Montalcino: a Tuscan treasure

Not everyone is familiar with Tuscany's other great sangiovese wine, Brunello di Montalcino, which comes from vineyards based around the almost ridiculously pretty hill-top town of Montalcino. We called in on three very different producers

Looking up towards Montalcino from Canalicchio di Sopra Looking up towards Montalcino from Canalicchio di Sopra. Photo credit: Society member Peter Cox

Not tried Brunello di Montalcino? Well, despite being one of Italy's most prestigious wines, this other great red wine of Tuscany (again based on the sangiovese grape, known here as brunello), is sadly (for us) extremely popular across the pond, meaning that it can be a little over-priced and sometimes a little over-blown in terms of style. Less of it is made too, compared to Chianti, and, apart from two or three big estates, production is primarily in the hands of small, family farms.

However, we have contacts with some great producers in the region who are making wines with real finesse as well as power and who are not only prepared to sell us some (!) but were also generous enough to welcome our winning Wine Society members back to visit in the autumn last year.

The vineyards are based around the hilltop town of Montalcino and micro climate plays a vital role here, with the good growers having access to fruit grown on slopes that face in different directions at different heights and from different soils. Oh, and there's the hand of the producer too and we were to visit three very different ones.

A beautiful spot at the home the Brunellis

Our first stop was at the farmhouse of producers, Gianni Brunelli. The estate looks out over Monte Amiata, central Italy's highest mountain. It is a beautiful spot now run by Gianni's widow, Laura Vacca with zeal and passion after Gianni passed away in 2008.

The view from our rooms out to Monte Amiata, Tuscany's highest peak The view from our rooms out to Monte Amiata, Tuscany's highest peak

Laura was originally from Sardinia, she and Gianni met when she was a student in Siena and he was working for Ignis. Gianni's father had been a share-cropper here and had carried on tending his vines even after being forced to move to Siena for work, returning at weekends to work on the land with his son. Eventually he had to sell the vines, but Gianni and Laura, having built up a highly successful restaurant in the centre of Siena (Osteria della Logge), were able to buy back the land and this then tumbled-down farmhouse in 1987.

Dinner was being prepared in the kitchen by some of Laura's family and friends when we arrived. Homemade pasta was being stretched out on the kitchen table to dry and ragu was bubbling away on the stove. There was also beef and guinea fowl roasting, which we'd later enjoy with a dish of wild herbs and greens, all after the obligatory bruschetta, local prosciutto and cheeses!

Homemade pasta being prepared for our supper by Laura's friends at Gianni Brunelli Homemade pasta being prepared for our supper by Laura's friends at Gianni Brunelli
The 2010 Riserva Brunello di Montalcino was a star with supper The 2010 Riserva Brunello di Montalcino was a star with supper

We were served older vintages of Laura's wines with the meal, including a 2004 Brunello Riserva from the Gianni era which was still powerful and full-on; from a 'grande annata', I was told, it still tasted young and vigorous and had enormous length. The 2007 Brunello Riserva had more rose-tinted cherry fruit flavour and a touch more elegance we felt. The 2010 was the star though, everything knitted together seamlessly – roses, violets and round, perfumed fruit which built slowly and gradually and then just kept on going!

Over dinner, rather touchingly, Laura talked about carrying on the work that she and her late husband had started: 'People sometimes ask why I carry on when you don't have another generation to hand it on to. I keep going because of love and out of passion and respect for the earth.' She told us.

Sebastian Payne MW & Laura Brunelli on our return visit with members in the autumn Sebastian Payne MW & Laura Brunelli on our return visit with members in the autumn

Passion is something that Laura exudes and she and Gianni, who was a real character too, apparently have many friends from all over the world whom they met while working in their restaurant and who often come to stay. Laura's farmhouse is warm and welcoming, with pieces of modern art decorating the walls in a charming, slightly bohemian setting. She has even given up her own bed for me for the night – I feel truly privileged and a little guilty!

