THE NOBLE WINE OF MONTEPULCIANO

Once overshadowed by its Super Tuscan cousins, Vino Nobile is now living up to its pedigree.


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Once overshadowed by its "super" cousins, Vino Nobile is now living up to its pedigree.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano—the noble wine of Montepulciano. It has a great, resonant ring to it. But until recently, most of the resonance lay in the name, not in the wine. Today, though, the wines of Montepulciano are coming back to join those of Montalcino and the best of Chianti Classico in a trio of fine modern Tuscan reds.
What happened? How did a wine that has been made in this region for at least 1,200 years suddenly reinvent itself, to live up to the reputation it enjoyed under nobles and popes?
The answer lies in the fact that most of today's successful wine estates were founded in only the last 20, or even 10, years. Bankers and industrialists arrived from the cities with a dream to make fine wine, and the cash to do it. Top wine producers from other parts of Tuscany have come to Montepulciano and have brought their knowledge and experience. Making wine in Montepulciano these days is an exciting experience.

Montepulciano itself is one of those ageless Tuscan hill towns, lying along a ridge 1,800 feet above sea level, facing out toward the wide, lush Val di Chiana (the home of the fat cattle that become the famed bistecca Fiorentina) and Lago di Trasimeno. The town itself, somewhat forbidding in winter as the wind sweeps through the narrow streets, is dominated by some remarkable 16th-century palaces and churches, of which the masterpiece is the church of San Biagio, just outside the city walls.

For the most part, the vineyards follow the contours of the Montepulciano hill, lying at heights of between 750 and 1,800 feet, though a small section of vines
is planted on a hilly outcrop at Argiano in the Val di Chiana. Less than 2,000 acres
of vines are registered for the production of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, yet there are many more vines in the area, dedicated to the lesser designations of Rosso di Montepulciano, Chianti Colli Senesi and Bianco Vergine di Val di Chiana. Still more vines within the region go into the production of Super Tuscans based on Cabernet Sauvignon.

The current Vino Nobile vineyards have always been home to the best grapes of the region. While the earliest records of wine from Mons Pulciano date back to 789 A.D., by the 16th century the wine of Montepulciano was being described by Pope Paul III's wine steward as "absolutely perfect." The name Vino Nobile arrived later—in the 18th century, when it became known as a noble wine from the nobles who consumed it. The first time the term appeared on a label was in 1933, when Adamo Fanetti, whose family still makes wine at Tenuta Sant'Agnese, used it for his wine.

Just as Montalcino has its own clone of Sangiovese—Brunello—so does Montepulciano. The Prugnolo Gentile, as it is called, has small, cylindrical berries shaped rather like plums (hence its name). It gives wines with body, tannin and structure. In addition, it provides two characteristics that give Vino Nobile di Montepulciano its special nature: elegance and acidity.

The elegance makes Vino Nobile a much more consumer-friendly wine than the blockbuster Brunelli di Montalcino. By contrast, the acidity is both the strength and downfall of the noble wines of Montepulciano. It can be accentuated by the high altitude of some of the vineyards, and needs to be tamed. To that end, producers have learned to pick the fruit at its maximum ripeness, to use oak barrels—occasionally new ones—to round out the fruit, and to build on the intensity of black-fruit flavors that the Prugnolo Gentile also gives. Once tamed, proper acidity allows Vino Nobile to be a fine partner with food, as well as to age for 20 years or more.

Other grapes can be used in Vino Nobile: Up to 20 percent Canaiolo is permitted. The local Mammolo can also be used, and this grape can add a delightful bouquet of violets. Cabernet Sauvignon is also used, but in much smaller quantities than in Chianti Classico, since the Prugnolo Gentile has all the tannins that are needed. Merlot is a newcomer, and is used to soften those tannins.

The creation of the DOC of Rosso di Montepulciano in 1988 gave further impetus to the quality of the grander DOCG wines of Vino Nobile. Allowing producers to benefit commercially from a strict selection for their best wines gave them the stimulus to follow a Bordeaux pattern of first and second wines from an estate. The Rosso wines themselves are often attractive, with a shorter aging period (often minimal time in wood), and showcase the gentler side of Prugnolo. Good producers of Rosso di Montepulciano are generally also those who make fine Vino Nobile: Le Casalte, Antinori's La Braccesca, and Boscarelli are particularly noteworthy.

To the outside world, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano must qualify as Italy's wine secret. The old image of dried-out wines aged too long in wood is taking longer to disappear than the old wines themselves. Which means that while, wine-wise, Montepulciano is moving to share center stage with Brunello and Chianti, its prices and reputation have yet to catch up.

