Montepulciano, Carmignano and Montecucco: New Releases
BY ERIC GUIDO | DECEMBER 14, 2021
When looking at Tuscany, we think of Chianti Classico and Montalcino before all else. We place them on a pedestal, in a hierarchy above all others, which, admittedly, are well-deserved reputations. However, in doing so, the risk is looking past the pleasures that can be found in the winemaking areas throughout Tuscany that are less well known. In many cases, these regions have long and rich vinous histories; yet they stumbled at some point, whether it was the mistake of not paying enough attention to current tastes, becoming enamored with the trappings of internationally-styled wines, or simply not understanding that, outside of tourism, a wine region needs marketing to get their bottles onto the tables of the end consumer. While this train of thought may take away some of the romance behind wine, what it shows us is that there are still many exciting regions, producers and wines just waiting to be discovered. As for the romance, these regions provide that too, with stories of generations past that can rival Chianti Classico and Montalcino. While this article is mostly focused on digging deeply into the wines of Montepulciano, Carmignano and Montecucco, it includes wines from neighboring appellations as well.
Let’s consider Tuscany as a whole, placing Chianti Classico as a not-so-perfect center, yet useful for this dicussion. To the north, we have the Apennine Mountains, which run east and then south along Tuscany’s borders, separating it from Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche as we near the center of the region. It’s here in the north, just west of Florence, that we find Carmignano, which overlaps with the Chianti-producing region of Montalbano. To give an idea of how different this area is from the others, moving clockwise, we need to traverse around all of Chianti Rufina, Chianti Classico and south of Siena before we reach the fortified hilltop town of Montepulciano, close to the border of Umbria. We must then continue southeast, down and around Montalcino, past Monte Amiata, and toward the Maremma and the Adriatic Sea to find ourselves in Montecucco. While each of these places are geographically very different, as are the cultures, the people, and the wines they produce, there is one common thread that exists between them all, and it’s that Sangiovese reigns supreme.
Looking out across Montepulciano from the center of the city.
The Pride of Montepulciano
If there’s one thing you understand very quickly when visiting Montepulciano, it’s the pride of its people: their pride in their history, their city and of course, their wine. It’s a pride that’s been well earned over the course of centuries. This is a fortified hilltop city that has remained structurally unchanged since 1580. Simply traverse the streets in the very early morning, and you’ll be transported back in time. During a walk to a local cafe along the outer walls, down the secluded alleys, inlaid stairwells and cobblestone streets, you could lose yourself as if in some medieval romance or tragedy. Dining in one of its many trattorias along the walls and looking out from their iron-gated balconies provides views of the Tuscan landscape that gives a new understanding of why these castle-towns were built high up on the hills. That countryside with its rolling hills is covered with vines surrounding cascine, patched together with fields of local produce. It’s a site to see, and there’s very little wonder as to why they choose the name “Nobile” when describing their wine.
The recorded history of wine here goes back nearly 2000 years. In the more recent past, even Thomas Jefferson was a repeat buyer of the Sangiovese of Montepulciano. However, it was only within the last 100 years that the name “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano'' was documented, and only in the last 60 years that its territory was fully established, and a Consorzio was organized. The town itself stands like a monument, with the majority of the growing region’s 1,800 hectares of vines fanning out to the north and east. Its elevations span from 250 to 600 meters as you coast up and down its undulating hillsides. Here, the soils combine sand and clay with compressed lenticular pebbles and fossilized marine sediments, which is an amazing sight to see in the ceilings of an underground cellar over 500 meters above sea level. The climate is strongly influenced by the Orcia and Chiana rivers, as well as the Apennines to one side and Monte Amiata to the other. It’s a truly unique terroir that separates them from their neighbors in Montalcino and the Chianti regions of the north - one which should allow them to compete with the best that Tuscany has to offer; and so, it should come as no surprise that they earned the first official DOCG for a red wine in Italy in 1980.
