Ever dream of spending a week or two in Tuscany living off the land, noshing on deliciously al dente pasta, eating the freshest fruits and vegetables, and sipping wine from the region? Well, it ‘s easier than you think, and vacations to Tuscany are no longer about museum-hopping in Venice or strolling the narrow streets of Siena. Americans are flocking to smaller vineyards in the region and plotting their own wine tours as they meander from village to Italian village.
Tuscany is known for its red wine varietals including Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. But there’s a third Tuscan wine that Americans are not as familiar with but that any thorough wine connoisseur will insist deserves attention: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This rich, flavorful wine—once the wine of popes and nobles—comes from the same Sangiovese grape that bears its regional counterparts but is distinctly different in body and flavor. It goes perfectly with a variety of cuisines, and it was even the first wine in Italy to earn the distinction of DOCG (the highest national seal of wine quality).
Vino Nobile is composed of Sangiovese and, with permission from Italian regulators, up to 30% of other red grapes. Some producers, however, like Avignonesi, have made their names using 100% Sangiovese grapes, which has proven extremely popular with its loyal fans.
Getting to Montepulciano
To get the best of Vino Nobile and understand its origins and finest production, one must plot a visit to Montepulciano, about a two-hour drive north of Rome’s Fiumicino airport. If arriving by train, it should be noted that the train station is on the outskirts of town and is not walking distance from the town center. Taxis are not always available, so it’s best to reserve one in advance. Your best bet is to plan a few nights in town so as to leisurely explore the area’s vineyards.
Set atop a hill, the town of Montepulciano is as picturesque as it gets. It maintains its original protective wall around its base and steep roads winding to the pinnacle, which provided an added layer of protection from its enemies centuries ago. Plus, the views from town of the Tuscan Val di Chiana are exceptional.
If you can swing it, a couple of nights at the four-bedroom Palazzo Nobile di San Donato is ideal as its front entrance opens directly to the town’s main square (Piazza Grande), churches of Sant’Agostino and Santa Maria, and the magnificent Sanctuary of San Biagio. Be sure to take a peek at the recently acquired Caravaggio portrait in the nearby art museum. Once settled in this restored private mansion, stroll through the town’s charming streets where you’ll discover a variety of small shops and cafes. If things are starting to look familiar, you should know that both Montepulciano and the neighboring town of Cortona were used in the filming of Under the Tuscan Sun and The English Patient.
Be sure to order some of the region’s notable dishes like bistecca fiorentina (the region’s highly regarded beef that comes from a special breed of cows specific to the region that has Italians salivating from shore to shore) and Tuscan pici pasta (thick, seemingly endless strands of hand-rolled pasta made only of flour and water). Both are tasty enough to have on a daily basis, especially with a glass of Vino Nobile!
A self-guided Vino Nobile tour by car
Renting a car is typically the best way to get around between vineyards (take it easy on the wine tastings!), and parking is just a few steps away from the main piazza. Drive back down the steep roads and make your way toward Avignonesi to get a crash course on how wine is made, especially their respected Vino Nobile.
Stop 1: Avignonesi
Regular tours at Avignonesi give guests a primer on the wine-making process, from the harvesting of the grapes to the production process at its state-of-the-art vinification facility and cellars where the wine is aged in large oak barrels (as Montepulciano tradition dictates). The 495-acre Avignonesi property has an impressive team of winemakers and wine experts that oversee the process at vineyards in both Montepulciano and neighboring Cortona.
Ashleigh Seymour, one of the estate’s talented winemakers, is often on hand to explain the process, although most visitors go directly for wine tastings at the estate’s showroom followed by a leisure lunch overlooking the vineyards.
Tours on the estate can be reserved in advance, or visitors can just drop by and try their luck, though they may have to wait for others to join. Popularity here continues to grow, especially with the lengthy award roster that’s still growing. Included among them is the most recent Tre Bicchieri award for its Vino Nobile 2012 from the respected Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso. This helps to bring in a heavy dose of domestic tourists as well as international visitors. Avignonesi is also seeing strong interest from Asia—especially China—for its Vino Nobile, and American and European fans find they’re having to share the vineyards’ limited output with new wine fans in the Far East.
