Monte Amiata

Montecucco: Sangiovese’s best-kept secret

What is Montecucco?

Monte Amiata
Monte Amiata, sentinel of Montecucco

We are in the warm south of Tuscany. Here, sandwiched between two well-known denominations specialising in Sangiovese, you will discover a third – much newer and very much less well-known – that benefits from similar advantages to its well-heeled neighbours, and which is producing some very characteristic, Sangiovese-based wines of high quality.

The denomination is called Montecucco, and its neighbours are Morellino di Scansano DOCG to the south, and a little town called Montalcino producing the regal Brunello di Montalcino DOCG to the North-East.

Montecucco is a very new DOC in Italy, having been founded as recently as 1998. And, since 2011, there is an accompanying – and higher-quality – DOCG: Montecucco Sangiovese. Like Morellino di Scansano, and Bolgheri, the zone is found entirely within the Maremma DOC, famous, perhaps unfairly, for its “international” grape varieties – plenty of which are also found around the seven comunes permitted to use the name Montecucco. In fact, while most of the DOC wine called Montecucco Rosso must be made up of Sangiovese, the balance is almost always something like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Only rarely do we find other typical Italian grapes, like Ciliegiolo, making up the rest of the blend. I will discuss the wines in a moment. First, let us look at some geography.

The Zone

Map of Montecucco DOC
Map of the Zone

Located farther inland than the once-swampy (and malarial) coast of the Maremma, Montecucco has Monte Amiata, the extinct volcano presiding at the northeastern corner of the zone, to thank for much of its unique character. Soaring to over 1700 meters, the volcanic soils of its slopes, and the accompanying elevation, with its viticultural influence and effect on climate, help to define Montecucco as a winemaking region. “Monte Amiata Sangiovese” is the phrase the local consortium uses when talking about their most important grape and wines. And, truth be told, it isn’t only Montecucco that benefits from Mount Amiata; the dry climate of nearby Montalcino results from the volcano’s blocking of storm cells moving in from the Tyrrhennian Sea.

Climate in this part of Southern Tuscany is both warm and not particularly dry. The combination of the nearness of the Tyrrhennian Sea to the West – and the cleansing winds that this brings – and the mountain slopes of Amiata to the East and Northeast lends the region a very advantageous climate for growing healthy, fully-ripe grapes.

Seven comunes are permitted to make wine labelled Montecucco: Arcidosso, Campagnatico, Castel del Piano, Cinigiano, Civitella Paganico, Roccalbegna, and Seggiano.

Soils range from the fractured sandstone found towards the Tyrrhenian sea to the volcanic soils on the slopes of the mountain itself.

Vines begin at an elevation of 50 meters, but continue up to around 500 meters, with the comunes of Seggiano, Arcidosso and Castel del Piano at the upper end.

Organic viticulture is the rule instead of the exception, encompassing fully 68% of production in the zone. There is talk of making the entire DOC organic.

Although the geographical area for the denomination zone of Montecucco looks large – larger, in any case, than both of its better-known neighbours – there are just 70 producers making wine from a scant 800 hectares of vines. A stark contrast to both Morellino di Scansano with 1300 hectares and Brunello di Montalcino with 1900. An important reason for the comparatively small amount of area under vine is the simple fact that most of the producers in the Montecucco zone have polycultural estates, instead of only vines. The belief that this kind of farming makes for a healthier ecosystem and, therefore, better wine is extremely common here. Can’t say I disagree.

The Wines of Montecucco:

The Montecucco zone encompasses one DOCG and five DOCs for still wines, as well as two DOCs for sweet wines. There are no sparkling wines, nor are monovarietal bottlings using international varieties permitted. For these purposes, there are a raft of IGTs or the Maremma DOC. Which is not to say that international varieties are not permitted in the wines of Montecucco – they are. But they are not permitted to make up the majority of the blend in any of them except for the simple Bianco, and even that must be at least 40% of one of several permitted native Italian varieties. Montecucco has hitched its wagon to two primary, native grape varieties: Vermentino (for the whites) and Sangiovese (for the reds and for the Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice).

Indigenous or International?