However, there were two problems. The first was the regulations for blending: only 70% of Sangiovese (known locally as "Prugnolo Gentile") was required in the blend, and the remaining 30% was allowed to be made up of both regional and international grapes. Like the subzones of Chianti, as well as Chianti Classico in those days, winemakers were seduced by the craze of international varieties; but unlike Chianti, the move back toward regional varieties (Canaiolo, Colorino, Ciliegiolo and Mammolo) and increasing the amount of Sangiovese in the blend didn’t happen anywhere near as quickly. It has only recently been officially codified under the new Pieve classification, but more on that later. The second problem was the use, or overuse, of new oak. The traditional way of maturing wine in Montepulciano was in large oak barrels, such as the 115-hectoliter casks in the ancient cellars of the Talosa winery. However, when new barrique became trendy in Tuscany, many of the producers of Montepulciano chose them as their preferred aging vessel, and again, they didn’t see consumer tastes change as quickly as the surrounding regions. And so, it went over the course of decades. The wines of Montepulciano showed tremendous quality and, in many cases, the skills of some highly talented winemakers; however, they lacked typicity and the stamp of terroir.
Looking at Montepulciano's soils from below ground at Fattoria della Talosa.
With that out of the way, it’s time to talk about the new Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I say this because over the course of the last seventeen years, I’ve watched as these wines went from taking baby steps toward change to moving forward by leaps and bounds. Today’s Montepulciano producers are displaying a newfound pride in their principal grape, Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese). Six years ago, I sat with Virginie Saverys, owner of the Avignonesi estate with its massive property in the far eastern section of Montepulciano, for the first time, and she explained that they intended to begin producing their Vino Nobile as a 100% varietal Sangiovese. A producer of this size making such a bold move was an obvious signal that change was afoot. Fast forward to this last July, as I toured ten cellars of the region’s producers, and the two things I noticed over and over again was an increase of their Nobile grape and a decrease of wines matured in small barrels. Today, the vessels of choice are either mostly used tonneaux, or Slavonian oak casks. There’s still new wood, small barrels, Cabernet and Merlot in Montepulciano, but producers today are using these tools as accents, not game-changing ingredients. What’s more is the Consorzio’s continued desire to further clarify and identify the different subzones. It’s interesting to consider that Montepulciano has a detailed Alessandro Masnaghetti map of their region when locations such as Montalcino are still discussing if they do or do not want to create zones.
The most recent step, or should I say leap, forward, is the creation of the new Pieve (Church) designation, which is the identification of the geographical differences between twelve subzones (UGA) that were originally established as parishes many hundreds of years ago. Beyond wanting to distinguish the individual terroir of each of these subzones, the new classification raises the required amount of Sangiovese (Prugnolo Gentile) to 85%, with the remaining blend needing to be made up of the traditional varieties of Tuscany (Canaiolo Nero, Ciliegiolo, Mammolo, and no more than 5% Colorino). What’s more, all of the juice within a bottling must come from the individual Pieve designated on the label, from vineyards no less than fifteen years old, and all from the producers’ estate-grown fruit. The aging requirement will be the same as the Vino Nobile Riserva category, with 36 months required prior to release. The first of these wines should start to arrive in markets in 2024 with the 2020 vintage. This is a welcome step in the right direction; and while Pieve will need to prove its worth over time, in my opinion, any further definition of place and variety is a welcome change.
The pride of Montepulciano is alive and well, and with the work that’s being done throughout this region to show the world what they are capable of, it’s only so long before they achieve their objective.
The soils of Montepulciano contain sand and clay with compressed lenticular pebbles and fossilized marine sediments.
