The Sommelier Journal
The Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) known as Montepulciano lies east of Montalcino across the Val d’Orcia in the Tuscan province of Siena, specifically the Chianti subzone Colli Senesi. From the eponymous hilltop town, one looks down over the vineyards, most on eastern- or southeastern-facing slopes, toward the Val di Chiana, named for the Chianina breed of beef cattle featured in the region’s famous bistecca alla Fiorentina. The appellation’s remaining vineyards are located in the hills surrounding the village of Valiano, across the autostrada and the plains. Etruscan King Porsenna is said to have founded Montepulciano in 500 B.C., when it was known as Mons Politicus.
The breathtakingly beautiful village is studded with architectural and historical gems. Walking along the centro Corso, you’ll see stunning palazzi once belonging to the likes of Avignonesi, Cocconi, and Del Monte-Contucci as well as such masterpieces as the Renaissance-era Tempio di San Biagio, the Gothic Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone, and the Torre di Pulcinella, a medieval clocktower with a whimsical wooden figurine still striking out the time. The Museo Civico displays a range of Etruscan and Roman artifacts including a kylix, or wine cup, to Caravaggio. The Piazza Grande, anchored at one end by the former home of Renaissance humanist and poet Angelo Poliziano, is the village’s focal point. All the while, seductive aromas of rubinia (acacia) and ginestra (Scotch broom) flowers, the gently earthy fragance of the countryside, and mouthwatering aromas of food fill the air. Lunch or dinner may include a panino con la porchetta with a glass of Rosso, pici (a local pasta) with duck and a spot of Vino Nobile, or crostata of pecorino and Cosce di Monaca jam alongside Vin Santo.
As in Montalcino, Sangiovese gets riper here than it does in most parts of Chianti. The region’s key grape (known locally as Montepulciano Blackthorn as well as Prugnolo Gentile) comprises a minimum 70% of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, with the remainder going to any Tuscan grape, including the Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot imported here after World War II (though white varieties can represent no more than 5% of the blend). One popular option is red Mammalo; producers say they like the lightly floral scent it brings (it’s named for a type of violet).
Vino Nobile must be aged two years, at least a year of which must be spent in oak; Riserva wines require three years. Minimum alcohol is set at 12.5% (13% for Riserva), but the common range now is 13.5-14.5%. Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, introduced in 1989, contains a similar blend, offering sommeliers and consumers a taste of the region at a lower price tag. Produced all over Tuscany, the sweet Vin Santo of Montepulciano, a DOC, is said to be the richest of all. In 1550, Sante Lancerio, wine steward to Pope Paul III, recorded that his holiness preferred the wines of Montepulciano, bringing to mind two questions: what kind of wines does Pope Francis prefer, and how does one sign up to be his sommelier?
Vino Nobile, or “Wine of the Nobles,” was officially born in the 15th century, when the aforementioned Angelo Poliziano took up residence in the court of Lorenzo dei Medici. It gained notoriety with aristocrats, and was dubbed the “King of All Wines” by poet Francesco Redi late in the 17th century. Shortly thereafter, King William III of England became a steady customer. In the first half of the 20th century, the wine retained its reputation as a rich, firm, well-structured Italian red; Fanetti Vino Nobile won a gold medal in 1937 at the Grand Prix de Paris, and DOC status was granted in 1966.
But by the time arrived on the market as Italy’s first DOCG import in 1983, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano had been cast aside, residing in the shadows of Tuscany’s highly decorated Brunello di Montalcino (which was granted DOCG status earlier, in 1980, but has longer minimum aging requirements); its soaring Super Tuscans; and its best known populist wine, Chianti. Variable quality was certainly an issue. Many bottlings were no better than simple Chianti, and until the DOCG rules took effect, up to 28% of the grapes allowed in the blend were white. In addition, as pressures mounted to stay competitive and get high scores, some producers began ramping up their use of oak. As elsewhere in the world, barriques were brought in to help improve quality and tame tannins—but the wines often lost their unique character in the process.
I recall a trip I took to the region in 2001. Upon arriving at a tasting with a very well-known producer, I was a bit agitated, jet lagged, and hot; after being presented with a lineup of wines that could have just as easily been from the New World, I got up and said, “If I had wanted to taste Napa Cabs, I wouldn’t have flown halfway across the world to do so. Don’t you have anything more Italian?” Yes, it was ungracious of me, but I was not alone in being disappointed by releases that had spent six months in American oak and showed notes of coconut along with incredibly drying tannins.
Luckily, over the past decade, we have witnessed a global movement away from the points-driven style of winemaking marked by excessive oak. The use of light oak, no oak, and even cement eggs has not only been revived in Europe but is taking hold in the New World as well. Formed in 1965, the 70-member Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (www.consorziovinonobile.it) continues to support the return to the top of the quality scale.
