The hilltop town of Montalcino rises like a great green beacon of wine from the flat burnt sienna plains that stretch south from Siena in southern Tuscany. Like many areas in Tuscany the roads are narrow and windy as they stretch up the hillside towards the fortress of Montalcino. Vines cover the slopes along the way, but these are not the vast rolling vineyards that can be found elsewhere. They are dots and pockets of vines, situated to reflect either one of the varied and unique terroirs of the region, or to take advantage of a south-facing slope, or perhaps to just nestle next to corn and tomato plants in someone’s back yard.
For this is one half of the greatness of Montalcino and the wines produced here- Vines may not be cast about and spread as far as the eye can see. Only 8% of the area is planted to vine, the rest comprised of olive groves, wheat fields and wild woodland. A site must deserve the vine before it can be planted there. It must pass inspection and receive approval from the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino, the local consortium that regulates all things concerning production of one of the greatest wines in the world- Brunello di Montalcino.
The other half of the genius of Brunello di Montalcino is the grape from which it is made: The Sangiovese Grosso. Locally known as Brunello (little brown one) for the dark hue to its skin, it can now be found in other parts of Tuscany, but it is here in Montalcino that this particular clone of Sangiovese was isolated by the wine pioneer Ferrucio Biondi Santi way back in 1870. This particular strain of Sangiovese provided wines with more depth, richness, structure and quality than had ever been coaxed from Sangiovese before, and would go on to provide the lifeblood for some of the most famous wines in the world.
Times are changing for the town of Montalcino. For years the wines were aged for three years in large Slavonian oak cask, the neutral quality of the wood allowed the wine to soften and mature without taking on overtly oaky tones. But today many wines are made in smaller French oak barrels with just two years worth of aging. This new-world style of winemaking begets a wine that is soft, fruity and full of the requisite oak overtones so common in new-world wines. This stands in stark contrast to the old ways of Montalcino.
But who is to say which style is better? Brunello di Montalcino has seen a positively meteoric rise to success in the last twenty years, shifting from a world-class wine that few outside of Italy were familiar with to a wine that is the class of Italy, internationally regarded and sought after by wine lovers the world over. During this success wineries have fallen into a couple of different camps: those that prefer the traditional old world style and charm and those that prefer wines that are lush and scented with oak and fall into a decidedly new world style. A war of competing philosophies acted out on the fields of vines with each passing vintage.
One winery has escaped the clutches of these definitions: Poggio Antico. They are the only producer in Montalcino to embrace the style and technology of the new world while retaining the passion for producing traditional Brunello. They are unique in that they produce both a new-world Brunello, one that is aged in French barrels that hold a scant 500 liters, and an old-world Brunello, steeped in tradition and aged for a longer amount of time in huge Slavonian oak, a vessel that holds 100 times as much wine.
Located just to the south of the town of Montalcino, Poggio Antico is a 500 acre picture of rolling Tuscan beauty. Cypress and olive trees line the roads. Vineyards stretch off towards the sunset. Deep woodlands are broken by glowing wheat fields. It is this charm that brought Giancarlo and Nuccia Gloder to Montalcino from Milan. Their passion for the wines and views of Montalcino led them to purchase the estate in 1984 at a time when the area wasn’t quite as en vogue as it is today.
But what a site they chose! At an average altitude of 450 meters, Poggio Antico boasts some of the highest vineyards in Montalcino. The high elevation brings constant maritime breezes from the ocean some 50km away. The breezes keep the grapes free from fog, frost and mildew, a constant danger to others nearby. The vineyards face south and southwest to capture as much of the sun as possible, yet the high elevations bring a refinement and elegance to the wines by keeping the grapes cool at night. The soil is a mix of calcareous rocks over clay subsoil, which drains well and provides a poor environment for the vines to grow, perfect for healthy grapes.
Since 1987 Giancarlo and Nuccia’s youngest daughter Paola has managed the estate, and since then Poggio Antico has added new vineyards, a new wing to the winery, new state of the art temperature controlled stainless-steel tanks for fermentation and a new cellar area in which to store the wine. The winery is a combination of tradition and innovative thinking. There is a corporate efficiency to the operation, yet they remain family owned and operated and only produce less than 8,000 cases of wine per year. The winery is immaculately clean, yet they prefer the old Slavonian cask to the new French tonneaux (500 liter cask).
The same could be said for the family. Though Paola and her husband and partner in operations Alberto Montefiori were not available for our tour, we came across Giancarlo who was about as charming and inviting as he could possibly be. After going over the logistics of their website (in itself somewhat surprising coming from a man of his age) he encouraged us to take a walk around the grounds by simply stating, "Walk up that way, it is beautiful. And if you go far enough you will reach our house. It’s ok, keep going. It is a lovely walk up there."
Montalcino itself has gone through as much of a change. In 1980 Brunello di Montalcino received DOCG status, the highest designation a region can receive in Italy and the first DOCG that had been awarded. But quality had been ensured long before this by the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino. Established in 1967 by a group of wineries to regulate the high standards already being employed in the area, the Consorzio was the first of its kind. They imposed limits on the grapes used, vineyards, amount of wine produced, quality level and aging program, all in an effort to create the best Brunello possible.
To this day their reach is felt, as each Brunello must undergo sensory and taste evaluations before they are sold as Brunello, and each vineyard is given a strict limit on the amount of wine it may produce. Some say that the policing of the Brunello wines by the Consorzio have been instrumental in the success enjoyed today.
Poggio Antico takes many of the requirements a step further. Though the wines are only required to spend two years in barrel, Poggio Antico ages them for three. Though the vineyards may produce up to 3.4 metric tons per acre (an already miniscule amount) you will never find more than 2 tons per acre from any of their vineyards. Each vine goes through a rigorous pruning process to ensure that only the best bunches of fruit are harvested at the end of the season. Most of the vines date back to the 1970s, but they are slowly being replanted to take advantage of greater vine density, a process that is costly and time consuming, but in the end higher vine density coupled with lower yields of grapes per vine will result in better wines.
After the grapes are harvested they are sorted and de-stemmed by hand to ensure the gentlest treatment possible. Each vineyard is vinified separately in stainless-steel and temperature controlled tanks. Poggio Antico also uses a unique cap "push down" method in which the skins are evenly and completely pushed back into the fermenting juice to increase extraction. For the past few vintages Carlo Ferrini has acted as winemaker and consultant, a man whose name is synonymous with quality in Tuscany.
Which leads us back to the wines. Poggio Antico produces three Brunello di Montalcinos. The first is their traditional Brunello, which is aged for three years in the more traditional large Slavonian barrel. As Joe put it, "The Slavonian Oak adds the structure and the ability to age for up to 20 or 30 years." I am not sure about thirty, but the wine was a treat to inhale, with lots of perfume and sweet spices unfolding above a palate that was long and silky, and certainly built to age.
The Brunello Riserva is made from the oldest parcels of vines, and undergoes an even more rigorous selection and pruning process. It spends one year in French tonneaux before two and half years in large Slavonian barrel and then a further 2 years in bottle prior to release. The result is an incredibly smooth, rich and delicious wine that is 100% traditional Brunello. It was a study in chewy tannins, balancing acidity and plenty of tobacco and dark chewy fruit, followed by a long and lovely finish.
Since 1983 Poggio Antico has also produced the Altero, a Brunello di Montalcino that is aged solely in French tonneaux. The result is a more internationally styled wine full of charm and juicy character. Many Brunellos are now made in this fashion, but Altero was the first, and up until 1999 was required to be sold as Vino di Tavola or IGT. The Altero is up front and rich, with only hints and subtle reminders of the smaller oak barrels in which it was aged.
Quality is emphasized from the first wines to the last, as the Rosso di Montalcino is given the same treatments in the vineyards and at harvest as the Brunello di Montalcino. In fact, the only difference outside of the aging process between the two wines is that the Rosso hails from slightly younger vines. In the best vintages there may be no Rosso produced at all as all of the grapes will be used to produce Brunello.
Poggio Antico also produces a wine called Madrè, produced from the vineyard of the same name. It is a Super-Tuscan blend of equal parts Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, and provides as much character and warmth as one would expect from Poggio Antico, albeit in a style far removed from the Brunellos. Rich and fruity, with plenty of cassis, sweet oak and ripe tannins, the Madrè was 100% Tuscany.
One might wonder if the different styles of wines produced at Poggio Antico would clash with each other, but in the end it is a seamless transition from one to the other. Much like the combination of technology and tradition found in the winery, the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. While the folks at Poggio Antico have embraced the new ways and new styles of wine, they feel that it is important to hold onto tradition and the old ways even though they may not garner as much publicity. If not, as Joe put it, "In the end, everyone would make a wine to please the critics." This is one critic, however, who hopes they continue doing things just the way they are.