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A gem from Montalcino

Words: Leo Bassano

It was certainly the Etruscans that first saw Montalcino’s territory potential for vineyards. The town is only 25 miles south of Siena, where the climate shifts from the damper, cooler continental of Chianti Classico, to a drier and warmer Mediterranean environment, with average precipitation of 700mm mainly concentrated in the spring and late autumn. Montalcino is 564m above sea level, and this strategic position was the reason for long-lasting confrontations between the Republics of Siena and Florence in the 13th and 16th centuries.]=

The municipal territory of Montalcino extends 24,000 hectares, of which 50% is forest, 15% is planted with vines and 10% with olive trees. The wine production area is between the natural boundaries of the valleys of Ombrone, Asso and Orcia. Mount Amiata in the southeast provides natural protection from storms, and the blowing wind allows for the plants to be healthy and disease free. The vineyard altitudes are similar to Chianti Classico, from 300m to 500m, but the soils are different, generally containing more limestone and sand. Sand is known to accelerate ripening, therefore Montalcino is usually the first to harvest, out of the big three denominations in Tuscany. The zone in the north has slightly cooler microclimate and produces more perfumed and elegant wines with more aromatics. In the south, the temperature is slightly higher, producing a fuller body style of Brunello.

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Generally speaking, Brunello is described as bigger and blacker, with intense aromas of ripe forest fruit, aromatics and wood spices; a powerful style of Sangiovese, with a depth of flavours, tongue-curling tannins with a potential to age for decades. Experts credit to Clementi Santi the isolation of the Sangiovese clone (Brunello) in the 1840s and the Biondi-Santi brand was created in 1888. In the 1950s they were joined by Fattoria dei Barbi and others, but Brunello di Montalcino remained relatively unknown until the 1970s. There were 800,000 bottles produced in 1975 from about 25 producers, while in 1995 3.5 million bottles were produced by more than 120 estates. The region went from 11 producers and 63.5ha in 1960s to almost 2000ha and 258 producers in 2012. The exodus of the area’s farmers in the 1950s meant that landowners were willing to sell properties inexpensively. The Vermouth producer Cinzano was the first big investment in the area when they purchased the Col d’Orcia estate in 1973, followed by the American importers Mariani who started acquiring property for their Banfi estate in 1978.

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The story of Il Poggione began at the end of the 19th century, when Lavinio Franceschi, fascinated by the tale of a shepherd moving his sheep for the summer pasture on the slopes of the Maremma between Montalcino and Sant’Angelo, decided to buy the land. Originally the farm was called Sant’Angelo in Colle and was then split between the two brothers Leopoldo and Stefano Franceschi in Col d’Orcia and Il Poggione. New management meant the end of medieval agricultural methods. A great effort was directed towards the selection of better Sangiovese clones and the planting of sites with better terroir. Il Poggione estate is one of the biggest as it covers an area of 600ha, of which 125ha are planted with vines at an altitude of 320m above sea level and 70 with olive trees.

Their guiding principle is to take extreme care of the vines, with hand harvest only and processed in the state-of-the-art winery built in 2004, where they combine the most innovative techniques without losing sight of tradition. A total control of the vinification process guarantees its quality. Il Poggione ages the wines in French oak casks, kept five metres underground.

My tour of the winery was hosted by Marco, a passionate guy who has worked at the estate for two years. He shared with me the history and philosophy of Il Poggione. The tasting rooms is very elegant, with high ceilings and antique furniture.

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The tasting table is a wonderful piece made of recycled wooden barrels. Here we opened the Rosso di Montalcicno 2015 and the Brunello di Montalcino 2012.

The Rosso is meant to be easier to drink, an everyday red, but probably the everyday drinking standards of Montalcino are different from other regions! The wine is young, bright, crisp and definitely more accessible than Brunello. However, it does have a great structure with firm tannins and the typical acidity bite of Sangiovese. The 2015 vintage was actually top rated with almost perfect weather conditions. The grapes for the Rosso are sourced from the younger vines and, though not required by law, the wine is aged in a combination of large casks before spending some time in bottle. The wine is intense and he will pair perfectly with wild boar pappardelle.

The Brunello is the prince, sourced from vines of at least 20 years, and aged for three years in big French barrels followed by a period of bottle age. It is deep, with a darker fruit aroma profile. It is definitely closed as you first open the bottle, needing some oxygen to come alive. When it does open up, the ripe black fruit profile becomes prominent together with sweet spices. The wine is muscular with high but smooth, refined tannins balanced by the usual high acidity, with great texture and amazing length.

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It is easy to feel a big contrast between the fast life of London and the slow pace of Montalcino, where everything takes longer to do, and people take time to interact with each other. It does seem a bit uncomfortable at the beginning, but I don’t think it would take too long to get used to. It is a healthy, enjoyable lifestyle with the best locally produced food ever and top class wines. Dinners are long and drawn out and there is always grappa to be drunk at the end of the meal. You can cycle or walk around the hills, where the landscape is simply breathtaking. It’s hard to beat!