent Sangiovese ‘Super Tuscan’ wine produced on the 1,700 acres that make up today’s estate. The vineyards are a symbol not of the past but of the ambitious future under an equally wealthy proprietorship. And that includes the borgo being transformed into the swishest of luxury hideaways. If plans come to fruition, before the end of the decade.
Guy and Julia Hands are only the fourth family since the Middle Ages to own Villa Saletta. The legendary venture capitalist and his hotel entrepreneur wife purchased the estate 20 years ago. Much of it was in ruins or overgrown. Softly, softly has been their hands-on approach since, but their development project, fuelled by that patrician English passion for Italy, seems to be gathering pace.
That’s why I’m here – to help alert the world to an exclusive escape, away from the well-beaten, cypress-lined route between Florence and Siena. Too long under the radar, also, the range of Villa Saletta wines. They are easily the equal of higher profile Chianti Classico, as I was happy to discover, and big plans are already in motion to increase capacity, create a state-of-the-art underground winery plus both a wine-led casual osteria and a gourmet restaurant.
One of the original vineyards, amphitheatre-like, clustering around an iconic tower, is a short stroll from my base on the estate, the Villa Fagnana, one of a trio of fully serviced houses to rent that have been meticulously restored by the Hands. There is plenty still to go at yet. Abandoned properties are scattered among the wild flower meadows and forests of holm oak and poplar. Tranches of it are being sustainably farmed but it retains a sylvan wildness.
On that first foray the photogenic landscape seems eerily familiar. Researching later, I’ll discover parts were the location for one of my favourite Italian films – the Taviani Brothers’ classic of wartime chaos, Night Of The Shooting Stars, which won the Grand Prix (second only to the Palme d’Or) at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
Inside Fagnana I feel more like an extra in a murder mystery movie. You know the ones, where the cast gather in the drawing room while Poirot or some other canny sleuth solves the impossible crime. The windows are French but the rest of the scene is rustic Italian – terracotta floors and beamed ceilings – with a dash of well-upholstered English country house chic.
There is plenty of room for us ‘suspects’. Seven bedrooms cater for a house party of 14. No roughing it, either, with rain showers and/or large tubs (not all en suite, mind) and lots of pampering extras. Aromatic toiletries I’m happy to indulge in, but the wines from the estate are perhaps more me. It doesn’t take long to settle in with a glass of (equally aromatic) chilled house rosé on the terrace with views of the distant hills. The same stunning outlook can be savoured from the swimming pool. If by any chance, the Tuscan weather doesn’t stay true to type inside the house there are deep-cushioned sofas and a log fire that defines crackling.
With a well-equipped kitchen at your disposal you could even choose to hole up like a hermit all stay. Included in the villa rental package is a gourmet welcome hamper of local essentials from bread and milk to a trio of Villa Saletta wines and their own honey and olive oil. On your nightstand there’ll be a ‘Chocolate Cuddle’ where the same oil is incorporated into local artisan dark chocolate.
The best plan for a varied week would be to combine visits to local restaurants (I warmly recommend the Osteria del Sole in Cappannoli, not least for its remarkable wine list for a village osteria) with a Saletta extra amenity, the ‘Bespoke Chef Service’, where the concierge books in quality local caterers to cook for you on site, perhaps taking advantage of the barbecue and terrace perfect for al fresco dining.
Our party enjoyed a coupe of such experiences, the most ambitious from chef Marco Maccanti from the Papaveri and Papere restaurant, marrying Tuscan tradition with a more contemporary edge. While a cake based on chestnut flour was a peasant step too far for me, an asparagus risotto and misticanza of wild herbs and flowers were cutting edge countryside on a plate.
Less sophisticated was the hand-made fresh egg tagliatelle and gluten-free tiramisu our band produced out of a tremendously jolly cookery class arranged by the Saletta concierge. Bravo Erika Elia of Cuoche in Vacanza!
As throughout our stay, the estate wines added greatly to all jolliness. We took full advantage (and more) of another inclusion in the package, the complimentary ‘Chianti Experience at Villa Saletta Boutique Winery’, which involves a visit to the cellars to learn all about the winemaking process, then taste wines and olive oil.
Now this is where it all gets serious because Villa Saletta is becoming a major player on the international wine scene, scooping awards. Head winemaker ultra-charming David Landini has worked for Marchesi Frescobaldi and Antinori, Tuscan legends both, so it was a major coup for wine buff Guy Hands in 2016 when he hired him for his initial priority – to create significant wine here. These days David also multi-tasks as General Manager of the whole Villa Saletta estate. Nothing seems to ruffle him.
