Montalcino is a small, very picturesque hilltop town nestled in arguably some of the most beautiful country around. While Montalcino may not need a lot of time dedicated to exploring; indeed most guide books recommend just a few hours. But that’s rushing things, because when you’re ensconced in the heart of Tuscany – Tuscan time uses the same watch as island time.
Visiting Montalcino is a nice day trip from either Siena (42km away), Florence (110 km), or Pisa (150 km). We took the bus from Siena to Montalcino, which should be noted, does not leave from Siena’s bus station, but its train station. Many tourists make the pilgrimage driving from one wine town to the next, replicating almost identical journeys along Route 29 in Napa Valley as wine lovers check out their favorite wineries.
This is a walking town, and be prepared for hills and the overwhelming urge to see where every cobblestone alleyway might lead. The streets of San Francisco have nothing on this part of Tuscany in terms of steep inclines. A tipple of vino will give you the strength to march, just remember its not that big, so any exertion is over before you know it. The town’s elevated location invites dallying, contemplating the cyprus lined country roads, olive trees and vineyards that cover the Orcia Valley.
History of the Village
About the time the Ancient Etruscans were wandering the Tuscan hills, Montalcino made its appearance, and written evidence shows a church here since the 9th century. It was built on a prime location alongside an ancient Via Francigena, a principal road between Florence, Rome and France. The medieval walls were erected in the 13th century by architects from Siena, as Montalcino was under Sienese control from the 13th-16th centuries, and then ruled by the powerful Duchy of Florence until Italy became a united country in 1861.
As a satellite of Siena, all was not necessarily rosy, if Siena fought, so did Montacino, and in the 14th and 15th centuries that meant it was often pitted against Siena’s nemesis, the city of Florence. Like many other cities in this region, the town was also caught up in the wars between the Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Empire) and the Guelphs (supporters of the Pope), and they frequently swapped control of the city during Medieval times.
La Fortezza-is the 14th century defence castle in Montalcino, The interior invites meandering to get a sense for what it might have been like in centuries past to gather here for protection from marauding forces. For vast views of the surrounding valleys visitors may also pace along the top of the walls. If these efforts prove overwhelming a small wineshop is off to one corner for liquid fortitude.
Piazza del Popolo is the main square dates back to the 1300’s, and is home to the town hall. Lovely porticos are lined with cafes and shops (wine shops for sampling to be sure), and the “Centro Storico” (historic heart) is full of small gems that need to be explored like the Palazzo Comunale and the Renaissance “Loggia” with its six round arches.
Down the narrow, short street that extends from the main gate of the fortress is the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino with its simple Romanesque façade, also built in the 13th century. The building adjacent to the church is a one-time convent, but it is now the home of the Musei Riuniti which is both a civic and diocesan museum.
The Duomo (cathedral), dedicated to San Salvatore, was built in the 14th Century, but thanks to extensive renovation work performed in the early 19th century under the direction of Sienese architect Agostino Fantasici it now has a more neo-classical appearance.
Montalcino is divided, like most medieval Tuscan cities, into contrade, of which there are four: Pianello, Travaglio, Ruga, and Borghetto.
The cuisine of Montalcino is similar to other Tuscan villages – heavy on wild boar, hare, bruschetta, cannellini beans, grilled sausages, homemade pastas, game birds, porcini mushrooms to just get you thinking in that direction. As might be expected, the food pairs well with the local wines as they share the same terroir.
In the Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini de Vita, she speaks of donzelline, a small deep-fried gnocchetti of raised bread dough made to celebrate the centuries old Sagra del Tordo, Festival of the Thrush on the last Sunday in October. Another local pasta is pici which originated in this area, although in Montalcino it is called pinci. Pici or pinci is a hand rolled pasta that resembles fat spaghetti and is typically made using only flour and water.
What Makes it Famous
Montalcino’s name would not grace the lips of many were it not for its famous Brunello di Montalcino (broo NEL lo dee mon tal CHEE no), a red Italian wine made here since the 14th century. Brunello, roughly translates to “nice dark one” in the local dialect, and is the unofficial name of the clone of Sangiovese (or Sangioverosso if grown in this region).
