We will never meet the Etruscans (who were very keen winemakers) but we can imagine that we come close to them in this heartbreakingly beautiful town. The Etruscan civilisation was overwhelmed by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and most of what we know of them comes from funerary objects found in their tombs. One of the puzzles about them that has still to be resolved is their alphabet. As you walk up Via Gracciano towards the Piazza Grande of Montepulciano look out on the right for Palazzo Bucelli. The lower part of the wall is covered with archaeological fragments, including examples of Etruscan writing in stone. It looks similar to Greek and reads from right to left which is perhaps not surprising as the Ancient Greeks were thought to have been a major influence on the Etruscans. The Etruscan alphabet was possibly the immediate ancestor of the Latin alphabet.
On the way up to the Piazza Grande be sure to stop at the Piazza San Francesco for a fabulous view over the heavenly Valdichiana countryside. A few yards further brings you to the main square, Piazza Grande. Dating from the first half of the 15th century, the Palazzo Communale bears a striking resemblance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. More attractive for me is the Palazzo Nobili-Tarugi, opposite the cathedral, which dates from the first decades of the 16th century.
While I was admiring the beauties of the town, Vinnie looked longingly at the ubiquitous wine merchants proudly proclaiming the presence of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. As this was the reason for our visit, we set off to learn more about this very local delight and made our way to La Ciarliana, a small winery a couple of miles outside of the town. The vineyard is run by Luigi who is the third generation to farm this land. The business was started by his grandfather – a farmworker in the area – who, by the 1960s, had saved up sufficient money to buy a couple of hectares of land. Subsequent purchases mean that they now have 21 hectares of vines with an annual production of around 50,000 bottles.
Luigi is a softly-spoken man but he has very strong ideas on what he wants to create and he places care and quality right at the top of his list of priorities when it comes to wine. He moved the business towards the quality end of the market when he produced his first vintage in his garage in 1996. Today, things have moved forward but that care is still obvious in his attitude to his wines. We were shown round the winery by Sara, the very knowledgeable guide, who pointed out a large botte of Vino Nobile from 2016 that could have been released onto the market in the spring of 2019 but Luigi thought it needed more time – that is real care.
We tasted three wines, starting with Rosso di Montepulciano. A blend of Sangiovese, known locally as Prugnolo Gentile, with another local variety, Canaiolo and Merlot. This spends six months in stainless steel and is then bottled before being released onto the market after one year. The result is smooth, light and fruity with a nose full of strawberry and blackberry. It goes very well with pasta and pizza but be aware at 14.5% alcohol its lightness is deceptive.
Next to be sampled was the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a blend of 95% Prugnolo Gentile with another local variety, Mammolo. The bouquet is full of plums, blackberries, morello cherries, and liquorice. The palate is rich with baked plums, cherries, chocolate, and strawberries with soft, polished tannins. This wine has spent around two years in wood – 70% of the wine is matured in botti and 30% in barrique. The result is a finely structured wine that can be enjoyed with red meat or game.
The final wine we tried is a tribute to Luigi and his search for his idea of perfection. This is technically another Vino Nobile but this time it is 100% Prugnolo Gentile with all the grapes coming from the one vineyard that gives the wine its name, ‘Scianello. It has been matured for two years in large botti made from Slovenian oak before ageing for another 12 in bottle. The vineyard itself is a microcosm of the landscape around Montepulciano featuring four distinct soil types all bringing different characteristics to the wine. This is a wine that can be enjoyed by itself as a vino di meditazione or it will pair with the strong flavours of bistecca fiorentina or wild boar.
Italy has many small vineyards run by people with a passion for what they do and it was a real pleasure to meet Luigi and get an understanding of how much the land has made him and how much he has gained from the land.