Montepulciano’s Vino Nobile has gradually been reasserting its nobility, but a recent EU ruling may threaten its unique identity. TOM MARESCA visits a region determined not to let new reforms endanger recent advances

What’s in a name? Maybe everything, if you’re a producer of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

In February of this year, the European Union informed the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano that its historic name was no longer protected; that, because it was neither a grape name nor a place name, anyone anywhere was free to call a wine ‘Vino Nobile’. The Consorzio and the producers were dumbfounded. ‘This is not a minor matter,’ says Guido Sodano, director of the up-and-coming del Cerro estate. ‘It’s incredible the EU has forgotten the importance of the exclusivity of the traditional names of the wines. We have been surprised and deeply disappointed by this EU ruling that goes against all principles of protecting and promoting the uniqueness of European products and the territories they represent.’

Understandably, the producers are proud of the standards they have worked hard to achieve. For some years, a mere three estates dominated quality Vino Nobile production: Boscarelli, Poliziano and Avignonesi. Now the field is crowded with contenders. In the 1990s, the tide of modernisation that transformed Montalcino and Chianti Classico finally swept over Montepulciano. Established native producers updated their winemaking. Major outside players – among them Antinori, Fazi-

Battaglia, Ruffino and Saiagricola – began investing in the region. The turnaround paid off with the excellent harvests of 1997 and 1998, and the world-class wines made caught the attention of the press and the public. Luca de Ferrari, of Boscarelli, explains the reasons: ‘New vineyards, new clones, new rootstocks and high-density plantings in the fields. Plus, in the cellar, fermentation controls that didn’t exist here 10 years ago, the choice of selected or wild yeast strains, controlled malolactic fermentation. All those things add up to major improvements in the wine. The use of small oak barrels is minor in comparison.’

Leap forward

25 years ago, 615ha (hectares) were registered on the Vino Nobile landrolls; today there are 1,270ha, plus 334ha more on the rolls of junior sibling, Rosso di Montepulciano, which didn’t officially exist 25 years ago. Back then, only a handful of producers bottled Vino Nobile: now 57 of the Consorzio’s 222 members do so – many for local consumption, granted, but a healthy number for national and international distribution. Oenologists of note in this area include Franco Bernabei (Fassati), Maurizio Castelli (Boscarelli), Niccolo D’Afflitto (Dei), Carlo Ferrini (Canneto, Poliziano, Villa Sant’Anna) and Lorenzo Landi (Fattoria del Cerro, Le Tre Berte). By whatever measure one uses, Vino Nobile has accomplished its great leap forward.

This is where matters stood in Montepulciano when the EU ruled the non-protectability of the name. Just as the name Vino Nobile was gaining enough ‘brand recognition’ to stand beside Chianti Classico and Brunello, that identity has been endangered by the EU ruling. The producers, of course, are appealing for reconsideration.

The good news for wine lovers is that, however the name problem resolves itself, the core of the wine remains intact – in fact, the wine is better than it has been in the last 100 years. As Federico Carletti, energetic and innovative owner of Poliziano, says, ‘Great improvements have been made everywhere and not just by the big producers. This is an exciting time here.’

It would have seemed little could disturb the tranquillity of this Italian Renaissance hill town. Perched atop a spent volcano and saved from both urban sprawl and modern vehicles, Montepulciano has drawn its prosperity from wine and from tourism – oenological and cultural. High culture has loomed large in its history. The Renaissance humanist poet Angelo Ambrogini took his nom de plume from his birthplace: he was known as Politian – Poliziano, a name now borne by one of the region’s best wineries (Latin mons Politianus became the Italian Montepulciano).

The red wine of the area – traditionally a blend of mostly Sangiovese with a dash of Canaiolo and Mammolo – had been nobile for centuries, a favourite of Renaissance popes and poets, and the nobles of Florence. Its prestigious name was the wine’s chief lifeline through a period of eclipse in the 20th century. While Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino were setting new standards for the Sangiovese grape, most producers in the Montepulciano zone lagged behind, hampered by an old-fashioned Chianti-style blend (well into the 1980s it contained a small percentage of white grapes), outmoded cellar equipment and widespread overcropping. At their best, the wines could be lovely, but most of the time they were simple, drinkable and forgettable.

Noble terroir

Montepulciano’s hilltop skyline is visible for miles around. The volcano it once was accounts at least in part for the distinction of its wines. But Vino Nobile’s terroir differs from that of its neighbours and rivals in several key respects.

According to Renzo Cotarella, chief oenologist for Antinori, which owns the increasingly important La Braccesca estate, Montepulciano’s soils aren’t particularly volcanic, but are ‘markedly more acidic and heavier with clay; fertile, but with less limestone than those of either Chianti Classico or Montalcino’.

Montepulciano also differs in altitude and in microclimate. All its vineyards must lie between 250m and 600m and, according to Cotarella, ‘the slopes are more gentle than in Chianti or Montalcino and that has an effect on the temperature of the soil and the maturation of the grapes. It’s colder in winter and warmer in summer than in Chianti Classico. Because of the characteristics of its terroir, Montepulciano’s wines can have more body and structure, with more evident tannins.’

Even in a zone as small as Vino Nobile’s, those conditions aren’t uniform. Catarina Dei, owner of the eponymous estate, describes some of her vineyards as essentially volcanic, others as quite rocky, ‘with lots of marine fossils’. Luca de Ferrari says, ‘There are at least three or four different kinds of soils within the Montepulciano denomination.’ And the Vino Nobile Consorzio divides that small area into almost two dozen sub-areas, with – in its opinion – the best soils lying north-east of the city, between Montepulciano and Montepulciano Station, west of the autostrada. Some fine producers fall along that line – Valdipiatta, Boscarelli, La Ciarliana, Romeo, Fassati – but equally good estates are scattered elsewhere in the zone.

What is perhaps most special about the wine is its grape: Prugnolo Gentile, the version of Tuscany’s ubiquitous Sangiovese that has evolved over the centuries on Montepulciano’s hillsides. According to Catarina Dei, ‘The name Prugnolo Gentile (prugnolo is Italian for plum) comes from the appearance of the grape – the blue skin, the velvety look – plus it has a taste that is more plum than black cherry, different from the clones used in Chianti. Sangiovese changes a lot from place to place.’

‘Montepulciano makes a wine that is more elegant than Brunello and more robust than Chianti Classico, maybe a little less fruity and less acid, but with its own special qualities that come from the Prugnolo Gentile and our microclimate,’ says Luca de Ferrari.

The EU decree obviously won’t affect the nature of the wine, but many producers fear it will destroy its market identity. If anybody can use the name, their uniqueness is obliterated. As Catarina Dei says, ‘We have a jewel here, a wine that is unique because it comes from this land, this soil, this climate, these grapes.’ Putting that jewel in its proper setting, conveying that uniqueness to wine lovers, is the task that the EU ruling has set for Vino Nobile and its producers.

Written by Tom Maresca