About an hour’s drive from Montepulciano, Montalcino is the center of one of the best red wine regions in the world. Brunello, the best of which is 100% Sangiovese grapes, comes in three varieties just like the Montepulciano wines we have been drinking in our ‘home’ town. The lowest level is Sant’Antimo. This wine is meant to be drunk as soon as it is purchased, is usually rather fruity. Aged for only one year, the wine may include 15% grapes other than Sangiovese. This is the wine that will most often be the table wine offered in local restaurants. A carafe will often sell for less than €6.
|Not many shoppers, but the wine shops are ready. All offer tasting, often free.|
The midlevel wine, Rosso di Montalcino DOC is 100% Sangiovese grapes and will be aged at least one year of which six months must be in oak. This wine will still have some fruitiness, but will also be more lively and somewhat tannic. These wines sell for €7-15 in the bottle. The best of the Brunellos are labeled Brunello di Montalcino DOCG or Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Riserva, will also be 100% Sangiovese grapes and must be aged 5 or 6 years before release. They must spend at least two years in oak. The preferred barrels are large Slavonian casks because they impart little flavor to the wine. Selling for as much as €200 per bottle and more, these wines will easily age 15-30 years. In fact, some wines from the late 19th century are still in excellent condition.
These DOC/DOCG rules were established by the Italian government in 1963 to assure the origin and quality of wine and cheeses produced in Italy. They have been modified somewhat in the years since to conform with EU laws. The G for guaranteed was added later because some wine makers were concerned that the DOC designation was being applied to liberally. DOCG wines must age at least one year beyond those that only receive the DOC designation.
We started our visit to Montalcino with a visit to the Fortezza on the highest point in the town. After a quick look inside, we decided to check out the rest of the town before returning to taste some of the wines at the wine bar in the old chapel inside the fort. We walked past the closed Duomo on the other end of town where we spent some time in the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Soccorso built in the 16th century with a façade that was added in the 19th century. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness we were treated to an outstanding baroque alter and a beautiful stained glass which was more of a town scene than the typical religious motif. We also enjoyed the great views of the surrounding countryside and an interesting sculpture on the lawn. The sculpture had a wind chime in the middle. Of course, we tried it but the sound was not like a typical “free form” chime. It was actually rather tinny and unpleasant.
|It is nice to see that these towns are still supporting art.|
|It is a religious scene, but with the look of the Montalcino and its people.|
We then headed back to the center of town where another church beckoned us. The Church of Sant’Egido also known as the Church of the Sinese, built in the 1300s, was the official church of the Republic of Siena in exile in the 1550s. Siena had lost the war with Florence, but the leaders escaped and were able to hold out in the well-defended Montalcino for another three years before France and Spain (Siena’s and Florence’s allies respectively) came to terms essentially ending the war.
|A modern look to this baptismal font|
The town square shows its history with this statue on a pedestal highlighting the link to ancient Roma. Tradition has it that the town was founded by the sons of Remus who fled after he was killed by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. The flags show the winner of the neighborhoods competition that had just been completed the day before we arrived. The weekend was very busy with lots of food, wine, and archery competitions. The winning neighborhood gets bragging rights for the next year. It seems that most larger towns in this area have such competitions. In Siena, it culminates in a horse race. In Montepulciano, teams of two men roll an 80kg wine barrel up to the Piazza Grande at the top of the town. The route is approximately 1 mile long with some hills of at least a 10% grade. It is a decent walk, never mind having to push this barrel in front of you.
After a lunch at the Café Fiaschetteria Italia which was founded by the creator of Brunello wines in the 1880s, we headed back to the Fortezza’s wine bar to taste some of the famous Brunellos. We were not disappointed, nor would we expect to be when paying €38 to taste five wines and one additional provided by our waiter. For once Linda and I agreed on the best of the six which surprisingly turned out to be the least expensive at €75. We will save that one to have on Linda’s birthday when we arrive in Rome.
On our way home to Montepulciano, we took a short detour to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. The abbey was founded by the Lombards in 770 and received a seal from Charlemagne in 781. Over the next 400 years the abbey grew tremendously owning 96 castles and 85 monasteries. After reaching that high point, they lost their main castle in Montalcino to Siena in 1200. The decline continued until 1462 when it was suppressed by Pius II. The abbey fell into disrepair until it was revived as an abbey in 1992. The most interesting elements of the abbey are the Deambulatory, something rare in Italy, a walkway behind the alter built to allow pilgrims to circle the relics of the 4th century martyr Sant’Antimo. His remains may be buried in the small crypt under the alter.
Finally, there is the capital sculpture of Daniel in the lions’ den carved by the Master of Cabestany in the 12th century. Details of his life are unknown, but his works can be seen throughout Spain, France, and Tuscany. The abbey was far different from the churches we have visited, much more stark. Adding to the ambience, they play nuns chanting. First time we heard any type of music in a church.
A few final scenery pictures from the drive and proof that some people don't know when it's time to quit. This lady is pruning the olive trees with a hand saw.