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Episode #144: Sip Your Way Through the Wine Bars of Florence

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The winebars of Florence are wonderful places to start or continue any journey in learning about Tuscan and Italian wine. Florence’s wine bars and restaurants are not only a great place to learn more about the region’s wines and producers, but they are also amazing places to just hang out and appreciate the great atmosphere as well as delicious food and wine.

Show notes

We talk to Robbin Gheesling, an American sommelier and photographer who is working on projects that combine her interests – whilst living in Florence! She was on episode 92 of Untold Italy talking about the famous wine doors/windows of the city and her latest project is documenting the goings on and people behind one of the oldest wine bars in Florence, Casa del Vino, a stone’s throw from the Mercato Centrale. She’s also working on turning her wine windows project into a guidebook, with locations and history on each that people can follow around the city. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. In Florence, being the center of Tuscany, wine is unquestionably important in Florence. Going back in time to when the wine windows were first created, the noble families lived within the walled city and had their agricultural land outside of the city walls. They were doing all of their wine production outside and bringing it into the city center. At this time, wine was still much cleaner to drink than water. It was much safer to drink wine instead of water out of the River Arno. It was also an important beverage for the much-needed calories and was seen also as a foodstuff. A lot of people would survive only on bread and wine – so wine was not sophisticated, it was a basic need
  2. In the mid-19th century, Bettino Ricasoli looked more into blending the grapes for taste rather than throwing it all together (what was known as a field blend) and created the original recipe for Chianti Classico – 70% Sangiovese, the rest made up with Colorino and other grapes. Sangiovese can be very thin unless you add some Colorino, which has more tannin and more color.  This is what really made Florence become such a center point for wine and hence the Florence wine culture is a bit different to cities like perhaps Rome which has a lesser-known wine history and products
  3. Tuscany originally had wine success and fame that came with Chianti Classico. In the 70s the bottles covered in raffia were being exported worldwide and brought money into the region. This style of bottle became thought of as synonymous with bad wine – but that’s just because there was a time when they were exporting an inferior product. Those bottles we think of with the raffia covering actually came about historically, from practicality – the wine was bottled out in the countryside and they were stacked in a wagon, so this was what Robbin calls Renaissance bubble wrap to keep the bottles from breaking
  4. The great thing about drinking wine in Florence is that if you want a rustic wine bar, where you are just handed a bottle of wine and hope for the best, you can get that (and it’s usually good), you can go somewhere like Casa Del Vino, where Robbin is doing her project – where the owner is very specific in what he carries and how he serves it, and then you can go super high end and get the fanciest glassware and be waited on by staff in crisp white shirts and ties. You can get the entire gamut in Florence, depending on your taste or mood
  5. There are a couple of wine bars in Florence where you can get some wine that’s not just Tuscan, whereas if you go to many bars and restaurants, you’re going to see nothing but a Tuscan list. It’s actually quite difficult getting wine from another region in Italy, but as there are, of course, some good wines from other regions, it can be nice to have the opportunity to compare and contrast
  6. When we talk about Chianti we need to be more specific than referring to it as just one wine. Chianti is a region and has many different wines within its sub-zones. It can be you just see Chianti on a good wine list because a lot of wine lists aren’t complete in their naming of the wines – so it’s worth asking for more information. You can have Chianti Classico, you can have Chianti Colli Senesi and you can have the Colli Aretini. If you have a wine that just says Chianti DOCG, that can come from anywhere in the Chianti region. If you have Chianti Classico, it can only come from that tiny sub-zone, as does the Colli Senesi and Colli Aretini
  7. If you are getting into wines, it can be good to pin down the things you do like and don’t like, but wine can be deceptive. Robbin did not like Chianti wines in general for a long time, but then once she started doing more professional work, she realized that she was tasting producers that were making the wine in a way she didn’t like. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Chianti – she just had to find the right producer. So a Classico is 70% minimum Sangiovese,  and that other 30% can be Cabernet or Merlot, for instance –  as long as it’s grown in the region. For Robbin – Merlot and Cabernet kill Sangiovese. So she thought she didn’t like Chianti until I found the ones that she did like. You can even have just a Chianti comparison tasting in Florence – if you want to kind of really even discover how different Sangioveses work together
  8. Chianti aside, other wines of note in Tuscany are the Super Tuscans – wines from the Bolgheri area out on the coast, Vernaccia a white wine from San Gimignano (a great white wine for red drinkers). There are also the wines from the Siena area – Montepulciano and Montalcino
  9. You can organize a wine tasting experience to get an idea of what you like,  or if you go to a bar that has lots of buy-the-glass options, you can ask to taste a little of the wine before you order a glass. It’s a great way to try a few things if you’re not going for a booked tasting. If you’re going to buy a glass or bottle of wine, then of course it seems fair to try it first to see if you like it. So, anybody that’s got something open by the glass, you should be able to taste it. If they don’t let you, it may not be a great sign and you might question why would they not let you taste it to see if you want a whole glass of it. Robbin herself would head out of there!
  10. Anywhere you are, especially if it’s a classic wine bar, will have a list that’s there for people who don’t want to think but you don’t always have to just pick from the menu. Don’t be afraid to engage somebody or even ask “what’s something like X?” Even if you don’t know what the wine you like is called – you can even just say “I like light and fruity”. Of course, you’d need to be at a restaurant or wine bar with somebody who knows what they’re doing – general waiting staff may not be able to help you so easily, but maybe they can or can find someone who can!  People are so proud of their wine heritage that knowing about the provenance of where it’s come from and the owner of the winery and what methods they use is really a point of pride. It makes it really interesting if you can engage in a conversation about what they have
  11. Moving away from Tuscany, a great wine to have with a heavy lasagna (which Robbin does like to partake of in a particular Osteria in Florence) is actually Lambrusco. Another wine that got itself a terrible reputation from the bad exports sent around the world in the 70s and 80s,  the cheap exports of this semi-sparkling wine would generally be very sweet. However, especially if you are in Emilia Romagna, it’s worth giving Lambrusco a try as it works really well with certain foods – like dense cheeses, fatty meats, and rich lasagna. Robbin’s top tip to avoid the sweet stuff, is to ask before you get it in a restaurant. Or in a shop, you should check the alcohol content. The ones that are 8/9% have more sugar and will be sweeter, so look for the ones that are 11% and over
  12. A great tip when drinking anywhere that specializes in wines is to ask “Have you got anything interesting or new open?” If they’ve had potential suppliers visiting or they’ve been tasting new things then there may be bottles open that aren’t on their standard list and that they are happy for you to try, so it’s always worth asking!

