Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, poised for a Renaissance
Before I knew Italian wine, I knew Italian Renaissance art history. That explains my soft spot for Montepulciano—after Florence, the most Renaissance of Tuscan towns. To walk its main corso is to travel through time to the 1500s, when the star architects of Florence came to build stately palaces in the trendy classical style, using Roman columns and Vitruvian proportions and rusticated masonry to exude sophistication, erudition, and power. Poliziano walked these streets, the classical scholar and poet hired to tutor the Medici children in Florence. It’s his continuing ties to Lorenzo the Magnificent that kept his hometown out of harm’s way during Florence’s lengthy war with Siena and allowed it to remain “the Pearl of the Renaissance.” In contrast, Montalcino, Siena’s last stronghold just 24 miles away, still has the air of a besieged medieval city, huddled within protective walls at the foot of a forbidding fortress.
“Graceful” describes neither Montalcino nor its big, brooding Brunello, but it is the perfect adjective for Montepulciano and its wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. (Not to be confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a popular bistro quaffer made from the montepulciano grape in the coastal region of Abruzzo.) Of Tuscany’s three historic reds—Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano—it is the most accessible and fruity. Instead of Brunello’s hard, chiseled edges, Vino Nobile is a pretty watercolor wash, with transparent layers of wild cherry, black raspberry, violet, and spice. Or to use another art metaphor, it’s like a Raphael dandy, posed hand on hip with an air of sprezzatura, that nonchalant ease praised by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier. It’s about finesse, not power.
All three wines have sangiovese at their core: at least 70 percent in Vino Nobile, 80 percent in Chianti Classico, and 100 percent in Brunello. That lower percentage gives Vino Nobile a variability that makes it hard to pin down. Merlot often makes an appearance, adding color and softness without overshadowing the sangiovese flavors. Winemakers loyal to native grapes use cannaiolo, colorino, and mammolo to the same end. But in recent years, producers have been putting more emphasis on sangiovese in their top bottlings. But even when it’s pure sangiovese (or prugnolo gentile, as it’s called in these parts), there’s still that sprezzatura and grace. Sangiovese can be sharp and dry-textured, but in Vino Nobile, the fruit is more succulent, the acidity tempered, the tannins tamed into velvety softness, especially when hitting that sweet spot of seven to 10 years. Here the DOCG rules stipulate only two years of aging, including one year in wood—enough time to mellow the sangiovese while preserving a fresh, fruity character.
A silver anniversary
Vino Nobile is significantly older than Brunello and Chianti, which were born in the mid-1800s. By then, Vino Nobile had enjoyed centuries of acclaim. In 1350, town officials were already regulating the trade and export of their prized wine. In 1530, the cellar master of a Renaissance Pope declared it a “vino perfectissimo.” King William III of England was so smitten he sent a delegation in 1669 to procure an allotment. Francesco Redi cemented its desirability in his 1685 poem “Bacchus in Tuscany” with the line, “Of all wines, Montepulciano is king.” In the 1700s, its fan base included Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, and Alexandre Dumas. The moniker “Vino Nobile”—noble wine, wine of nobles—first appeared (rather prosaically) in 1787, in a governor’s expense account for a trip to Siena. The phrase “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” had to wait until 1925 to debut on a wine label, courtesy of the Fanetti winery.
Leaping ahead, past the devastation of rural Tuscany in WWII and the post-war doldrums which dragged on for decades, Vino Nobile entered its modern phase in 1966, when it became an official DOC (denominazione di origine controllata), part of the very first group. It was elevated to DOCG (getting the G for guaranteed, along with Barolo and Brunello) when that tier was introduced in 1980.
To mark Vino Nobile’s 50th anniversary as an appellation and toot its own horn, the governing consortium took the wine on an international roadshow this past spring. As it turns out, the timing was good. “I’m glad this marketing push is happening now, rather than 20 years ago,” Boscarelli’s Luca De Ferrari told me during a luncheon in New York. “Something like 80 percent of the vines have been replanted since then, so great improvements have been made.”
Indeed, better clones are now in place, lackluster varieties are on the wane, vineyards are planted with greater density, more attention is being paid to canopy management, root stock, and soil matches. And the baton has been passed to a new generation, one pushing organic and biodynamic farming, green energy, and marketing to the world.
That’s welcome news, because Vino Nobile has long been overshadowed by Chianti Classico and Brunello. That’s partly due to size: It’s only 6.5 square miles, and its 76 bottlers are a fraction of Brunello’s 220 and Chianti Classico’s 350. It’s partly due to Montepulciano’s wineries still being family operations; there’s little corporate ownership—or marketing clout—compared with other parts of Tuscany. But it’s also a matter of will. And that’s changing.