Carmignano: Living Life to the Fullest
There is simply something about Carmignano and its people that quickens the pulse, and so it should come as no surprise that the wines do the same. Time seems to pass faster here, as it usually does in more metropolitan areas around the world; however, it’s quite unusual in rural Tuscany. People in Carmignano move at a heightened pace, yet still embody that Italian charm and passion that make the locals a pleasure to know. During one of my visits to Carmignano, a quiet afternoon tasting was briefly interrupted by a raging fire on an outdoor grill as Chianina steaks were being prepped for searing, followed by a “light lunch”, something Chianina isn’t usually associated with. On another day, a local chef quickly reimagined a traditional recipe of Sedani alla Pratese to fit my gluten free diet, which is a local specialty that must be tasted to be believed- and enjoyed. And it was here where a sleepy bed and breakfast, literally right across the road from Piaggia’s Il Sasso vineyard, would host a party until two in the morning. In the end, my takeaway from the locals of Carmignano is that they prefer to eat, drink and laugh with friends at all hours of the night and live life to the fullest.
Besides all of these reasons to visit Carmignano there is also the fact that producers excel at making some seriously good wines, which don’t necessarily fit into the modern thinking of what should make a Tuscan wine great. I make this statement because of what most sets them apart from regions such as Montalcino, Montepulciano and Chianti: their preference for large portions of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties in their wine. I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t that the opposite of what we are being told makes wine great in Tuscany?” Yes, often it is, but it’s also the thing that sets Carmignano apart, and it’s something that these wineries and their unique terroir have excelled with.
The Il Sasso vineyard of Piaggia.
The vineyards of Carmignano are located on the eastern slopes and low-lying hills of Monte Albano, about twelve miles northwest of Florence, with elevations that range from as low as 53 to as high as 216 meters above sea level. While not a large growing area, with only 116 hectares under vine, they prove that smaller can be better. The terrain is diverse, which quickly becomes apparent when driving along the dirt farm roads around the region. The soils are free-draining and rich in limestone; a mix of clay, schist and marl, yet the expositions and elevations vary greatly. While the days are sunbaked and hot, the nights become unexpectedly cool and fresh, influenced by the Apennine Mountains to the north and east. This push and pull of conditions is perfect for Sangiovese, yet it also allows Cabernet to find an unexpected home, which it has done now for over 500 years. The fact is that Cabernet was originally introduced in Carmignano as far back as the 1500s, and while it was lost to the region during the phylloxera epidemic, it was then again reintroduced in the 1960s by the Contini Bonacossi family of the historic Tenuta di Capezzana. Local legends say that these were cuttings taken from Château Lafite in Bordeaux. It also bears mentioning that, long before the DOC was created in 1975 (now DOCG since 1990), in 1716, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici, named Carmignano along with Chianti, Pomino, and Valdarno di Sopra as being protected as the region's top producers of superior wine, all the while with Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend.
So how much Cabernet? It’s less than you might think, but enough to make a serious mark on the wine. The blend for Carmignano calls for at least 50% Sangiovese, with 10-20% of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, and up to 20% Canaiolo and no more than 10% white varieties, which few producers would ever use. The aging requirements in the region stipulate 12 months in oak for Carmignano or 24 months for Riserva. This blend not only creates elegant and polished wines that mix both red and black fruits packed full of minerality, but also ones of structure and balance that can last for decades. Another point worth making, considering this region's love of and success with Bordeaux varieties, are the number of producers making world-class IGT wines (in other words, Super Tuscans) that are worth checking out. Piaggia’s Poggio dei Colli (Cabernet Franc), Colline San Biagio’s Quattordicisei (Merlot), Fabrizio Pratesi’s I Sassi di Lolocco (Merlot) and Tenuta di Capezzana’s Ghiaie della Furba (Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot) all demanded my attention. In the end, Carmignano excels at creating wines that are unmistakably Tuscan and able to mature gracefully in our cellars, while also appealing to a broad audience.
Looking out across Carmignano from Capezzana.
Montecucco: The Dark Horse in the Running
The little-known region of Montecucco has the potential to be the next location that lovers of Sangiovese will be talking about. The region has already attracted the interests of many of the top winemakers in Tuscany. Maria Iris and Claudio Tipa, who also own Grattamacco and Poggio di Sotto, arrived here in the late nineties to stake their claim, as well as the Sassetti family of Livio Sassetti - Pertimali in Montalcino, when they purchased the vineyards of La Querciolina in 1999. So, what did they see here? Simply look at a map of southern Tuscany, and it all starts to make sense.
