History Through the Grapevine: A Wine Tasting Tour in South Tuscany
“Dong – dong,” the bells of the Sant’Agostino church announce it’s 10am. It may only be mid-morning, but it’s wine o’ clock as far as our little tour group is concerned. We’re standing on Montepulciano’s sun-drenched main square, ready to make our way to the Talosa Vino Nobile cellars for a tasting. Admittedly, it’s not the worst way to start the day.
We wander uphill where the streets are as steep (and almost as vertical) as walls, stopping on the way to check out the stunning sea of terracotta rooftops below.
The hilltop views are mesmerising and give us an excuse to take a little breather in between tackling the climb. You could spend hours gazing on these peaceful, patchwork fields, but we have an important appointment to keep.
As we continue further, our guide explains that Tuscan wine is one of the oldest, most celebrated wines in the world. Greek writers gushed about its virtues in their literature as early as the 3rd century BC. Historians officially trace the wine culture in Tuscany back to the 8th century BC when it was the basis of a thriving industry – local Etruscans exported their produce to Southern Italy and even as far as Gaul.
We pass narrow cobbled alleys and secret flower-filled courtyards before arriving right on time to meet Andrea, who’s waiting in the doorway of the Talosa cellar.
Inside, Talosa looks like an unassuming little wine shop. It’s not until we’re ushered downstairs through a warren of cool, dark caves, that we feel the full magnitude of the cellar’s history. Andrea explains how the cellars are located between two of Montepulciano’s oldest buildings, Palazzo Tarugi and Palazzo Sinatti and date back to the 16th century. Along the way, he points out passageways and vaults where precious barrels are stored.
The caves are naturally cool, like a fridge – we’re told that the temperature and humidity of the cellar is constant throughout the year, consistently hovering around the 14C mark.
The site where the cellars stand is ancient. In amongst the passageways, there’s an Etruscan tomb – like most places in Tuscany, Montepulciano was founded by the Etruscans and has been continuously inhabited since antiquity. Over the years, the cellar has found various uses. In the last century it became a store for stockpiling food during World War II – hooks are still visible in the ceiling of the caves where meat was hung to stay cool in the makeshift refrigerator.
We tour an avenue of giant oak barrels – one of which is over 40 years old and contained the cellar’s first Vino Nobile wine in 1972, before heading back upstairs to sample the cellar’s finest produce.
The Taste Test
Pulling up a stool at the little bar (fittingly made from wooden wine crates), there’s a swish of glasses, a swirl of maroon red, an audible intake of the wine’s aroma and then we all take a sip.
The verdict? With its hints of fruity strawberries, cherries and plums, it’s like summer in a glass.
Vino Nobile Explained
Originating in the vineyards that surround Montepulciano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is one of Italy’s most revered red wines. Its popularity is nothing new. During the 15th century it became the drink of choice for the local aristocracy and in the 16th century Pope Paul III gave the wine his seal of approval when he spoke of its “excellent” qualities.
In the 1960s, special regulations called DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) were introduced in Italy. In order to be officially designated as a wine from the region it represents, wineries were required to adhere to strict guidelines and legal requirements, ensuring that wines were made from permitted grape varieties.
To be labelled as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a wine must be produced from vineyards on the hills surrounding Montepulciano. The main grape variety here is the Sangiovese, which must make up at least 60 -80 percent of the final wine and may be accompanied by Canaiolo (10 -20 percent) as well as other sweet local varieties from Siena including Mammolo.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years or 36 months for riserva wines. At least 12 months of this must be spent in oak barrels which provide slow, controlled maturation.
Montepulciano is also famous for its white Vin Santo di Montepulciano dessert wine as well as Rossi di Montepulciano, a dry red, made with fewer restrictions.