Jim Budd scales the twin peaks of excellence of Montalcino and Montepulciano and picks out their top wines.
To the south of Chianti lie the hilltop towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano and the corresponding DOCGs of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Here, particularly in Montalcino, you can find some of the most aristocratic estates in Italy, producing some of the most high-class – and most expensive – wines in the country. The best examples of Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are some of the finest reds in Tuscany, but both zones also have second red DOCs, Rosso di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montalcino, which are lighter, have a shorter ageing period and can be released within a year of the harvest taking place.
The chief grape here is Prugnolo Gentile, the local name for Sangiovese. The reds from Montalcino are pure Sangiovese, whereas in Montepulciano a minimum 70% Sangiovese is stipulated for both the Vino Nobile and the Rosso. The other permitted grapes are Canaiolo (up to 20%), Colorino and Mammolo. The addition of other varieties tends to make the wines of Montepulciano a little softer and more approachable when young than those of Montalcino. The question of how long to age the top wines remains divisive, especially in Montalcino, and this is allied to whether they should be aged in the traditional botti – large wooden casks generally made of Slavonian oak – or in barrique. In 1998 the Consorzio reduced the length of obligatory wood ageing for Brunello from three years to two, with a further four months in bottle (six for the riserva). This is one of the factors that splits Montalcino producers and means that some estates, such as Biondi-Santi and Barbi, are not members of the Consorzio.
Some producers believe that if the wine isn’t butch enough to survive the requisite time in large botti then it isn’t a real Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. There is no doubt that a wine without considerable structure will not survive long ageing in large oak casks as the fruit is stripped out, leaving only a dry husk behind – unfortunately the wines of the long- established Fanetti-Tenuta Sant’Agnese estate bear witness to the destructive properties of over-long wood ageing. On a recent visit to Montepulciano I tasted its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1997 and the 1995 and 1997 vintages of its top wine, San Giuseppi. All three had a hard, drying finish and the 1995 was almost orange. This is sad as the historic Montepulciano winery itself has charm and character. In contrast, the Il Poggione estate in Montalcino put on a fascinating vertical tasting, showing Brunellos from a barrel sample of the 1997 back to 1979. The wines had remarkable complexity and layers of taste, including notes of strawberry, prune, currants and tobacco. In the 1970s these wines were aged for four years in large botti of between 100 and 130hl (hectolitres). Now they spend three years in botti of 30hl to 50hl. If these wines had been aged in a different manner – 100% barriques for example – they would clearly be different and probably not as distinctive. ‘We hope never to use barriques for Brunello,’ says Fabrizio Bindocci of Il Poggione dismissively.
Over the past 15 years there has been a considerable increase in both Brunello plantings and total production. In 1985 there were 810ha (hectares) of vines, while by 1999 this had gone up to 1,344ha. In 1986 1.34 million bottles of Brunello were released, and by 1999 this had risen to 4.19 million. Over the same period, the production of Rosso di Montalcino leaped from 1.38 to 2.69 million bottles. Brunello is popular outside Italy, especially in the US, Switzerland and Germany, with 64% exported. The US takes nearly a quarter of all Brunello made. Biondi-Santi, on the edge of Montalcino town, is undoubtedly the most famous estate in this area. Credited as the inventor of Brunello in the 1888 vintage, it is now run by Franco Biondi-Santi and has 15ha of vines. ‘We use no weedkillers and no chemical treatments,’ he says. ‘We use only natural yeasts, a vertical press and the wines are always aged in Slavonian oak. Some of the botti are 100 years old and were bought by my grandfather. I don’t believe in barriques as Brunello is already rich enough in tannins.’
