On Day 2 of our tour of Tuscany, we are still in the province of Siena where the walled village of Montepulciano serves up medieval and Renaissance buildings decked out in the postmodern finery of B and B’s and curio shops. If you have a fascination for castles, fortified villages and sweeping views of the countryside it’s hard to beat Montepulciano, although its old world charm must accommodate thousands of weekly visitors.
The wine made from grapes grown in vineyards surrounding the village, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, was once highly favored by Tuscan nobility. The more famous Brunello di Montalcino, produced in the nearby village of Montalcino, from the same Sangiovese clone, is a relative newcomer having been created as a wine region only about 130 yrs. ago. Unfortunately, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano joined Chianti in making cheap table wine in the 1960’s and 1970’s and lost its lustrous reputation. It is now undergoing a renaissance of its own, as producers turn back toward quality. With the stratospheric prices of Brunello, these wines offer a quality alternative at a relative bargain. (Note: the regional wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is not to be confused with the grape varietal montepulciano which is cultivated in d’Abruzzo among other places and makes a usually unimpressive table wine.)
Brunello differs from Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in that the latter can be blended with 30% of other authorized grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, while Brunello must be 100% Sangiovese. In addition, Vino Nobile need be aged for only 2 years (3 for Riserva); the requirements for Brunello are 5 years of aging (at least 2 in bottle) before release.
After hiking up the hill from the parking lot to the village, we entered an unassuming storefront only to descend four stories down to Talosa Winery’s 16th century cellars where we tasted their Rosso, Vino Nobile, and Vino Nobile Riserva paired with some bruschetta and Italian cold cuts. Some of their original 115 hectolitre barrels from their first vintage in 1972 are still in use. These underground cellars maintain a constant temperature and humidity throughout the year with no temperature control required. Their Rosso table wine, and their Vino Nobile, both blends that included some Merlot, were rustic and earthy with quite a bit of grain on the tannins. Their Riserva and Selectione, both 100% Sangiovese from 2014 were more elegant, especially the Selectione “Filai Lunghe”, a wonderfully dense, complex wine made from their best grapes, although it’s not available in the U.S. They make a Super Tuscan as well, a soft, herbal-inflected wine of 100% Merlot. The Riserva at 23 Euros on their website is a excellent value if you enjoy Italian rusticity.
After emerging from Talosa we walked around the block and descended into another remarkable cellar of Cantina De’Ricci, this one dating to 1337. This stone cathedral with thirty foot high ceilings packed with massive barrels was awe-inspiring. We then entered a large dining room where we witnessed a cooking demonstration by renowned Italian cookbook author and local resident Pamela Sheldon Jones. As we sipped wine and consumed a selection of salamis, cheeses, and bruschettas we learned to make picci, the traditional hand-rolled pasta from this region and Aglione Sauce, a tomato sauce featuring aglione, a type of green garlic indigenous to the region. As for the wines, their Vino di Rosso, made of 100% Sangiovese was bright and full of flavor, bold acidity and a wonderful, satisfying finish. This wine sparkles with minerality and for 12 euros might be the best value I found all week. The Nobile di Montepulciano.was also a surprise. Very complex with warm spice notes but with a medium body, almost pinot-like, this was the best “Nobile” I tasted on the day and at 20 euros, it shows the kind of value available here. Their Super Tuscan ‘Il Vignone”, a blend of Cab/Merlot blend, was a bit simple but featured a rich midpalate that brought out the sweetness in the tomato sauce we were served.
The lunch was brought to a rousing finish with a serving of their Vin Santo di Montepulciano 1995. This beautiful, delicate wine was aged in small barrels for 12 yrs.
Of course by mid-afternoon we needed more wine and food. The next stop was one of the larger wineries in Montepulciano, Avignonesi Winery. This is a certified bio-dynamic winery that is experimenting with a unique circular planting method that is designed to answer questions about how planting density influences wine quality. Rows are planted from the circumference of the circle toward the center. The ring on the outer circumference contains 3000 plants per hectare while the ring on the inner circle near the center has a density of 10,000 plants per hectare. The grapes are harvested by ring and each ring is vinified and aged separately so after 6 years then can evaluate which planting density produces the best wine. So far they have concluded that a planting density of 7000 plants per hectare with 1 meter between plants is best. Greater density means the plants have to compete for resources sending the roots deeper into the rich, clay soils in which Sangiovese thrives. The vineyard uses a bush-trained system to optimize sun exposure and requires hand harvesting and special machinery for the vineyard work.
Avignonesi’s wines included a perfectly balanced Chardonnay, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Grifi that featured a compelling earthiness and an explosive finish, an elegant Vino Nobile, 100% Sangiovese, aged 18 months in French oak, and their very refined Merlot/Sangiovese blend called 50/50. These wines are overall the most sophisticated and expensive wines we tasted today. But the stars of the show were their two dessert wines—the Vin Santo made from Malvasia and Trebbiano, and their red desert wine Occhio Di Pernice Vin Santo Di Montepulciano, from Sangiovese grapes, both from the 2002 vintage. Both wines were exquisite albeit very expensive.
Stored straw mats used to make Vin Santo
Avignonesi is really best known for this red dessert wine which is both rare and difficult to produce . The grapes are harvested early in September and the berries are carefully hand selected. Then they are dried on matts for 5 months turning to raisins before being pressed. They use a mother yeast that is 100 yrs. old to start the fermentation, 2 liters of mother yeast for 43 liters of pressed grapes. The fermentation starts in the summer and stops in the winter, and the wine is then aged for 10 years during which time 40%-50% of the wine is lost to evaporation. After 10 yrs. the barrels are tested, the lots blended in stainless steel and kept for an additional year before bottling, after which they are held for 1 yr. before release. It takes 7 kilos of grapes to make one 1/2 bottle of Vin Santo. A 375 ml. bottle of Occhio Di Pernice sells for 210 euros for very good reasons. But it is an extraordinary wine, complex and earthy with caramel, coffee, and prune presented on a frame of syrup and searing acidity. This is a very serious winery for which there is no end to their commitment to quality.
The day of winetasting finished, we had dinner in a restored castle, parts of which date back to 800. Father and son team Salvatore and Antonio Gangale (the original Salvatore of Salvatore’s restaurant in San Diego) spent over twenty years meticulously restoring Castello delle Serre and converting it into a high end B&B. Restoring fortresses to a lush splendor they never had seems to be a thing in Tuscany as we view them through the lens of some combination of symbol, illusion and irony, a contrived nostalgia, that is of course pleasurable as long as you don’t confuse it with authenticity.
The dinner was as usual excellent. After a day of salamis, lomo, 10-12 different types of cheese and plenty of pasta, the first course—a salad of lightly pickled zucchini with mint was beyond satisfying. This tour was designed and executed by Chris Gluck at The Wine Vault and Bistro in San Diego.