The Return of the King of Wines, Vino Nobile

After years of challenges, Tuscany’s esteemed Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has finally turned a corner and is living up to its lofty reputation.

Photo by Sanjay O’Vacy

Vino Nobile was once Tuscany’s most revered wine. It hit the top of the charts in 1685, when Renaissance poet Francesco Redi praised Montepulciano’s flagship red as the “King of all wines” in his celebrated dithyrambic poem “Bacco in Toscana”. The poem and the wine soon became favorites at Europe’s royal courts.

The journey of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has been a long rollercoaster ride, one of spectacular highs and stagnant lows. If you haven’t tried this wine lately, you’re missing out on the return of an Italian classic. While a work in progress, the last few vintages have revealed a steady rise of more polished, terroir-driven wines that boast aging potential and pedigree. The best part? With few exceptions, Vino Nobile costs much less than other Tuscan wines of similar quality.

Then and now

Named after the picturesque town of Montepulciano in southeast Tuscany and usually referred to simply as Vino Nobile, the wine didn’t live up to the grandeur of its name for decades. It was knocked off its high throne in the 1960s, a result of overcropping and poor winemaking practices that required 10–20 percent white grape varieties be included alongside Sangiovese and Canaiolo.

During the late 1980s and mid-’90s, the period when Chianti Classico emerged from a decades-long funk and Brunello di Montalcino embarked on its meteoric rise to fame, Vino Nobile began its own uphill battle toward quality production.

Producers that intervene less in the cellar are making wines with more character and elegance.

White grapes were made optional and the proportion allowed was reduced. The minimum proportion of Sangiovese was increased, and the younger-drinking Rosso di Montepulciano was created, which allowed producers to reserve the best grapes for Vino Nobile. Producers also replaced leak-prone chestnut barrels with new Slavonian casks.

A number of estates switched gears and tried to imitate New World wines. They hired consulting enologists, planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to blend in with Sangiovese and abandoned large casks for new barriques. Often, these concentrated, muscular bottlings lacked personality and verve. Although a handful of standout producers has emerged, the modern denomination has yet to enjoy the same success as its famous neighbor, Brunello di Montalcino.

The latest releases demonstrate that Vino Nobile estates are at last finding their groove. Many producers have cut back or abandoned Cabernet and Merlot. Instead, they’re returning to native varieties like Canaiolo, Colorino and Mammolo to blend with Sangiovese. Others use only Sangiovese, known locally as Prugnolo Gentile. Better Sangiovese clones and more sustainable viticulture have had a big impact on quality, while producers that intervene less in the cellar are making wines with more character and elegance.

Bottles of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Photo by Sanjay O’Vacy

Recommended Wines

Gracciano della Seta 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $23, 94 points. Enticing aromas of wild berry, new leather, truffle, tilled soil and blue flower float out of the glass along with a whiff of dark spice. The delicious, vibrant palate is elegant and still youthfully austere. It offers Marasca cherry, crushed raspberry, clove and white pepper alongside firm, chewy tannins and vibrant acidity. A licorice note closes the lingering finish. Drink 2020–2035. Ideal Wine and Spirits. Cellar Selection.

Boscarelli 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $40, 93 points. Fresh and linear, this opens with enticing scents of fragrant purple flower, red berry and new leather. The firm, youthfully austere palate is loaded with finesse, offering crunchy red cherry, fresh strawberry and licorice alongside taut, fine-grained tannins and vibrant acidity. Give it time to unwind and fully develop. Drink 2019–2028. Empson USA. Cellar Selection.

Il Conventino 2012 Riserva (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); $45, 93 points. Lovely aromas of violet, iris-perfumed berry, new leather, cinnamon and mint follow over to the elegant palate along with juicy plum and ripe Morello cherry. A licorice note signals the close, while firm, fine-grained tannins provide polished support. Drink 2018–2027. Vignaioli Selection. Cellar Selection.

Casale Daviddi 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $49, 92 points. Violet, ripe plum, black-skinned berry, leather, truffle and a whiff of culinary spice take center stage on this firmly structured red. The medium-bodied palate offers dried plum, chopped herb and licorice that’s framed in firm, polished tannins and racy acidity. It closes on a note of black tea. It’s still a bit austere, but should develop beautifully over the next few years. Drink 2018–2028. Vinarium Inc. Cellar Selection.