Naturally the wines are not cheap: the Rosso di Montalcino is L57,000 (£19), while the 1997 Brunello is L200,000 (£66) and the riserva considerably higher. The 1996 and 1997 Brunello Annatas from Biondi-Santi have a big structure with silky fruit, but both have a decidedly austere finish that will require long ageing to soften. It was probably the weight of history that persuaded Franco’s son, Jacopo, to set up on his own and he now makes his own wines, including those from Castello di Montepo, a recently acquired estate in Morellino di Scansano – and yes, Jacopo does use barriques. Villa Banfi, owned by the American Mariani family, has been carrying out experiments to find the best Sangiovese clones. In Tuscany, there has recently been lots of research into Sangiovese because it is an old grape with some 650 different clones of variable quality. Sangiovese is sensitive to where it is planted, so what is best in one vineyard may not thrive in another. Banfi has concluded that a mix of three clones gives the best results, which is a move away from the practices of the 1960s to late 1980s. Then, single clone vineyards were usually planted, with vines selected for productivity and resistance to disease rather than ability to produce high quality grapes. Given Banfi’s US ownership, it’s not surprising that the estate has good visitor facilities. Much harder to find is Mastrojanni, located in countryside close to Castelneuvo dell’Abate, but it is well worth the effort as the wines are extremely good. The estate now has 19.5ha and is run by Antonio Mastrojanni, but it was founded by his father, Gabriella, in 1975, when the area had no electricity. Antonio is reducing the time the wines spend in barrel and instead they spend longer in bottle. He has special 16hl botti made by Austrian cooper Fassbinderei. Donatella Cinelli Colombini at Fattoria del Colle is creating lighter, softer Brunellos that are specifically designed to appeal to women. There are only women working in the winery and the Brunello Prime Donna is blended and selected by Colombini and two colleagues. Other notable Montalcino estates include Tenuta di Argiano, especially its Solengo, a Super-Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah; and Nardi, which, in reviving a rundown family estate, has replaced botti with barriques.
In Montepulciano, there are several impressive estates, including Avignonesi, Redi and Tre Rose. Visiting wine estates can become repetitive – rows of stainless steel tanks and vines laid out in a similar manner – but this is certainly not the case at Avignonesi. For a start, there is the circular vineyard, planted in 1987, that was used to determine the best planting density. In the inner circle the density is 8,000 vines per hectare, while the final circle gives a density of just 2,500 per hectare. The best solution was found to be 7,500 plants per hectare. This is certainly well above the norm for Italy but indicates that the country-wide move towards an average planting density of between 4,000 to 5,000 plants per hectare should lead to higher quality, assuming that the yield per vine is kept in check. Villa Banfi in Montalcino carried out similar experiments and, interestingly, decided on 4,200 vines per hectare as giving ‘optimum concentration’.
Avignonesi also has vineyards that are laid out as in Roman times. ‘This started some five years ago,’ says Elena Falvo, daughter of Ettore who founded the estate in 1974. ‘The vines are laid out in the form of a series of double equilateral triangles or hexagons. This system means that every plant gets the sun and that the land can be worked in three directions. We regulate production so that every vine produces between 900g and 1kg of grapes.’ The care taken shows in the range of wines, which includes two remarkable Vin Santos. Tenuta Trerose has 70ha of vines and is part of the Angelini group. Here new clones of Sangiovese are preferred to old varieties such as Canaiolo and Colorino, so these are not being replanted. In the winery, barriques are increasingly preferred to botti. The softly spicy, easy-drinking Rosso is very good value, while the 1998 La Villa, largely Sangiovese with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, is complex and will age well. The most impressive cellars in either zone belong to the cooperative, Redi. The high-ceilinged brick cellars under the Ricci Palace were built in the 1530s. Redi has 500 members with 1,000ha and accounts for 40% of the production of Montepulciano. The wines are well made and both the Rosso and straight Vino Nobile offer good value.
The largest private Montepulciano estate is the 160ha Fattoria del Cerro, owned by Saiagricola, a large farming combine. Though the 1997 and 1995 Riservas are disappointing, the 1999 Rosso di Montepulciano and the 1998 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano both offer attractive drinking. Even if you don’t make it to these pretty hilltop towns, it’s worth seeking out the wines – both the longer-ageing DOCGs and their lighter DOC counterparts.
Jim Budd is a freelance wine writer.
Written by JIM BUDD