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In Tuscany, Italy, there are three wine regions of note that are not Chianti or Chianti sub-regions. They are historic places of outstanding quality, with hundreds of years of top-notch quality and distinctive styles.
And each of them has the “Big Brother / Little Brother” arrangement.
Allow me to explain.
Let’s start with a super quick and abbreviated lesson on Tuscany, starting with a map (if you wish, download a copy of it here).
When you are looking at the map of Tuscany, take note of a few things.
There are two main cities: Florence to the north and Siena to the south. Between them is Chianti Classico, the best known of the Tuscan wine regions. To the south of Siena is Montalcino, and to the southeast is Montepulciano. To west of Florence is Carmignano. These are the three regions we’re focusing on this week.
Another thing to note about Tuscany is that the elevation goes up as you go east from the sea, and the temperature goes down as you go north. So Chianti Rufina is the highest elevation and coolest region in Tuscany, while Maremma is the lowest elevation and warmest area.
90% of Tuscan wine is red, and most of that is based on the Sangiovese grape.
Sangiovese, Mutations, and Clones
While Sangiovese is the principal grape of Tuscany, it goes by many names. This is because for hundreds of years there were wars and battles in the area, resulting in populations staying close to home and not trading with their neighbors.
Sangiovese, like many grapes, has a tendency to mutate. Sometimes that mutation is a negative (so you rip the vine out) and sometimes it’s a positive (so you take cuttings and propagate them). When you isolate a mutation and intentionally reproduce it, these are known as clones. Just think of Attack of the Clones in Star Wars and you get the idea.
Over time, since the villages of Tuscany were so isolated, particular mutations became the main grape of an area, and were given their own names. So in Montepulciano, they grow Prugnollo Gentile, which is a clone of Sangiovese. In Montalcino, they grow Brunello, which is also a clone of Sangiovese. Clones in the northern part of Tuscany tend to work best in the higher elevations and cooler air, while the clones further south can handle the heat and make fuller-bodied wines.
Italian Wine Laws and the Big Brother / Little Brother idea
Italian wines are classified in a hierarchal and qualitative system, one of the only types of their kind in the world. So a bottle of wine of the DOC or DOCG level has to come from the place of origin on the label, but it also has to reach quality standards for that labeling, as determined by the Italian federal wine commission. So to make a Chianti Classico, not only do the grapes have to come from between Florence and Siena, but the wine has to look, smell, and taste as a Chianti Classico should.
This week we are featuring three regions: Montepulciano, Montalcino, and Carmignano. Each makes a top-level wine that the area is best known for, which I’m calling the Big Brother wine. But younger vines, resulting in easier drinking and more approachable wines, can be declassified into what I’m calling the Little Brother wine.
So for each pair of wines, we’re talking about the same region, the same clones, the same producer, and even the same vineyards and vines, but the results go into two paths: the Big Brother and the Little Brother.
Pretty cool, uh?
A quick side note on the importers of these wines.
As you know, I’m a big believer in tracking who imports the wines you love. The importer matters so much, for a great importer works in partnership with the wineries to assure that quality, business planning, marketing, etc. are always improving. A great wine importer is about integrity and quality above all else.
Legendary importers such as Kermit Lynch and Christopher Cannan paved the way.
My favorite Italian specialist wine importer is Dalla Terra, which brings the Poliziano and the Capezzana to America. Over 25 years ago Dalla Terra’s founder, Brian Larke, designed a new type of wine import business model where the wineries get a collective vote on who is in the portfolio and who is not, resulting in a community of like-minded and top-level wineries. Spin a bottle of Italian wine around and if it’s imported by Dalla Terra, grab it. Learn more at the Dalla Terra website.
The Casisano is imported by Vintus, which is arguably one of the top fine wine importer and domestic brokers in the country, representing a range of wineries including Chateau Montelena, Chateau Margaux, Orenellaia, Far Mountain, Champagne Ayala, and many other labels at upper echelon of wine. Learn more at the Vintus website.
Montepulciano: Rosso, and Vino Nobile
Montepulciano lies southeast of Siena, at the foothills of the mountains, where you get a sense of elevation in the surrounding area, with cooler evenings but hot days. It’s a magical place of temperature swings, proud families, and a bit of an off-the-beaten-path sense. The towns are smaller, and the shopping is more local. If you’re traveling to Tuscany, you tend to focus on Florence and Siena, then maybe Pisa and Chianti Classico, then possibly Brunello … far down on the destination list for most is Montepulciano. In other words, this is an awesome region to visit for a true sense of Tuscany, great wines, and fewer crowds.
Let’s start with Big Brother: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a legendary and super serious wine that will never knock you out with muscle and power. It always has finesse and elegance, and while the core of the aromas is very Sangiovese-heavy (red cherries, licorice, herbs), Vino Nobile always has, to me, a black tea quality that keeps me coming back for more. Sometimes it comes across with a wee hint of orange rind like a good Rioja does as well. Twenty years ago, Vino Nobile was suffering from poor winemaking and a push toward quantity, but in the last ten years, the region has undergone a transformation as it focuses on quality in its own style and personality.
The Little Brother, Rosso di Montepulciano, is always a steal. Just to remind you: the same vineyards, the same vines, the same terroir. Younger vines and their fruit exhibit a style of more immediate consumption and less age-worthiness. Rosso di Montepulciano is the ultimate pizza and red-sauce pasta wine.
Sidenote: here’s the BEST and most SIMPLE red sauce recipe EVER to put on your pasta!
Easy to memorize, quick to prepare. It’s the legendary recipe of Marcella Hazan.
Quantities are for sauce to go with one pound of pasta.
One 28-ounce can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
5 tablespoons butter
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
Combine everything into a sauce pan, set to medium until simmering (then lower heat).
Occasionally stir and break up the tomatoes into a sauce. Add some salt as you wish.
After 45 minutes, remove and discard the onion.
Trust me on this. Don’t complicate your sauce. Add this to high quality (dried or fresh) pasta, and you’ll never turn back.https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1015178-marcella-hazans-tomato-sauce
About this producer: Poliziano
From the importer’s website:
Founded in 1961 by Dino Carletti, the Poliziano estate is a perfect example of how a relentless quest for perfection has achieved remarkable results. Starting with only 54 acres in the commune of Montepulciano, the estate has now grown to over 640 acres under the direction of Dino’s son, Federico Carletti. While Carletti’s children—Francesco and Maria Stella—who represent the next generation are diligently studying to assume roles in the business, Carletti avidly keeps an eye on the future of their winery. He is an agronomist, but he prefers to think of himself as a farmer because he is convinced that great wines originate in the vineyard. In addition to his superior knowledge of the vineyards, his enthusiasm for his land and creating a superior product are infectious.https://dallaterra.com/producer/poliziano
Montalcino: Rosso and Brunello
Move a bit further west from Montepulciano, south of Siena, and you reach Montalcino’s hilltop heaven.
This is the home to one of Italy’s top wines. Heck, one of the world’s top wines. The powerful, majestical, and legendary Brunello di Montalcino.
Brunello di Montalcino is, of course, the big brother in the equation here. Produced with the Brunello clone of Sangiovese (which is thicker skinned, packed with darker black fruit aromas and more tannin), it makes for a style of wine that ranks with the best of Bordeaux, Napa, and Barolo. A show-stopper of power, concentration, and detail.
The region of Rosso di Montalcino lays right on top of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. And as you can guess, it’s made with the same grapes from the same vineyards. A great Rosso di Montalcino is a way to get a sense of the Brunello clone without the price and age requirements of the big brother.
Brunello with rib eye, Rosso with a burger.
About this producer: Casisano
From the importer’s website:
The Podere Casisano is located in the heart of Montalcino, surrounded by spectacularly beautiful vineyards and majestic olive trees. It was first founded in 1990 by a medical family from Rome, and was purchased by the Tommasi family of Amarone fame in 2015 to become part of the Tommasi Family Estates, a project that began in 1997 with the fourth generation of the Tommasi family at the helm. Their objective has always been to highlight and showcase the quality and diversity of Italian wines from all over Italy.
