Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: Making Wine in the New Normal


Returning to Montepulciano warms my heart. Not only has the region moved forward by leaps and bounds qualitatively, but also in communication, marketing and, most importantly, a willingness to better understand their terroir. Going back only five years ago, there were only a handful of wineries worth keeping tabs on, but that number has grown substantially. Much of this concerns a paradigm shift amongst producers who have realized that consumers crave a more transparent Vino Nobile that focuses on Tuscany’s primary variety, Sangiovese, and less on the heavy use of oak and significant additions of international varieties. As a result, Italy’s first DOCG wine has made a serious comeback, and the future appears to be very bright. 

Looking out across the southern reaches of Montepulciano.

Montepulciano is a wine-tourist and food-lover’s paradise, all centered in a charming, yet significantly larger than you’d expect, fortified hilltop town that is accessible and easy to traverse on foot. Montepulciano offers a wide selection of excellent restaurants, wine bars, hotels, shopping, live performances, panoramic countryside views, art and stunning architecture. Moreover, wine lovers can experience winery tours through historic caves that reveal centuries of history beneath the bustling city streets, along with the conveniently located and welcoming Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano–all without ever leaving town.  

Last year's article, “Terroir and Determination: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano,” went into considerable detail about the region, the intricacies of the aging requirements of Vino Nobile and the new Pieve designation. Readers might like to revisit that article for context on those topics, as little has changed, naturally outside of the vintages covered in this report. What’s more, the new Pieve designation will be a major topic of discussion next year when the 2021s, the first vintage, enter the market. There is a rumor that producers may be able to approve wines from the 2020 harvest retroactively for Pieve, yet I’ve yet to see anything labeled as such. That said, a few facts are worth repeating for readers who may not have experience with the region. 

The wine of Montepulciano, not to be confused with the grape variety found primarily in Abruzzo, has a long-standing history. Even Thomas Jefferson, a well-documented wine lover and writer (I highly recommend reading “Thomas Jefferson on Wine” by John Hailman), sang its praises. Yet even before that, documentation of wine being produced within its borders goes back to the eighth century. The town is in southeastern Tuscany, south of Chianti Classico, east and slightly north of Montalcino, bordered by the Val d’Orcia. The region's fame helped Vino Nobile become the first DOCG in Italy, joined by Brunello and then Barolo and Barbaresco.

Old vine Prugnolo Gentile in the Talosa vineyards.

However, as much of Tuscany began to focus primarily on Sangiovese, including changes in regulations within Chianti Classico, for example, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano remained a wine heavily blended with international varieties. Moreover, the wines were often produced in the international style of the times, with a heavy reliance on oak. While this made the wines unique and usually more accessible in their youth, consumer tastes were also changing and swaying from this style of Tuscan wine. To this day, the DOCG production rules permit up to 30% of other red grape varieties in Vino Nobile. Luckily, due to the work and success of some of the region's top producers pushing toward varietal wines or wines that are 90-95% Sangiovese, it’s rare to find an example that blends any more than 10-15% of other varieties. Most producers now use traditional Tuscan varieties, such as Canaiolo, Colorino and Mammolo. 

As a result, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, often just referred to today as Nobile or Vino Nobile (to avoid consumer confusion with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo), improved drastically. With the addition of the Pieve designation (which permits only 10% added varieties) as well as a statement of the place where the grapes were sourced, we can expect great things in the years to come.

Valdipiatta's barrel aging room.

The New Normal Is Not Normal At All

With all that said, the producers of Montepulciano have had their hands full dealing with the challenges of recent years in the form of warm and arid conditions. Each growing season presents new trials, and as soon as one seems to be overcome, another is right around the corner. In 2023, a massive amount of rain and lack of sunlight through spring resulted in the worst onset of downy mildew the region had ever witnessed. Unseasonably hot temperatures followed in July. Some producers reported losing up to 70% of their production and, in some cases, have already decided not to bottle a Vino Nobile in 2023. Others claim it may be a form of natural selection by Mother Nature. However, the fear is that the remaining grapes on the vine may already be contaminated by rot. It will be an interesting vintage to follow over the coming years. 

It’s important to note that while Montepulciano is only a forty-five-minute car ride from Montalcino, their vintages can differ slightly. This is primarily due to Montepulciano’s proximity to the Apennines, an area of soft rolling hills distant from the Adriatic Sea. The wines here tend to follow the trends of Montalcino’s Northeast. 

Because of regulations regarding the aging and release of wines there are usually at least four vintages to review each year. Rosso di Montepulciano requires a minimum of four months of aging, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano requires two years, and Riserva requires three years before release. So, with this report, we are looking at 2022, 2021, 2020 and 2019, with a few stragglers from 2018 made up primarily of Riservas and a few single-vineyard wines. 

The Montemercurio vineyard.

Of these four years, 2019 is the one to focus on, not just because it makes up the bulk of what’s entering the market but also because it represents a more classic Vino Nobile profile. Coming off the rainy and warm 2018 vintage, which presented pretty and lifted wines that often lacked substance, the 2019s are a breath of fresh air. They are dark and powerful, full of complexity, but with refined tannic profiles. This will be a vintage for the cellar that we will talk about for a long time. The 2019s are some of the most exciting young wines I remember tasting at several estates. In no specific order, some standouts include Boscarelli, La Braccesca, Montemercurio, Poliziano, Valdipiatta, Villa S. Anna, Poderi Sanguineto I e II and Salcheto. 

So far, the 2020s I have tasted are less exciting. Achieving balance from the 2020 vintage was difficult for most producers, including highly regarded estates. The challenges of the vintage included late frosts, a humid spring, a summer with several extreme heat events that shut down the vines, hail and a rainy season finale. The trick to 2020 was finding physiological ripeness that in many cases was not reached. The wines are round and plush, yet often appear stunted and lacking depth. Many 2020s show beautiful aromatics and elegance, yet then resolve into a finish of edgy, gripping tannins that feel awkward and out of place. I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater since I’ve already found several standouts (Cantina Dei and Poliziano come to mind), but consumers must be selective. 

Current releases for Rosso di Montepulciano are mostly 2021s and 2022s. The 2021s are intense, rich and powerful wines from a warm yet more balanced year than 2020. Due to frigid temperatures in April that affected budding, there will also be less to go around. There is a lot of immediate pleasure and purity in these wines. Even more important is the consistency from producer to producer. I expect this sun-kissed vintage to enjoy a long and broad drinking window. Don’t be surprised if several of the bigger wines require extensive cellaring. It’s a vintage that shows how producers are learning to deal better with the warming trends in Montepulciano. It’s common to find canopy training that shields the fruit from the scorching sun, and significantly more wineries have reduced tilling to maintain moisture in their soils. 

A tasting lineup of Vino Nobile.

 As for 2022, this made up a minor representation of the last four vintages in my report, consisting of early-release Rossos and a few IGTs. The 2022 vintage was a scorcher and also incredibly dry. When I was in Montepulciano in July 2022, producers were praying for rain. The region had gone through an arid spring, and the ground had begun to crack open, further exacerbating the issues by releasing moisture into the atmosphere. Rain did arrive, but it wasn’t substantial enough to quench the vines' thirst. From what I’ve tasted, the wines are rich and ripe with juicy acidity, yet lack depth and often come across with a candied quality. 

I tasted all of the wines for this article in Montepulciano in the summer of 2023.

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