Italy 2017: daytrip to Chianti

There are many, many options to explore the Chianti region via daytrips from Florence. We immediately ruled out any that involved being on a bus with 50+ other people, so that left small van tours and private tours. In the end, we decided to spend more money and booked a private tour with Avventure Bellissime for the four of us that included visits to two wineries and three hillside towns. A good mix of scenery and wine tasting!

Simon, our driver, picked us up promptly at the hotel at 9:30am and we drove just out of town to Michelangelo Piazza where we had uninterrupted panoramic views of Florence. Stunning.

view from Piazzale Michelangelo

The road transitioned from city to green countryside very quickly, with many charming villas and valley views as we climbed into the hills south of Florence. Our first stop was Montefioralle, a tiny hilltop village, where we walked around and got a little history of the area.


Montefioralle  Montefioralle

How do you know a wine is officially a Chianti Classico? Look for the black rooster on the label!

A quick stop in the nearby town of Greve in Chianti allowed us an hour to shop at the Saturday market and people watch. I picked up a couple tea towels for a few euros but I thought the painted pottery was too expensive for the quality.

Saturday Market - Greve in Chianti
scooters and modern art  meat shop in Greve in Chianti

Simon stopped to let us take some photos and then it was on to our first winery of the day (and lunch) at Castello di Monterinaldi.

Tuscany views

Tuscany views

Upon arrival, we had a brief tour of the winery which included large concrete fermenters (as opposed to stainless steel) and a look at their extensive barrelling caves. The dessert wine stays in a barrel for 5 years!

Castello di Monterinaldi

concrete vats @ Castello di Monterinaldi  wine barrels @ Castello di Monterinaldi

Castello di Monterinaldi

The grounds were very well landscaped with lovely views, and they even had a two story chicken coop. But enough exploring, it was time for lunch! We were shown into a private room with a huge platter of antipasto and the hostess poured us our first taste of the rose. The antipasto was followed by tagliatelle bolognese, a chicken dish with dessert wine reduction, and an apricot tart for dessert. Everything was really tasty and paired well with the Tuscan wines. Even though there was another group with us on the short tour, we had separate rooms for lunch, so it really felt private and special.

pre-lunch @ Castello di Monterinaldi 

Our last hilltown of the tour was Castellina in Chianti – a charming little town with old walls and wine cellars. We walked through the Via delle Volte, a stone arched passageway, and did some shopping in the main square.

Via delle Volte in Castellina in Chianti  fountain in Castellina in Chianti

Castellina in Chianti

Our last stop of the day was a wine tour and tasting at Casa Emma.

Casa Emma

views from Casa Emma

The weather was fine, so we were able to sit out on the balcony overlooking the vineyards while we enjoyed our four wines accompanied by bread and cheese drizzled with their house balsamic vinegar. Our notes are below…

  1. Chianti Classico (90% sangiovese) – paprika smokiness, cherry and leather (2014). Nice tartness, residual smokiness. Lt.caramel. Goulash ready.
  2. Vignalparco Chianti Classico (100% sangiovese) – jammier, dry finish. Much less smoke. Preferred #1
  3. Chianti Classico Riserva #3 – reserve, quite refined. Much less acidity. Could definitely sit for a few years.
  4. Soloìo I.G.T. (100% merlot) – berry and floral, quite light and pleasant. Very interesting.

Overall, I was happy with our choice to do the private tour. Simon was a knowledgeable guide and we never felt rushed. I don’t know how hard it would be to schedule wine tastings in this area without a guide, but I think that’s something we may explore on our next visit.

Italy 2017: Bologna


After checking into our hotel we headed out to explore the town. But first, we needed some lunch, so we stopped into a small deli, Borgo979.

Borgo979 (snacks and wine)

They had a number of tigella, 4″ round flatbreads, with various fillings or on the side. We choose three filled tigella (ham, mushroom/truffle, sausage) and then several with an antipasti platter. Our server was very nice, a little baffled by us in our first hours of Italy. Leandra paired hers with a Lambrusco, and I with a pignoletto (white).

After filling up we walked around town, stopping to check out the landmark Two Towers.

Bologna  one of the two towers has a bit of a lean

Just next door was the well-regarded il Gelato di San Crispino Valrhona, so we tried out first gelatos of the trip and were not disappointed at all! I choose a chocolate, coffee and stracciatella for my three flavors, while Leandra went for the ginger and cinnamon. From there we walked along the scenic side streets to the Piazza Maggiore.


The Basilica di San Petronio dominates one side of the piazza – the outside is a strange mix of brick and marble. Free entry, but they wanted 2 euros for photo pass… nah.

Basilica di San Petronio

Since it was our first day we headed back to the hotel for nap.