The total property covers 130 acres, of which 57 are vineyards for Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino. The estate is perched on a splendid natural terrace in the southeastern part of Montalcino, overlooking St. Antimo Abbey and Orcia river valley. The soils are extremely stony and made up of a shale and clay mixture called galestro. The winery has for years produced a very traditional style of Brunello, with long macerations and aging in large Slavonian oak casks – a classic approach favored by the Tommasi family. Tommasi has retained the original winemaking team, now under the guidance of head winemaker Giancarlo Tommasi, and is taking the wines to even greater heights.https://www.vintus.com/producers/casisano/
Carmignano: Barco Reale and Carmignano DOCG
West of Florence lies a tiny little wine region of incredible importance, yet very few people (especially Americans) have experienced the wines.
The area of Carmignano used to be the playground region of the de Medici family when they were at full power. During this time a plant nursery was established and this became the main propagator of grapevines for all of central Italy. As a part of their duties to the de Medici empire, they found plants from around Europe to plant throughout Tuscany. Some of those plants were grapevines, and some were imported from France.
Cabernet Franc and the newly created/discovered Cabernet Sauvignon were brought to Tuscany from Bordeaux hundreds of years ago, and were planted and propagated here in Carmignano. They proved to be so delicious and successful that the wines of Carmignano started to be become a blend of Sangiovese, the local grape Caniolo, plus the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc. In other words, Carmignano is the orignial “Super Tuscan,” produced hundreds of years before “Super Tuscan” became a thing in the 1970s.
This is a tiny region, with only 11 producers. It’s rare to find even one Carmignano around, much less two from the same producer.
Following our “Big Brother / Little Brother” theme, the Barco Reale di Carmignano desgination refers to the wines from the younger vines and with easier/earlier drinking potential, which Carmignano DOCG is the big brother, making wines that will age like a tortise.
About this producer: Capezzana
From the importer’s website:
Few wineries in the world possess the stature, respect and devotion that the Contini Bonacossi family has cultivated and maintained over five generations with their Tenuta di Capezzana winery. The estate is located 12 miles west of Florence in the Carmignano sub-zone, one of the oldest recognized wine producing areas in Tuscany. Ancient Etruscan artifacts have shown that grapevines were cultivated in the area for wine production over 3,000 years ago. The first reference to Capezzana dates to 804 A.D. An ancient parchment stored at the Florentine state archives shows the granting of a lease of vineyards and olive groves for the cultivation of wine and olive oil to a place called Capezzana.
Over the centuries, the estate passed through several families. But the story of today’s Capezzana started when the Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi and his family returned to Italy after living in Spain and purchased the estate from Raimondo Franchetti’s widow, Sara de Rothschild, in 1920. Not content with this original holding, Count Alessandro acquired the two neighboring farms, “The Poggetto” and “Trefiano,” dividing the property into three distinct estates with more than 120 poderi. The winery was dedicated to the production of high-quality wine and olive oil with the first vintage of Villa di Capezzana in 1925.
Augusto, Alessandro’s son, took over the management of the estate and in 1945, his son, Ugo, joined him. Ugo had completed a degree in Agriculture before heading to the War, and he was devoted to increasing the quality of the family’s wines – a notable endeavor during a time when most producers were still selling their grapes by weight. It was Ugo’s vision that gradually moved the estate away from sharecropping towards a modern-day winery.https://dallaterra.com/producer/capezzana
This is a rare opportunity to stock your cellar with wines you can learn a cool lesson from, at your own pace, anytime in the next five to ten years.
My buying advice is to think in terms of pairs, the little brother and the big brother, and plan dinners around popping both bottles. This is not an “appetizer/main course” situation, but rather two wines to enjoy side-by-side to compare and contrast.
Also, it goes without saying, any of these pairs could make a great gift!
Happy shopping, and thank you again for supporting what we do.
Sommelier and founder/owner of Twin Cities Wine Education
NEW! Your payment to Solo Vino for the Friday offer is contained on the order form. No more back-and-forth emailed invoices and payments. Yay!!
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