This is the dream. The long, fast journey to warmer climes, the lazy days in the sun, the exhilarating drives through the hills, the lunches stretching into mid-afternoon, the visits to local landmarks, markets, vineyards...Yes, this is the Grand Touring dream, conjuring up visions of glamorous couples whisking across “The Continent” in their exotic GT to return relaxed, tanned and loaded up with cases of wine that will remind them of another life-affirming adventure. It’s a Kodachrome dream that conjures up a Best of the Sixties feel with all the bad bits of that decade conveniently erased.
Can the dream still be achieved? Of course it can. The roads are faster and safer, the hotels are in another league, the cuisine even better and the cars... the cars are phenomenal. And so one day I quietly click shut the door of my traditional Tuscan villa, having taken an early breakfast on the terrace overlooking the hills of Siena (another Grand Touring box ticked) and head for the Arden Green Aston Martin DB11 parked outside, the latest in a line of powerful grand tourers that stretches back more than 50 years.
It follows a familiar formula any Aston Martin admirer will recognise: the long, potent bonnet, the sleek roofline, the short rear overhang, the leather-dominated, two-plus-two interior and, of course, the 12-cylinder engine that today I choose to fire up on the new “soft-start” function to avoid waking my fellow guests.
So I open the door, breathe in the warm aromas of the leather, slide into the driver’s seat, push the crystal into the slot on the dash — and I press and hold it to avoid the exhaust start-up flare that usually I so love. If there’s one thing, just one little touch, that summarises the difference between the new DB11 and the outgoing DB9, it’s that new starting option: this car takes everything that was great about the DB9 and improves upon it with an extra level of innovation and thoughtfulness.
Maybe that implies it’s a mere makeover of the older car. It’s not. It’s new from the ground-up, the first of a line of Aston Martins that will see six more models emerge over the next seven years. It’s arguably the most important Aston Martin since the DB4 and undoubtedly since the DB9. But all that is far from my mind as I settle into my seat, select Drive and ease out through the gateway, gravel scrunching, exhaust rumbling quietly above the whirr of the immense 600bhp, 5.2-litre, twin-turbo V12 as the ZF automatic transmission begins its seamless progression through the first of the eight ratios.
The early morning mist has lifted and the sun is already casting a golden light. I take it easy for the first few miles, allowing the luxury of the DB11 to cosset and comfort, leaving the gearshift paddles alone — for now, the gearbox can have its own fun. This is a level up even from the DB9, the new bonded-aluminium structure designed to allow more interior room (with only a 28mm increase in width and an extra 50mm to the length) and to cut down noise and vibration. What I notice right now, however, is the sheer quality of the materials, the flowing curves of the wood, the “brogued” leather door trims and seats, and the satisfyingly technical feel to the instruments in front of me.
The road is pockmarked and neglected, but it’s becoming ever twistier as it winds up into the hills, and — is it the espresso or the subtle prompting of the exhaust note? — I start to push a little harder. An inferior machine would suffer here, crashing into the potholes, but with suspension set to its softest GT mode, the DB11 rides them well, still happy to play on the hairpins with perfect composure.
As the roads smooth out, I try the second of the three suspension settings, Sport, and feel the responses tighten almost imperceptibly. The DB11 turns in more accurately and is faster to exit even the tightest corners than it does in GT mode, yet the ride has barely suffered. Thank goodness that Aston Martin has avoided the temptation to over-stiffen the suspension, because I’d probably never try that setting again. This is a Grand Tourer after all. As for the Sport Plus mode, well that’s rightly for track use only; I flick it in just once on the road and flick it straight back...
And seeing as the suspension is feeling so good in Sport mode, I really have to switch the driving mode from GT to Sport too. Once again, the change is subtle, but there’s no doubting the extra edge to the searing exhaust note, the added aggression to the gearshifts. And, again, a quick foray into Sport Plus driving mode reminds me just how violently the transmission can bang through the gears and how race-like the exhaust can sound. But that’s not for today.
