Panzano is probably our favorite among the Chianti wine towns and not just because this sub-zone within Greve produces many of the wines we prefer, including Monte Bernardi, Fontodi, Castello dei Rampolla, Le Cinciole and others. It’s quite a small place, more of a village than a town, with the old part strung out along one main thoroughfare rather than centered around a typical Italian piazza. It sits on a ridge line with commanding views of the Chianti hills all around and is the perfect place to stop for the night on your wine travels, being equidistant between Florence and Siena.
Its geographical location might make for a convenient spot today but it brought plenty of mayhem and destruction for its residents through the centuries of intermittent conflict between the two major city states of Florence and Siena. Florence finally won of course but I don’t detect the same level of rivalry today as still exists between Pisa and Livorno. Perhaps I’m just not attuned to it.
Panzano these days is probably just as famous with international visitors for its butcher as for its wine and here I am obviously talking about the legendary Dario Cecchini. People mostly see the showman in him and he has certainly perfected that art both at his Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano as well as on his numerous overseas travels espousing the philosophy of ‘nose to tail’ butchery; a concept that comes naturally to Italians whose abhorrence of wasting any part of an animal is an instinct born of generations of poverty when meat was something of a luxury.
But there is another side to Dario that you will see if you watch the Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table’ where he was profiled and interviewed at length in one episode. It’s actually quite a moving story about his involuntary transition from veterinarian trainee to butcher in order to save the multi-generational family business in Panzano after his father's sudden death and how he finally reconciled the conflicting attitude to animals of these two very different professions.
Our most recent trip to Panzano for our visit to Monte Bernardi was a busy working trip for us so we settled for Dario’s food truck parked in a scenic location just outside town and perfectly suited to the open air eating requirements still in force in late May. But if Dario is going to have a food truck with his name on it then you can be sure that there will be no compromise in quality and we were not disappointed. The food truck menu also reflected his philosophy of respecting the whole animal and so along with the regular burger we had to try the beef belly sandwich, never having had that part of the cow before. No lampredotto this time I'm happy to say.
I even had to look up beef belly later. In the US it’s typically referred to as the beef ‘navel’ or ‘plate’ and in the UK as the ‘navel end brisket’, basically the same as the more common pork belly but from a cow instead. It was cooked slowly and expertly becoming tender and delicious with the fat fully assimilated into the meat just like good Texas brisket. And his regular burger (the left half above) was served rarer than most restaurants dare and the flavor would put most US burger joints to shame.
Given the proximity of the Valdichiana to the Chianti region I would guess that Dario makes full use of this wonderful ancient Italian breed of cattle, distinguished by both its pure white color and its phenomenal flavor. It's one of the largest and oldest breeds in the world, formerly used for both work and food but now raised mostly for its beef. You will see it on many restaurant menus around Tuscany.
Unfortunately two of the non-Cecchini restaurants we wanted to recommend from prior visits weren't open. One moved permanently to another town and the other one, Il Cardo Enoteca, looked very closed in the sense that the inside was devoid of fixtures. We referenced the Enoteca in a recent recipe here and hopefully it re-opens because it's a great wine bar and the best place to sample all the different Panzano Chianti wines.
If you’re leaving Panzano to the north on the way to Greve in Chianti along the Chiantigiana road there’s a turning to the right just past the Fontodi vineyards, signposted Pieve di San Leolino. It’s a very small hamlet with a Romanesque church and sweeping views of the vineyards. The pieve in the name and its hilltop position signifies that this was the most important building in the entire Panzano area at one time. It also has a large car park just before the church so it’s an easy place to stop.
Greve in Chianti
Greve is a busy and mostly quite ordinary town that I would not put on a list to visit if it weren’t for the lovely Piazza Matteotti.
It’s bigger and more irregularly shaped than the typical Italian piazza with beautiful porticos most of the way along every side that are full of shops and restaurants. This is certainly a very pleasant piazza but is it enough for a visit if time is short, that's always the question.
I’ve always found it odd that some of the world’s greatest Renaissance era explorers came from central Tuscany because it’s about as far from the sea as you can get in Italy. If you were born in Genoa, like Columbus, the draw of the sea was understandable but Amerigo Vespucci was from Florence and Giovanni Verrazzano was from here in Greve.
They may have both been Tuscans of the same era but there is a huge disparity in how they live on in posterity because whereas a whole continent was named after Vespucci, all Verrazzano got was a bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Doesn’t seem fair at all. Be that as it may, there is an imposing statue of Verrazzano in the piazza here so at least he is a hero in his home town of Greve.
One of my reasons for preferring Panzano over Greve is that Panzano is set high up on a ridgeline with the Chianti hills always in view (abundantly clear from the photographs above) whereas Greve is in a valley with no real scenery from the town itself. To really soak up the atmosphere of Chianti you should be able to see the vineyards and endless hills as you sip the wine and perhaps this is why agriturismo accommodation located in vineyards themselves have become so popular and I completely understand the attraction. You ought to feel like you’re actually in the countryside and Panzano facilitates that, Greve does not.
For those unfamiliar with Chianti the symbol for Chianti Classico is the black rooster and it pops up everywhere including the neck of every bottle of wine with the DOCG Classico designation. There was a huge one on the road in the photograph of Dario's food truck (above), it proudly adorns lots of Chianti souvenirs (left) and it's also perched on a rock in Greve (below). The Italian word for rooster is gallo and for years if not decades the boorish, churlish and humorless (but extremely wealthy) American winemaker Gallo has sued anybody and everybody for using the word gallo in any wine or food context, however small, anywhere in the world.
You would think that 800 years of Gallo Nero history in Chianti would have been enough to have elicited a modicum of respect from two sons of Italian immigrants, but not the ruthless Gallo brothers.
Personally I'd rather drink beer than Gallo wine so you would think that it could only be a good thing for them if someone mistook their wine for Chianti Classico. I'm not sure where all the litigation ended up but I believe that the symbol itself can still be used by Chianti Classico worldwide but not the actual Italian word 'gallo'.
Even the small winemaker Gianfranco Gallo in Friuli was accosted one day many years ago by Gallo lawyers serving him papers and had to promptly stop using his last name on his bottles to avoid ruin. He changed the entire name of his winery to Vie di Romans and put a white rooster on all his bottles as a symbolic act of defiance. He makes excellent wine too.