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Byline: By Helen Williams

Got a nose for wine? HELEN WILLIAMS has, so we sent her packing to Chianti

THE autumn grape harvest season is a great time to visit Chianti, one of the world's most famous wine regions in the heart of Italy.

There is a lot to see - the weather is still good and the peak season crowds are waning. And the area is buzzing with excitement over whether this will be another great crop.

Wine-tastings and tours of ancient wineries are on offer, often topped off with local delicacies of meat, cheese and bread.

Locals fill the streets with dance and cheer in colourful celebration and, for a spectacular change of scene from the gently rolling hills, there is the beautiful Renaissance city of Florence nearby.

Contrast this with the nip in the air as the nights draw in back home and the draw for wine buffs and food lovers or those with a taste for high culture are obvious.

Anyone seeking a city break or an autumn holiday in a rural villa can also get their fix in Florence and the surrounding Chianti region.

The warm days and the balmy nights, added to the ease of travel, make exploring the wine region a must.

Everything can be done at a leisurely pace. Our base, courtesy of upmarket tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, was the five star Relais Santa Croce Hotel in the heart of Florence, a stunning early 18th Century palace.

Its location, between Santa Croce Basilica and the Duomo, means that you are within a stone's throw of all the must-see attractions. Minutes away is the basilica, with the masterworks of Giotto, Cimabue and RBunelleschi, while the museum at Buonarroti House is stuffed with masterpieces.

Within the same walking tour, you can easily include the Bargello, an important national museum, the celebrated Uffizi Gallery and the picturesque Ponte Vecchio.

It is also easy to see why the Piazzale Michelangelo is such a favourite with locals and tourists. A copy of Michelangelo's David sits impressively in the centre of the square - a treat for those who do not want to queue to see the real thing in the Accademia gallery.

Reaching the Piazzale Michelangelo on the south side of the River Arno is a short drive or a 15-20 minute walk from the city centre which includes a short but steep climb. It is worth it.

The panoramic view across the red-topped roofs of the city and gazing back over the river is fantastic.

All that is needed to transform this city break is a drive to the country or a stay at a villa, from where you are ideally placed to drink in the rural landscape.

Renting a villa such as the impressive Villa La Quercia in Impruneta will provide a slice of true Tuscan life. Rent a place with a swimming pool and the children will have a much-needed outlet for their energies while you chill out in the relaxed atmosphere.

The Chianti wine region has been important to generations of bon viveurs since the Middle Ages. It starts a few miles south of Florence, stretches down to Siena, and is over 30 miles wide.

This is a very romantic part of Italy. Roman architecture, fortified and walled villages and magical little towns dot the landscape where rolling hills of olive groves and vineyards sit side-by-side. Local pride centres on the world-famous wines the region produces.

Visiting this wine region at this time is to arrive during a proud period and also to step back in time. Several popular grape festivals begin about this time of year.

Grapes are glorified at the Festa dell'Uva in Impruneta. The festival is held on the last Sunday of September, just before the grape harvest.

The four rioni of the town, about eight miles south of Florence, compete by building elaborate floats related to the growing of grapes, the making of wine and other agricultural themes.

The parade winds through the town and ends up at the central square where dancing, and small theatrical performances by representatives of each district, take up much of the afternoon and evening.

Impruneta's Grape Festival is the oldest celebration of its kind in Italy.

It is a quintessentially Italian event full of bunting, colour, medieval-style flags, dance and costumes that the performers, including many children, have spent weeks preparing in secret.

In this picturesque setting you will find some wonderful wineries producing Chianti Classico, and many of these properties welcome tourists. They provide a friendly face with a huge knowledge of wines, explaining the regional importance of the vineyard while putting it into a historical context.

An insiders' guide to the charming vineyard at Castello di Verrazzano, provided by one of the family, was a revelation. First there was the breathtaking scenery. Then there was a tour complete with local bread delicacies to help soak up the wine.

Watch out for wines labelled DOCG - Italy's elite wine grouping. Only wines produced from 80% Sangiovese grapes grown within the certified perimeters qualify for the Chianti Classico title. Helen Williams was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, which offers three night room-only breaks at the Relais Santa Croce in Florence from pounds 665pp, including flights from London and transfers.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 6, 2007
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