Montepulciano – city of art and the historic Nobile

Montepulciano is much more than a wine town.  It does have a famous place in the history of Tuscan viticulture going back to the Middle Ages but this reflects its long history as a strategic hill town which managed to negotiate the centuries-long rivalry of Siena and Florence.  Today it is a splendid tourist town, with a great artistic heritage, cultural events and, of course, the name of the local wine production area.

In recent times the reputation of the wines of Montepulciano has not quite kept pace with others.  It has history on its side – the renown of the wine is mentioned by Livy in his ‘History of Rome’ and is well cited in the Middle Ages.  Its reputation was cemented in the nineteenth century by the addition of ‘Vino Nobile’ to its top wine.   But in modern times it has lived in the shadow of Montalcino only 35 kilometres away.  Similarly, Chianti Classico has extricated itself from the general dross of generic Chianti to re-establish its reputation as a fine wine.  By contrast, Montepulciano has seen steady progress with a good number of high-quality companies which are well known, but without really capitalising on its famous past.
For the wine lover, this has one big advantage – price.  Many top Rosso di Montalcino (ie the second tier wine of Montalcino) are more expensive, sometimes much more expensive, than Vino Nobile.  Only the riserva bottlings of top Montepulciano producers attract the price of a standard Brunello.  It is true that the wines do not have the same required long ageing, but this has far more to do with supply and (American) demand than with absolute quality, even if there is no arguing with the quality of the very best Brunello.  So there is an opportunity here for lovers of Sangiovese in the middle price range.

Featured wineries
Brief introduction
  • in line with its illustrious past, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was among the first four areas to receive its DOCG in 1980; the DOC had preceded it in 1966
  • since 1999, this wine can be made from 100% Sangiovese, here known as Prugnolo Gentile, but the minimum Sangiovese is only 70%.  While we are on grape varieties this Montepulciano is the town in southern Tuscany, not the important but completely different variety, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo which is deeper in colour and plummier than Sangiovese
  • The DOCG, last revised November 2010, still, in theory, allows white grapes (max. 5%) but in reality, most producers will go either for Tuscan red grapes (Canaiolo, Mammolo, Ciliegiolo and so on) or of course French varieties. As in Chianti Classico and Rufina, the trend of recent years is to go for 90% Sangiovese. At least some growers are also making a virtue out of their Tuscan heritage and opting for the former, while others make a slightly softer style with the latter
  • the ageing requirements are two years from 1 January following the harvest for Vino Nobile (which can either be two years in wood or 18 months in wood and the rest in other containers or a minimum one year in wood and a minimum 6 months in bottle). The period is extended to three years for the Riserva, while the Rosso can be released on 1 March in the year following the harvest like generic Chianti.
  • all this means that Montepulciano shares a lot with Chianti Classico in terms of the practice of the choice of grape varieties (even if the regulations are more permissive), while the ageing requirements for Vino Nobile are also similar in length (two years from 1 January following the harvest of which three months must be in the bottle) – though, as, with Brunello, some of that ageing must in wood
  • there is also a DOCG for Vin Santo for which a producer like Avignonesi is world-famous
  • as a hill town on the top of a narrow ridge Montepulciano is remarkable for the number of important growers still making or maturing wine actually in the old town – Contucci, Crociani, Gattavecchi and the large co-operative using the Cantina del Redi name
  • reflecting its more southerly location, the wines are more full-bodied and more alcoholic than Chianti. The Oxford Companion to Wine hypothesises that they are less elegant than Brunello or Chianti Classico because of the absence of limestone in the soil and the greater prevalence of sand; Kerin O’Keefe’s recent study of Brunello also argues the same case – but she is writing in praise of Brunello
  • most commentators (eg Nicholas Belfrage) agree that the big challenge is to tame the tannins/ acidity of Prugnolo (not very) Gentile – the climate is little less arid than Montalcino and a touch cooler. But of course, it is at least in part the tannins and acidity which make for wines with ageing potential
  • the top wines do indeed have a significant potential to age in the bottle: see the tasting notes of Walter Speller at vertical tastings held in recent years in conjunction with the annual launch of new vintages: click here
  • all in all, Montepulciano can be a source of high quality, traditional Sangiovese-based wines at reasonable prices and as such should be high on the wish list of wine lovers.

List of featured wineries at the top of the page

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