A good way to confirm wine quality from a given region, after having been invited there on a press trip, is to test the wines by pouring them for assessment by people who had not attended the trip. That’s precisely what I did following a tour of Montecucco, Tuscany this past September, to prove the point that Montecucco wines can achieve excellent price/quality ratios, especially for lovers of Sangiovese-based blends.
Organized by the Consortium for the Protection of Montecucco Wines, the late September 2018 visit marked 20 years since the relatively young DOC had been introduced.
Packed into three days, participants included media flown in from the United States, the U.K. and Germany, along with many Italian journalists. Over dinners and lunches, on-location visits to some wineries and a seated master class vertical reaching back to 1998, we assessed wines from the 66 producers who make up the consortium.
Like other parts of Tuscany, Montecucco seduces visitors with olive trees as well as vineyards planted on gorgeous, rolling hills. The Tenuta di Montecucco, where we checked into our rooms in lovely stone houses, used to be a small village, complete with a chapel. In the 19th century there was a school here. The owner of Tenuta di Montecucco, Claudio Carmelo Tipa, is also president of the consortium. He hosted a fine opening lunch and later two dinners -- including a gala closing dinner -- at his property. And we visited several other such lovely properties where the wines were consistently delicious -- including wines from the Tenuta Impostino, and the wineries of Pianirossi and Montenero among others.
But you can imagine how the gorgeous sun soaked setting alone would sway participants to have fond memories….
Fast-forward to last month in Venice, where a group of wine loving legal experts enjoyed some of the same wines that I had tried in Montecucco. I was in Venice because of my other working hat: Media relations manager for the Council of Europe. Constitutional law experts associated with the Council of Europe make up the “Venice Commission,” which meets four times a year in this fabled city to address legal challenges facing European countries.
As it turns out, some Venice Commission members and staff appreciate wine, so they accepted an offer to have a wine tasting following their deliberations. Valentina and Stefano Pasqueto, owners of the Montenero Winery in Montecucco, also own a wine bar in nearby Verona, so it was no problem for them to trek to Venice and offer a tasting from their seven-hectare, 400-meter-high vineyards (including 35-year-old Sangiovese that reveals much depth in one of their wines especially). Much of their 45,000 bottle annual production is exported, including to the United States.
Venice Commission lawyers liked the easy-going Montecucco Rosso ($16), made from 90% Sangiovese and 5% each of Merlot and local grape Ciliegiolo, fermented in stainless steel using wild yeasts. The 2016 vintage at 13% alcohol comes across vivid and pure, quite fruit forward and easy to drink: a great by-the-glass selection.
Montenero Winery is one of the few producers in Montecucco to craft a 100% Ciliegiolo, and the wine -- the Pampano 2016 -- is a delight to drink, because of its bright, cherry-like fruit as well as spicy and mint freshness. It is aged 9-10 months in steamed barrels. “Ciliegiolo” in Italian denotes cherry, and the grape makes light, fruit-driven wine that isn’t overly structured, and which consequently tends to be used as a blending grape (also for the color it lends). Another easy-going drink that the lawyers enjoyed.
However, most legal experts were drawn particularly to the 100% Sangiovese Montecucco ($25) from the 2015 vintage, that includes grapes from their older vines. Fermented in stainless steel, the wine then ages for 18 months in large French oak barrels, some of those being new but made using steam (rather than flame char) so as to impart less obviously oaky flavors, and then nine more months more in bottle before release. Only 7,000 bottles are made and the wine shows much depth as well as ripe fruit, with a certain pleasing spice.
Montecucco has only recently decided to invest in tourism and marketing. Neighbors include the more famous appellation of Montalcino, producing Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. Indeed, Montecucco is sandwiched between Brunello di Montalcino and Morellino di Scansano’s DOCGs, with seven municipalities registered (and guaranteed since 2011 as DOCG Montecucco Sangiovese) with designations of origin including: Arcidosso, Campagnatico, Castel del Piano, Cinigiano, Civitella Paganico, Roccalbegna and Seggiano.
The consortium’s 66 member wine producers possess 800 hectares of vineyards, 500 of which are destined to the DOC e DOCG, and wines obtained through one of the lowest yields per hectare in Italy.
The best reds that I tried on the September trip were made from the local Ciliegiolo and especially Sangiovese grapes, although Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are often used in blends and result in fine expression. Some missteps however come with 100% Merlot wines, which came across a bit boring.
Soils from the towering 1,700-meter-high Monte Amiata, a dormant volcano at the northeastern part of the Montecucco, lend character to the wine, helping to define Montecucco as a winemaking region. “Monte Amiata Sangiovese” is a phrase often used by the consortium to describe their most important grape and wines.
Leave aside the unfortunate 2017 harvest, which in Montecucco yielded losses of between 30% to 50%, the DOC and DOCG since 2012 have seen a steady growth of yield: In 2016 the appellation almost doubled production from the last three years.
From Easy Drinking to Depth and Structure
As we saw with the Venice tasting, the reds of Montecucco can vary in style. And one of the most impressive wineries we visited in September was the Castello Colle Massari winery, under the same ownership as the Tenuta di Montecucco, about a 15-minute (brisk) walk away. Founded in 1998, it is part of the Montecucco DOC area in Upper Maremma, situated in the foothills of Mount Amiata.
The land is situated at over 300 meters above sea level with an average 15% incline and is orientated towards the coast, meaning consistent ventilation and strong thermals.
Part of the appeal comes from the winery’s modern architecture, dating back to 2000 and fitting in neatly with the old, timeless landscape. It was named “Winery of the Year” in 2014 by the Vini d’Italia Guide Gambero Rosso in part because it adheres to certified organic guidelines. It was designed by Edoardo Milesi, an award-winning architect, whose firm also designed (in 2015) the Forum Fondazione Bertarelli, a music hall and auditorium.
But for consumers, what matters most is the wine.
Although there was a misstep for me -- the Colle Massari Montecucco Riserva DOC 2015, with somewhat hard tannin -- I really enjoyed the easy drinking Rigoleto Montecucco Rosso DOC 2016, which is a pleasing blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Montelpulciano and 15% Ciliegiolo. Aged 10 months, half in steel and half in barrels, this wine yields a rather complex nose of cherry, invoking Pinot Noir-like elegance, many of us agreed. For the price (about $10), a great deal.
An example of Monteccuco with more depth and structure came from the excellent Castello Colle Massari Poggio Lombrone Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva 2013 (DOCG). Certified organic, this 100% Sangiovese was aged three years in big oak barrels and two more in bottle before being released. Vines come from a two-hectares monopole vineyard, and the fresh earth (“barnyard clean”) aspects are complemented nicely with ripe cherry and some crushed tobacco, with a pleasing bitterness on the long finish. It has the elegance of the Rigoleto, but with more substance on the palate. The 14.5% alcohol is not too evident as fine acidity balances things nicely. For under $30 retail, this constitutes a bargain. Apparently the wine is sold quite successfully in Switzerland and in the U.S. but also in Japan and in other parts in Europe (the domain exports about 60% of its wines).
A master class including wines reaching back to 1998 proved how other Montecucco producers have been crafting excellent wines at least since that year.
Also worth noting are some excellent Vermentino whites. One example is the Castello Colle Massari Melacce Vermentino 2017 DOC, which is certified organic and 100% Vermentino. Careful sorting of only the best grapes is followed by slow fermentation at a cool 15°C. I love the white pepper and white flower aromas with a “perky” aspect to the palate, displaying fine acidity. The U.S. retail price is about $19.
On your next visit to Tuscany, do not just go to the most famous parts of the region. Visit Montecucco as well.