On our tour of the newly and sympathetically built cellar (it blends into the hillside and has been constructed to have minimal environmental impact), we taste from vat and barrel, and gain an understanding of what the three different vineyard sites bring to the wine:

Le Chiuse di Sotto is on the north-facing side of the town (and was where the first Brunellos came from and where Gianni's father Dino farmed) brings elegance and more acidity and longer-lasting fruit. At Podernovone (where the farmhouse now is), the soil is more stony and gives more minerality, power and structure, Laura says. The Olivo vineyard provides grapes that are rich and full, while Ulmo gives backbone.

The new winery at Gianni Brunelli built sympathetically into the hillside and constructed with the help of many of Laura's friends The new winery at Gianni Brunelli built sympathetically into the hillside and constructed with the help of many of Laura's friends
Laura chose to have the doors in her new cellar handmade out of similar oak that is used in for the barrels Laura Brunelli chose to have the doors in her new cellar handmade out of similar oak that is used in for the barrels

Laura says that they get more wind here at Podernovone, the sea breezes and mountain help to keep grapes healthy. In Chiuse, vines need more competition for the soil, so they grow grass between the rows. Throughout, boars are a big problem and Laura has to go around and check the fences on a daily basis.

When they came back to this place, Laura said that she and her late husband thought it magical with its outlook over the mountains, the beautiful views and incredible variety of soils.

It had been dark and wet when we arrived, but the next morning and when we returned in October, you really could sense the magic too.

Though Laura had sold out of most of the wines we had tasted, were able to secure some of her 2012 Brunello di Montalcino (we'd tasted elements in tank, awaiting the final blend) – showing elegance and good fruity structure. We also put in an order for the joyously fruity (and Brunello level, we thought,) Rosso di Montalcino from the highly successful 2015 vintage. Rosso may have up to 5% of other grapes (merlot or cabernet, usually) but some keep to 100% sangiovese, using this for their young vines.

If this was to be my introduction to the wines of Montalcino, this was going to be a tough act to follow!

Down the hill to Canalicchio di Sopra

Next morning we headed down the hill from Laura's by-passing the entrance to the historic town of Montalcino, to the foot of the hill on the other side to this estate run by the Ripaccioli family. The family were growers before winemakers and were one of the original founders of the consorzio which established the Brunello di Montalcino wines. At the time all wines from the denominazione carried the same label, regardless of producer, depicting the tower in the town of Montalcino on the front. As founding members, the Ripacciolis received special dispensation to be able to put the tower on their current bottles.

Francesco showing us one of the original Montalcino labels Francesco showing us one of the original Montalcino labels

Francesco Ripaccioli, third generation at this now up-and-coming estate, met us and took us through a fascinating flight of Rosso di Montalcino wines. He has been vice president on the board of the local wine consorzio for six years (following in family tradition?) and has lots to say on some of the issues that challenge them.

He explained that allocation is becoming an issue for lots of producers, 'once upon a time our wines were difficult to sell,' he says, 'now we have to manage allocations really carefully.' He said that in the 1980s the Banfi family made a big push to sell the wines in the US which is why it is still an important market for them.

He was very frank about the fact that they do not want to make 'trendy' wines but want their wines to be authentic tasting of where they come from. Unlike some producers they don't buy in grapes and only have sangiovese. He likes the tricky vintages as he prefers to be challenged and thinks that these often allow the terroir to speak more profoundly.

Sebastian says that the style of Francesco's wines is not unlike Burgundy, 'the pinot noir of Montalcino', terroir-driven, aromatic, fresh, cherry-like fruit and more restrained than many.

Francesco's word for their style is 'balsamico', not to be confused with the vinegar, but meaning rather, 'spciy, elegant, aromatic and a bit herbal'. We warned Francesco to be careful about using that word with English-speakers because of the confusion it might cause!

The Canalicchio di Sopra label depicts the bell tower in Montalcino – once the label designated for all the wines of the denominazione The Canalicchio di Sopra label depicts the bell tower in Montalcino – once the label designated for all the wines of the denominazione

Francesco took us through a flight of Rossos (we loved the 2014 – one of the trickier years that Francesco likes). In 2014, Francesco said they wouldn't by making any Brunello, downgrading all the fruit to the Rosso which was already showing real class and shows just how lovely early-drinking sangiovese can be.

