Gaze from the cellar door of Parmoleto estate in Tuscany in northern Italy, and there on the hill is the commanding 12th-century Montalcino castle Castello Banfi, one of the leading Brunello de Montalcino players. Parmoleto does not produce Brunello, but is one of the members of the Montecucco DOCG consortium.
Brunello was the first wine in Italy to get DOCG status in 1980. Montecucco only got the same prestigious DOCG status from the 2011 harvest. The wines are very different from Tuscany’s other famous wine, Chianti, but not so different to Brunello says winemaker Leonardo Sodi — though the soils and micro climate are completely different. They’re wines which don’t tell you what to think. You have to give yourself to them and the key factor is getting the precise balance between acidity and tannins.
Is it difficult having Montalcino as your neighbour? “Brunello is easier to sell, but this is my life,” shrugs Sodi, whose family owns the 72-hectare Parmoleto estate, of which five hectares are under vine.
Fabio Loda, director of Tenuta L’Impostino, adds that being a Tuscan wine is a double-edged sword when you’re not Chianti or Brunello. You can ride on the Tuscan train but raising the region’s profile is going to take time. However, work to move from “traditional” winemaking to something with a fine wine moniker has now definitely begun in this dynamic region.
Loda mentions an additional challenge, which is that most properties have only recently begun to produce quality wine, and are small. Their holdings may be large, but they also grow crops, keep animals, and produce the region’s spectacular Pecorino cheese.
The largest, Tenuta di Montecucco, is 110 hectares and helps to give the region traction. But some others, while producing excellent wine, might be small – only three hectares (such as Amiata) or even 1.5 hectares (Arpagone). When Amiata’s owner, Simone Toninelli, was developing his vineyard from just six rows to something more commercial he had to buy from 11 different people to be able to purchase a plot of just under a single hectare.
Hats off to Montalcino, says Loda of Tenuta L’Impostino. “We want to do something similar but in our own way. So we decided to be stricter.” Yields are the lowest in Italy at 80 tonnes per hectare. The blend must be 90 per cent sangiovese, though in fact most are bottling 100 per cent sangiovese.
Wines must be aged in oak for a minimum of 12 months and four months in bottle (or 24 months on oak and six months in bottle for the Riserva). In reality, the wines are coming to the market later than that.
Silvia Spinelli, winemaker at Podere Il Poggio, says that oak is essential for sangiovese “because it is “raw”. With this comment she’s referring to the variety’s natural astringency. But to preserve fruit she uses only 50 per cent new oak. Certainly her Sass’alsole 2010, while being quietly powerful and highly elegant, shows the most intense nose of fresh red fruits akin to the aromas of that classic English dessert, Summer Pudding.
One or two producers are doing interesting things with the white grape vermentino. Amita’s Pirico IGT Toscana 2012 is reminiscent of an intense chenin blanc from the Loire. Tenuta L’Impostino’s vermentino IGP 2013 is a clean and well-defined wine with tingling acidity, accented by clay soils.
But as for elsewhere in Tuscany red rules, with the sangiovese clone here giving more colour than usually associated with this grape.A few producers, including L’Impostino and Podere Il Poggio, are interested in re-introducing a traditional but largely forgotten grape of the region, pugnitello. “It is very well adapted to here,” says Poggio’s Spinelli, citing its ability to handle a lack of water, which can stress sangiovese. “But it is not easy to grow and yields are low – so it may not be taken up.”
Montecucco DOCG, its vineyards in the proximity of Mount Amiata, is a sparsely populated region with an almost raw beauty, tarnished only by the highway linking Grosseto to Siena (which has inevitably helped the region to develop).
While places like Montalcino are almost exclusively given over to often highly manicured vineyards, there’s no artifice in Montecucco. Loda, looking over his vineyards surrounded by woodland (“We’re naturally organic”) and with borders of lavender and rosemary, stresses the importance of the environment. “People want to be in nature,” he asserts. So while there will inevitably be vineyard expansion “we want to preserve integrity. There is space for all of us”.
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