Having completed the cycle from neutral to extreme oak and back again, most producers now see the barrique as nothing more than as a tool to enhance, not dominate, their wines. As Thomas Francioni, event manager for the Consorzio, observes, “During the past few years, we’ve experienced a real revolution in the use of oak for aging. Several producers have confirmed that in the 1990s, all the enologues convinced them to use more new oak in keeping with market trends. But starting with the 2004-2005 harvest, the producers decided to have more fruit—the fruit of the Sangiovese berries!—in their wines and to forget the big oaked flavor. Of course we still have modern styles as well as old styles, but both are going in only one direction—toward quality and identity! Tasting lots of wines of the area, I really find in the past five vintages—’06 to ’10 more and more similarity in terms of the expression of different soils, trellising systems, and winemaking processes. It gives me an extraordinary emotion when I recognize the area of Vino Nobile from the glasses. Our trend now is to produce lighter wines with less aggressive tannins, so that you want to drink another glass after the first!”
The DOCG blend has officially been adjusted as well. Some producers were illegally using 100% Sangiovese, or Sangiovese blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as was done in other parts of Tuscany. Today this is allowed and is common practice. It is also allowable to make a Vino Nobile, à la Chianti Classico, with no white grapes at all. Finally, Montepulciano is now going green: 12 of its 74 wineries are certified Biodynamic so far, and a movement toward renewable energy is afoot.
It is obvious that Vino Nobile has found its roots. Like the warm Mediterranean air at sunset, its wines are warm, sexy, and softly spicy. They are beautifully expressive of their individual terroirs, their local grapes, and their regional culture. They are elegant, complex, understated, and full of intrigue, like an alluring perfume that is detected only if you lean in close. Though it has taken a great bit of effort, the wines reflect the Renaissance concept of sprezzatura—they have a seemingly spontaneous style. They speak of a romance worth rekindling.
Via Colonica, 1
53045 Valiano di Montepulciano
Azienda Agricola La Ciarliana
Via Ciarliane, 31
53040 Gracciano di Montepulciano
Importer: Maximum Wine Company
Azienda Agricola Poliziano
Via Fontago, 1
53040 Montepulciano Stazione
Importer: Dalla Terra Winery Direct
Azienda Agricola Salcheto
Via di Villa Bianca, 15
Importer: Sherbrooke Cellars
Importer: Sherbrooke Cellars
Podere Il Macchione
Via Provinciale, 18
Importer: David Vincent Selection
Podere Le Bèrne
Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta
Via Umbria, 59/61
outstanding recent releases
Avignonesi Vin Santo di Montepulciano Occhio di Pernice, 375ml 1998 $230
Rich, viscous, and intense, with notes of dried raisin, fig, caramel, and apple pie, this amber dessert wine is made from 100% air-dried Prugnolo Gentile with an average vine age of 18 years. It’s fermented naturally in cask, then sealed under wax to age another 10 years.
Dei Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $30
This elegant, stylish, full-bodied red has savory notes of dried fennel seed, sage, and lavender along with very lush, rich, generous cherry and plum. Lively acidity intensifies the rather gripping tannins, so decant for aeration and serve in a larger stem.
Il Macchione Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2009 $28
Pretty, high-toned raspberry fruit—along with tomato, basil, leather, mocha, espresso bean, and very subtle vanilla—is the highlight of this wine, which starts out rather well behaved, proving round, firm, and structured. As the tannins unfold, however, it becomes absolutely feisty, gripping and drying the palate without shame; acidity serves to intensify the sensation at first, but then manages to refresh and cleanse the palate. Very intriguing.
La Ciarliana Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $30
With notes of strawberry jam, cherry, prune, fig, brown mushroom, sandalwood, a bit of brett, and a Kirsch-like richness at its core, this wine shows a more traditional style. The tannic structure is too, with a slight dryness on the finish, but lively acidity finds its way in to cleanse the palate, and exotic spice sensations come out on the finish.
Le Bèrne Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $34
No wonder I am falling in love with Vino Nobile all over again. This medium-bodied wine is pure Mediterranean heaven, with suggestions of sundried tomato, oil-cured black olive, cherry, orange rind, quince, sage, verbena, and very, very subtle cedar and vanilla. It is immediately soft and plump; then tannins pop in to give support, picking up toward the finish before acid comes forth for balance. The finish is long, with highlights of black licorice and fennel.
Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Asinone 2008 $45
Very sleek, smooth, and polished, with deep, dark berry fruit; earthy aged Sumatra and balsamic; and mocha, licorice, and truffle. Rich and full on the palate, with full-frontal tannins and lively, balancing acidity, this wine would do well with some age and/or aeration. But the quality is remarkable and true to its roots onceagain.
Salcheto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $26
The soft, sweet floral and woodsy perfumes of spring in the countryside come to mind with a sip of this wine, along with raspberry, cherry, fig, green olive, peppermint tea, salumi, mushroom, and tar. Very appealing in an earthy sort of way, with attractive but not forward fruit, it has just the right balance of acids and tannins to work beautifully with local specialties.
Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2010 $28
Very elegant and lithe, with notes of sour cherry, sundried tomato, sage, red licorice, violet, dark chocolate mousse, and cedar. Tannins are fine and beautifully integrated; the finish is long and mouthwatering. This wine has the balance of a prima ballerina.
Planet Grape’s popular and entertaining speaker and host for corporate and private events, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess, is also a professional Champagne sabreuse, a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal, the San Francisco Champagne Examiner for Examiner.com, the drinks columnist for Basil Magazine, a frequent contributor to CNBC’s WinePortfolio.com and Nation’s Restaurant News, a French Wine Scholar, and an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/planetgrape and follow her on Twitter @planetgrape.