Montecucco exists, almost like a natural land bridge, between the southern reaches of Montalcino and the coastal region of Morellino di Scansano. While technically located in the Maremma, it’s influenced by two converging terroirs, that of the southwestern slopes of Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano, on one side, and the Mediterranean influences of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the other. Its soils and elevations are also vastly diverse for the same reason. Closer to the shore and Morellino, you’ll find yourself at 50 meters above sea level, standing on fractured sandstone and sea gravel. However, as you move closer to Monte Amiata, elevations range up to 500 meters, and the soils mix both volcanic and alluvial, with red clays, loam and limestone. While this is certainly a warmer climate than most of Tuscany, it’s not as dry, yet also remains well ventilated throughout the growing season. Due to these favorable conditions, a large percentage of the region has always been heavily focused on organic practices, as well as biodiversity. While the sixty-eight wineries in Montecucco collectively tend to 800 hectares planted to vines, the fact is that most of these producers are also running fully functional farms, with livestock, produce and olives. What’s more, these vineyards are often bordered by lush forest. At this time, Montecucco proudly boasts to having 85% of all of their producers certified organic, which is significantly higher than all of its Tuscan counterparts.
Considering we are in the Maremma, it should come as no surprise that, in the early days, the region was quick to welcome international varieties into their blends. The Montecucco Rosso DOC was established in 1998 and declared that the wines required only 60% of Sangiovese; a decision that is also likely to have delayed the success of the region. However, even from the beginning, quality-minded producers had their hearts set on Sangiovese, and today, we’re just beginning to see the results of their work. As of 2011, the Montecucco Sangiovese and Riserva categories were approved, stipulating that the wines must include no less than 90% of Sangiovese, yet most producers will use this category to create a 100% varietal wine. Montecucco Sangiovese must also be refined in wood for no less than 12 months, plus six in bottle, while the Riserva category requires 24 months in barrel. These changes also inspired winemakers to begin looking at the region from the perspective of exposing its unique terroirs; and with that, cru bottles began to emerge that are now showing the true potential of Montecucco. Simply look at the Salustri Grotte Rosse or the Collemassari Poggio Lombrone to know what I mean. What’s more, we’re not seeing a huge influence of oak here either, with the two aforementioned wines being refined in 25- to 30-hectoliter casks.
The barrel aging room at Poderi Sanguineto I e II.
With that said, I am by no means implying that the Montecucco Rosso category should be ignored, nor should anyone miss some of the interesting wines produced from international varieties, or regional, such as Ciliegiolo, a local favorite. There’s an amazing array of interesting blends that show why so many producers began working with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in this area, not to mention Syrah. However, if there is that bright future ahead that Montecucco has been struggling to realize, then it’s the dark, structured and packed-full-of-rich-fruit Sangiovese that they are capable of producing that will do it.
Sangiovese: The Common Thread
While not the easiest variety to work with, it’s little wonder why Sangiovese is so loved throughout Tuscany and the world. Its ability to adapt to different terroir, to express itself in so many different ways, and to marry with varieties, both international and traditional, sets it apart from nearly all others. While this article focuses on three regions, which admittedly could have each been their own individual study, the notes included with it also expose a number of even smaller up-and-coming producers and areas worth paying attention to. The one common thread is that it’s a love of Sangiovese that ties them all together.
The wines from this article were tasted in July of 2021 in Tuscany, as well as during September of 2021, in our office in New York City.
© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
You Might Also Enjoy
Jekyll and Hyde: 2017 Brunello di Montalcino and 2016 Riservas, Eric Guido, December 2021
Italy's Food and Wine Epicenter: Emilia-Romagna, Eric Guido, November 2021
Against all Odds: Vie di Romans Sauvignon Blanc Vieris, Eric Guido, October 2021