Travel: Tuscany, Italy - Explore vineyards and relax in rustic villas at family-run estate

Castiglion Fiorentino

Castiglion Fiorentino - Credit: Archant

“Albestre,” says Roberta Giaccherini, naming one of the wines produced on her Tuscan estate of vineyards and villas. She breaks into a wide smile. “It means ‘crazy women’.”

Each collection of villas has its own swimming pool

Each collection of villas has its own swimming pool - Credit: Archant

Exactly 20 years ago after raising their children, Roberta and her sister-in-law Lidia Castellucci raised more than a few eyebrows when they packed in their careers and entered the male-dominated wine and agricultural tourism industry by opening Casali in Val di Chio.

They had inherited the ancestral Buccelletti family estate, made up of unloved farmland and derelict farmhouses surrounded by undulating, forested hills in the lush Val di Chio, just over an hour’s drive south of Florence.

Since 1625, Roberta’s ancestors had farmed the land, producing olive oil, and, from 1900 onwards, wine. But in the latter half of the 20th century, the business shrivelled, and the land was only cultivated for personal use.

Bemoaning the loss of the family’s agricultural heritage one day in 1996, the sisters-in-law took a radical decision. They would return to university to study tourism and wine-making in order to restore the estate to its former glory.

Founders Lidia and Roberta

Founders Lidia and Roberta - Credit: Archant

But even after perfecting their wines, and slowly refurbishing the villas as guesthouses, the sisters-in-law still had one more hurdle to overcome: the inherent sexism in the Italian agricultural tourism industry during the 1990s.

It’s – thankfully - almost unthinkable now, but when the women first took their wines to trade shows, businesses would insist on speaking to their husbands first before placing any orders, dismissing them as “crazy women” to their faces.

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That was, until they won a first-prize award for their Tuscan Merlot.

And then suddenly, the orders came flooding in.

Villa Il Fienile

Villa Il Fienile - Credit: Archant

“That’s why we called our Rose ‘Albestre’,” Roberta grins.

Now, the estate is a family-run farm producing wine and olive oil, with 14 spacious self-catering villa apartments dotted around the valley offering travellers an authentic Tuscan experience.

The estate mostly welcomes American and continental European guests but is now expanding further into the UK market after partnering with Islington-based travel agency, Real Holidays.

We stayed in the rustic two-bedroom Il Fienele villa, one of seven guesthouses that the estate owns in the hamlet of Borgo Gaggioleto.

The buildings are nestled in the rolling hillside, where the only sound is the occasional ringing of church bells in the valley below - yet it is only three miles from the nearest town, the historic Castiglion Fiorentino.

All the villas have been restored beautifully, and retain the charming, quirky character of these old farm buildings.

The prize jewel of Il Fienile and all the Borgo Gaggioleto villas, though, is the shared infinity-edge swimming pool and jacuzzi perched on the highest point of the hamlet, offering stunning panoramic views of the peaceful valley below.

A trip to Casali in Val di Chio is what you make of it, and Roberta, Lidia and their extended family make it so easy for you to embed yourself in Tuscan life.

Though many hours were happily whiled away reading by the poolside, we were keen to explore the surrounding countryside by bike. The hire and drop-off was arranged for us fuss-free by Roberta and Lidia, who even pointed out the best car-free routes to take. It’s a great way to drink in the luscious fields and sparkling rivers that so typify Tuscany.

The tour of the family’s vineyards and wine-tasting is also a must for any visitor to the Casali.

We knew nearly nothing about wine-making before arriving, but Lidia’s son, Michele Buccelletti, gave us a thorough grounding in the basics as he took us around the farm, proudly telling us how they make and perfect their wines.

Onto the tasting, something we knew a little more about. I’m sure that it wasn’t just the fact that we were sitting outside in the April sunshine, laughing with Michele and his wife Renée, that made their quality wines so very drinkable. But it only added to what was an unforgettable part of our trip.

A warning - you won’t be going away from the winery empty handed, and we took our favourites home: the award-winning Merigge merlot, the amber Armanse dessert wine, and, of course, two bottles of Albestre.

Though tucked away in rural Tuscany, Casali in Val di Chio is an ideal base to explore the region and its environs.

We had dinner most nights in Castiglion Fiorentino, a mere 10 minute drive away. For a very small, working town mostly untouched by tourism, it has a staggering number of restaurants serving delicious and authentic Tuscan cuisine, made from the freshest ingredients.

Known as the town’s best, Ristorante Da Muzzicone’s speciality is its platters of tender slices of beef, but our favourite was Ristorante da Giuda, where we had some of the best gnocchi we’d ever tasted.

The town is steeped in history, as explained to us by our tour guide Eduardo, and from almost every vantage point offers views that could be paintings in some of the best art galleries in the world.

A rental car is a must on this holiday, but for those who want to visit Florence without the stress of city driving, Castiglion Fiorentino’s rail station has hourly trains to the centre, which takes just over an hour, while Rome is two hours away.

But we instead opted to drive 35 minutes to one of the famous Italian lakes, Lago Trasimeno, across the county border into Umbria.

The still water was a mirror reflection of the sky, separated only by dramatic mountains. Off season in the very warm April sunshine, we had the small lakeside town of Passignano Sul Trasimeno almost to ourselves, and sat for what felt like hours with a glass of Prosecco - almost the same price as water.

As soon as you touch down in Tuscany, the stress of modern city life melts away, while the Buccellettis’ warm welcome will make you feel like you are long lost family.

With a two-hour direct flight from London Stansted to Perugia and an hour’s drive to the Casali, it can easily done in a long weekend – but you’ll want to stay for much longer.