Montalcino is a hill-top town in the Province of Siena in Tuscany, Italy, located around 24.8 miles (40km) south of the city of Siena. Montalcino encompasses both the town and a surrounding area extensive enough to make it Siena province’s biggest commune in terms of surface areaMontalcino overlooks the Orcia valley to the east (see Orcia DOC), Siena (to the north, visible on a clear day) and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.

Montalcino’s name (origin): See here.

Winegrowers: Montalcino has around 250 wineries (listed here), a high proportion of which are organic or Biodynamic.

Winegrowers’ Consortium: See Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.

Vineyard area, production, international markets: 1997 1,203 hectares (2,971 acres) of Brunello producing 3.2 million bottles. | 2017 Montalcino had around 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres) of vines, of which 2,100 hectares (5,187 acres) of Brunello, 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of Rosso di Montalcino and 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of Sant’Antimo DOC. Total production of 9 million bottles. 70% is exported. The main market is the USA with 30% of volume, Europe (including Switzerland) also with 30%, and Canada with 12%.

Wines: Montalcino produces four main wines. Its two eponymously named reds are Rosso di Montalcino DOC and Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. A sweet ‘Moscadello’ white made from Moscato Banco is produced under the Moscadello di Montalcino DOC. In addition, a rainbow assortment of still and sparkling wines with various colours and sweetness levels are made under the Sant’Antimo DOC, named after Montalcino’s Sant’Antimo Abbey.

Montalcino Vintages: 2019 vintage. | 2018 vintage. | 2017 vintage. | 2016 vintage. | 2015 vintage. | 2014 vintage. | 2013 vintage. | 2012 vintage. | 2011 vintage. | 2010 vintage. | 2009 vintage. | 2008 vintage. | 2007 vintage. | 2006 vintage. | 2005 vintage. | 2004 vintage. | 2003 vintage. | 2002 vintage. | 2001 vintage. | 2000 vintage. | 1999-1970 vintages. | 1969-1945 vintages.

Montalcino’s strategic importance: The mass of hills upon which the town of Montalcino sits (the eastern side being the inhabited part) is both wide and easy to defend and dominates the immediate surrounding area (Guelfo Magrini: 2003, p.20).

First evidence of wine: Montalcino is the centre of what was once Etruria, an ancient italic civilisation whose people, the Etruscans, gave their name to Tuscany (Guelfo Magrini 2003, p.20). Archeological evidence in the form of amphora and pourers designed to filter out the spices used at that time to flavour wine suggests wine was made here by the Etruscans in around the 4th-century BC. From 1000 AD tannin from the local oaks was used to tan leather. Charcoal from the trees fired the kilns for pottery.

Middle Ages–IndependenceBetween the 12th and 16th centuries, Montalcino was a wealthy city state and important republic in its own right. In the 13th century the rival cities of first Siena and then Florence fought for control of Montalcino due to its strategic importance.

First, Montalcino had to defend itself militarily against Siena until the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, in which Siena defeated Florence. This meant Montalcino came under Siena’s aegis. The battle was so bloody that the Arbia river was said to have run red, hence Sienese tease people from Montalcino (Montalcinesi or Ilcinesi) for being ‘becca morti‘ or grave diggers. A hard, small, oblong-shaped local biscuit is called ‘ossi morti’ or dead bones. For the next 300 years Montalcino had to defend itself against the might of Florence and was considered an impenetrable stronghold, protected by walls and by its great fortress (la fortezza), built in 1361

Montalcino is especially proud of its resistance during several sieges to which it was subjected between 1526 and 1559. It fought the French army that Pope Clement VIII sent against it in 1526, and then the troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1553. In 1553 Florence besieged Montalcino, with Spanish help. Montalcino’s commander Marshal Blaise de Montluc ‘reddened his face with robust vermilion wine’ in order to appear less pale and food-deprived (whether this wine was a Sangiovese is not known).

Having been defeated in 1555, the Republic of Siena was driven away by the Medici and a government was set up in Montalcino, where for four years the city’s exiles lived. The siege was called off after the Spanish general saw a vision of the Madonna, hence she became patron saint of the town.