When we talk about the potential of Montecucco, we are talking about two differing groups of grapes: indigenous varieties, like Sangiovese and Vermentino, or international varieties like Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. With this climate and these soils, of course there are interesting – even exciting – wines made from both camps. My money, however, is on the Sangiovese, and I’m going to tell you why.

Sangiovese

A bunch of Sangiovese
Sangiovese hanging around.

Italy’s most-planted, most-distinctive and, arguably, most-revered grape. It can be found in nearly every corner of this land of the vine. It is high in acidity and tannin, but low on colour. And, in the right hands, it is capable of producing exceptional, exciting, ageworthy wines that fully reflect their origins, meaning Sangiovese reveals different sides of its personality depending on where it is grown and how it is vinified. Nevertheless, it is challenging to work with, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Poorly-made wines can be dreadful, with tart acidity, raspy tannin and lacking in fruit.

Sangiovese goes by many names: Brunello in Montalcino, Prugnolo Gentile in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, Morellino around Grosseto, and endless others. Most experts agree that Sangiovese is a Tuscan native, and some feel the variety goes back to Etruscan times, an idea that is particularly appealing for Tuscany, with its Etruscan history.

The grape is also extremely versatile, and is used for making rosés, sweet wines (such as Montecucco’s Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice DOC) and even sparkling wines, in addition to the expected red wines.

Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG

And so which wine is the real standard-bearer of the Montecucco zone? It is unquestionably the Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG, and with good reason. With the promotion to DOCG in 2011, production requirements were tightened and quality increased – intentionally, with the goal of competing directly with those two neighbouring DOCGs that I have mentioned several times: Brunello and Morellino di Scansano. Producers in Montecucco needed a framework and the recognition of the DOCG to be able to position their best wines properly. They achieved it through diligence, initiative and hard graft.

But it isn’t only about production requirements. The producers recognised that the Sangiovese from Mount Abiate could create wines that were a unique expression of the grape, combining the finesse and structure of wines north of the mountain with fruit ripeness and depth found nearer to Grosseto, and with a perfume that was uniquely theirs. That’s why the production regulations require a minimum of 90% Sangiovese in the wine, the second-highest amount of Sangiovese stipulated for the production of an Italian wine, second only to Brunello itself.

Who Needs Sangiovese from Montecucco?

Here’s the thing: as Italy’s most-planted and, arguably, most-recognisable grape, Sangiovese is found in blends across the length and breadth of the country, in IGTs and DOCs that are both obscure and difficult to find abroad. But it is also found as a major part of several of Italy’s most important wines – sometimes even as a monovarietal. Important wines that may be made with 100% Sangiovese include Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Classico and Morellino di Scansano. Brunello is almost certainly the most important wine made from Sangiovese, as well as being the only one that must be made 100% from that grape. And, as I have mentioned above, Montecucco is found between Montalcino, home of Brunello, and Scansano, near Grosseto, in the Maremma, home of Morellino.

This location – and the associated geology and climate – is key. Sangiovese from Montecucco tends to be darker and slightly more tannic than that found around Montalcino. It also benefits from the soils and climate on the western slopes of Mount Amiata: fruit ripens very well here, and Sangiovese from Montecucco has more pronounced flavours of black cherry and plum than its northern cousin, without going quite as far into the softer “international” style of Morellino di Scansano.

The result? Deep, structured wines offering excellent fruit and spice, but also with very good cellaring potential. The wines need some ageing, a fact not lost on the local producers, who incorporated ageing requirements for Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG into the production regulations. The fact that not many people know about the zone yet helps keep wine prices and property values down – meaning ambitious winemakers have the opportunity to buy land more easily than in neighbouring Montalcino. It is no accident that Fabio Ratto, the winemaker responsible for Antinori’s Brunello at Pian delle Vigne, owns land in the Montecucco zone and makes his own wines there.

And so the Montecucco zone embodies exactly that which inflames my interest and attracts the market – as long as the market knows about it: a more reasonably-priced alternative to a famous zone, without a significant loss of quality. That’s exciting stuff!

