Tuscany’s overlooked gem

When you think of the wines of central Tuscany, Chianti Classico and brunello di Montalcino, both based on the sangiovese grape, probably spring to mind. It’s likely you overlook another sangiovese-based wine, this one from the picturesque hill town of Montepulciano: vino nobile di Montepulciano.

Vino nobile is less well known for several reasons. For one thing, the wine zone is smaller. The vineyards of vino nobile encompass about 3,200 acres, compared to about 5,200 for brunello and more than 17,000 for Chianti Classico. And only about a dozen producers of vino nobile have decent distribution in the United States.

But vino nobile di Montepulciano can be a relatively good buy. Many cost less than $30. Compare that to brunello, which often costs $50 or more (sometimes a lot more).

Perhaps another reason that American wine consumers haven’t discovered vino nobile can be attributed to confusion over the name. Vino nobile di Montepulciano – made primarily from sangiovese, which is known locally as prugnolo gentile — sounds very similar to another Italian wine, montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a hearty red from Italy’s Adriatic coast that’s made from the montepulciano grape. For this reason, some producers in Montepulciano would like to see their wine’s official name shortened simply to “vino nobile.” But the bureaucracy moves slowly in Italy, so I don’t expect to see such a change anytime soon.

For a long time, I overlooked vino nobile, too. A lot of the wines used to be plagued with what might charitably be called rusticity. Some were really funky with Brettanomyces. You’ll still find some not-so-clean wines, but that’s not a problem with the best producers.

Virginie Saverys has owned Avignonesi since 2009. (Photo courtesy of Avignonesi.)
Virginie Saverys has owned Avignonesi since 2009. (Photo courtesy of Avignonesi.)

Virginie Saverys, a Belgian who has owned Avignonesi since 2009, recognized the problem with some of the area’s wines. She told me that’s one reason she hired Ashleigh Seymour to be part of the winemaking team. Seymour is Australian, and Australian winemakers have a reputation for their high level of technical training. Federico Carletti, an agronomist who owns Poliziano, also says he takes great care to produce clean, Brett-free wines.

Small amounts of other grapes are permitted in vino nobile, but at Avignonesi, the wine has been 100 percent sangiovese since 2010. Saverys also adopted organic and biodynamic practices in the vineyards. Avignonesi cultivates about 500 acres, with eight vineyard locations in the Montepulciano region, as well as two in nearby Cortona. In the Cortona vineyards, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are grown for some other Avignonesi wines, like Desiderio, which is mostly merlot. Wines are produced in a modern winery acquired in 2012.

avignonesi label

The 2012 Avignonesi Vino Nobile ($29) is a good example of a more modern, approachable vino nobile, with its lively red cherry fruit, hints of tobacco and fine tannins. There’s also a more expensive vino nobile called Grandi Annate that’s selected from the best vineyard parcels; the 2012 ($95) was still quite tight and showing a fair amount of oak when I tasted it last fall. But it’s full-bodied, flavorful and promising.

Vino Nobile label

Poliziano is another top producer of vino nobile. The 2012 Poliziano Vino Nobile ($28) is plump yet lively, with black fruit, hints of earth, spice and wild herbs and very firm tannins. Poliziano’s top wine, the 2012 Asinone Vino Nobile ($60, not yet available here), from a vineyard planted in the 1960s, is still very young but shows a lot of potential. Both cry out for a piece of the region’s famed Chianina beef. “Our wine is not the best wine of the world,” Carletti says, “but it is very typical of Montepulciano. … It’s the best wine that is possible in my land.”

Boscarelli produces some of my favorite wines of the region. The small estate is very traditional, with winemaking tucked into every available space. It’s run by brothers Luca and Nicolo De Ferrari, with their mother, Paola. Luca says they are careful to pick the grapes when they still have a good level of acidity, and it shows in the wines. The 2012 Boscarelli Vino Nobile ($38) is elegant and fresh, with plump cherry, a slight leafy note, some spice and firm tannins. Boscarelli also makes an outstanding single-vineyard vino nobile called Il Nocio; the 2011 ($100) is elegant and complex, with lively red fruit, notes of tobacco and tea and firm structure.

Antinori, better known for its wines from Chianti Classico, owns a property between Montepulciano and Cortona called La Braccesca. There’s a strong emphasis on syrah, grown in Cortona, but I like the vino nobile. The 2012 La Braccesca Vino Nobile ($25) is structured, with juicy red fruit, baking spice, a hint of tobacco and drying tannins.

Other wines to look for are the 2012 Salcheto Vino Nobile ($30), which displays sweet cherry, some spiciness and fine tannins, along with some obvious oak at this young age, and the 2012 Il Conventino Vino Nobile ($25), a good value that’s plump, with ripe red cherry and fine tannins.

An affordable alternative to vino nobile is rosso di Montepulciano, although you don’t see much of it in stores here. The 2013 Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano ($15) is a particularly good value, with lively red cherry, anise and spice. It has some structure, but it’s easy to drink. The 2013 Avignonesi Rosso di Montepulciano ($19) is also very good, with lively red fruit and notes of rose petals and anise.