Refreshed, we started our evening with wine at Medulla Vini. Though empty when we arrived it filled up after 7p. The lone person working the bar took his time with each group, discussing the various options and providing small tastes. My Prosecco was yeasty and dry, quite pleasant, so I went with that. Leandra liked her red, which started fruity and became more intense and dry over time. Interestingly, they fill jugs here too – 7eu for 1.5 L is a great deal!

Medulla Vini

With only one meal in Bologna we decided to go traditional and choose Ristorante Donatello. This was a big dinner, with primi and secondi! Given where we were, I had to try the Ragu Bolognese and cutlet Bolognese (in a white sauce), and both were great. Leandra started with the Parmesan risotto – a little al dente for her tastes. Her secondi was carpaccio, though here it was a large slice of meat covered in mountain of Parmesan slices and arugula. We split a lemon sorbetto to finish – rich, acidic and creamy, yum, one of the most memorable tastes of the trip. The entire interior is covered with signed photographs that go many years back… made for some interesting viewing!

beef carpaccio hiding under a mound of fresh parmesan  Ristorante Donatello


Leandra and my dad went to cooking class in the morning. Given the nice day I wanted to climb the 498 steps of the tower.

It was worth it:

view from the top of Two Towers

steep wooden stairs...  top of Two Towers

view from the top of Two Towers

Afterwards I went back to the hotel to pick up my mom so we could explore more of the old town. We were disappointed in the lack of water in the canals, but we found several other beautiful spots including the Basilica di San Domenico.

Basilica di San Domenico  Basilica di San Domenico

typical covered walkway in Bologna

On our way back we stopped for a drink at Rosarose Bistrot, where I tried my first pecorino wine of the trip – I liked the pecorino quite a bit, a nice mineral and stone fruit character, and ended up finding it in several other places on the trip. We were lucky to score an outdoor table and quite enjoyed watching the mix of tourists, Italians, and the occasional motor vehicle going through the laneway. Several snacks came with our drinks which made for a nice light lunch too!

Winter Weekend in London: Sunday

For our last day in London we planned an itinerary that took us to four separate neighborhoods. First, we walked along Bayswater Road for the weekly Sunday Art Exhibition. Unfortunately, not many artists were displaying by 10am due to weather. We’ll need to re-try at a different time of year perhaps.

Bayswater Road Sunday Art Exhibition

Next up was Islington. Our original plan was to use the Lancaster Gate tube station, which we found closed. A quick check of Google maps suggested the 274 bus so we hopped on. The 30 minute ride gave us a new view of several neighborhoods that we normally miss on the underground and dropped us off within a block of our first street art stop.

We got off the bus in Barnsbury, then walked to Islington, looking for street art. We did find some murals, but it looked like many had been painted over. Overall, a bit disappointing compared to other neighborhoods in London.


london-extra-7  hubba hubba!

I had picked out a French Bistro for lunch, Le Sacre Coeur, but it was mysteriously closed at noon despite the hours on their sign stating otherwise. Thankfully, there were several neighboring restaurants open, and we opted for the bustling Spanish place, La Farola, on the corner. Trendy (lots of customers with yoga pants and hipster haircuts), but friendly service and tasty food.


La Farola

From Islington we took another bus down to South Bank/Waterloo, first to see the Falling Shawls exhibit, then to procure a Cadbury Creme Egg s’more!

Falling Shawls exhibit @ Southbank Centre

Cadbury Creme Egg S'mores!  Beware of Poachers

On the way back to the room we had a quick stop at V&A Museum to check out a few exhibits we missed on the previous visit.

For the afternoon we knew we wanted to try Gordon’s Wine Bar and their famous basement cave. We got there around 4pm and managed to grab the last empty table! Leandra’s Aunt Kim met us for wine and a delicious cheese tray a short time later. All food and wine is ordered at the bar and then you bring it to your table. The cheese guy was chatty and helpful, offering Leandra generous samples so she could choose a cheese. For wines, there is a good selection by the glass, and a fairly extensive bottle selection that was reasonably priced. Additionally, they did have a good selection of sherries. Definitely recommended if you can get a table.

drinking wine in the cave @ Gordon's Wine Bar

  wine and cheese @ Gordon's Wine Bar

Around 6:30p we bid our goodbyes and walked up the street to Piccadilly Circus to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Great word-play, sight gags, and overall silliness had us gasping for breath at parts and elicited several rounds of applause from the highly amused audience. We absolutely loved it, and a great way to end our weekend in London!

Marlborough: mussels and Cable Bay

After checking out of the hotel at 10am and packing up the car, we walked into town to do a little shopping at the local souvenir shop.

On our way out of town we stopped at one last winery before beginning our trek back to Nelson, Huia.  The small tasting room was staffed by a woman from Portland, Valerie, who was living overseas and working at the winery to pay for her time in a shared house in Marlborough. We tried most of the range, including wines from their cheaper label, Hunky Dory, over the course of 1.5 hours. In general, the wines were pleasant enough, the ’11 Organic Pinot Noir and ’16 Organic Sauvignon Blanc were the standouts.