What this means for lovers of Italian reds is that there has never been a better time to buy Montepulciano. Buy 1995 Riservas and 1997 Normales, and lay some cases aside in your cellar. Drink these wines from 2003 on, and the real meaning of the dramatic title Vino Nobile should become apparent.

The top wineries
Avignonesi was among the pioneers in the return to quality in Montepulciano. Ettore Falvo, whose family has owned the 240-acre estate since 1978, makes big-hearted, black-fruited
Vino Nobile, which, after a dip in quality in the early 1990s, seems to be back on form. Apart from Vino Nobile, Avignonesi produces a Super Tuscan called Grifi, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a great Vin Santo, Occhio di Pernice.

 

Boscarelli. The Ferrari family (no connection with cars) started this 42-acre estate as a weekend activity in 1964, making Vino Nobile of a quality that set them apart from the pack. They continue to make some of the best Vino Nobile (watch for the new-wood-aged Vigna del Nocio), as well as two Super Tuscans, both from Sangiovese: Boscarelli and De Ferrari.

Le Casalte. Deliciously drinkable wines are the hallmark of this 26-acre estate, started in 1975 by Roman banker Guido Barioffi. The Vino Nobile 1997 has dense, almost dried-fruit flavors; the Rosso di Montepulciano is generous and ripe. Both these wines continue the marked improvement in the Le Casalte style that began with the 1995 vintage.

Poliziano's 288-acre estate was purchased in 1960 by the Carletti family, and quickly became established as one of the top estates of the region. With Carlo Ferrini, of Fonterutoli fame, as consultant, it's not surprising that the wines of Poliziano have an enormous, almost black, color, ripe, forward fruit character, and a strong element of new wood. Two single-vineyard Vino Nobiles are produced, Vigna Asinone and Vigna Caggiole, along with two Super Tuscans, Elegia (100 percent Sangiovese) and Le Stanze (100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon).

Tenuta Trerose. The first vintage of Trerose was in 1985, and it set a standard that the 146-acre vineyard continues to maintain. The character of the 1997 Vino Nobile is of a balanced wine, with dense, dusty tannins and ripe, dark fruits. Of its two top Vino Nobiles, La Villa is aged in French barriques for two years, giving a smooth, soft wine; Simposio is leaner, with older wood flavors, needing longer aging.

Valdipiatta is another relative newcomer to Montepulciano—established in 1970—that has leapt forward in quality since a new owner, Guilio Caporali, took over in 1990. Firm, dense fruit is the trademark of the Vino Nobile, both in the excellent 1997 and in the 1999, which is sure to be one of the stars of this difficult vintage. There is one Super Tuscan, Trefonti, and this year has seen the release of a Merlot and Canaiolo blend, Trincerone.

More good producers
Terre Bindella. Swiss wine importer Rudi Bindella bought this estate in 1985 and makes traditional Vino Nobile, aged in large Slavonian oak casks, as well as a Super Tuscan, Vallocaia.

Cerro is the biggest private estate in Montepulciano, with 370 acres of vines and owned by an investment company. The Vino Nobile is aged in a mix of large Slavonian casks and smaller French barriques. The top wine, Vigneto Antica Chiusina (named after the nearby Etruscan town of Chiusi), is, like other reds made in this modern winery, rather tough and old-fashioned.

Producers to watch
La Braccesca. Piero Antinori bought this 187-acre vineyard in 1990. The first release of Rosso di Montepulciano, in 1991, showed a modern, ripe fruit character. The Vino Nobile is in the same style, with a 1999 sample showing huge, opulent ripe fruit and lower acidity than many Vini Nobiles.

Lodola Nuova. The Folonari family, owner of Ruffino, has 1,700 acres of vines on 14 different estates in and around Montepulciano. The 1997 Vino Nobile, tasted from cask, was sweet, ripe, and very drinkable, while the 1998 Rosso di Montepulciano has soft, easy fruit. The vineyards also have Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay, and Super Tuscan wines are planned for the future.

A MIXED CASE OF VINO NOBILE

91 Tenuta Trerose 1995 La Villa Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $35.
A rock-solid wine with lots of character and a welcome sure-footed style. Sweet more than sharp, especially in the bouquet, there's licorice, black raspberry, and some dark-cherry flavors. Soft, leathery tannins make for pure comfort in the mouth. Chewy and integrated from front to back, this is what you're looking for in Vino Nobile.

90 Boscarelli 1996 Vigna del Nocio Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $41.
Lovely aromas of dark cherries and leather. The black-cherry fruit is deep, rich and sweet, with nice earthy notes and herb—especially anise—accents. Very round and smooth mouthfeel and closes with a sweet-tart finish. Very drinkable now, if not as well-endowed for long life as some vintages.

