Montalcino and its famous wine, Brunello

meandering alleyway

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.

Tuscan 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.

nearby countryside

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.

its worth the extra effort

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.

perched on a hill

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.

Buildings

a force of good

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.

wine tasting on the square

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.

view from the top

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.

feeling peaceful at sundown

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.

Food

the trouble with only one stomach

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.

because woman was not meant to drink alone

What Makes it Famous

a lay of the land

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.

it just doesn't get any better

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.

Tuscany's bucolic glory

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.

learning to appreciate the nuances

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]

Montalcino's contribution to the Giro

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.

Wine tasting in Montalcino

More Reading

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34 comments for “Montalcino and its famous wine, Brunello

  1. January 22, 2011 at 6:21 PM

    L- This is one of my favorite wine regions of the world, and big drive to visit Tuscany! I do like a good serious brooding brunello, especially the well-aged ones when the dark tannins give way to a mellower lighter bodied elegance. Much like the barolos the finer old bottles always seem to have a pleasing red rose scent and a hint of bloodiness (like from a medium-rare steak). So good!
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Curry Quinoa with Cabbage- Carrots and Green Beans

  2. January 23, 2011 at 1:39 AM

    What a great, well-researched post. I have lived in Montalcino for the last 15 years so feel able to judge! :)

  3. January 23, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    It looks like an untoached place with many beauties. I admire the photo on the top of the post. It reminds me of my hometown, which has several historical houses on ancient street. Thanks for sharing!

  4. January 23, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    As I plan my September trip to Italy – I keep adding towns. At present, I need to go for at least six months. But I love seeing the history, the centuries of food and wine-making. What’s a traveler to do?

    Grand post – the history and the wine making fascinate.
    Claudia recently posted..Vintage life- vintage lamb- vintage pasta- vintage soup

  5. OysterCulture
    January 23, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Christine – I have gotten the Tuscan bug and just want to explore and compare the different terroir, it was an incredible experience, to which I owe it all to hubby, who decided we needed to make this day trip!

    Laura – Thank you, I had an incredibly time checking out your corner of the world and now I cannot wait to make the return trip.

    Zerrin – If this is like your hometown, I can only imagine how beautiful it is. What a grand place.

    Claudia – I cannot wait to hear about your trip and have more recommendations I’ve collected to share with you. Have fun in the planning.

  6. January 23, 2011 at 7:54 PM

    I would love to visit Tuscany and the vineyards around Montalcino! Great post, as always!
    Azita recently posted..Toot – Mulberry Persian-Style Marzipan Confection

  7. January 24, 2011 at 3:45 AM

    Great – posted it on facebook – the tuscan food and wine page!
    Thanks
    Oriana recently posted..Cecchini- Panzano’s Butcher

  8. January 24, 2011 at 4:56 AM

    What an absolute lovely place tuscany is…every little corner seems to have its own special food, wine, custom, architecture…
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Banana Nut Monkey Bread

  9. January 24, 2011 at 5:44 AM

    Thanks for this extensive display of history. I love knowing about the history. Reading it is like going there with a tour guide.

    Mely

  10. January 24, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    That village is so beautiful! Thanks for the virtual visit.

    I’ve never had Brunello, but next time I’ll go in a store I’ll look for it. Italian wines are wonderful.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  11. January 24, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Those hills look exhausting, but a city like this is meant for walking! Way too many nooks you’d miss by driving by. Such an interesting pasta history and I can only imagine how fantastic the wine was!
    Lori recently posted..Cocoa-Coffee Brownies- A Feast for the Eyes

  12. January 24, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    I have been to Italy a few times but have never spent enough time in Tuscany. It’s a shame. Exploring Tuscany is on “my list” but won’t happen until the toddler is a lot older… Loved reading this post! Beautiful photos!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Veggies- Sunshine- and the Beach

  13. January 24, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    I loved the “tour”…thank you so much!

  14. January 24, 2011 at 9:39 PM

    I just want to wander around that town until I get lost. Love those narrow, cobblestone streets with all their hidden vistas. After all that strolling, a great glass of Brunello would just make it even more memorable.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..FoodGal’s 100 Gift Card Giveaway and Winner of the Asian Cookbook-App

  15. January 24, 2011 at 11:31 PM

    Brunello di Montalico…mmm..that’s my favourite wine!
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Cod with Creamy Red Lentils

  16. January 25, 2011 at 1:31 AM

    The place just has “character”, isn’t it?
    tigerfish recently posted..Steamed Egg – Home-style- Chinese-style

  17. January 25, 2011 at 2:48 AM

    Nice pictures! Were you there during Giro d’Italia (may 2010)? Where did you dine and did you visit any wineries? Next time you are in Italy, if you need tips or recommendations, don’t hesitate to ask :)
    ciao
    Simona
    Cellar Tours recently posted..Memorable Dishes of 2010 in France- Spain- Italy- and Ireland

  18. January 25, 2011 at 6:45 AM

    I absolutely need to put Montalcino on our destination list for when we visit Italy. Sounds like a gorgeous place to visit and of course would love to do the wine tastings here!
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..5 Star Foodie Junior- Pasta Salad with Bell Peppers and Pignoli Nuts

  19. January 25, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    What a charming little town! I could wander around there for hours with a bag full of those delicious treats! The sights are beautiful.
    Reeni recently posted..Chicken Tortilla Casserole

  20. January 25, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    What a lovely little corner of the world. Another great and well written post. Love those meandering alley ways.

