It Takes a Noble Grape to Make a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano exemplifies the confusion surrounding Italian wine labels.  This wine’s meteoric increase in quality over the past decade has yet to be matched by its price, so it’s definitely worth unraveling the name.

The Italians name their wines by place name, such as Chianti, or grape name — think Pinot Grigio — or both, Dolcetto d’Alba.  When the name of a town, Montepulciano, is the same as the name of a grape, Montepulciano, the potential for confusion is understandable.

This “noble wine” comes from the vineyards surrounding the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, approximately half way between Rome and Florence.  Montepulciano has a wonderful renaissance square, charming arched streets, magnificent views over the Tuscan landscape, and, you might think, some connection to the grape of the same name.  But no.  Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is made predominantly from Sangiovese (locally called Prugnolo Gentile), despite the name of the town.  In fact, the Montepulciano grape is not found in Tuscany at all, but plays a prominent role in down-market, rustic wines from other parts of Italy.

Even though winemakers in Montepulciano use the same basic blend of grapes as in nearby Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile tastes nothing like the wines from Chianti because of the difference in climate and soil.  Montepulciano’s more southern location combined with more clay — and fewer rocks —  in the soil leads to riper grapes and fuller, richer wines.

At a recent Sangiovese seminar, when Adolfo Folonari, who with his brother Luigi is joint CEO of Ruffino, a leading Tuscan producer, commented about Sangiovese grown in different parts of the world, he could just as easily been referring to different areas of Tuscany.  “The soil and the climate have an enormous effect.  The winemakers are all talented. The difference among the wines comes from the soil and the climate, which impart the complexity.”
An Explosion of Quality

The last of the three major Tuscan regions — behind Chianti and Montalcino — to have a renaissance of quality, Montepulciano is making up for lost time.  Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of rich, balanced Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

A brief look at the evolution of the regulations for this area helps explain the leap in quality.  When the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) regulations were instituted initially in 1966, Vino Nobile, much like Chianti, was a blend of wine made from both red and white grapes.

Despite its stature as the region’s most noble grape, Prugnolo Gentile could not exceed 70 percent of the blend and white grapes comprised 10 to 20 percent of the finished wine.  Although the maximum amount of Prugnolo Gentile was increased to 80 percent in 1984 when the Italian government awarded the first prized DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata & Garantita) ranking to Vino Nobile (Brunello di Montalcino followed three months later), it was still capped.

By 1999, regulators had finally seen the light and, following the pattern set in the Chianti region, set more stringent requirements.  The minimum amount of Prugnolo Gentile was increased to 70 percent, and the cap lifted, freeing a producer to make Vino Nobile, like Chianti, entirely from Sangiovese (aka Prugnolo Gentile). “Complimentary red grapes” such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot could be included, but not exceed 20 percent; Canaiolo and other indigenous grapes could comprise the remainder.  As in the Chianti region, including white grapes in the blend is a thing of the past.

As the quality of the blend increased, so did the quality of the vineyards. The challenge the growers face is to restrain Sangiovese’s natural vigor and proclivity to over produce fruit when planted in Montepulciano. To this end, growers plant new vineyards with higher density planting (more vines per acre) and employ grass cover between the rows to foster competition to reduce yields. Half of the estates are now using new clones of Sangiovese that have reduced vigor. Still, the clonal research is not complete.

According to Lene Petersen, Manager of Corporate Communications for Ruffino, the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a shining example of what these organizations can do for a region.  Consorzii throughout Italy market their particular region’s wines.  But in addition, the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano sponsored research in conjunction with the University of Milan to find clones of Sangiovese best suited for making high quality wines.

In the past farmers were more interested in quantity than quality and prized clones that bore the most fruit.  The tangible result of these studies, available to all producers, is the introduction of three new clones of Prugnolo Gentile, which should result in even better wine over the next decade as producers replant and these vines bear fruit.

Future success “will come from the new clones”  and from incorporating Cabernet and Merlot into the blend according to Paolo Solini, the director of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  He believes that using Cabernet and Merlot, similar to the practice in the Chianti Classico region, gives the producers more flexibility to produce quality wine every year.   Blending wines made from varieties of grapes with different growth cycles is a time-honored “insurance policy.” Merlot, for example, ripens earlier than Sangiovese and hence is less susceptible to ruin by autumn rains.
New Grapes and New Wine

Producers seem divided between using Merlot and Cabernet or sticking with the indigenous grapes.  The trick, of course, for those who incorporate Cabernet and Merlot into the blend is to prevent those grapes from overwhelming the classic earthy flavors the area is known for and from turning a unique wine into just another “international” wine that could be produced anywhere.