In 1559 Florence seized Montalcino and the inhabitants of Montalcino handed the keys of the city to the representatives of Cosimo de’ Medici. The town had been the last to survive as an independent municipality in Italy. The Treaty of Chateau Cambresis sanctioned peace between France and Spain, and gave Siena, Montalcino and their lands to the Dukedom of Tuscany (The Grand Duchy under the Medici). The Dukedom was subsequently absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy, and marked the beginning of Montalcino’s modern history. This meant there was no longer any need for the town to defend itself. The leather shoes and terracotta that had made the town wealthy were abandoned in favour of agriculture, including wine.

The Middle ages–winemaking: In the Middle Ages, municipal edicts established the time of year when grapes were to be harvested. Leandro Alberti (1550-1631) from Bologna stated Montalcino was ‘much mentioned for the good wines that are reaped from those homely hills.’ On his visit to Montalcino in 1676-1677 the Grand Duke’s auditor, Bartolomeo Gherardini noted the production of 6050 somas of wine, which he describes as a ‘lively wine, though not abundant.’ In 1744 Charles Thompson wrote that ‘Montalcino is not particularly famous, except for the goodness of its wines.’

19th century: Modern Brunello born: The birth of Brunello of Montalcino dates to the 19th century, when a handful of local farmers began making a red wine from grapes of a vine traditionally cultivated in the surrounding lands and known as ‘Brunello’ or ‘Brunellino’. Around the mid-1800’s this is identified as Sangiovese, a red wine grape capable of producing wines capable of ageing. The first documented mention of ‘Brunello’ occured when Clemente Santi won a prize at a local fair for his 1865 ‘vino rosso scelto (brunello)’. This was the first example in Italy of a single varietal prestige wine.

The region then suffered from oidium and downy mildew, with the white Moscadello vines worst hit it seems. Sangiovese seemed to fare better. Clemente Santi’s grandson Ferruccio, who had improved the selection of Sangiovese made by his grandfather from the 1850s, bottled his first wine from it in 1888 and Brunello di Montalcino came into being. ‘It was Ferruccio who, precisely because of the preserving properties of those unalleviated hard tannins of the Sangiovese Grosso clone he called Brunello, conceived of Brunello (the wine) as a vino da invecchiamento, a wine for long ageing, backing his judgement by laying down substantial quantities of the still extant 1888 and 1891,’ writes Nicolas Belfrage (2003, p.112).

20th century: At the start of the C20th Montalcino was a rich community at an important crossroads linking the Maremma, Rome and Arezzo. By 1920 there were 2,000 hectares of vines, and wine was starting to take its place amongst agricultural crops. The vineyard area in 1930 was the biggest it would be for fifty years. The 1930s were tough here due to phylloxera. During the Second World War local cellars were drunk dry. The region did have three good post-war harvests in 1945 (great), 1946 (very good), and 1947 (great).

1950s: From the 1950s Montalcino families like the Colombini from Fattoria dei Barbi, the Lisini, the Franceschi at Il Poggione, Costanti Lovatelli, Mastropaolo and the Nardi of Casale del Bosco and Castiglion del Bosco began bottling Brunello.

1960s: In the 1960s a by-pass was built, meaning traffic no longer passed through Montalcino, leaving it as something of a backwater. When DOC arrived in 1966 ‘there were 13 bottlers and 76 hectares (187ha) of registered vines,’ says O’Keefe (reference). In 1967 the Consorzio for the Montalcino region’s wines was founded. The arrival of the DOC and the end of the mezzadria or sharecropping system meant winegrowing started to become more specialised (monocultural).

1970s: In the 1970s there was both a steady influx of new arrivals (eg. CaparzoLa Magia, Sesti), and a trend for local grape growers to convert to estate winemaking. This brought the building of new wineries and an influx of winemaking consultants.

1978: The American Mariani brothers created what is now the Banfi winery, advised by Attilio Scienza.