The Brunellos were a definite step-up in quality – the 2012 - a vintage of extremes, Francesco said, produced really, sweet chewy flavours, with a refreshing cherry-pip edge to the finish. The 2011 was an exceptionally ripe, fruity year, with really classy full fruit to the fore.

After a brief tour of Francesco's rather cramped cellars (he told us they were going to build a new one, and indeed when we returned after harvest, we could see the huge pit dug out underneath the property), we headed down the road to our third producer.

The vast clay pit at Canalicchio di Sopra dug out for the new cellar which we saw on our return trip with members in the autumn The vast clay pit at Canalicchio di Sopra dug out for the new cellar which we saw on our return trip with members in the autumn

Val di Suga – the Montalcino arm of Bertani Domains

Andrea Lonardi winemaker extraordinare at Val di Suga which is the Montalcino home of Bertani Domains Andrea Lonardi winemaker extraordinare at Val di Suga which is the Montalcino home of Bertani Domains

The set-up here is quite different again. Bertani Domains are a large winemaking outfit originally based in Verona but now with several Tuscan firms as part of their group. The one here in Montalcino is looking very exciting, under the management of winemaker extraordinaire Andrea Lonardi. Andrea shows us around the newly done-up winery which is swish in every way. There's lots of investment going on here and Andrea is really excited. He tells us that he doesn't feel the potential of Montalcino has been reached yet and he and the young team he works with are delighted to be having the chance to experiment.

He also tells us about a sister-project in Montepulciano, where they are planting new vineyards and literally moving mountains in order to get the best exposition and draining for the new vines. He says that one of the problems in that area is that the soils change every 20 metres or so, making picking quite difficult, with underripe and overripe grapes in the same plot. They have developed a high-tech machine that analyses as it goes along, picking only ripe grapes. It's cutting-edge stuff; the New Zealanders are interested in the project, apparently, so the machine is going to go on trial there too.

Sebastian says that we have bought their Santa Caterina Vino Nobile de Montepulciano 2013 (Tuscany's third great sangiovese-based wine), so I look forward to trying it in the line-up.

Back in Montalcino, Andrea explains that they have 52 ha at the moment but are securing agreements with growers in the best areas. They want to make sure that they have access to fruit from all the key terroirs of the appellation.

The style here is for light, gentle Brunellos with a hint of candy-orange peel. He prefers cooler vintages and was not that happy with 2015!

We like his candour and enthusiasm, and while we could chat for longer, the clock is ticking and there's a huge array of wines laid out to taste, including wines from Veneto and beyond!

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this tasting were the single-vineyard Montalcinos, if only as a way of understanding better the different terroirs of this region that we had heard so much about. Sebastian wasn't a fan of the style of these wines, saying they were a little old-fashioned, but it was fascinating to see the differences. Andrea produced some samples of the different soils to help illustrate further!

At Val de Suga they have vinified wines from different soils separately to show the true effect of terroir At Val di Suga they have vinified wines from different soils separately to show the true effect of terroir

Vigna del Lago – this was the vineyard area we could see from the tasting room window overlooking a lake on the northern side of the town, planted on clay and shale. This used to be more land for cereals and crops. The lake plays an important part in the microclimate here. One of the coolest sites, this makes wines with energy and acidity and sweet, attractive fruit.

Poggio al Granchio – on south-west facing clay-based shale (galestro) in a narrow valley on the south-eastern side of Montalcino giving more spicy, tannic wines for longer keeping.

Spuntali – this is believed to be the best area with vineyards on sandy soils looking towards the sea in the sunniest spot and giving sweet, garrigue-tinged notes and Mediterranean touches to the wines and that candied fruit that Andrea had talked about.

The Vigna del Lago vineyard visible from the tasting room The Vigna del Lago vineyard visible from the tasting room

Andrea had hoped to take us out for lunch, but our schedule didn't permit such luxuries, so he quickly organised a picnic lunch of rustic breads, salami and cheeses. We soaked up the wine and headed off.

So long Montalcino, we'll be back!

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