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The Noble Wines of Montepulciano

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San Biagio at sunsetMontepulciano is an ancient hilltop town in southeast Tuscany. Worthy of a visit because it is a treasure trove for enthusiasts of medieval and Renaissance architecture and artifacts, it also the home of a very fine Sangiovese-based red wine. The noble wine of Montepulciano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is one of Tuscany's classic red wines. Although notice of the town's wine dates as far back to 790AD, it was the poet and doctor Francesco Redi who widely established the fame of the wine in a famous poem, Bacco in Toscana in which he toured the great Tuscan wine regions of his day with Bacchus and Ariadne at his side. Redi stated, "Montepulciano is the King of all wines."

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, in both regular and riserva versions, is a blend of 60-80% sangiovese grapes with 10-20% Canaiolo Nero grapes and with a maximum of 20% of either recommended local varieties such as Mammolo or authorized grapes such as the "international" varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Since Canaiolo Nero produces a lighter style of wine, the 80% cap on Sangiovese makes Vino Nobile less powerful than Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino, which both use higher percentages of Sangiovese. Vino Nobile also must be aged a minimum of 2 years in barrel, which is too long to preserve the fruit of the current grape blend in most vintages. Best examples have a solid ruby-crimson color, a rich cherry scented aroma with accents of leather, violets, and cigar tobacco, and a rich full taste in the mouth.

In excellent vintages, when the quality of the fruit is high, the wines from the best vats are selected for Riserva, which receives at least 2 years barrel aging and a total of three years maturation in all. Riserva has more intensity of flavor than regular Vino Nobile. The component aromas and tastes seem better integrated. The overall impression is of a wine with more polish. Sometimes new oak is used in Riserva. giving it a faint oaky smell.

Since the late 80s, Rosso di Montepulciano, a lighter and fruitier version of Vino Nobile, has been made. The grapes are usually collected from vineyards less advantageously sited or from young vines. There are no aging requirements, which makes this wine the cash crop for Montepulciano wineries and a less expensive bottle of wine for consumers. Most wineries also make a luxury wine, commonly referred to as a Super Tuscan wine, usually using "international" grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Super Tuscan wines are usually aged in small, French, new oak barrels. Since they represent the highest aspirations of the estate and are often the personal statements of winemakers or estate owners, these wines are usually of very high quality, but can be eccentric in taste.

A dessert wine made in Montepulciano as well as throughout Tuscany is Vin Santo, a Sherry-like wine made from dried white grapes (usually Trebbiano and Malvasia). It can be made dry or sweet and is usually served after dinner with local hard, almond filled, biscuits called "cantuccini". The tradition is to dip the cookies in the wine. This is a good idea if you are drinking an inexpensive Vin Santo. Due to its difficult production process and aging period , usually about 4 years, Vin Santo can be expensive. The best and the most expensive Vin Santo made in Tuscany is made by the Montepulciano producer, Avignonesi. The glass of 1987 Avignonesi Vin Santo I enjoyed recently in a Montepulciano restaurant is available in the Massachusetts area for a mere $108 per half-bottle. {short description of image}

Despite Redi's coronation of Montepulciano, the average level of wine quality of modern Vino Nobile has lagged behind that of the two other famous Sangiovese-based appellations in Tuscany, Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino. The problems have been that the color of the wine has been lighter and more prone to develop orange and brown hues with time. The bouquet has been occasionally volatile, smelling of vinegar or airplane glue. On the palate Vino Nobile has also tended to have high acidity and to lack texture and richness in the middle of the mouth. In the last decade and increasingly so in the last two or three years, there has been improvement in the quality of Montepulciano's wines. This has been due to recent transfusions of investment into the region's vineyards and wineries. The area also now draws on the attention and skills of many of Tuscany's top enologists.

Recently, I visited many wineries and tasted a broad range of the region's wines.. I found that while the average level of quality has risen, there is still a more than usual variance of quality among the popular brands. From my experiences in Montepulciano, I recommend the following producers.

The established pace setters in quality have been Avignonesi and Poderi Boscarelli. Avignonesi's dynamic owners, brothers Alberto, Ettore, and Leonardo Falvo, have rapidly expanded their company based on the critical success of their Vino Nobile and Super Tuscan wines, such as Grifi, which is a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon aged in new small oak barrels. While Avignonesi's wines are very high in quality, they are shy of the level of quality achieved by Poderi Boscarelli, which now makes the best wine of the region. Also rapidly rising to stardom are the wines of Poliziano and Fattoria Le Casalte. Bindella, Fazi Battiglia (using the well-known brand name, Fassati), Fattoria La Braccesca (owned by Antinori), and Lodola Nuova (owned by Rufino) are wineries whose wines have vastly improved due to the support of wealthy, quality-oriented parent companies.

Other producers whose wines I thought excellent in my recent tastngs in Montepulciano are Nottola, Canneto, Fattoria della Talosa, Tenuta Valdipiatta, and Vecchia Cantina di Montepulciano.

Montepulciano wines are improving by the day. New laws affecting the 1998 vintage will allow producers to increase the percentage of Sangiovese to 100% in the blend and to reduce the current 2 years aging period in oak requirement to 18 months. These changes will help ambitious producers so that they can make wine that will compete with Tuscany's best.

We thank Bill Nesto for sharing the knowledge he has gained in the course of becoming a Master of Wine.