In 1831, marchese Cosimo Ridolfi (later the Prime Minister of Tuscany under the Grand Duke Leopold II) praised the merits of the red wines of Montalcino above all others Tuscan wines. In the mid-19th century, a local farmer named Clemente Santi isolated certain plantings of Sangiovese vines to produce a 100% varietal wine that could be aged for a considerable length of time. In 1888, his grandson Ferruccio Biondi-Santi released the first “modern version” of Brunello di Montalcino, aged for over a decade in large wood barrels.
By the end of World War II, Brunello di Montalcino had a reputation as one of Italy’s rarest wines, with the Biondi-Santi firm the only producer on record, declaring vintages in 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. Success breeds copycats, and other producers sought to emulate Biondi-Santi’s success. By the 1960s, 11 producers made Brunello, and in 1968 the region was granted Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status. By 1970 the number of producers had more than doubled to 25, and by 1980 there were 53 producers. In 1980, the Montalcino region was the first Italian wine region to be awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation. By the year 2000, there were nearly 200 producers of Brunello di Montalcino, mostly small family estates, producing a relatively small amount at about 330,000 cases a year.
What Makes This Region Unique
Montalcino has one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany. It is the most arid Tuscan DOCG, receiving about 28″ of rain annually compared to the Chianti region which receives an average of 35″. The sunlight that touches the hills also makes an impression on the flavor of this wine. The northern slopes receive fewer hours of sunlight and are generally cooler than the southern slopes, so vines on the northern slopes ripen more slowly and tend to produce wines that are racier and more aromatic. By contrast, grapes on the southern and western slopes receive more sunlight and more maritime winds leading to fuller tasting wines with greater complexity. To achieve the best of both worlds, top producers have vineyards on both slopes, and blend to achieve Brunello perfection.
Brunello di Montalcino must be made entirely from the Sangiovese grapes. The wine goes through an extended maceration period where color and flavor are extracted from the skins. Most producers, about this time separate their production between normale and riserva bottling. The normale bottles are released on the market 50 months after harvest and the riserva in another year. The aging requirements were established in 1998, and are considered serious business, as winemakers who intentionally stray from these requirements may be convicted of commercial fraud and receive an imprisonment sentence of up to six years.
Traditionally, the wines are aged in oak or more specifically, “in botte”-large Slavonian oak casks that do not impart much oak flavor and generally produce rather austere wines. Some winemakers tinker with the process and use small French barrique that impart a pronounced vanilla oak flavor, adding a fruitiness to the wine. Others tweak still further and strive for some middle ground where the wine is briefly aged in small barrique before settling in the traditional botte.
Many welcomed the barrique as they felt that the long period in the large vats was too much especially for weaker vintages, making them seem thinner and drained, having lost their “luster and charm”. A good Brunello should be assertive, characterized by strong tannins and a wonderful aromatic bouquet of spices, game, and sweet tobacco. source: [Culinaria Italy, p. 250, 2007]
Rosso di Montalcino
The Rosso di Montalcino DOC (Rosso) was established in 1984 to give Brunello di Montalcino producers the flexibility to continue the tradition of long aging of the region’s flagship wine, Brunello but gain revenue from alternative sources. Rosso might be thought of as Brunello lite. Rosso are made from the same grapes but not aged nearly as long, spending only six months as opposed to over a year in oak before release. By making Rosso, the Brunello producers can generate critical cash flow while their Brunello di Montalcino ages to their required duration. Also, if a vintage does not show good potential, more of the grapes will be set aside for the Rosso wine than the Brunello. Wineries can also declassify their Brunello that has already aged 2–3 years and release it as Rosso di Montalcino if the wine is not developing as desired. Rosso are typically lighter, fresher tasting that the more senior and esteemed Brunello, although some producers will make wines with more Brunello like characteristics, and it may be called “Baby Brunellos” which can sell for up to half the price of Brunello di Montalcino.