Wine Bars

Casa del Vino, Via dell’Ariento

This is the tiny, historic wine bar, right next to Florence’s Mercato Centrale is who Robbin is doing her latest photography project on. Mercato Centrale was built when Florence was the capital of Italy, from 1865 to 1871. The whole area around it became newly revitalized and was very much the heart of the city. It’s tiny and you’re unlikely to stumble upon it. If you are walking down the center of the Leather Market, you wouldn’t know it’s there. You have to really pay attention and seek it out.

Gianni Millarini, who runs Casa del Vino is the third generation of the second family to run it. Gianni is into small production with producers he has a relationship with. He’s also keen to use natural production as much as possible, with not a lot of sulfur added, not a lot of fertilizers used – a lot of what’s called a low intervention wine.  He even looks into how the winery runs – do they have a good cover crop? Do they have good practices? He chooses because he is passionate to carry the best but also has to be so specific and specialized because he doesn’t have a lot of shelf space. He’s great to talk to and discuss why he’s picked his products. There are only three people that work in Casa del Vino, including Gianni and his wife Nicoletta.

They are usually open morning through lunchtime 9.30 am – 3.30 pm apart from Friday and Saturday when they’re open 10.00 am – 10.30 pm and have amazing food. The food is mostly sandwiches and also Tuscan Stutaccini, like the traditional liver pate on a piece of toast and butter with anchovy. Don’t let the idea of an anchovy put you off – you might not like them back home, but try an anchovy in Italy, it’s a whole different thing. They also have Porchetta (roasted pork) sandwiches – following the philosophy of his wine, he’s so specific about this Porchetta that the guy he gets it from makes it exactly Gianni’s recipe.  So if you like Gianni’s Porchetta, you’re only getting it at Casa del Vino. 

Fratelli Zanobini, Via Sant’Antonino

Again near the Central Market – Fratelli Zanobini, is a historic wine bar. They’re a little bigger than Casa del Vino and with a slightly different scope, but with a similar history of father and uncles to sons and cousins. They have more products though they offer fewer food options. If you’re looking to just grab a glass, they are open longer and it’s a place you just step right into and find something great. If you’re looking for a bottle from any price range, they have many producers, and most regions of Italy – everything from big producers to little producers.

Nuvoli, Piazza Dell’Olio

An osteria with a great history, known for carrying small production lines that are local. They serve great hot, hearty food – local dishes as well as some good Bologna classics like ragu and lasagna.

Osteria Belle Donna, Via delle Belle Donne

On the south side of the river, this is one of the 2 places that have a wine window, after they recently restored it. As long as you see their seats outside, you know, they’re open and you can knock, and they’ll come with the wine. Wine window aside it’s a good place to visit with a pretty good selection.

