I arrived in Italy on a Friday morning-a trip arranged by the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
I’d been invited by the Consorzio to judge “A Tavolo con Il Nobile,” an annual food and wine pairing festival where the eight contradas of this beautiful, walled, ancient Etruscan city compete to create the best food and wine pairing in a two day competition.
Contradas, for those of you who are curious, are local clubs that date back to the 14th century. They are neighborhood-based, friendly, but also fiercely competitive as I was soon to discover.
I’ll have much more on A Tavolo con Il Nobile in a later blog, but here, I thought I’d try and give you a sense of the history of Montepulciano along with a look at the wines of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano through a couple of winery visits.
First, a little history. The town of Montepulciano is in the province of Sienna. It rests imposingly atop a hill near the Tuscan-Umbrian border. Its roots are Etruscan, and although it was part of the Republic of Sienna, it was captured by the Republic of Florence in 1390.
The two battled for domination of Montepulciano for centuries. It was only the fall of the Republic of Siena in 1555 that definitively ended the fight for Montepulciano.
As far as wine is concerned, it’s exported from Montepulciano since at least middle of the 14th century. The “noble” designation was added in the 18th century in recognition of its outstanding flavors and aromas.
The modern wine-producing region, or DOCG, of Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, was established in 1983. DOCG is an abbreviation of Denominazione de Origine Controllata, the highest level of Italian wine classification.
My first exposure to the wines of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano on the trip came Friday evening on the day of my arrival. There was an open tasting featuring about 20-producers in Montepulciano’s main piazza. I had sips from just about every winery represented, but honestly, I was so tired and jet-lagged, I couldn’t tell you what I liked — most of them — and what I didn’t — very few.
I decided not to take notes and just enjoy the ambiance, which was amazing, get a good night’s sleep and start the real research the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Not quite as alert or recovered as I had hoped, my first full day in the area began with a visit to the Poliziano winery. A beautiful estate, seemingly without a blade of grass out of place, Poliziano is the third largest in the DOCG at some 270-acres and some 800,000 bottles produced annually.
Poliziano is run by Federico Carletti, an imposing man whose father started the winery in 1961. That is very young in Tuscan terms, but in just two generations Poliziano has become not just one of the largest, but one of the region’s most important producers.
Carletti arranged for us to taste four wines: a Rosso di Montepulciano, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a Riserva Vino Nobile named Asinone and a Vin Santo. It was like walking up a ladder of quality, then jumping off into the sweetness and complexity of the Vin Santo.
The Rosso, comprised of 80-percent Sangiovese and 20-percent Merlot, was fruity and accessible. Not complex, but extremely quaffable.
The Vino Nobile, with a blend of 80-percent Sangiovese and 20-percent Canaiolo and Colorino — two other native Tuscan red grapes — was much more serious, yet still approachable.
The Asinone, meantime, a single vineyard riserva made of 100-percent Sangiovese, was one of my favorite wines for the entire trip. Unbelievably complex, the Asinone lept out of the glass with ripe dark fruit flavors and spice. It is, in a word, fantastic.
Last, but certainly not least, was the Vin Santo, a special dessert wine made in Tuscany with grapes picked late then dried on straw mats for months before crushing. The finished product is sweet, but never cloying, a true taste treat. Poliziano’s was one of the best Vin Santos I tasted during my visit, and I tasted quite a few.
Next, it was off to La Braccesca, a newish estate owned by the famous Antinori family since 1990. Located just a few kilometers from Montepulciano, La Braccesca extends over a thousand acres covering two different areas — the classic Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone and Cortona, which is known primarily for its affinity to produce world-class Syrah.
At a “light” lunch, consisting of a wide array of Tuscan dried meats, several types of Pecorino cheese, a healthy serving of picci pasta, and dessert (I’d hate to see what their “heavy” lunch would feature), we were treated to five La Braccesca wines.
First was Acelo, 100-percent Syrah from the Cortona DOC. It was fresh and fruity and paired quite well with the salumi.
A wine called Sabazio was next. Bearing the Montepulciano label, Sabazio is a blend of primarily Sangiovese with other local red grapes and a small dollup of Merlot. The Sabazio had good grip and length. I quite liked it.
La Breccesca’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano hit the glass next. With 95-percent Sangiovese and five percent Merlot, the Vino Nobile was fruitier than most I tasted, yet with a nice undercurrent of acidity.
A Riserva Vino Nobile named Santa Pia followed. Made entirely of Sangiovese, the Santa Pia took its place alongside the Asinone as one of my favorite wines of the trip.
Bramasole was the final wine of the lunch. Made with 100-percent Syrah, Bramasole is big and bold, yet still balanced. It overpowered the cuisine, but I could see it with a Kansas City strip steak, no problem.
After lunch, it was back to the hotel for a short break, a little swim and a little rest. Thank goodness. The food and wine judging starts tonight. More on that to follow.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.