Il Poliziano, a first-rate producer, devotes a quarter of its vineyards to Merlot and Cabernet.  Its top wine, Asinone, a fabulous single-vineyard selection, is a blend of 90 percent Prugnolo Gentile and 10 percent Merlot.  Similarly, Ruffino’s Montepulciano estate, Lodola Nuova, incorporates about 10 percent Merlot into the blend to fashion its consistently delicious Vino Nobile.  Neither has lost the essential character of the region by including Merlot.

Fattoria del Cerro, the largest winery in Montepulciano with 250 acres producing 40,000 cases of Vino Nobile annually, avoids the issue by using only the traditional, indigenous grapes of the region, blending Colorino and Mammolo with Prugnolo Gentile. Boscarelli, a small but talented producer, with only about 33 acres, also focuses on Prugnolo Gentile, which comprises 90 percent of its plantings.  The remainder includes other traditional varieties — Canaiolo, Colorino and Malvasia — as well as small amounts of Cabernet and Merlot.  Its Vino Nobile is gloriously elegant.

Following the lead of Brunello di Montalcino, their prestigious neighbor to the west, the producers of Vino Nobile introduced a lesser wine from the area, Rosso di Montepulciano, in 1988.  Just as Rosso di Montalcino is an outlet for wines that could qualify legally for Brunello, but don’t meet a producer’s standards, Rosso di Montepulciano protects the integrity of Vino Nobile.  With Rosso di Montepulciano, Vino Nobile producers now have an option for their lesser quality wine.  They can select the best and most appropriate wine to be bottled under the Vino Nobile label, knowing they can sell the remainder as Rosso di Montepulciano.

The renaissance of quality and the potential for making even better wines has not been lost on the large Tuscan producers, such as Antinori, Cecchi and Ruffino, all of whom have invested in the region recently and are making excellent wines. But with a few exceptions, small growers still dominate Montepulciano.  With only about 70 producers and about 3,000 acres of vines, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is even smaller than Montalcino, with its 200 producers spread over 5,000 acres, and is dwarfed by the Chianti region.
The Wines

The wines from Vino Nobile di Montepulciano represent some of the best bargains from Tuscany because the price has not accelerated at the same rate as the quality over the last 10 years.  Montepulciano may lack the extraordinary terroir and reputation of Montalcino, but producers there are trying hard to catch up to Brunello.  While they may never catch that illustrious wine, the prices are more reasonable and represent an excellent ratio of price to quality.  In addition to the ones recommended below, ask your local retailer to suggest others.

In general, the Vino Nobile from 2003 are rich and ripe, reflecting the heat of the growing season.  What they lack in elegance, they make up in power.  The 2001 vintage delivered more typical wines showing great balance and complexity.

Boscarelli, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany, Italy) 2003 ($35, Empson USA): Good acid and uplifting freshness balance the rich ripe black cherry flavors imparted by the hot weather during 2003.  A real success for 2003.  90

Boscarelli, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany, Italy) Nocio dei Boscarelli 2001 ($58, Empson USA): Boscarelli had obtained grapes from this vineyard, vigneto del Nocio, for years and finally was able to purchase it in 1988.  The wine is elegant and long, with a real minerality to it, which likely comes from old vines.  The bright cherry-like flavors are intermingled with captivating non-fruit nuances.  94

Fattoria del Cerro, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany, Italy) Vigneto Antica Chiusina 2003 ($20, Vias Imports): From a single vineyard, this darkly colored, very ripe Vino Nobile reflects the heat of the vintage, which explains the nuances of chocolate in the wine. 87

Lodola Nuova, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany, Italy) 2003($23, Icon Estates): Ruffino has crafted a wonderfully balanced multi-layered wine that retains an alluring earthiness and freshness to offset its succulent fruitiness. Its real character comes through when paired with hearty pasta or grilled meat. 92

Lodola Nuova, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva (Tuscany, Italy) 2001 ($32, Icon Estates): Ruffino’s investment — a new winery and vineyards — in Montepulciano shows in this Riserva.  Their winemaking team, led by Carmelo Simoncelli, has crafted a richly layered wine, which retains what I call “not just fruit” character that is the captivating essence of Tuscan wines in general.  Its complexity and suaveness keeps you coming back for more.  94

Poliziano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany, Italy) 2003 ($28, William Grant & Sons): Intense and ripe, cabernet, merlot and new oak buttress the Sangiovese in this Vino Nobile making for a powerful wine. 87

Poliziano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Tuscany, Italy) Asinone 2001 ($40, William Grant & Sons): Poliziano’s flagship wine, Asinone, is a great success in 2001. Powerful, yet floral and elegant, the fruit, earth and oak flavors harmonize nicely with the tannic structure.  92

June 6, 2006