July 2010 Issue, Christopher Petkanas - For years travelers asked no more of Tuscany than its light and landscape, its Renaissance legacy, its food and wine. If the hotels were a bit low on amenities, if the person who rolled out the pasta in the kitchen turned out to be the same person who made your bed, there was plenty of charm and buona volontà goodwill to go around. A trip to the region was its own reward. Tuscany became one of those rare, iconic, inexhaustible destinations people return to again and again. Thirty years have passed since it and Provence became fashionable rivals. But while the south of France can sometimes be guilty of forgetting what drew people to it in the first place, Tuscany never sold its soul or succumbed to its own popularity. Icon, yes; diva, no.
Today, a new generation of hotels has arrived in the region, just in time to keep the experience fresh. One of them is part of the recent borgo phenomenon, the transformation of ancient rural hamlets into one-of-a-kind, all-in-one properties that include restaurants, shops and vineyards. Two others are stand-alone villas with rich histories and important architecture. All offer sublime creature comforts and aspire to a level of crackerjack service that is off the charts. They’re so sophisticated they would not be out of place on the poshest stretch of the Amalfi Coast. As Tuscany grows up, it’s time to go back.
Il Borgo, Poggio alle Mura - Castello Banfi is one of the largest wine estate in Tuscany and, since the opening of its new hotel, Il Borgo, probably the most stylish. Federico Forquet gets credit for the style; the Italian-American Mariani family for the wine. Its most famous Brunellos are the single-vineyard reserve Poggio all’Oro and the unfiltered cru Poggio alle Mura. Forquet began his career as an assistant to Balenciaga, launching his own couture house in Rome in 1962, when he was dubbed “the Italian Dior”. In those days any Italian princess worth her Buccellati salt cellars dressed at Forquet. Ten years later he dropped out of the fashion world, moving on to design gardens and, drawing on his Neapolitan background, decorate houses of sighing Viscontian splendor for clients like Marella Agnelli and Oscar de la Renta, people known to be among the toughest domestic taskmasters of our time. Having attained the status of Elder Statesman (Elder Tasteman?). Forquet accepts only those jobs he finds alluring enough to take him away from his home an hour from Banfi, in Cetona. Sometimes the jobs involve the interiors of gold-plated hotels: the Caruso, in Ravello, the Villa San Michele, in Fiesole. And now il Borgo. The 14-room hilltop property was coaxed out of hamlet built in the 1700’s to lodge farm-workers and household staff serving the eight-century castle just above it. The population peaked at about 300 in the decade leading up World War I and remained stable until 1950, when land reform introduced by the Italian government dismantled the old sharecropping system. Il Borgo’s reception occupies the bottega and mail pickup and drop-off that closed shortly before the Marianis acquired Banfi in 1984. By that year the number of inhabitants had shrunk to fewer than 20.
Today, the old schoolroom is room No. 37. Not that you get any feeling for what used to go on in these spaces. Still, knowing adds texture. The hotel’s perched location pays off in extravagant views and a sense of privileged isolation. Folded into the castle are a reading room that is the last word in fringed and upholstered comfort, a museum with the largest private collection of ancient Roman glassware in the world (plus works in glass by Dali, Coctean and Picasso), and a spectacular courtyard where jazz concerts are held in the summer. With lessons learned as the creators of Jumby Bay, the private island-resort off Atigua, the Marianis are selling an everything-money-can-buy version of Italian village life that, of course, never existed. Italian villages do not typically have swimming pools of such magnificent restrain and purity they might have been designed by architect John Pawson, or cloisters curtained in wisteria and planted with box-edged rose gardens. But if you are the kind of person for whom vacation rhymes with discretion, Il Borgo could be a problem. People are forever popping out of their front doors and greeting their neighbors across the way. In other words, there’s not a lot of anonymity, though the grounds are so expensive you can always escape to a leafy out-of-the-way corner.
One of five stepped outbuildings marching up to the caste walls houses La Taverna, an earthbound trattoria whose signature dish, pinci, a thick spaghetti, is tossed with classic Tuscan ragù (the small amount of tomato is what makes it Tuscan). Next door is a massive, handsome enoteca that also sells stemware and other wine accessories, Banfi olive oil, colorful ceramics by regional potters, artisanal soaps, and even a category of jewelry, “wine jewelry” I’m not sure I’m aware of. Anyway hooking a tiny bunch of bronze grapes around a stemmed glass of Poggio all’Oro seems rather cruel. A condiment that is rightly not called balsamic vinegard, as we are not in Emilia-Romagna, but rather Salsa Etrusca, is made in a dedicated chamber following a modified version of the traditional sistema soleras used to make authentic balsamico. With all these visitor-friendly features, Banfi is one of the few estates in the area to encourage walk-ins, though an appointment is necessary to visit the winery. It’s five minutes by car or a 20 minutes power walk through the vineyards. As for Forquet, a lot of people don’t get his thing for rattan furniture and checked fabrics. They want to know what the big deal is. Well, the big deal is the way he casually mixes these modest elements with rich ones, like ballooning Austrian shades and orchids in silver cachepots polished until you can see yourself in them. Fantasy walls painted with a vine-wrapped trellis, a faux-bois masterpiece “carved” with grapes is another ingredient in Forquet’s best work. The real triumph of Il Borgo is that, despite some of its trappings, it’s neither pretentious nor excessively formal. A few things are inexplicable, like the Pringles served with drinks in the reading room. And it might want to rethink floating flower heads in the toilet bowls. But every hotel is allowed one or two false notes.
Sant’Angelo Scalo, Poggio alle Mura, Montalcino; 39-0577/877-700; castellobanfiilborgo.com; doubles from $540.