Babae, Via Santo Spirito

This restaurant was the first to re-open its wine window. It’s the one everyone heads to get their picture taken and is where Stanley Tucci also visited on his TV series Searching for Italy. They were the first restaurant, even before Covid, to have their wine door open. The bar is actually pretty far in the back and they have a cute little leaf – so you just stick your hand in, ring the bell and they will come to you and stick a wine glass right out. They have a little menu hanging on the side. 

Sesto on Arno, Piazza Ognissanti

A go-to for the best views you can get, as it overlooks Florence and the Arno. On top of that there’s great cocktails and wines (with a bit of a price tag for the privilege of the amazing views and lush surroundings).

Oblate library, Via dell’ Oriuolo

A great tip for where to head for great aperitivo with a view on a budget.  Located in the former Convent of the Oblate, in the heart of Florence, the library cafe is a wonderful and unexpected Aperativo spot.

Volpi e l’Uva, Piazza dei Rossi

This wonderful wine bar has a great atmosphere, fantastic wines and is full of knowledgeable people. It’s another one that’s in all the guidebooks, but if you’re just walking across the Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, you’re not going to spot it. Ciro, one of the owners is great to engage about what he has there. You can tell him what you like and he’ll pick out the perfect thing for you. He’ll literally just give you a mouthful to taste and then you go “yes” or “no – I don’t like it for XYZ reason” and he’ll give you something else and undoubtedly what he picks is spot on

About our guest – Robbin Gheesling


Robbin Gheesling is an American sommelier and photographer. As a serious amateur photographer, she added to her portfolio as a wine educator with a love of Italy – shooting vineyard visits and events. After first learning about the wine doors a few years ago, what was initially a photographic treasure hunt, became an intense passion project for her. 

She has produced a beautiful photographic book documenting the wine windows and runs tours to help you discover them for yourself. She also works with the Bucchette del Vino association in Florence and their historians, seeking out information and looking at various archives to help uncover the history of the windows.  She is currently working on a guidebook detailing where the wine doors can be found and the nearby artisanal producers that can be found nearby. You can support this project and pre-order your copy on her website.

You can find Robbin on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Mercato Centrale – central market in Florence
  • Bolgheri – in the province of Livorno near the Tuscan coast
  • San Gimignano – picture-perfect Tuscan village
  • Montepulciano –  a medieval hilltop town in Tuscany, famous for its wines
  • Montalcino – town known for its wine in the province of Siena
  • Casa del Vino – the historic, tiny, and unique wine bar that Robbin is doing her latest photography project on. You won’t find a more thought-out selection of wine or food
  • Fiaschetteria Osteria Nuvoli – cozy bar with great hot food selection
  • Fratelli Zanobini – historic and specialist wine bar
  • Osteria Belle Donna – recently restored their wine window
  • Babae – restaurant on via di Santo Spirito that was first to re-open their wine window
  • Sesto on Arno – pricey but worth it, the views from this rooftop bar can’t be beaten
  • Oblate library –  located in the former Convent of the Oblate, in the heart of Florence. Its cafe is a great little aperitivo spot
  • Volpi e l’Uva – great wine bar that brings in small wine producers and aims to make wine accessible to all
  • Castiglion del Bosco wine lounge – wine lounge in incredible frescoed room on Palazzo Capponi

Food & Drink

  • Chianti Classico –  the most famous and original of the Chianti wines
  • Chianti Colli Senesi and Chianti Colli Aretini– Chianti sub regions 
  • Super Tuscan – a term used to describe red wines from Tuscany that may include non-indigenous grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Vernaccia di San Gimignano – white wine made from the Vernaccia grape
  • Brunello di Montalcino – red DOCG wine from around Montalcino
  • stuzzichini – small antipasto or appetizers
  • Porchetta – a fatty, and moist boneless pork roast, popular and made differently in Tuscany, Umbria and Rome, among other regions. Traditionally roast over wood for about 8 hours
  • Falanghina – white wine from Campania
  • scamorza – stretched curd cheese made predominantly from cow milk
  • Lambrusco – wine, often slightly sparkling from Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy
  • Pecorino – a white dry wine largely from Le Marche and Abruzzo

Resources

  • Middlebury College – college in Vermont, USA
  • Bettino Ricasoli – was an iron baron and twice Prime Minister of Italy and is known as the father/creator of the Chianti Classico recipe
  • Cupola del Brunelleschi – the duomo’s cupola is the dome’s innovative roof itself
  • Searching for Italy – Stanley Tucci’s TV series as he travels across Italy discovering regional produce and dishes

Resources from Untold Italy

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