Contucci 2012 Pietra Rossa (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); $49, 92 points. New leather, sunbaked earth, blue flower, cured meat and hints of game are some of the aromas you’ll find on this structured red. The bright, taut palate offers sour cherry, crushed raspberry, pipe tobacco and grilled herb, while youthfully firm tannins provide support. It’s already chock-full of character, but lay it down in the cellar a few more years to let it unwind. Drink 2020–2032. Opera Wine Imports. Cellar Selection.

Palazzo Vecchio 2013 Maestro; $29, 92 points. Enticing aromas of blue flower, woodland berry, underbrush, new leather and tilled soil come together on this stunning red. Vibrant and elegant, the linear palate delivers wild cherry, red raspberry, cinnamon, chopped herb and clove framed in firm, refined tannins and vibrant acidity. The youthful tension is wonderful, but give it time to develop even more complexity. Drink 2020–2033. Golden Ram Imports. Cellar Selection.

Identity crisis

The denomination still faces a number of challenges. That includes widespread confusion between Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which can only be made in this small piece of Tuscany, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, made from the Montepulciano grape variety in a much larger region of Italy, east of Rome.

Lack of identity is the biggest hurdle for the denomination. Widely different wine styles and levels of quality make Vino Nobile a minefield for consumers.

Its current production code calls for a minimum of 70 percent Sangiovese, with the remaining being made up of other grapes authorized in Tuscany, which is just about everything. Regulations still permit up to 5 percent white grapes, although almost all producers use only red varieties. These flexible blending rules make it almost impossible to define a quintessential Vino Nobile.

Although producers can make Vino Nobile entirely from Sangiovese, the 70 percent minimum doesn’t go far enough for many winemakers.

The Beauty of Barbaresco

“Sangiovese is Tuscany’s traditional variety and can make incredible wines,” says Virginie Saverys, owner of Avignonesi. “And since Vino Nobile is one of Tuscany’s most storied wines, I think we should be making Vino Nobile exclusively with Sangiovese.”

Thanks to improvements in Sangiovese clones and cultivation, the region’s producers see it as the key to the denomination’s future. The majority blend Sangiovese with other grapes, but most say they use more than the 70 percent minimum. A growing number of producers employ 100 percent Sangiovese.

Soils of clay and sand make up the backbone of the denomination. While the sandy soils yield wines with more supple tannins, wines made from clay soils often have dense, tannic structures.

Besides utilizing the denomination’s typical soils, Boscarelli, which is in the process of converting to organic viticulture, is one of the few wineries to also have vineyards with red, rocky soil as well as areas with calcareous soils and silt.

Although producers in other regions often collaborate and hold tastings among themselves to improve quality across the board, Vino Nobile’s 80 producers have remained highly individualistic, though this is poised to change. Four top estates have created a new association, calling themselves the Nobile Alliance, whose goal is to “ensure that Vino Nobile di Montepulciano’s badge of honor is restored.”

“We’re focusing on making high-quality wines exclusively with Sangiovese,” says Saverys. Joining forces with Avignonesi are Boscarelli, Poliziano and La Braccesca(owned by Antinori). Each winery is making a special Sangiovese-only bottling for the Alliance.

Barrel samples of the Alliance’s four wines from the 2015 vintage, scheduled to be released next year, already show classic Sangiovese notes of juicy dark-skinned berries, blue flowers and impressive structure.

Bottles of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Photo by Sanjay O’Vacy

Recommended Wines

La Braccesca 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $25, 91 points. Underbrush, wild berry, tilled earth, new leather and truffle aromas lead the nose along with a whiff of chopped herb aromas. The vibrant, linear palate offers juicy tart cherry, cranberry, white pepper and clove, framed in tightly wound, polished tannins and firm acidity. Give it time to fully come together. Drink 2020–2033. St. Michelle Wine Estate.

Poliziano 2013 Asinone (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); $60, 91 points. Red berry, chopped herb, toast and a whiff of French oak are some of the aromas that take shape in the glass. The taut, elegant palate offers bright wild cherry, licorice and vanilla alongside tightly wound, fine-grained tannins that leave a firm finish. Give this time to unwind and fully develop. Dalla Terra Winery Direct.

