By Frank Cipparone
There you are, a venerable Tuscan wine that’s been around since the 8th century, one once lauded as the “king of all wines” and considered worthy of nobility. Despite those credentials you don’t get any respect. You’ve become the Rodney Dangerfield of Italian wine. You’re Vino Nobile, the oft-maligned and ignored of Tuscany’s “big three” reds.
A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion and tasting presented by the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Consortium. Their goal was to improve Vino Nobile’s image among importers, writers, sommeliers and restauranteurs. The wines poured were an interesting cross section of what was going on at the time. Some were really good, others OK, a contrast of traditional and more forward-thinking styles. My take from the presentation, then and now, is that Nobile is a work in progress, a wine looking for an identity.
Even though it’s made from Sangiovese, the region’s most recognizable grape, Vino Nobile has long been an afterthought for those who enjoy Tuscan wine. Part of the problem is location. With Chianti Classico to the north of them, Brunello to the south of them, Montepulciano’s vineyards are literally and figuratively stuck in the middle. Chianti has international appeal, Brunello the sort of well-earned cachet and cult-like following that gets all the raves. Vino Nobile is the dusty bottle at the back of the shelf that gets passed over and confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
A more relevant factor is that Nobile doesn’t have as many acres planted as its neighbors. Driving through each area presents visual evidence of a disparity that translates into less production. The numbers tell the story. In 2018 505,000 cases of Nobile were produced, as compared to 778,000 of Brunello and a whopping 2,800,000 of Chianti Classico.
Obviously, Chianti and Brunello have a natural head start despite the fact all three earned DOC recognition at the same time, and at one point experienced an upswing in new vineyards being planted and annual production. The difference was a focus on quality among the consortiums shaping the future of Chianti and Brunello that eclipsed Nobile over the next decade. Without a unified plan for improvement Montepulciano’s wine faltered.
The problem was a lack of style and consistency from one vintage to the next. That wasn’t a sustainable
position with growing competition not only from other Tuscan wines but emerging regions in Italy and abroad.
What Vino Nobile needed and found were marketing savvy producers with an eye to the future who could see its potential and put it on the right track. That took the amounts of lire that only established major investors like Fazzi-Battaglia and Antinori, among others, could supply. It also required time and a willingness among Montepulciano’s winemakers to come together and make needed changes in how they worked their vineyards and made their wine.
Another issue was production regulations that were less detailed than those for Brunello and Chianti Classico. Such latitude made it easier for winemakers but didn’t give any assurance to consumers as to what sort of Vino Nobile they were drinking, or how it was different from other Tuscan red wine. A revision of the standards in 2020 made minor changes from those drawn up twenty years earlier, mostly in the percentage of grape varieties that can be used. It’s possible that you can have a Nobile that’s 100 percent Prugnolo Gentile, the local type of Sangiovese, or one with up to 30 percent Canaiolo Nero and other authorized red grapes from the immediate area, including an old
favorite like Mammolo that’s being gradually phased out. It can also have up to 10 percent of specifically named white grapes. Additionally, the time it had to be aged in barrel was reduced. It’s hard to get a handle on any wine that has so many options open to producers.
What can accurately be said is that the contours of the rolling hills around Montepulciano produce Sangiovese that is riper and less tannic than Brunello and not as sharply acidic as Chianti. Here are some worth looking for:
Carpineto “Poggio Sant’Enrico” – single vineyard, 100 percent Prugnolo Gentile, with a cedary accent to the mix of dark and red fruit, and the characteristic balance of tannin and acidity.
Pagliareto “Lunadoro” – a true middle-of-the-road Nobile, deeper and fuller than a Chianti Classico but less elegant and savory than Brunello.
Castellani – emphasis is on concentrated dark fruit, more of a non-traditional take that’s solid and hefty but not obviously or annoyingly dense.
La Ciarlina – a refined Nobile, straightforward, no frills, just full-bodied intensity with a brawny Syrah-like quality.
Gracciano Delle Sete – lots of cherry, spice and herbal aromas, rounder and smoother than many Nobiles; long finish of dark fruit and spice.
La Braccesca – delicious Sangiovese calling cards of ripe cherries, spice, tobacco, currants, blackberries.
Il Faggeto “Pietra Del Diavolo” – classic Sangiovese from Montepulciano – leathery, earthy, loads of ripe cherries.
Vecchia Cantina – drinks like a typical Chianti, with a tangy “bite.”
The story of Vino Nobile has chapters yet to be written. Like a middle child with a unique personality and talents who sometimes goes unnoticed, its future will be determined by those committed to the long haul. Nobile will never be like its Sangiovese siblings and shouldn’t try. Its strong point may be as the mid-point between the characteristics of the other two. In the end, being stuck in the middle might be a pretty good place to be.