James Lewisohn celebrates the grape harvest in style with the fellow Danes who run Borgo Santo Pietro.
One fine October Sunday, in the shade of a 400-year-old oak tree, the holy trinity of alcohol, sugar and fat - along with a healthy dose of caffeine - is zinging through my bloodstream thanks to an excellent tiramisu.
It is the finale of a lunch to celebrate the first vendemmia — the grape harvest — at Borgo Santo Pietro, an estate set on 200ha of Tuscan plains between Siena and the Mediterranean. Today, they are gathering cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes.
Next week the sangiovese will be ripe. In the background, Senese pigs root in the woods — shortly to become delicious ham in the hands of Borgo's chefs.
The first wine by Claus Thottrup, Borgo's co-founder, will be blended by the Tuscan oenologist Paolo Vagaggini. "At full production, we will make 70,000 bottles a year in at least five varieties — hopefully, a little more than we need for our own consumption," he says.
Thottrup and his wife, Jeanette, are aiming to provide their 20-room hotel with all the organic food it needs, sourced from the land that surrounds it.
Step outside the gardens of the hotel, with their peacocks, cypress trees and ponds and the estate's fields are serried ranks of vegetables, fruit, walnut and hazelnut trees, beehives, herb gardens — even a colourful array of hen coops, all built to Jeanette's design.
At present, the estate supplies the hotel with all the vegetables, bread, honey, ricotta, pecorino, lamb and pork its guests can eat. But Claus is busily expanding its farm to include cows, for milk and meat. Eventually, he expects that all the food, other than fish and seafood, served at Borgo Santo Pietro will be ethically and organically produced on site.
It is a heady ambition. Then again, if you had to genetically engineer luxury hoteliers, you might well end up with something close to Claus and Jeanette. They are my compatriots — we are all Danes living abroad, our homeland's combination of Nordic noir winters and the world's highest taxes being a powerful catalyst for emigration and entrepreneurialism.
Claus' background as a mechanical engineer in Denmark led him into architecture and property development, for many years based in London's Notting Hill; Jeannette's London career in fashion morphed into interior design. Their joint love of travel helped them understand what the best luxury hotels could be and their love of Italy led to the purchase of a derelict 13th-century Tuscan villa as a summer home for their family. That, in turn, became a luxury hotel — as well as a permanent development project.
First, all the estate's original buildings, unoccupied for 27 years, were lovingly restored and improved. Then, Claus drew and engineered every single additional building, while Jeanette focused on the design of the gardens.
Guest villas, built in the traditional style, are supported by massive local chestnut beams and have travertine stone floors — the best suites are vast and feature private outdoor swimming pools.
The resort's Trattoria Sull'Albero restaurant is in a large wooden "tree house", assembled around the trunk of another giant oak, with a series of micro-pilings instead of traditional foundations protecting the tree's root system. Once a building is complete, Jeanette takes over, furnishing it with the best of Italian — and occasionally Danish — design.
The setting and cuisine could not be more bucolic and Italian, yet there are shades of contemporary Nordic cooking, too, in the food that Andrea Mattei creates from local produce at Meo Modo, Borgo Santo Pietro's Michelin-starred restaurant. A highlight is wood pigeon, first marinated for 12 hours in tobacco oil, then smoked for 10 minutes, pan-seared and, finally, roasted. Ideally, it's accompanied by a weighty 18-year-old chianti riserva bucerchiale.
For a luxury hotel, breakfast is a statement of intent. Mattei's team does not disappoint, and even the simplest dishes are impeccable: the hollandaise of the eggs benedict I eat at breakfast is infused with achillea. Combined with local ham and the hotel's own bread, it is the most delicious version I have ever tasted.
Borgo features a cookery school, where I learn to make pasta under the tutelage of Mamma Olga, a 30-year veteran of the local cuisine. My dough-kneading is precarious, but my (heavily supervised) wild boar ragu is delicious.
After food and wine this good, some penance is required.
First, half an hour of lengths in the infinity pool. Then a lengthy circumnavigation of the extensive grounds. Finally, an hour of yoga with the hotel's instructor, Marlene Consoli, who has trained in India. She is one of the army of 75 highly qualified staff Borgo relies upon to serve its guests — a staff-to-room ratio of nearly four, unusual outside luxurious Asian hotels.
Yet the atmosphere at Borgo is far less hierarchical than many other Italian hotels. "We hate luxury hotels where there aren't quite enough seats at the bar or you can't get a reservation in the restaurant or a massage booking", says Claus.
We are in deepest Tuscany but there's a Danish ethos. "Well ... we can't run away from our heritage," he admits. The best of Italy run along Scandinavian principles; that's something for the rest of the luxury hotel world to emulate.
Accommodation: Hotel Borgo Santo Pietro . Doubles from NZ$950 including breakfast.
Getting there: Qatar Airways flies from Auckland to Pisa via Doha from $2300 return. Borgo Santo Pietro is a two-hour drive from Pisa.