Avignonesi 2012 Grandi Annate (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); $89, 90 points.Aromas of ripe plum, coconut, vanilla and a whiff of French oak lead the nose. Youthfully assertive and austere, the palate offers toasted oak, licorice, espresso and dried cherry set against a backbone of bracing tannins that grip the finish. Give this time to unwind and come together. Tabaccaia USA.

Dei 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $29, 90 points. Loaded with energy, this polished red opens with aromas of fragrant blue flower, new leather, black plum and a whisper of baking spice. The juicy, vibrant palate offers tart cherry, cranberry, clove and thyme alongside firm acidity and fine-grained tannins that give the finish grip. Racy and linear, it needs time to fully develop. Drink 2019–2028. de Grazia Imports.

Le Bèrne 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; $25, 90 points. Aromas of rose, aromatic herb, red berry and a whiff of French oak lead the nose on this elegantly structured wine. Linear and taut, the palate offers red cherry, vanilla and a hint of exotic spice alongside firm, fine-grained tannins and zesty acidity. Drink 2020–2030. Siena Imports.

Carpineto 2012 Riserva (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); $35, 89 points. Subtle aromas of plum, toast, underbrush and a whiff of violet slowly emerge on this. The firm palate offers black currant, sour cherry, dried sage, espresso and a hint of clove. Taut, close-grained tannins leave a rather assertive finish. Drink 2018–2023. Opici Wines.

A question of style

Maceration and fermentation techniques, as well as barrel selection to satisfy the mandatory one-year minimum aging in wood, can produce wines that vary from over-extracted and tannic to vibrant and elegant.

While producers are pulling back on new French wood, enthusiastically oaked Vino Nobile still exists, especially in riserva or single-vineyard bottlings. But change is in the air.

“For 25 years, we followed the demand for big, darkly colored, powerfully structured wines,” says Federico Carletti, owner of Poliziano. “Now we want to make more refined, less structured wines. But we can’t switch styles overnight. We have to go slowly and take it one step at a time.”

Poliziano now ages its single-vineyard Asinone in barriques (225 liters) and tonneaux (900 liters), using a lower percentage of new wood, while it houses the blended Vino Nobile in both large casks and seasoned barriques. As a result, the latest releases show less muscle and extraction, and more finesse.

At Boscarelli, the goal is similar. Luca De Ferrari says he and his brother, Nicolò, seek the balance and elegance of the wines that his parents made in the 1970s.

To achieve that, the wines are aged in different-sized French and Slavonian casks. The few barriques that remain were purchased in 2001. Harsh chemicals are no longer employed in the vineyards, and Boscarelli only uses indigenous yeasts for fermentation.

Vino Nobile should be on every wine lover’s radar.

Contucci, which has made Vino Nobile since 1773, is the flag bearer for classically crafted Vino Nobile.

The Contucci family has resided in Montepulciano for more than 1,000 years, and they still own and run the winery. Contucci’s ancient cellars in the town center are a must-see for visitors.

Its Vino Nobile consists of 80 percent Sangiovese that’s blended with Canaiaolo and Colorino, and it’s aged in large Slavonian and French oak casks. The firm says it has enjoyed an uptick in consumer interest over the last few years.

“In the 1990s and early 2000s, our sales suffered because we didn’t plant international grapes and age in barriques,” says Andrea Contucci. “But these days, we’re really seeing a big return as consumers look for more elegant, classically crafted wines.”

The entry-level Vino Nobile, single-vineyard bottlings and riservas are all loaded with character, and they offer red berries, blue flowers, spice and earth notes. While they may be a bit austere in youth, they’ll age beautifully, as a recent vertical tasting back to 1970 demonstrated.

Thanks to the efforts across the denomination, there are a number of stunning wines now coming out of the region. Vino Nobile should be on every wine lover’s radar.

Published on March 6, 2017
TOPICS:Italy
About the Author
KERIN O’KEEFE
Italian Editor

Reviews wines from Italy

Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe reviews all Italian wines for Wine Enthusiast. Previously she wrote regularly on Italian wine for Wine News, World of Fine Wine and Decanter. She is the author of Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello(2005), Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines (2012) and Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine(2014).

Email: kokeefe@wineenthusiast.net.

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