Two major projects are indicative of this new esprit. In 2016, the consortium unveiled the first edition of a vineyard map by the renowned cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti, the man behind the now-ubiquitous maps of Barolo and Barbaresco. This divides the Vino Nobile territory into four zones based on altitude, exposure, soil, and landscape configuration. It maps not only the commercial vineyards, but also the 37 cru—those historic plots that sometimes have more than one grower. A cru map is invaluable to anyone who wants to drill down and really understand the territory—not just consumers, but the winemakers who work here as well.
“As you go up in elevation, not only does the climate change—it’s a little cooler—but the soil becomes less sandy clay and more rocky,” says Antonio Zaccheo, head of Carpineto winery. “So you have a different style of wine. More perfumed, elegant wines are made in the high-elevation rocky soil, while down in the lowlands, they tend to make more powerful wines because of the clay. Clay provides tannins and the freshness to ripen properly and not dehydrate.”
Pockets of tufa and marine fossil also factor in. It’s mind-blowing to think of these vineyards—generally 1200' to 1300' in altitude—as having been under the sea. But the evidence is everywhere. When Icario built its new cellar, the excavation turned up dozens of fossilized seashells, which they handed out like calling cards.
A second major project is the consortium’s new headquarters in the town’s ancient fortress, open this year following a decade-long restoration. Its visitor’s center has 120 enomatic machines, allowing one to power-taste through dozens of wines, from young Rosso di Montepulcianos to longer-aged Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riservas. Taste with the vineyard map in hand, and there’s no better crash course.
Back at New York’s Il Buco Cena, our own power lunch featured Vino Nobile from 13 producers. To my taste, the star was a magnificent 1988 Riserva from Carpineto. This sangiovese/canaiolo blend from a 5-star vintage was a wonder to behold, with dried flowers, enticing earthy notes, and wholly integrated, velvety tannins. It’s a wine that makes you stop and focus, and at 28 years shows just how beautifully a Vino Nobile can age. Zaccheo said he’d pair an aged Nobile like this with porcini or truffles, harmonizing earth with earth. His younger 2010, instead, would benefit from meat, to help unravel the tight tannins. “This I’d serve with the cholesterol trilogy: Chianina, cinghiale, and cinta senese,” he says, referring to the cow of bistecca fiorentina fame, the wild boar that roams Tuscany, and the domestic pig native to Siena.
Vino Nobile’s food friendliness was a constant theme at this luncheon, as was its reasonable price. “These are some of the most incredible values you can find in Tuscany,” said the rep from Antinori’s La Braccesca winery. Zaccheo, who owns wineries in all three zones, concurs. “I make Chianti Classico, I made Brunello, I make Vino Nobile,” he says. “For quality in the glass, Vino Nobile provides the best value in Tuscany, especially when you’re talking about a nice Riserva, because you can find them for $30.”
Looking at Montepulciano today, it’s clear its old reputation—provincial, less sophisticated—is out-of-date. In sustainable vineyard practices, cellar technology, and renewable energy, these wineries are in step with the leading edge. Fortunately for consumers, their prices haven’t caught up yet. Nor are they likely to, according to Zaccheo. “The philosophy is different in Montepulciano,” he says. “We’re not trying to squeeze every penny out of the consumer. We’re just food and wine lovers. And God knows, we have some of the best food! You can say we’re ‘country bumpkins’ who want to share our wealth and our gastronomic pleasures with the world—at a reasonable price.”
A Vino Nobile Sampler
Avignonesi – The most readily available Vino Nobile is also a winner: pure cherry-berry sangiovese with a mineral streak. Recently converted to biodynamics, Avignonesi is now among the 10 largest biodynamic estates worldwide.
Boscarelli – A much-esteemed single-vineyard Vino Nobile, Il Nocio comes from three sangiovese clones in three soil types, resulting in a complex, age-worthy package.
Carpineto – Only Riservas are made at Carpineto due to their clay-heavy soil, and these beauties are worth cellaring to realize their full potential.
Gracciano della Seta – You’d expect a Vino Nobile from one of Montepulciano’s oldest wineries to show this kind of traditional refinement and grace. You’d never guess it contains 10 percent merlot.
Poliziano – Another widely distributed Vino Nobile, Poliziano is a reliable go-to. Their Vino Nobile is a blend with canaiolo, mammolo, and merlot, while their Asinone cru is pure sangiovese in the best years.
Salcheto – A leader in green technology, this off-the-grid winery makes its top Vino Nobile, Salco, from two old vineyards using a sangiovese clone that’s picked slightly over-ripen, resulting in intense primary fruit.
Published in the September/October 2016 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.