December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Life by the barrel

By |2018-03-21T18:56:49+01:00August 24th, 2013|Food & Wine Archive|
The Bravio delle Botti is a barrel race between the eight contradas in Montepulciano held on the last Sunday of August.

’m staying with my friend Delia in an old farmhouse near the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, known for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine long acclaimed the world over.

On our first night, accompanied by some of Delia’s best friends (see below), we attend an event called Calici di Stelle (“Wine Glasses of Stars”). For centuries, the town has been divided into eight contrade, or neighborhoods. Each is offering wine tastings and a sit-down dinner, cooked and served by volunteers. The festivities are a run-up to the annual Bravio, an ancient competition between the contrade to see which of its muscular, hand-picked representatives can roll a wine barrel up to the main square fastest.

After lots of uphill walking, we arrive at Palazzo Ricci, an austere but magnificent Renaissance palace that hosts the Contrada di Talosa. Long tables have been set out in the central courtyard and thirty-something men sing drinking songs near columned arches. On the terrace at one end of the courtyard are three huge grills. Sparks, flames and smoke are silhouetted against a deep blue night sky. Aside from our modern clothes (and maybe a missing jester) we might as well be at a Renaissance feast.

The wine is a Rosso di Montepulciano, a lighter version of Vino Nobile. It has a vibrant ruby red color in keeping with a young wine made with sangiovese grapes. Its fresh acidity is an ideal foil for our steaming hot pici cacio e pepe (made with pici, the pasta from Siena that resembles thick spaghetti, and a luscious sauce with pecorino cheese and fresh ground peppers.)

Next comes the real thing, the Vino Nobile, slightly more structured than the Rosso but without sharp tannins. It goes well with our second course of plump grilled sausages.

Delia’s friends walk us through the thronged town, where tourists are few. We buy from artisanal vendors, try more wines, and dance to music from various bands. It’s too hot for more red wine so we finally stop at an enoteca for Vin Santo and cantucci, the traditional Tuscan dipping biscuits.

The next night, we roam a few kilometers to the hamlet of Petroio di Trequanda. The mood brings back memories of the traveling carnival that would stop briefly near my Virginia hometown. We stand in line to order food, but this time the wine comes in an unlabeled bottle. I’m skeptical. It looks like dark purple grape juice in my plastic cup and has a strong earthy smell. The taste is rough, as if a Tuscan cypress tree had made its way into my mouth.

This, take it or leave it, is local tap wine (vino sfuso). Tonight, I leave it, and instead chew happily on my grilled spare ribs. Later, we watch elderly couples waltz and teenagers and children squeal on the carnie rides.

The last evening is the best. We drive 15 kilometers to attend Pienza’s Cortili Aperti (“Festival of Open Courtyards.”) Though the festival is held annually the night before Ferragosto, it commemorates the death of native son Pope Pius II in 1464.

Pius, born Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini and trained as a teacher, decided to apply humanist principles or architecture and urban planning in refurbishing the city, vainly changing its name from Corsignano to Pienza (“of Pius”). Books written by Pius before he became pope, including an autobiography and some erotic works, are available for outdoor public viewing, organized by a Florence professor. Some of Piccolomini’s works were later banned when he was elevated to the papacy.

At 11 p.m., everyone gathers in the main square for an impressive display of fireworks. Afterwards comes a wine and cheese party in with simple sangiovese (in the classic basket bottles with no labels). Unlike the wine at the Petroio fair, it’s crisp and light, even elegant. The cheese is Pecorino Riserva handmade and aged for 18 months by Delia’s friend Silvana Cugisi. Together, the wine and the cheese are outstanding.

Today, I’m getting ready to leave, albeit reluctantly. Next year, I think to myself, I might come just a little bit later – to see the Braviò dei Botti.

People and places:

  • Paola Perigini and her husband Danilo manage a beautiful bottega in Pienza where she makes and sells hand woven items.
  • The famed Bravio is traditionally held on the last Sunday of every August. Two hand-picked athletes, known as Spingitori (pushers), roll 80 kilos barrels uphill for about 1,800 meters until they reach the churchyard of the Duomo in Piazza Grande.

About the Author:

Eleanor Shannon's "Tasting Notes" wine column appeared from 2010 t0 2014.