  21. January 25, 2011 at 3:10 PM

    I’d love to spend a few days on Tuscan time here! I could definitely spend more than a few hours wandering the narrow streets, taking in the sights, sampling many plates of pasta, and sipping brunello. Good to know the distinction with Rosso.
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Chocolate Coconut Sorbet

  22. January 25, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    When I read some posts, I get scared that all I’ll ever see of Italu is Rome. Thanks for bringing the Mediterranean paradise to life. I wished I could appreciate fine wine………….hmmm. Tuscany and sunshine here we come
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..A Platter of Savoury Turkish Delights

  23. January 25, 2011 at 6:03 PM

    I simply love every post you feature, so much thought, your words are goregous ..hmm I want to book a trip tonight, lol..I would love to feast on wide noodles with boar sauce and slowly sip a local wine, lovely post..take care
    sweetlife
    sweetlife recently posted..Citrus Honey Punch

  24. OysterCulture
    January 25, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    Azita, thanks and you should!

    Oriana – Thank you!

    Gastro – I know, bu I think I missed a few things, must go back to confirm =)

    Mely – So glad you liked it!

    Rosa – You must try a Brunello as soon as you can.

    Lisa – We have plenty of practice living in SF =)

    Andrea – Hope the toddler grows up fast!

    Juliana – Glad you liked it.

    Carolyn – Its hard to get lost there, but maybe with enough Brunello…..

    Angie – I agree!

    Tigerfish – To spare!

    Cellar Tour – Did not make it to the Giro this year, but as Giro enthusists we had fun checking out the selection they had on display. Next time we’re in Italy Simona, I’m calling you!

    5 Star – I can say with great confidence that you will enjoy it.

    Reeni – As someone who did, I say “go for it!’

    Lisa – Thanks

    Lisa – You should. There should be no shortchanging the Rosso, that was good too.

    KB -The contrast between here and Rome is tremendous, you definitely need to explore the differences.

    Sweetlife – Thanks so much! I want to book a trip back, and I can tell you after many bowls of boar ragu – its a must!

  25. January 26, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    What a fabulous place you are fortunate to have visited.

  26. January 30, 2011 at 1:21 AM

    i often go to Italy for work and for pleasure I love it so much !!pierre
    pierre recently posted..Crème brûlée à lhuile de truffe- petite purée dartichaut

  27. January 30, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    I would love to visit Italy soon!What a beautiful place!

  28. OysterCulture
    January 31, 2011 at 8:56 PM

    Wizzy – I agree, I have to count my blessings, this was an incredible trip.

    Pierre – I envy your proximity to so much food and culture, not to mention incredible culinary talent.

    Erica – You’ll have to explore, once your baby is of age to appreciate the wonders of the world.

  29. rosann
    February 1, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    Do you have any idea where I can get a bottle of the Giro d’Italia wine in the states? I’ve googled around and the closest I’ve come to finding it, is the picture on this website.

  30. February 4, 2011 at 8:05 PM

    Great story LA. As always your writing is a pleasure to read. It is definitely making me drool for pici and brunello.

    When we went I was surprised to learn that Montalcino is like a little island in Tuscany. It was described to us in this way by the head of the wine consorzio when he was explaining the unique climate. We looked at it on a topographic map and indeed it did seem to appear to be an island.

    Such a great place!
    Amber

  31. OysterCulture
    February 5, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Rosann – That’s a good question, I’d check with the US distributors of Bunello, I’m sure your local wine store could get you started. Otherwise, the picture of the wine store on the square in Montalcino is where I saw the bottles of Giro wine. Best of luck.

    Amber – Montalcino was simply amazing, and I how interesting you had it described to you as an island, that certainly is an apt description for the climate that it has. I need to check out your post on this place.

  32. February 5, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    As a 15 year resident of Montalcino, I have the answer for Rosann! That pink Giro D’Italia bottle was a special edition produced by the Ciacci Piccolomini estate (www.ciaccipiccolomini.com – they have a list of stores on their site, listed state by state). You could also buy directly from the Enoteca di Piazza wine store in Montalcino http://www.enotecadipiazza.com/ – which is the one shown in the picture…. If any of the readers of this blog end up coming to Montalcino, please let me know if you’d like to visit me at Il Palazzone.

  33. Rosann
    February 7, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    Thank you Laura. I was in Tuscany in October and LOVED it. I’m sure I will be back!

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