Vino Nobile di
Wine in the New Normal
BY ERIC GUIDO | OCTOBER 12, 2023
Montepulciano warms my heart. Not only has the region moved forward by leaps
and bounds qualitatively, but also in communication, marketing and, most
importantly, a willingness to better understand their terroir. Going back only
five years ago, there were only a handful of wineries worth keeping tabs on,
but that number has grown substantially. Much of this concerns a paradigm shift
amongst producers who have realized that consumers crave a more transparent
Vino Nobile that focuses on Tuscany’s primary variety, Sangiovese, and less on
the heavy use of oak and significant additions of international varieties. As a
result, Italy’s first DOCG wine has made a serious comeback, and the future
appears to be very bright.
Looking out across the southern reaches of Montepulciano.
Montepulciano is a
wine-tourist and food-lover’s paradise, all centered in a charming, yet
significantly larger than you’d expect, fortified hilltop town that is
accessible and easy to traverse on foot. Montepulciano offers a wide selection
of excellent restaurants, wine bars, hotels, shopping, live performances,
panoramic countryside views, art and stunning architecture. Moreover, wine
lovers can experience winery tours through historic caves that reveal centuries
of history beneath the bustling city streets, along with the conveniently
located and welcoming Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano–all without
ever leaving town.
Last year's article, “Terroir
and Determination: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano,” went into considerable detail
about the region, the intricacies of the aging requirements of Vino Nobile and the
new Pieve designation. Readers might like to revisit that article for context
on those topics, as little has changed, naturally outside of the vintages covered
in this report. What’s more, the new Pieve designation will be a major topic of
discussion next year when the 2021s, the first vintage, enter the market. There
is a rumor that producers may be able to approve wines from the 2020 harvest
retroactively for Pieve, yet I’ve yet to see anything labeled as such. That
said, a few facts are worth repeating for readers who may not have experience
with the region.
The wine of
Montepulciano, not to be confused with the grape variety found primarily in
Abruzzo, has a long-standing history. Even Thomas Jefferson, a well-documented
wine lover and writer (I highly recommend reading “Thomas Jefferson on Wine” by
John Hailman), sang its praises. Yet even before that, documentation of wine
being produced within its borders goes back to the eighth century. The town is
in southeastern Tuscany, south of Chianti Classico, east and slightly north of
Montalcino, bordered by the Val d’Orcia. The region's fame helped Vino Nobile become
the first DOCG in Italy, joined by Brunello and then Barolo and Barbaresco.
Old vine Prugnolo Gentile in the Talosa vineyards.
However, as much of Tuscany
began to focus primarily on Sangiovese, including changes in regulations within
Chianti Classico, for example, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano remained a wine
heavily blended with international varieties. Moreover, the wines were often
produced in the international style of the times, with a heavy reliance on oak.
While this made the wines unique and usually more accessible in their youth,
consumer tastes were also changing and swaying from this style of Tuscan wine.
To this day, the DOCG production rules permit up to 30% of other red grape
varieties in Vino Nobile. Luckily, due to the work and success of some of the
region's top producers pushing toward varietal wines or wines that are 90-95%
Sangiovese, it’s rare to find an example that blends any more than 10-15% of
other varieties. Most producers now use traditional Tuscan varieties, such as
Canaiolo, Colorino and Mammolo.
As a result, Vino Nobile
di Montepulciano, often just referred to today as Nobile or Vino Nobile (to
avoid consumer confusion with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo), improved drastically.
With the addition of the Pieve designation (which permits only 10% added
varieties) as well as a statement of the place where the grapes were sourced, we
can expect great things in the years to come.
Valdipiatta's barrel aging room.