The flagship wine, which we were privileged to sample, is Saletta 980 AD. Referencing the first written record of the estate, it is also proof of the forward-thinking winemaking philosophy, being 100 per cent Cabernet Franc. Obviously destined to improve in the bottle for a decade and more.
David has been given full licence to blend other international grape varieties such as Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot alongside the native Sangiovese. All are scrupulously hand-picked. Longer fermentation periods, then serious barrel and bottle ageing allows him scope to release when he feels ready. At 200€ (magnums only) from the cantina 980 AD from 2015 is twice the price of the impressive Riccardi and Giulia. At the other end of the spectrum that Rosato Italiano I took such a shine to on the terrace costs just 12€ a bottle.
Truffles (tartufi) are equally important jewels in the crown of Saletta and its hinterland. Both black and the more prized white versions of these fungal tubers are relatively abundant here, growing from spores living on the roots of oak, hazelnut, poplar and willow trees where the conditions are right.
The beef fillet I tucked into at at the Osteria del Sole was generously loaded with discs of the black winter variety. No visit to this area is complete, though, without a more hands-on truffle encounter. Villa Saletta can arrange a variety of these. In this instance we got down and dirty among the oak roots with the big boys, Tartufi Savini, whose range of truffle-related products can be found across Italy (including Pisa Airport, if a last minute foodie souvenir is your bag).
They’ve been in the business for four generations. Smaller scale operations wouldn’t have a bijou shop/dining space in a hut on their own property, but the hunting essentials are the same for everyone. A man and his trained hound go out in the woods for what I call a ‘truffle scuffle’. Here, our guide was Luca Campinotti, Savini’s head of hospitality, with a brace of specialist Lagotta Romagnolo dogs. They are a breed from the Po Delta – think sturdier terrierish poodles. Worth their weight in, well, truffles.
Veteran Giotto and his rookie offspring, seven-month-old Dante, lead the way. Nostrils aquiver. We stumble behind. Luca is on alert for when one of them targets a spot and starts frantically digging. If luck is in, a small tuber is unearthed and Luca can lift it from the clay with a special sharp spade called a vanghetto. Alternatively, he has to prise it barehanded from the dog’s jaws before it snacks on it. Whatever, the canine reward is a biscuit.
This is not the season for the large specimens that fetch such immense sums, notably the white truffle associated with autumn. Still, cupping a couple of the knobbly little gems from today’s haul, the pungent, musky aroma is unmistakeable. Worth all the false alarms along the way and risking the perils of rough terrain..
For our well-earned lunch in the posh hut afterwards we are treated to truffle-infused tagliolini with ample shavings of white truffle, eggs with further scrolls of truffle. And what do I scent in the choccie pud? All washed down with Villa Saletta reds, naturally, for a true taste of Tuscan terroir. If all Italian movies could have such a happy ending.
Villa Saletta as a base for exploration
Within easy drive are world famous destinations – Pisa (40km), Florence (80km), San Gimignano (40km), Siena (90km) and the Tuscan coast (50km).
Major 2023 events in Tuscany include: Luminara of San Ranieri (June 16) in Pisa, where thousands of candles are lit and a firework display lights up the River Arno; Andrea Botticelli Annual Charity Concert, at the Teatro del Silenzio near his home town of Lajatico (June 27 and 29); Italy’s most famous horse race, the Palio di Siena (July 2 and August 16) in the town’s medieval Piazza del Campo; Volterra AD 1398 (July 12 and August 16), a medieval festival in the glorious old town 33km south of Saletta; and finally on August 10 Calici di Stelle, the Night of San Lorenzo (Wine under the Stars in venues across the region), where traditionally a meteorite shower fills the sky. The aforementioned film Night Of The Shooting Stars is narrated on that special night of ‘martyr’s tears’ ‘when all dreams come true’. For details on this and other tourist attractions go to Visit Tuscany.
Villa Saletta is geared for house parties and children are welcome. Alongside Fagnana, also available to rent in their entirety are two more villas. The more imposing is Villa Valle, once a traditional Tuscan farmhouse and retaining many original features. Seeping 13, accommodation is divided between the main house and a former hayloft (perfect for the junior members of the party. Here there’s not just a pool but also a pool table in the sun room. A romantic former hunting lodge perched in woodland, Villa Casolare is much smaller with three double bedrooms over three floors.
2023 rates for seven nights (low to peak season) Fagnana and Valle £7,500-£19,000 and Casolare £4,000-£9,000.
Getting there: Leading leisure airline Jet2.com offers friendly low fares, great flight times, and a generous 22kg baggage allowance to Pisa (Florence) from Manchester Airport. Flights start from £69 one way including taxes. For more information visit www.jet2.com or call 0800 408 5599.