Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities: Vino Nobile's Anteprima

View over the rooftops of Montepulciano to the distant valleys

This is second article by Bill Marsano on the recent anteprime tastings held in Tuscany in February.

Text ©Bill Marsano, 2009
Photos by Bill Marsano

"On to Montepulciano!" Hardly were those words out when a vast image out of spiritus mundi troubled my sight: 200-odd journalists, critics and wine-tradistas thronging forth from Florence's Leopolda and piling into a small fleet of large buses southbound for Montepulciano and its splendid wine, Vino Nobile. Newcomers among the gang may have actually expected to get there.

They did in due course, of course, but first we all fetched up at Chianciano Terme, a few miles southeast, owing to Montepulciano's double-edged sword. That's a subject that tempts me to divagate (N.B.: That's a verb, not a noun for another Amy Winehouse scandalo), but I'll get to that later. First, a little wine.

Noble as it is, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano can never catch a break. Even now it is insufficiently recognized, and just after World War II, when the U.S. was awash with fiasco Chianti, the few writers who mentioned it usually said a) it beat Chianti to sky blue fits but b) was seldom seen, what with just a handful producers and fewer than 400 acres.

Interest grew when Nobile was DOC'd 1966 and again when DOCG'd in 1980: Now some 170 producers work 2000 acres. Other developments were less helpful. SuperTuscans had wine-lovers tossing Bolgheri around as if they knew where it was; Chianti began pulling its socks up (to Sicily's dismay); Brunello's 1960 acreage increased 10 times over by 1980; and Morellino di Scansano sat upright in its coffin . . . .

Pouring the Nobile

Nor did the press always gave Nobile a fair shake. A colleague at a tasting once beefed "All these wines are too much alike." Not such a bad thing, I thought, for a wine seeking an identity. Then a year later I heard "I don't understand these wines. They're all over the place!" Oh: not alike enough. Whillikers! Please, people--just try some?

Nobile DOCG requires a minimum 70 percent Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese's local moniker). The Anteprima had few wines that low. One was Carpineto, which doesn't specify the blender grape(s). Should I be scandalizzato? Dunno, because Carpineto makes Nobile only as a riserva, and I swooned for the '01 and '03. Maria Caterina Dei also blends unnamed complementari (20 percent) in her Nobile. Problemo? Nah: Her Nobile normale or vino d'annata was delightful, and her Riserva Bossona, which she's been perfecting since its inaugural vintage (1999) deserves the Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) awarded by from Gambero Rosso. I also enjoyed her SuperTuscan, Sancta Catharina, which includes Cabernet.

Di fatto, most wines Anteprima'd were 80 percenters and many were in the 90s. Conventional wisdom (wishful thinking? speculation? gossip?) says the zone is just far enough south of Chianti to be a bit warmer and so reduce the need for blending. Yet I spotted only two in purezza wines: Salcheto and the weighty, dinner-style Torcalvano Gracciano. I quite liked both.

The blender grapes are the old-timey Colorino, Cannaiolo and Mammolo, the newer, Cabernet and Merlot. A few producers add but one although most use two or three (one uses five), so it's unusual for any one blender to overwhelm rather than contribute.

I liked Poliziano, which won a Tre Bicchieri award, as it has "with implacable regularity" since 1997; Triacca (annata and riserva both); Il Conventino likewise; La Calonica, also Tre Bicchieri and a star of the Italian Trade Commisson's January Vinoweek tastings in New York, Boston and Miami; La Ciarliana's Vigna 'Scianello; Le Casalte's Querciatonda; Lodola Nuova and Talosa, two more dinner-weight wines; Vecchia Cantina and Villa S. Anna, with their Durante noses; Il Faggeto's delightful Pietranera; Trerose's Simposio and La Villa; Valdipiatta's entire lineup, including the Pinot Nero(!); Le Bèrne (normale and riserva); Poggiagallo; and La Braccesca's normale and the riserva, the Vigneto Santa Pia.

My increasingly illegible notes say those last two "drink right down," but senza dubbia as much can be said for the Canneto, Contucci, Avignonesi, Fanetti, del Cerro, Bindella and Boscarelli, which I finished off even as they finished me.

By the way, just as Carpineto makes only Nobile Riserva, a several producers make only vino d'annata. And many a riserva does without a nome di fantasia, the ego-warming fantasy handle that is excessively popular elsewhere. So as not to miss a riserva, you'll have to look a bit closely at the label. If that's not asking too much.

Montepulciano's wealth of cheeses

Afterward came Montepulciano's customary abbondanza lunch, which could make a Puritan weep. The specialties are those wonderful fruit-topped torte and superb farm formaggi served by the very people who made them (if you ask, they'll introduce their sheep).

Then forklifts loaded the giornalisti onto lorries and medevacs, palanquins and litters pointed at Montalcino's Benvenuto Brunello.

Now I did mention Montepulciano's double-edged sword, and so must explain.

One edge is that this handsome medieval-Renaissance hilltown is all up and down--sometimes I think mainly up--and is more or less nowhere: far from the autostrada on a two skinny lanes of asphalt that wriggle like a small intestine and have exactly as many guard rails. It's between Acquaviva and Pienza, which means what? Probably that you're lost. Thus lovely Montepulciano escapes the soilsome hand of mass tourism.

Entrance to Meuble Il Riccio

The sharper edge is that Montepulciano's few hotels are either small or smaller. Il Borghetto is at the bottom of the town, whence the hike up to the centro storico will do you a world of good. La Terrazza is about halfway up and Hotel Duomo is off Piazza Grande, but the jewel in the town is Meublè Il Riccio, set in an 11th Century palazzo and run by Giorgio and Ivana Caroti with the help of son Iacopo, daughter-in-law Monica and Giorgio's mother, Antonietta. Elegant rooms, arcaded court, terrace looking onto tiled roofs and distant hills-- Oh, just Google and go, that's my motto. But be warned: you will hate having to leave.

Such homey places can't accommodate container loads of scribblers. That's why we had been off-loaded in Chianciano Terme, a spa town (your liver is our business).

American spas are indulgences where healthy-wealthy women show off their clothes, get absurdly priced beauty treatments and confide in their journals when not confiding in their sistern around a campfire and crying a lot. (Let go of the pain, girl!) Eurospas are mainly for sick people; di fatto, Italians used to get (and maybe still do) 10 government-paid spa days a year for their health. Thus Chianciano Terme is full of large new hotels and, in winter, almost devoid of life. The Nobile Consorzio had to wake the Ambasicatori Hotel from hibernation for the journalists' gala cocktail and gala dinner. Both lived up to their billing, and after sustaining sufficient damage the celebrants sought took the narrow elevator to their beds in narrow, cheerless rooms that had been decorated in the early 1960s by teams of dental hygienists engaged in a competition long and best forgotten. Never mind. Next morning, Montepulciano herself more than made up for it.
Next: Off to Montalcino.

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