The New Normal Is Not Normal At All
With all that said, the
producers of Montepulciano have had their hands full dealing with the
challenges of recent years in the form of warm and arid conditions. Each growing
season presents new trials, and as soon as one seems to be overcome, another is
right around the corner. In 2023, a massive amount of rain and lack of sunlight
through spring resulted in the worst onset of downy mildew the region had ever
witnessed. Unseasonably hot temperatures followed in July. Some producers
reported losing up to 70% of their production and, in some cases, have already
decided not to bottle a Vino Nobile in 2023. Others claim it may be a form of
natural selection by Mother Nature. However, the fear is that the remaining grapes
on the vine may already be contaminated by rot. It will be an interesting
vintage to follow over the coming years.
It’s important to note
that while Montepulciano is only a forty-five-minute car ride from Montalcino,
their vintages can differ slightly. This is primarily due to Montepulciano’s proximity
to the Apennines, an area of soft rolling hills distant from the Adriatic Sea. The
wines here tend to follow the trends of Montalcino’s Northeast.
Because of regulations
regarding the aging and release of wines there are usually at least four
vintages to review each year. Rosso di Montepulciano requires a minimum of four
months of aging, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano requires two years, and Riserva
requires three years before release. So, with this report, we are looking at 2022,
2021, 2020 and 2019, with a few stragglers from 2018 made up primarily of
Riservas and a few single-vineyard wines.
The Montemercurio vineyard.
Of these four years,
2019 is the one to focus on, not just because it makes up the bulk of what’s
entering the market but also because it represents a more classic Vino Nobile
profile. Coming off the rainy and warm 2018 vintage, which presented pretty and
lifted wines that often lacked substance, the 2019s are a breath of fresh air.
They are dark and powerful, full of complexity, but with refined tannic
profiles. This will be a vintage for the cellar that we will talk about for a long
time. The 2019s are some of the most exciting young wines I remember tasting at
several estates. In
no specific order, some standouts include Boscarelli, La Braccesca,
Montemercurio, Poliziano, Valdipiatta, Villa S. Anna, Poderi Sanguineto I e II
So far, the 2020s I have
tasted are less exciting. Achieving balance from the 2020 vintage was difficult
for most producers, including highly regarded estates. The challenges of the
vintage included late frosts, a humid spring, a summer with several extreme
heat events that shut down the vines, hail and a rainy season finale. The trick
to 2020 was finding physiological ripeness that in many cases was not reached.
The wines are round and plush, yet often appear stunted and lacking depth. Many
2020s show beautiful aromatics and elegance, yet then resolve into a finish of
edgy, gripping tannins that feel awkward and out of place. I’m not ready to
throw the baby out with the bathwater since I’ve already found several
standouts (Cantina Dei and Poliziano come to mind), but consumers must be
Current releases for Rosso
di Montepulciano are mostly 2021s and 2022s. The 2021s are intense, rich and
powerful wines from a warm yet more balanced year than 2020. Due to frigid
temperatures in April that affected budding, there will also be less to go
around. There is a lot of immediate pleasure and purity in these wines. Even
more important is the consistency from producer to producer. I expect this
sun-kissed vintage to enjoy a long and broad drinking window. Don’t be
surprised if several of the bigger wines require extensive cellaring. It’s a
vintage that shows how producers are learning to deal better with the warming
trends in Montepulciano. It’s common to find canopy training that shields the
fruit from the scorching sun, and significantly more wineries have reduced
tilling to maintain moisture in their soils.
A tasting lineup of Vino Nobile.
As for 2022, this made
up a minor representation of the last four vintages in my report, consisting of
early-release Rossos and a few IGTs. The 2022 vintage was a scorcher and also incredibly
dry. When I was in Montepulciano in July 2022, producers were praying for rain.
The region had gone through an arid spring, and the ground had begun to crack
open, further exacerbating the issues by releasing moisture into the
atmosphere. Rain did arrive, but it wasn’t substantial enough to quench the vines'
thirst. From what I’ve tasted, the wines are rich and ripe with juicy acidity, yet
lack depth and often come across with a candied quality.
I tasted all of the
wines for this article in Montepulciano in the summer of 2023.
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