One place we HAD to stop was The Mussel Pot in Havelock. The mussels were enormous! One kilo per order was more than enough for me and some of them could have been cut in half. I choose the cream, basil and garlic broth (chef’s fave according to our waiter) which was very nice and even better with a bit of bread dunked in (ordered separately). While the mussels were great, I could have easily split the serving size and this was the only place that charged us a $1 for ‘extra’ ketchup for Eric’s fries. A bit stingy really.

The Mussel Pot Restaurant 

We had some time to kill before we needed to be at the airport, so Eric routed us up north of Nelson to Cable Bay for some scenic views. The drive was lovely and we enjoyed the vistas from the beach spit between the mainland and Pepin Island, joined by a tidal sandbar.

Cable Bay

Cable Bay

Cable Bay

heart rock @ Cable Bay

After filling up the car with gas, we stopped in for a quick half pint at another location of Sprig & Fern. I had the Scottish Ale and Eric ordered the seasonal pilsner which was light and crisp.

We dropped off the car and caught the shuttle to the airport, checked our bags without incident and waited about 30 minutes to board our short flight to Auckland. Once again, since it was a small domestic flight we had no security screening, which meant we were able to bring our half-finished bottle of wine up to the North Island in the main cabin. I imagine this is going to change in the future, but it was nice to not have to dump half a bottle of wine or slam the smoothie drink I hadn’t gotten around to enjoying yet!

Marlborough: wine tasting, day 2

The weather today was quite random – sunny and calm one minute, windy and raining the next. A good day for indoor wine tasting!

Lawson’s Dry Hills – Our first stop of the day, we just beat a large group to start our tasting. Julia was friendly and full of knowledge about the wines. Most of these we can get in the USA but we wanted to see if we liked any since we were so close. Most of the whites ate $20-25 which is pretty good for the area, but all the wines tasted watered-down to us. Nothing stood out as exceptional given the competition in the area.

wine lineup @ Lawson's Dry Hills

Hunter’s Wines – Overall a good place for a tasting and lunch. I found the wines just fine, nothing super memorable save for the dessert wine (which we bought a bottle of). We figured they would be good with food, so we stayed for lunch – I had the venison and pinot noir meat pie with fries and a glass of Pinot Noir and Eric had the ham and cheese panini with the Gewurtztraminer. The food took a while to come out but we were in no rush.

Hunter's Wines

Moa Brewing – We stopped in for a tasting but it was a bit crowded and the only things on offer were IPAs and pales. $5 for a tasting flight but nothing looked appealing so we skipped it.

Our next winery stop, Fromm, had a nice mix of whites and reds available for tasting. Rebecca was a good hostess and we really liked the wines here. The Syrah Reserve was particularly good and different from a lot of reds I had tasted in the valley, so I picked up a bottle. Eric liked the La Strada Sauvignon Blanc and the German-style Riesling Spatlese. They are also a biodynamic winery for those that care about that sort of thing.

Bladen – Our last stop of the day, this small tasting room (the smallest in Marlborough!) was very quaint and the vineyard’s Irish Setter, Vinnie, was adorable. We found the Gewurtz, Rose, and Pinot Noir to be very good and the owner himself, a former Wellingtonian, was pouring the wines.

Bladen Winery

Eric spotted a road going into the southern hills on the map, so we drove a bit to see what was down there. Nice views!



We parked the car for a bit and took a walk along the riverfront, downtown was pretty dead on a Sunday evening.

For dinner we drove to Dodson’s Street Beer Garden where we both opted for the pizza and pint special – a personal pizza and 1/2 L of beer each for $23, quite the solid deal in NZ. Given the value, and that it was one of the only places open on Sunday, it was very busy. Picking a beer was a bit odd as you ordered at your table and the waitress gave us a beercap token to get out beers at the bar area on the complete other side of the restaurant. There is also no draught or wine menu so I took photos of the 20+ taps and ten-ish wine choices and brought my phone back to the table so we could choose. Food was fine but I couldn’t finish my beer — too much liquid already that day!

Marlborough: Picton and Queen Charlotte Drive

Awoke to a morning shower, so we were in no hurry and waited out the rain. Eventually, we headed north out of town to Picton and after scaling the viewpoint near Bob’s Bay we drove north along the Waikawa Road as far as Whatamango Bay. The views were wonderful.


Grove Arm



We made our way back into town and stopped at Picton Village Bakkerij for seeded ciabatta rolls and an almond/dark cherry pastry.