90 Cecchi 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $27.
What you want from traditional Tuscan Sangiovese: a brooding tightness that gives way after 45 minutes, leaving delicious, vivacious currant and red raspberry flavors. When it finishes lively but warm, you know it is on the money. Balanced, with ripe tannins, so it could age well.

89 Poliziano 1995 Vigna Asinone Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $35.
Dark, almost black in color, and features black-cherry fruit, cedar, leather and earth aromas. Dense and rich on the palate, with high acidity to balance things out. The long finish blends in fruit, earth and spice (licorice) notes. A very young-tasting wine in need of some bottle age.

88 Carpineto 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva; $22.
Fresh, with inviting minty aromas laid atop curranty red fruit. A more sleek-styled wine as opposed to something big and chunky. Workmanlike in its straight-ahead personality. The oak is well integrated, offering some toast and vanilla in the finish. Not overly complex.

88 Poliziano 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $22.
Like the single-vineyard Vigna Asinone, the emphasis here is on dark fruit and earth with a healthy dose of oak, although it's not quite as concentrated. Lemony acidity keeps it quite food-friendly.

88 Tenuta Trerose 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva; $38.
Leathery, mildly pruny aromas greet you, and then there's ripe, weighty black fruit along with a fairly pronounced amount of pepper and apple-skin flavor. Juicy but restrained, it straddles the line between boistrous modern reds (14% alcohol) and more old- fashioned Sangiovese.

88 Valdipiatta 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva; $32.
Dark chocolate scents, coupled with cigar-box, fold smoothly into a palate full of smoky, plummy fruit. Shows good depth and complexity; if only the finish could have been longer.

87 Cerro 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva; $22.
Pleasant cedary scents are backed up by solid cherry fruit. Reasonably full for Vino Nobile; nicely concentrated, with fine-grained tannins that gently coat the mouth on the finish.

87 Gattavecchi 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $22.
It looks as light as a Pinot Noir, but there's some guts to this wine. The woodsy aroma is intriguing; it's a little like a fir forest on a warm day. The flavors run toward red fruit, accented by a touch of orange peel. Easy on the palate, with a fine, lingering, very soft finish. Ready to drink.

87 Poggio dei Poggi 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $20.
Shows touches of brown at the rim, but still has plenty to offer. High-toned aromas of cherry and cardamom segue into dark- cherry, licorice, and citrus flavors that are quite elegant and nicely balanced.

87 Tenuta Trerose 1996 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $20.
Very aromatic, with expansive cranberry and blackberry scents. There's a lot of volume here, and what it may lack in subtlety and nuance is made up for with generosity of fruit and a friendly overall character. Smooth upfront and solid in the middle and on the finish.

 

VISITING MONTEPULCIANO

Montepulciano is the highest of Tuscany's many hilltop towns, a sometimes dark and forbidding place, dominating the countryside as it faces east to Lago di Trasimeno. Henry James compared its narrow shape, along a ridge, to a ship, and spent most of his time here drinking. The town has a magnificent collection of Renaissance palaces and churches constructed in the 16th century after Montepulciano came under the control of Florence. Very little has happened in the town center since then to spoil the buildings, and it remains uniquely consistent among Tuscan hill towns in its architecture.

The Avignonesi and the Contucci palaces are in the town center. Most other producers occupy premises to the east of town.

Dining
Diva & Maceo, Montepulciano
Tel. (011) (39) 0578 716951. Good-value trattoria in the center of Montepulciano, offering pigeon and cannoli.

Trattoria latte di Luna, Pienza
Tel. (011) (39) 0578 748606. Family-run trattoria on the Piazza Dante in the center of the tiny hilltop town of Pienza.

La Grotta San Biagio, Montepulciano
Tel. (011) (39) 0578 757607. Beside the domed San Biagio church at the foot of the Montepulciano hill. Spacious dining room serving sophisticated Tuscan food.

La Frateria di Padre Eligio, Cetona
Tel. (011) (39) 0578 238261. Set in an 11th-century Franciscan
convent; pricey, but using local, often organic, ingredients with great care.

Lodging
Marzocco
Tel. (011) (39) 0578 757262. Hotel in a 19th-century palace; double room for around $50 a night.

Over 200 hotels in all categories are in nearby Chianciano Terme, one of Italy's biggest spa towns.

Agriturismo (wine estates and farms with accommodations) listings are available from the Montepulciano tourist office, Via Ricci 9.
Tel. (011) (39) 0578 757985.

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