A quick diversion onto the autostrada means the chance to cruise at high speed. The DB11 hunkers down on the road, piercing the air, never feeling anything but perfectly stable. My speed rises, but there’s no ugly tell-tale deployable rear spoiler to give the game away; Aston Martin’s brand new AeroBlade aerodynamics technology, as simple as it’s clever, keeps the car planted on the tarmac, feeding air through venturi tunnels and vents to increase downforce without compromising the look of the car. I remember the story I was told of Aston Martin’s first tests of the Aeroblade technology, when it worked so well — too well — that above 100mph the downforce was so extreme that it flattened the rear end onto its bump stops. A eureka moment for the engineers! It has been tamed since then, but it certainly keeps the car stable.
The satnav points me to the next exit and I recall the old system, not a patch on the new one with its Daimler AG-developed electrical architecture and “infotainment”. But it’s a fleeting thought as the road sweeps through the valleys of the Pisa region, a rollercoaster of scenic marvels, and the DB11 sets to work again, effortlessly carving its way through the curves with complete confidence. This is the dream.
It has been one hell of a drive and it could easily have been just for the hell of it. Yet I had a destination in mind all along, even if I did take the long route. The clue to my goal is in the surroundings: the sun-scorched hillsides wreathed in manicured vines, olive groves laid out in regimented rows and clusters of stone buildings, a random mix of limestone, sandstone and terracotta.
I turn off the road, smoothly, quietly, the driving adrenalin ebbing away at the sight of the Bocelli vineyards in the village of Lajatico, about 50km south-west of Florence. There has been a Bocelli farm here since 1730 with wine production starting in 1881. Yet the family only became a serious wine producer in the 1930s, when Alcide Bocelli expanded the vineyards and modernised the operation while still growing wheat and keeping cattle that were branded with his initials.
Ever practical, he named his son Allesandro, to avoid the need to change the AB brand, and Allesandro later stuck to the tradition, christening his sons Alberto and Andrea. The pair worked on the farm in their youth, despite Andrea’s poor eyesight from birth, which soon led to total blindness. Today, Andrea Bocelli is the world-famous tenor, said to be one of the most successful classical music artists, having sold 70 million albums. He still regularly returns to the farm, which was his home until he was 35, and where Alberto and his wife, Cinzia, manage the family business.
There is no sign of Andrea today as I park the Aston Martin and take a moment to breathe, brain still adjusting to the tranquility of the farm. The light is still soft, but the shadows have shortened and every contour of the DB11 seems highlighted in the glow as I walk away, unable to resist a glance back at it despite there being much to see. There are 70-year-old vines to view, traditional techniques to observe — I even see “Mamma” Edi Bocelli hand-tying the vines — and the cool, dark cellars to explore.
Some time later, I return and pop open the boot to load in several cases of wine. The family estate, covering 120 hectares, has about eight hectares under vine and produces around 25,000 bottles each year, including high-quality Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malvasia wines, as well as olive oil. I have ended up buying rather more than I had intended, but the Bocelli Cabernet Sauvignon is famously good and the Trebbiano white is only available locally, so it seems rude not to stock up. In fact, surprisingly, there’s room for more, but it’s time to head back to the villa, perhaps taking a more leisurely route.
As I accelerate up the road, with the exhaust singing its own classical tunes, more than one vineyard worker straightens up to admire my rather swift progress. I think I will end up taking the long route back. This is the Grand Touring dream, after all.
Great Italy Tour creates package tours around Andrea Bocelli’s concerts and private visits to the Bocelli FarmHouse and estate. The Bocelli Countryside Escape Tour includes visits to the historic town of Volterra, the Italian tenor’s home village of Lajatico and its amphitheatre, the Teatro del Silenzio and the Bocelli vineyards, as well as wine tastings, a four-course lunch and a visit to Pisa. www.bocellifarmhouse.com
For more information about Bocelli wines, visit www.bocellifamilywines.com