The Wine Styles:

Still Wines:

Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG: must be at least 90% Sangiovese, aged for a minimum of 12 months in barrel and 4 months in bottle before release. The Riserva must be aged for a minimum 0f 24 months in barrel and 6 months in bottle.

Montecucco Rosso DOC: must be at least 60% Sangiovese. The Riserva must age for at least 12 onths in barrel and 6 months in bottle before release.

Montecucco Vermentino DOC: must be at least 85% Vermentino – but the best ones are 100% or nearly so.

Montecucco Bianco DOC: must be at least 40% Vermentino and/or Trebbiano Toscano. Again, it cannot be overstated that the best wines are those that eschew Trebbiano Toscano, a grape variety that contributes virtually nothing of interest beyond acidity to any non-sweet wine in which it is found.

Montecucco Rosato DOC: must be at least 70% Sangiovese and/or Ciliegiolo.

Sweet Wines:

Montecucco Vin Santo DOC: must be at least 70% Trebbiano Toscano and/or Malvasia Lunga and/or Grechetto, aged for a minimum of 18 months before release.

Montecucco Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice DOC: must be at least 70% Sangiovese, aged for a minimum of 18 months before release.

The Producers: My Picks from the Tasting in Zurich

I had the great fortune to be able to taste the wines of a diverse array of producers from Montecucco at an event in Zurich recently. Here are the estates and wines that made the greatest impression on me.

Three tasting glasses with wines from Montecucco
Tasting Seminar Part I

Collemassari: the largest, best-known and, yes, one of the best producers. Also one of the few that was using, essentially, only native varieties for all of their wines, and an organic producer. There is an exciting project underway which may see a monovarietal Ciliegiolo bottled in the near future. Here’s hoping that it happens, and that I get to try it!

  • Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva DOCG “Poggio Lombrone” 2014 – extremely profound fruit and spice, very fine, firm tannin and an altogether modern approach resulting in a delicious, structured wine with lovely floral perfume.
  • Montecucco Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice DOC “Scosciamonaca” 2011 – neither thick nor cloying, but buoyantly spicy and with good freshess. Finely maderised, nutty and with a finish reminiscent of slightly burnt popcorn

De Vinosalvo: mostly French varieties – but those are of excellent quality and superb winemaking. Not surprising, perhaps, that Allison – the Australian winemaker and co-proprietor of the estate along with her Italian engineer husband – has a deft hand with Shiraz. She also had lovely Sangiovese.

  • Maremma Toscana DOC Shiraz “Santàrio” 2015 – stunning ground pepper and plum, with juniper wood and supple tannin. Completely healthy fruit, a nuanced cross between Northern Rhône elegance, Australian verve and Maremma ripeness. Fascinating stuff.

Parmoleto: best Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva at the tasting, and of absolutely convincing quality overall – particularly when you know how much these wines cost, which is “not a lot”. This is where the argument for Montecucco lies, of course: high quality – as good as its neighbours in many ways – but for vastly lower prices than Brunello, and even of many a Morellino.

  • Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva DOCG 2013 – dense and dusty, with damson fruit, plum, clove and cedar. Underscored with some forest floor, there is superb acidity and tight tannin accompanying a fine, long floral note and plenty of ripe red fruit. Bit of menthol at the very end. Lovely stuff!

Prato al Pozzo: what does the winemaker for Antinori’s Brunello estate do when he isn’t working in Montalcino? He creates fine wines from his own plot in Montecucco DOC. But with only 1.5 hectares under vine, Fabio Ratto likely won’t be taking the world by storm anytime soon – which is a pity, because there was some fascinating stuff on his table.

  • Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG “Arpagone” 2013 – earthy, with a bit of leather alongside loads of spice, some plum, black truffle and olive tapenade. The tiniest hint of game and buttered popcorn in the finish. A wine of great elegance and length.

Honourable Mention: the Consortium table revealed two exceptional bottlings, it was a pity that the respective producers didn’t manage to make the trip out to Zurich. First, there was the single best Vermentino of the show: Montecucco Vermentino DOC 2016 made by Peteglia. And, in spite of what I already said above, there was a superb Montecucco Sangiovese Riserva 2013 from Basile called Ad Agio. Both highly worth seeking out.

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