‘Salute!’ I raise a glass of red to the sea of tanned faces, each fresh from working in the vineyards of Il Borro Estate in Tuscany. Bottles of the estate’s wines are plonked on long make-shift banqueting tables under white parasols, and a huge porchetta crackles away on a BBQ set up next to vines of San Giovese grapes ready to be harvested for the next vintage. Sounds like the ultimate ‘dolce vita’ cliché? Agreed. But there’s graft involved too, if you want it. Every September, guests at Il Borro can take part in the wine harvest and feast alongside the workers and owners (the glamorous Ferragamo family) at this 800-hectare estate.
We opt to help pick the grapes and are rewarded with the banquet of porchetta, served with crisp brittle-like crackling, Italian meats, cheeses and a concoction of skin-on tomatoes, olive oil and garlic soaked up by whole loaves of bread and then mashed up into papa pomodori – proper ‘cocina toscana’. Dessert is a refreshing slice of watermelon and a glass of crisp Lamelle Chardonnay, eaten on seats of scattered hay bails while enjoying views across the vineyards in a fuzzy wine, food and sun-soaked bliss. A quick wave goodbye to the full-time labourers and it’s time to head back up to the hotel – set in the remains of a medieval village in the centre of the estate in Valdarno valley, a wilder, more rustic corner of Tuscany.
Il Borro is a true working estate, as we witness during a tour of the grounds. Grapes are harvested entirely by hand and taken to the winery where we watch in awe as a laser camera selects grapes at lightning speed. The unique terroir of the estate, with its varying rocky, sandy and clay soils, makes perfect growing conditions for Syrah to make Pian di Nova, San Giovese to make Polissena and Merlot to make the Il Borro signature blend. This unique climate and soil isn’t solely reserved for wine – 700 olive trees provide oil, and fields of buckwheat are a playground for honeybees, who repay the hospitality by creating a unique bittersweet, slightly spicy honey. Hectare after hectare of organic tomato vines, courgettes, pumpkins, green beans and melons provide the hotel’s three-floored Osteria and Tuscan bistro (and chef Andrea Campani) with the ultimate kitchen garden.
Theatrical sliding glass doors separate the prepping space from the light and airy dining room with its soft, beige furnishings, wooden floors and beamed ceiling. Stand-out dishes from the modern-yet-rustic Tuscan menu include salmon with finely sliced avocado, fennel and pineapple (trust us on that one), cod blanched in water on a bed of onion and then slow-cooked overnight and finely diced root vegetable panzanella with soft tuna and swordfish carpaccio. Tomatoes five ways makes the most of outstanding produce – quince-textured romano tomato jelly, garlic, oil and basil infused camino and an intense puree, garnished with fresh tomato slices. Dessert meets expectations, too, with a chocolate trio of sorbet, flourless chocolate cake with rum jelly and a chocolate mousse made with dark chocolate from Brazil and Venezuela.
Toiling among the vines means there’s plenty of excuse for indulging over breakfast, too. While we’re not generally fans of buffet breakfasts, the one at Il Borro is exceptional, so abundant that sweet and savoury options are housed in separate rooms. Finocchiona and parma ham sit alongside whipped ricotta, grilled organic vegetables and streaky bacon. Freshly baked cakes include yogurt and blueberry and crisp mini pastries. Naturally sweet orange juice is available alongside prosecco and espressos, cappuccinos or macchiatos offer a different type of buzz.
For more of a countryside experience, the hotel has several ‘farmhouses’ available as guest suites – albeit farmhouses that come with infinity pools, vine-covered terraces and dining rooms where you can whip up your own meals from the veg and eggs in Il Borro’s organic produce boxes (top up with a trip to Arezzo market). We stayed closer to the restaurant in one of the village cottages, enjoying the character of its small wooden-shuttered windows and stone floors.
And if grape-picking sounds too much like hard work, you can always do a few lengths of the hotel’s infinity pool before rewarding yourself with an al fresco lunch at the poolside VinCafe. We recommend a spread of mozzarella, prosciutto and homegrown melon, Il Borro honey with walnuts and pecorino, and plenty more crisp, grapefruity Chardonnay, all enjoyed with that backdrop of pretty terracotta roofs and wild, rustic Tuscan greenery.
Double rooms at Il Borro start from €320, room only (ilborro.it). Return flights from London Heathrow to Bologna cost from £100 (britishairways.com).
Written by Alex Crossley, September 2015.
Photos by Alex Crossley and Il Borro.
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