Travel: Montalcino & Montepulciano
Sienese Tuscany: exquisite scenery, superb wines. By Helen Farrell
THE SIGN ON the medieval stone wall that marks your arrival in Tuscany’s top winemaking town says ‘Montalcino alt mt 564’. The drive from Siena takes around an hour, but is very quickly forgotten as the lofty turrets rise up before you. Montalcino, paired with nearby Montepulciano, is the consummate lovemark for oneophiles: bold or breezier Brunellos, juicy Rosso di Montalcino and lustrous Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The scenery intoxicates: think quintessential rows of cypress trees, poetic single-track railway crossings and the lunar-like landscape of the Val d’Orcia minutes away.
There is only one place to start: Biondi Santi ( www.biondisanti.com), five minutes southwest of Montalcino by car. Timelessness is what denotes Tenuta Greppo, the noble birthplace of Brunello as testified by an 1869 certificate in the brick-vaulted tasting room, the first documented mention of ‘Brunello’. Upon appointment, free tours are available around the historic winery, from the vinification room, with its cement tanks, to the extraordinary and grand 19th-century Slavonian oak barrels in the ageing cellars. Learn how Biondi Santi only labels its bottles just before sale to prevent them from deteriorating, and about its exclusive ricolmatura service, offered to collectors who can choose to have their bottles of riserva topped up over time.
Also pivotal in putting Montalcino on the wine destination map is Banfi ( www. castellobanfi.com), just 20 minutes away – take the scenic La Maremmana strada bianca route if you’re not afraid of a few bumps. It is thanks to New York exporters, the Mariani family, that Brunello has become the internationally renowned entity that it is today. Take time to unwind over a leisurely lunch with estate wine-matching at Castello Banfi’s classic Taverna, or you could simply stop by the
adjacent Enoteca for a themed degustazione. If you have time, the winery tour impresses by the sheer vastness of the space purposedesigned to welcome visitors, the innovative Horizon micro-vinification project with composite vats in oak and stainless steel, and the silent restfulness of the barrique cellar. If music is your thing, mid-July is the time to visit Montalcino for the Jazz & Wine showcase ( www.montalcinojazzandwine.com) organised by Banfi in the monumental medieval fortress.
Back on the road to Montalcino you will come to comely Le Ragnaie ( www.leragnaie.com, visits by appointment), whose old vines and ventilated location manage to conjure up one of the sagest Brunello expressions of the moment. Owned by Riccardo Campinoti and his American wife Jennifer, the winery is a handy place to stay with its peaceful apartments, pool and expanses of happy, healthy vineyards. A quarter of an hour southwest, past the Romanesque abbey of Sant’Antimo, with Monte Amiata standing strong in the distance, Stella di Campalto (www.stelladicampalto.it, visits by appointment) quietly plays Gregorian chants to her spontaneously fermenting biodynamic Sangiovese, an otherworldly wine of divine finesse, whether as Rosso or Brunello.
From a region about 45 minutes east of Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is Brunello’s younger sibling, softer, more playful, with a mischievous spring in its step. The crowds flock to Montepulciano town on the last Sunday in August for the annual Bravìo delle Botti, a gruelling spectacle in which muscular men attempt to push heavy wine barrels up the cobblestone streets. Those in the know often prefer to head for the more placid Festa di San Lorenzo in nearby Valiano in early to mid-August for flower displays and food. But the picturesque Montepulciano area, dotted with its 75-plus wineries, is a joy to visit at any time, from spring to autumn.
On the Umbria border
The way to Avignonesi ( www.avignonesi.it) is along an avenue of cypress trees leading to Le Capezzine, the heart of the 200-hectare estate comprising vineyards across Montepulciano and Cortona. A beautiful brick facade beckons you into the Cellar Door, a stylishly modern yet respectfully rustic loft conversion where you can taste wines by the glass – try the Grandi Annate, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2012, all wild roses and plums, and silky soft in the mouth. Take the wine lover’s tour to explore the organic vines, maturation cellars and Avignonesi’s famous Vinsantaia – where its vin santos are aged in 50-litre caratelli oak casks – before sitting down to a four-course, wine-paired meal. Do not even consider leaving without having meditated over the legendary vin santo, a hymn to the heavens.
A five-minute drive south along the Via Lauretana Nord brings you to La Dogana
enoteca, the wine bar of cantina Palazzo Vecchio ( www.vinonobile.it). It’s a striking building, whose central window frames the Val di Chiana plain as far as the eye can see. The Sbernadori family serves up zero-mile valley specialities such as pici all’aglione, fat spaghetti scented with the mildest of garlic.
Half an hour away on the other side of Montepulciano is an historic winery named after the town’s most illustrious Renaissance poet. Poliziano ( www.carlettipoliziano.com) has been producing sleek Vino Nobile since 1961, a trait matched in the design-led Angelo Ambrogini tasting lounge, which has a marble bar, parquet floors and wavy wood wine shelving. Never a winery to sit back, this spring Poliziano opened a stylish enoteca in the old centre of Montepulciano, in the palazzo where the great poet once lived. But the Montepulciano Stazione cellar tour still remains a firm favourite. Open year-round, it’s a chance to see the ecological maturation cellar, whose temperature is controlled by solar power, as well as the old bottle archive showcasing Poliziano’s most prestigious vintages and wines – the likes of Sangiovese selezione Asinone and IGT Le Stanze, a classy Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend.
Helen Farrell is editor-in-chief of The Florentine. She tends to take care of the food and wine assignments in Florence and Tuscany herself
Above: just half an hour from Montepulciano you’ll find Poliziano, an historic winery with some prestigious wines
Right: the luxury villas and spa at Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco can be found in one of the oldest and bestpreserved estates in Tuscany
Brav“o delle Botti