The charming Belgian owner of Avignonesi, Virginie Saverys, has set high standards for the visitor experience, and a meal in this exquisite setting is not to be missed. What gives Vino Nobile such a rich flavor is the region’s terroir, which gives the wine flavors of cherry, plum, pomegranate, and forest floor with a tad of spice, all with a long finish that fills the mouth and complements Tuscan food perfectly.
Owner Saverys prefers an all-natural approach to viticulture and now offers an all-organic wine production including notable favorites like the well-known Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (extremely popular in the US), Desiderio Merlot Toscana, and the ever-sweet and thick Vin Santo di Montepulciano favored with dessert, among others. There are no herbicides or pesticides used in the vineyards, and special attention to biodiversity helps to support a more natural approach to enriching the soil.
The gorgeous grounds of Avignonesi are a highlight of any visit to Montepulciano, a favorite of those on a wine journey of their own.
Stop 2: Poliziano
Continue the journey through the area’s vineyards with a stop at family-owned Poliziano, a company as large as Avignonesi. Poliziano’s modern tasting room and production facility provide a new spin on the Tuscan wine-tasting experience, but all while respecting the tradition of the region’s Vino Nobile. Visitors can join regular tours of the vineyards and production facility and then enjoy a wine-tasting afterward. The winery is well-known for its Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and its Asinone 2009 is a popular favorite (85% Sangiovese grapes and a blend of others).
Wines of Poliziano are especially popular in Germany and Switzerland, but of course they have strong Italian and American followings as well. The vineyard, like Avignonesi, follows organic standards to keep the process as natural as possible.
Stop 3: La Braccesca
Further down the road, guests will find La Braccesca, another family-owned estate that straddles Montepulciano and Cortona, giving guests notes of variation between the two regions. Here, visitors will discover some new tastes from wines produced from Cortona’s soil, which is less rocky than Montepulciano’s and has a greater percentage of clay to sand. This gives the vineyard’s Syrah, in particular, distinctive flavors. The Bramasole grapes come from vines that line the walls of the nearby Villa Bramasole. The wine is produced in limited quality and bears a slightly sweet flavor with hints of licorice, black fruit and tobacco.
La Braccesca also produces a fine Vino Nobile composed of 90% Sangiovese grapes and 10% Merlot. Its incredibly full texture rounds out the taste buds with notes of vanilla and tobacco. Surprising to many is that while this full-bodied wine creates a grand first impression, it’s soft on the finish thanks to its balanced tannins.
The estate offers both wine tours with tastings and separate cooking classes, which for any Vino Nobile lover is a fine complement. Ask to take a peek at the special tasting room overlooking the vineyards, which has stunning views of the surrounding valley.
Stop 4: Podere Il Casale
If a few days of sipping red wine is starting to get to your head (you’ve been spitting wine into the special jugs, right?), then pop into the organic dairy farm and restaurant Podere Il Casale. A special camping ground is ideal for those that want a place to rest, but most are here for cheese-tasting tours, which begin with a visit to the stables to see the sheep responsible for the flavorful cheese produced here and used throughout the region.
The primary products are organic Pecorino sheep’s cheese and Caprino goat’s cheese, both of which are produced from raw milk and are made without preservatives or chemical additives. Visitors can opt to take part in cooking classes, bread-making or pizza lessons, truffle hunts, and cheese-making demonstrations. Stock up on some of their fine cheeses (certified to travel to the US) and fresh pasta and homemade sauces as gifts.
Stop 5: Boscarelli
Make your last stop on this culinary and wine mega roadtrip at Boscarelli, yet another family-owned winery that’s more casual than its counterparts. Here, visitors feel like family strolling through their own vineyards, sampling wine as they sit on top of some of the wooden barrels aging their prized Vino Nobile or taking a tour of the wine as it ages in the historic cellars. Reservations are encouraged here, and if you’re lucky, you can meet with one of the brothers that own the winery with their mother.
As you can see, Tuscany is not just museums, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and charming villas in the midst of dramatic valleys. There’s history and passion associated with the art and science of wine-making, and the region’s own appellation, Vino Nobile, is finally ready to shine with wine tourists “under the Tuscan sun.”
All photos credited to Ramsey Qubein unless otherwise noted. More photos: