Isola del Giglio

Yep, I felt like one of those teenagers on a school trip. Impatient to leave, itching to set foot on Giglio again after more than thirty years. My companions in the adventure: a food journalist of national repute, and a longtime Rufina wine merchant.

It’s late September, and the ferryboat is already operating on the winter timetable, so we’re spared having to get up at an ungodly hour. We take the 2pm boat, and an hour and something later, we’re approaching the island. It’s a gorgeous day, very pleasant temperature.

The ferry is hardly a rocket, but that allows us to really drink in the magnificent promontory of Mont’Argentario as we strike out into the waters of the Tuscan archipelago. Making landfall, everything feels exactly as it did thirty years ago; in fact, it’s a feeling that will stick with me throughout our visit.
The island of Giglio gives us a good welcome, partly because my dear friend Simone is waiting for us. He hails from the same town as me, but he lives on Giglio, where he makes wine. “Calzo della Vignia” – the name is a mispelling, but it’s faithful to an old signpost on the island – appears à la carte in Ruffino’s restaurant, Le Tre Rane, which we’ll talk about in another article. Simone gives us a tour, and takes us to his beautiful farmhouse, telling us tales about an island that has enchanted everyone who has ever set foot on it.
Well, not everyone. At the time of the Medici, for example, no administrator would touch it with a bargepole: the few who were persuaded to take the job on managed a matter of days or weeks. We walk the panoramic road that leads from Porto to Giglio Castello, up into the island’s mountainous reaches. We then bear left towards the Saetta farm, where we find two millstones, survived from Roman times. The first proof that, on Giglio, winemaking goes back a long, long way.

We reach Simone’s vineyard, and the spectacle doesn’t disappoint. The Campese bay stretches beneath us, and we can also see the ancient mine which, we discover, is responsible for the colour of the beach here, below the island’s third town. The island of Montecristo lies before us, the very same that Dumas’ Count made famous; and behind that we espy the isle of Elba, towering into the sky. The sunset is already breathtaking, but this is something sublime.
Simone tells us that the island isn’t actually a single entity but a union of two tectonics: the Sardinian plate, which is made from granite, and the other the continental plate, which is marlstone.

We start a “vertical” tasting session of Calzo della Vignia, meaning that we compare six vintages, year by year. This will take us into the small hours. Calzo della Vignia is a wine that if you drink here, on its home soil, with this backdrop, really gets into your soul.
At dinner, we meet two born-and-bred gigliesi: one, Massimo, is a butcher in Campese and Castello; the other is the daughter of the owners of Santi, once the most famous restaurant on the island, but now sadly disappeared. Today, she leads some magisterial tasting sessions at Calzo. The dinner and the wine add a touch of class to this visit, while the stories of local, everyday life here give us a faint idea of a reality that is built on hardship and sacrifices.

After middle school, for example, gigliesi children have to go to the mainland, often to board; there are no high schools on the island. Nor are there cinemas or theatres. There isn’t even a hospital, just one of many absent essentials.
"So why does anyone live on Giglio?” we ask.
“It lives inside of you, this island,” Massimo responds. “You can leave for a while, but in the end you have to come back.” The conversation takes place while a Giglio speciality is being passed round the table: tonnina, dried then regenerated tuna, served with two fresh onions and two olives. Then we have gigliese pizza, with stewed onions, olives and pecorino cheese. Good butcher that he is, Massimo has also brought a couple of sausages along.

It should be clear by now that white wine rules the roost on Giglio, but we’ll give the last word to a rare, even unique red: Sangiovese del Giglio. The Sangiovese grape used to be grown here in abundance, until the white Ansonico came and elbowed it out. But Simone still produces 100 magnums of Sangiovese, which he sells exclusively on the island. Well, that’s just another reason for us coming out here.

We sail back to the mainland the next day, knowing that it won’t be long before Giglio calls us back. Massimo’s right: it gets into the heart, and it’s hard to stay away from it. Even if sometimes, as we know, it’s wiser to keep your distance...