Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hills are Alive Part Duex.....Montalcino


Lining the northwest border of Umbria is Tuscany and on our last full day at the Villa de Tenuta Le Velette in Umbria we ventured North to the Tuscany region and the sun-kissed hilltown of Montalcino.  

The town of Montalcino is set high at the top of one of the many regional hills surrounded by vineyards growing Sangiovese grapes.  The town is famous for their Brunello di Montalcino wine made from a hybrid Sangiovese called Sangiovese Grosso grapes grown in this area.  The warm, dry climate allows the grapes to ripen almost a week before other Tuscan wines.  The wine has become so popular with the number of producers growing from eleven in the 1960s to more than two hundred today. The wine has been said to have single-handedly reversed Montelcino's economic downturn into an upswing.  

We arrived at Montelcino after an action-packed van ride (let's just say we went around a certain roundabout like it was a merry-go-round without exiting until those of us in the back row were more than a little car sick).  Once we got our land legs again, we walked through the hilly town and stumbled upon a fortress. Like clockwork it was time to eat.  Luckily, inside the fortress walls was a convenient enoteca where we could grab something to eat and drink.  How often can you say that you ate at a fortress?  

The fortress (La Fortezza) was built in 1361 at the highest point of the town.  It is huge and almost perfectly preserved.  It had tourists exploring the nooks, crannies and inner recesses of the surrounding walls.  However, we were a group on a mission to eat and try some Brunellos so we b-lined it for the nearest table.  










We self-seated, but our waiter suggested we move to a larger table, which we did as he fetched some menus.  After perusing the menu, we decided to share pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup), which was hearty and we would describe it as an Italian peasant vegetable soup with rustic bread crumbs.  We also got a cheese and charcuterie plate to be complimented with a tasting flight of two Brunellos and a Super Tuscan wine.


We share similar tastes in red wines. Generally speaking, our preferences are for dark, bold, deep, complex and fruity which we found brunellos lacked (although we had them described as such).  Brunello is made from a clone of Sangiovese, the Sangiovese Grosso grape, which is called Brunello in the local dialect.  It's flavor profile to us could easily be compared to a Pinot Noir with finite, delicate earthy notes with strong tannins.  We didn't get a lot of the stone fruit profiles that we had read were common to the varietal.


Although we were disappointed with Brunellos we tasted (and we may be the only wine lovers in the world that don't prefer them) we fell in love with the Super Tuscan we tried, Sassicaia. We knew it was delicious right away, but didn't know the history behind it until we got home.  This wine pioneered the "Super Tuscan" varietal.  The name Sassicaia comes from the Italian word sasso or stone in English.  The wine is made by Tenuta San Guido and was originally produced in 1948 solely for family consumption.  Finally, the family was persuaded to release it commercially in 1968 with the first vintage being sold in 1971.  Only a few thousand bottles were made initially , but then a famous Italian critic dubbed it a "fairy-tale wine," siting the wine's complex bouquet and finesse.  Like any industry, once there's a good review, supply usually falls behind demand.  So the small family winery quickly grew.  In fact, in 1994 Sassicaia was given it's own DOC, becoming the only wine from a single estate in Italy to enjoy this status.

After perusing the fortress gift shop, and buying a secret bottle of Brunello for the birthday celebration we were having that evening, we ventured into the town seeking a shop that was featured in Rick Steve's guidebook Enoteca di Piazza.  It's claim to fame was having over 100 bottles available to taste using modern pressurized machines.  

Ro was the first to spot it.  She was like a giddy school girl.  We went in and learned that you start with a 50 euro pre-paid card.   You use that card as you find a wine you'd like to try.  Inserting the card and then pushing the corresponding button while holding the glass under the spout.  The machine dispenses approximately a 1oz pour with prices varying anywhere from 1 euro to upwards of 20 euro for the rare wines.

We were on a mission to find a Brunello that we liked.  We found a few that were okay, but our tastes, once again, led us to the Tuscan blends.  We were delighted to see our good friend Sassicaia "on tap," and felt obligated to re-test its merits.  It did not disappoint.

We were kids in an adult candy shop.  Our friends meanwhile were indulging in leather shopping, gelato tasting and taking photos of the beautiful town and Tuscan countryside.  Not a bad afternoon or day trip indeed.  We definitely have plans to return to do more exploration of Tuscany & Umbria including a stop in Montepulciano.

Montalcino is a must on a Tuscan wine tour.  The charming town has been in existence since the time of the ancient Etruscans and later Roman rule.  Wine has been made here for milennia so they know a thing or two about wine.  Records show that commercial wine trading has been going on since the 1400's.  They also know a thing about location, location, location. Montalcino was directly on the ancient interstate (called the Via Francigena), which was the main way to travel between Florence, Rome and France.  Because of the great location it was also often under siege, which is how it grew to have such a militaristic look including La Fortezza (which for the record was never conquered).

A last, we tore ourselves away from the wine store and made our way back to the van for our return journey to Umbria.  We left with fond memories (our friends shipped back a case of local wine they discovered while tasting) of our quick little day trip North to Tuscany.


Live life with flavor and fun!