From Picton we started our drive along Queen Charlotte Drive. There were several pull-outs and even some places to have a snack on a park bench between Governors Bay and Barks Bay.

selfie/lunch break  overlooking Grove Arm

Ngakuta Bay

Shortly afterwards, we saw our first real road damage from the earthquake two weeks before.

earthquake damage to Queen Charlotte Drive

At Linkwater, we took Kenepuru Road northeast for views of the Mahau Sound and Kenepuru Sound. We made it as far as Portage before we turned around. Unfortunately much of the view is blocked by large bushes and the pull-outs are few. We did get some nice shots of the farm fields and a flowering passionflower vine.

Kenepuru Rd views  Kenepuru Rd bloom

Back on Queen Charlotte Drive I spotted a pottery gallery sign and pulled off to explore. Valerie (of Valerie’s Gallery) was very nice and we picked up a few of her designs, all the while chatting about travel and politics. We even added a push-pin to her visitor map. :)

Our next stop was Cullen Point Lookout which offered nice views of Havelock and Mahau Sound.

Mahakipawa Arm

Mahakipawa Arm

Havelock in black & white

From Havelock we took the highway back our room in Blenheim to enjoy a Moa Tripel in our room. For dinner we walked to the Scotch Bar. I ordered two appetizer portions of the pork and coriander dumplings with a chilli salsa and a (massive) plate of grilled asparagus with whipped cranky goat cheese. Eric opted for the ox cheek pappardelle with parmigiano reggiano, very filling and tasty. They had several wines available by the half-glass, glass and bottle.  I ordered the Fromm La Strada Pinot Noir and Eric had a Two Rivers L’ile de Beauté Rosé, both were very drinkable and it made me want to visit Fromm the next day.

In search of New Zealand-themed gifts, we walked over the the Warehouse but, unfortunately, it was mostly cheap crap.

Marlborough: wine tasting, day 1

We woke up in a Nelson to a rainy morning but we had scheduled wine tasting for this day so no big deal. First we finished packing, then called all family members to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving. Headed out by 10:15am and although it was hard to see much along SH 6, the drive went quickly with Eric providing Spotify music. About an hour later we were in the famous Marlborough valley.

Wairau River Wines – Our first stop of the day. We enjoyed the wines here, plus a free tasting which was nice. Virginia was fine hostess and we decided to make a reservation to return for lunch at 2pm. I loved the ’13 Reserve Syrah and Eric liked ’16 Sauvignon Blanc and ’16 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.  Unfortunately we never made it back to buy their wine as we ran out of space in our bags. Next time!

No 1 Family Estate – Not on our radar, Virginia mentioned that this place only does bubbles – so we were intrigued! We tasted four sparkling wines (complimentary) and really liked all of them. We purchased a bottle of the sparkling rose to take home. Tracy, our pourer, had actually studied abroad briefly in NC so we chatted about various nuances of weather and culture. A woman stopped in to pick up some bubbly for the holiday party and she mentioned working at White Haven – a coincidence as that was our next stop!

White Haven – Located in the Vines Village among shops, this medium-sized winery has their standard Sauvignon Blanc in multiple grocery stores near our house in the US. In fact, she mentioned that they export nearly 90% of their flagship wine! The tasting room was fairly busy but we had a good time chatting about the wine and taking the tasting slow. Eric tried all the available whites and I sampled the Pinot Noir. The Greg Sauvignon Blanc was awesome and not exported to the US, so we left with a bottle. We eventually drank it over the course of our trip and I wish we bought two bottles.

At this point, we headed back to Wairau River for lunch. I had the mussel chowder with garlic bread (so much dill!) and Eric had the blue cheese souffle with rocket, pear and almond salad. Everything was delicious and the rain cleared out by the time we finished lunch.

Wairau River Wines Cellar Door lunch @ Wairau River Wines Cellar Door

Seresin Estate Limited – Our least favorite of the day. Maybe my palate was just tired, but all the wines we tried here tasted thin and a bit sour. The small tasting room was crowded when we arrived but the two winery dogs provided some entertainment and the views from the hill were lovely.

Done with wine tasting for the day we drove into Blenheim and checked into our room. After settling in we decided to do some light hiking, so we drove north to Monkey Bay and White’s Bay for some great coastal and valley views.

Marlborough coastline

so that's where all the sauvignon blanc comes from!


The sun was still up so we headed back through town to the Wairu Lagoons Walk. It was super windy and after about twenty minutes we didn’t see much so we turned around.

Big Lagoon


Done with the car, we parked at the hotel and walked over to Roger’s Indian for take-out. I got the Beef Goan and Eric had the Mango Chicken curry. While that was being prepared, we walked across the street to Countdown to pick up some more milk and juice for the fridge. The main dishes could have been a touch more spicy (my fault, should have specified) but the naan bread was outstanding. Meal was enjoyed with the rest of our rose from Neudorf.