1980 DOCG: In 1980 Brunello became the first Italian wine to obtain DOCG status. This fixed tighter standards and reduced yields to 80 quintals (56hl/ha). Over the next decade substantial investments were made by the likes of Banfi, Agricola Centolani’s Tenuta Friggiali, SAI Agricola’s La Poderina, the Marchesi family’s Val di Suga, the Frescobaldi family at Castelgiocondo, and San Felice at Campogiovanni.

1984 Rosso di Montalcino DOC: In 1984 the Rosso di Montalcino DOC was created.

1990s Influx of new blood: In the 1990s there was a second influx of new arrivals (eg Milanese) from areas such as business, law and medicine, which led to the creation or renewal of wineries like Altesino, Argiano, Caparzo and. Established estates such as Conti Costanti, Fuligni and Siro Pacenti had to raise their game when a younger generation took over. This changed Montalcino from being the poor neighbour to the richest commune in the province of Siena.

1997 Vineyard area enlargement: The vineyard area was extended from 1997 when a European Union funding initiative (decree 950) aimed at encouraging those under 40 to become farmers coincided with an extension to the plantable vineyard area in Montalcino. This saw new plantings in both traditional wine-growing areas in Montalcino such as Castelnuovo dell’Abate and Sant’Angelo in Colle, as well as in less traditional ones like Torrenieri

Brunellopoli: Brunellopoli is the name given by the Italian press for a scandal in 2008 involving producers of Brunello di Montalcino under suspicion of wine fraud (adding non-sangiovese grapes to the 100% Sangiovese Brunello di Montalcino wines), first reported by Italian wine journalist Franco Ziliani and American wine critic James Suckling of Wine Spectator. In 2008, 85% of consorzio members voted against allowing alternative varieties to be used for Brunello or junior appellation Rosso di Montalcino, and in 2012, some 98% rejected the idea of changing the rules for Rosso alone. “Now, with the 2010 vintage, I think there is no way of changing back, because the rating [of the wines] has been so great,” Giacomo Bartolommei, said.

Montalcino Terroir

The wines of Montalcino (Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Rosso di Montalcino DOC, Moscadello di Montalcino DOC and Sant’Antimo DOC) all come 100% from grapes grown within the boundary of the historic commune of Montalcino 

Four-sided pyramid: The Montalcino region is like a pyramid, with a square base of four sides. Each side measures roughly 9.3 miles (15 km) for a combined surface area of what was 94 square miles (243 square km) until Montalcino merged administratively with the neighbouring township of San Giovanni d’Asso to the east which added another 25.5 square miles (66 square km). However, the boundary for the Montalcino region’s wines did not change, meaning wines from San Giovanni d’Asso cannot be labelled as Brunello or Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’Antimo, or Moscadello. Vines are found in the northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. The two main climatic zones in Montalcino are the north area, which is a little bit cooler, and the south which is a little bit warmer. Montalcino is strongly influenced by the Tyrrhenian sea, which is just 25 miles (40 kilometres) away to the west. The sea is especially influential on the western side of Montalcino.’ 

Size: Overall, the surface area of land allowed the Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’Antimo or Moscadello denominations is 11 times bigger than that of Pauillac (25.5 square miles or 66 square km) in Bordeaux.

The north-western area is mainly forest, hence it has become known as as ‘Bosco’ or wood. The north-eastern area around the hamlet of Torrenieri is mostly clay, so crops like wheat, and forage dominate. The vineyards of Montalcino are really concentrated in the north around the town, in the center, and in the southern part.

Surrounding communes (9): Asciano (SI), Buonconvento (SI), Castel del Piano (GR), Castiglione d’Orcia (SI), Cinigiano (GR), Civitella Paganico (GR), Murlo (SI), Pienza (SI), Trequanda (SI). The formerly independent and neighbouring commune of San Quirico d’Orcia (SI) has now been subsumed into the commune of Montalcino, as outlined above.

