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The tapestry of history that covers the countryside around the Renaissance epicenter of Florence is a rich one. Picturesque hill towns like San Gimignano, Cortona and Volterra were established as far back as the sixth century. Greve in Chianti, a medieval town of 15,000 midway between Florence and Siena, grew out of a confluence of trade and travel routes and was a burgeoning marketplace from the 11th century. Pull any thread of that town’s part of the Tuscany tapestry and the name Verrazzano quickly comes to the fore.
Castello di Verrazzano sits atop a hill just outside of Greve. The castle and manor house date to 1150. This was the home of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian explorer who discovered much of the New World in 1524, when he made landfall in the present-day North Carolina and then sailed north to Newfoundland, including his discovery of New York Harbor. Today, between Brooklyn and Staten Island, the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge bears his name. And statues to Giovanni da Verrazzano stand in New York City’s Battery Park, on the coast of Delaware—and in the main piazza of Greve in Chianti. Unfortunately for Giovanni, subsequent voyages were much less fruitful, and the story goes that in 1528, on exploring an island in the Caribbean, he was attacked and eaten by cannibals.
At Castello di Verrazzano, vineyards were planted in 1170 and the wine cellar has remained in production since then, making it the oldest winery in the Chianti Classico region. Noble families from Florence and Siena favored the wines made in Greve so much that the Florentine royals made substantial investments in the development of Greve’s viticulture in the 14th century to nurture vine cultivation and wine production.
By the mid-20th century, the estate had become neglected, and it was purchased by the Cappellini family in 1958. The family restored the manor house and gardens and eventually replanted the old vines, with a shift to organic farming. These days vines grow on two-thirds of the 220-acre estate, which includes forest, gardens, olive trees and honey cultivation. Verrazzano means “the place of wild boars,” animals that prefer arduous and rocky places where, as it turns out, vines grow best.
This is also a region rich in cycling history, a richness that is very much alive today. A few clicks south of Greve the route of the original L’Eroica traverses Chianti’s hills and white gravel roads. Many of those same roads lead the pro peloton into Siena’s Piazza del Campo for the already classic Strade Bianche. At Castello di Verrazzano there are tales from the 1940s about the former owner, Marquis Ridolfo, who once arrived at the estate in heavy rain and said, “Yet again, I saw that bischero on his bicycle. He wouldn’t come to the car for a lift. His temper is bad, he’s a tough one.” That bischero (or “idiot” in the Florentine dialect) was a rider you may have heard of: Gino Bartali. His training rides would take him from Florence to the hills around Greve. While Bartali is the region’s cycling icon, other locals include Cino Cinelli, who was born in nearby Montespertoli, and Faliero Masi, who raced these hills in the Tuscan championships of the 1920s as a junior rider and later found fame as a frame builder in Milan.
Giovanni Luigi Cappellini has brought his family’s wines to the forefront of Chianti Classico through two virtues: a respect for tradition and a relentless pursuit of the estate’s full potential.
His vineyard has moved toward strictly organic and sustainable practices. Everything is done by hand at Verrazzano, the way it always used to be here in the Italian countryside. The region’s wines have long been vitally important to him, and he sits on the board of the Foundation for the Protection of Chianti Classico; and the region’s other long-held tradition, cycling, has become his other great passion.
He made friends with Giancarlo Brocci, the founder of L’Eroica, and the event’s celebration and preservation of tradition resonated with him—as did L’Eroica’s motto: “the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of conquest.” Effort and challenge have been a part of Luigi Cappellini’s experience with the wines at Verrazzano as well as his other business endeavors. Castello di Verrazzano is now one of L’Eroica’s sponsors, and the winery has a team of its own in the event—Amatori Verrazzano—riding strictly vintage steel bicycles from local Tuscan frame builder, Simoncini.
For Cappellini, the bicycle has become his preferred connection with these hills of Chianti that he calls home. A ride is an opportunity to slow down and take in the details of the land and how the land is echoed in various interactions we have with it. “As you pedal past these old stone houses it’s possible on a bicycle to see how each stone differs from the other,” he says. “The stones used to create these buildings also make up the soils of our land here, and our vineyards.” It’s a story of interconnectedness and love of a place and its two beautiful traditions.
CLASSIC CHIANTI CLASSICO
From their entry-level Rosso bottling to their higher end Sassello, the wines of Castello di Verrazzano are products of a unique place. The vineyards sit at a higher elevation and they have anomalous soil composition for this far north in the Chianti Classico DOCG, with the mark of the black rooster. The elevation along with the large forest that abuts the vineyards make for a cooler microclimate, preserving the grapes acidity and freshness. The “what grows together goes together” mantra makes the wines of Chianti and Chianti Classico a natural fit for Italian cuisine from the simple pizza and pasta to the most sublime cuisine. There’s a Castello di Verrazzano bottling for every budget.
2016 Castello di Verrazzano Chianti Classico [ 1 ] Chianti (and the more highly regarded Chianti Classico) is made from at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. At Verrazzano, the winemaker blends in a dab of Canaiolo, only 5 percent. This standard Classico bottling shows the bright cherry signature of the region. Aromas of red berries and dusty black fruit. Palate is fresh, with red fruit and hints of eucalyptus. $25
2015 Castello di Verrazzano Chianti Classico Riserva [ 2 ] A vineyard selection of Sangiovese with the same blend as the Classico. An additional year aging in French oak barrels gives this Riserva added layers of complexity. Dried violet and herbal aromas and a palate of dried fig, black fruit and ample structure for substantial aging. $45
2015 Chianti Classico “Sassello” Gran Selezione DOCG [ 3 ] The crème de la crème of the Verrazzano estate is the La Querciolina vineyard, where this 100-percent Sangiovese is grown. Nearly three years of oak aging find a wine that has left behind the rustic heartiness that can be so endearing about Sangiovese from this part of Italy and instead finds us with a fine wine of the highest order. Intense aromas of wood smoke, mocha and vanilla along with a lush and velvety mouth coating palate. Notes of iron, fennel and smoke outline a very structured and tannic wine built to lay down for many years and should be decanted before drinking. $85