Topography: The Montalcino region rises from 71 metres (232 feet) to 567 metres (1,860 feet). The terrain consists of high hills (70% of the area), mountain (1%), low, fertile plains (29%) and narrow valleys leading to the rivers mentioned above (Guelfo Magrini: 2003, p.21). The upper limit above which vines were not permitted for Brunello has been scrapped due to warming temperatures (see Climate, below).

Mount Amiata: Mount Amiata, or Monte Amiata is an extinct volcano to the south of Montalcino. It is the highest peak in Tuscany at 1,738 metres (5,702 feet), and Italy’s second highest volcano (after Etna). Dominating the territory of Montalcino, Amiata protects vineyards in the southeastern part (Castelnuovo dell’Abate) from winds that come from the plains. It is also a buffer against hot sirocco winds coming from the south (Magrini: 2003, p.23), and catalyzes bad weather, drawing hail and the heaviest rains.

Biodiversity: The commune of Montalcino comprises 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) of land. Of this 15% is vineyard and 50% is wild. See here for the detail.

Climate: See here.

Global warming, Climate change in Montalcino: See here.

Geology, Soil, Soil pH in Montalcino: See here.

Watercourses: The original region (minus San Quirico d’Orcia) comprising the commune of Montalcino is bordered by four watercourses of which the two most important are the Orcia and the shallop  Ombrone, the largest of all. The Ombrone flows in from the north-west (its source is near Castelnuovo Berardenga in the Chianti Classico region). The Ombrone meets the Arbia, which flows north but soon turns east, creating the wide, low Arbia valley (see Val d’Arbia DOC). This was crossed in Roman times by the Cassian road (Via Cassia) and the Francigena, a route created in late medieval times by religious pilgrims. The two roads follow the valley and meet in Torrenieri before continuing towards Rome (Guelfo Magrini: 2003, p.21). The Orcia river lies to the south, and meets the Ombrone in the south-west of the Montalcino region. The Ombrone then flows west and south-west towards Grosseto and the Tyrrhenian Sea in the western Mediterranean, 25 miles (40km) from Montalcino as the crow flies.

Viticulture

Average vineyard holding: According to Kerin O’Keefe (2012, p.247) sixty-six per cent of Brunello estates possess 5 hectares (12 acres) or less, with 22% having less than one hectare (2.47 acres).

Vine density: From 2016 the proposed minimum vine density at replanting was raised from 3,000 vines per hectare (1,214 vines per acre) to 4,000 vines per hectare (1,620 vines per acre).

Yields: Yields are set at 8 tonnes per hectare (3.24 tonnes per acre) maximum for Brunello. Vineyards registered for Brunello may also produce Rosso, but not the other way around; and the Brunello vineyard can only yield the production maxima for Brunello even if the wine is destined for Rosso. Single vineyard wines (‘Vigna’, ‘Vigneto’) were reduced to 7 tonnes per hectare (2.83 tonnes per acre) for Brunello and 8 tonnes per hectare (3.24 tonnes per acre) for Rosso from 2016. 

Zoning of vineyard areas in Montalcino is a never-ending debate, not least because it is unlikely to be implemented in any form. See here for the background and possible criteria for sub-zones. In any case, the region already has a long list of named areas, place names or localities, whose often fluid boundaries reflect local customs and land ownership rather than soil science and under-lying geology. See Montalcino: Named vineyards, sites, places, hamlets, localities, and sub-zones.

Non-wine crops: See here.

Population: See here.

Post code: I-53024 Montalcino (SI)

Town gates: Porta al Cassero. | Porta al Cornio. | Porta Burelli (Murelli). | Porta Castellana. | Porta Cerbara (Cervara). | Porta Gattoli.

Tourism: For the tourist office, suggestions on where to stay, visit and eat in Montalcino see here.

Bibliography

Guelfo Magrini (2003) ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ by Guelfo Magrini (Morganti Editori, 2003), English edition.

Kerin O’Keefe (2012) ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ by Kerin O’Keefe (University of California Press, 2012).

Kerin O’Keefe (2006 11) ‘Brunello’s moment of truth’ by Kerin O’Keefe, World of Fine Wine 11 2006.