About a year ago now I took 10 week trip through Europe after graduating from college. The wine I experienced throughout this trip was absolutely life-changing, but it was a Brunello di Montalcino tour that I splurged on that created the most memorable experience.
Trying to get around Tuscany without a car proved to be difficult...
After having to hitchhike from the Montepulciano train station into the actual town of Montepulciano (which was 6km away) with an old Italian man, we decided it might be best to fork over the extra cash and have someone actually show us where to go. The trip was absolutely worth the money. We decided to take the Brunello di Montalcino tour since it seemed to have a reputation for being a more luxurious tuscan wine (why not live large on this type of trip, right?). We were to be taken to three different wineries, one that would provide lunch, and visit the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, a church in Montalcino. The van met in Siena and with our small group of 7 we were off! This was my very first organized wine tasting experience and I must say that I probably would have been happy with the bare minimum, but the tour I was given far exceeded my expectations.
To be classified as a “Brunello di Montalcino” there are a few criteria that the wine must meet. For starters, the wine must be made with 100% Sangiovese grape and aged for a minimum of five years. The alcohol in a Brunello must be above 13.5% abv and of course, the wine must be produced in Montalcino. Additionally, and this I found very interesting, no vineyards in Montalcino are allowed to use an irrigation system to water their vines. Rain is the only source of water for the grapes, meaning that the wines are always going to be a genuine reflection of their vintage. In general, Brunellos are higher acid, fruit-driven wines with notes of raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, violet, and chocolate. It has smooth tannins and a fleshy, fuller body.
Between wineries we made a stop to check out the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, a former Benedictine Monastery tucked in the valley of Montalcino. It is an absolutely beautiful structure, surrounded by hills of vineyards on all sides - as someone who has seen a lot of churches this was definitely one of the most spectacular with enormity of it combined with the surrounding landscape.
The first winery we were taken to was called Podere Le Ripi, it was a beautiful winery focusing on creating wines through biodynamic techniques. The concept of biodynamics is the belief that everything in the universe is interconnected. Producing a wine biodynamically means that the vines are pruned, harvested, and planted, according to a special calendar that corresponds to the movement of the celestial bodies such as the moon, planets, and stars.
With a modern, high tech wine cellar and view overlooking the hills of Montalcino,this winery was definitely a great start for the tour. Our tour guide, a young, quick-witted girl probably close to my own age talked to us in detail about the philosophy of the winery and led us in tasting 3 wines, a 2009 Syrah wine, a 2010 Rosso di Montalcino, and a Riserva Brunello di Montalcino complemented by some breadsticks.
The next winery we went to, a family owned estate, was called Piombaia. Here we had a 3-course meal set up for us right along the vineyard - probably one of the most beautiful table set ups I have ever seen. With a canopy shading us from the hot sun, the table was set for 7 with fresh bread, pesto, olive oil, and 3 bottles of Montalcino wine waiting for us. A family friend of the winery owner was the one that prepared our meal for us, what I absolutely loved from this meal - and essentially what I love about food in Europe - is that everything was made from scratch with fresh ingredients; you can feel good about indulging in the meal! Because the lunch was so memorable, I decided to take a 2011 Brunello di Montalcino back home to my family - we are waiting for just the right occasion to open it up!
The final winery we went to, (which honestly by that time I could not believe we still had one more to visit) was another family owned winery where three brothers gave us a tour into their barrel room and gave us their Brunello paired with dark chocolate - the chocolate brought out the flavors in the wine beautifully. The brothers were incredibly open to answering all our questions, from them I learned the proper technique to tasting the wine and how to tell the levels of acidity, body, and tannin from drinking. Then they gave us some samples of Grappa, which they also produced at the winery, and taught us the proper technique to tasting it as well.
Overall I felt that the tour went above and beyond my expectations. I truly got a genuine experience of Montalcino, I learned far more than I thought I would and felt a deeper connection to the wines since I saw the lives of the people who produced them. Every place was unique and had its own philosophy on the best way to make the wine while still staying true to the Brunello di Montalcino criteria as well. While I am always an advocate of exploring on your own, I highly recommend looking into an organized tour around Tuscany. Having that sort of transportation allows you to be able to fully indulge in all the different wines. Organized tours also give you more freedom to see the bigger picture of the winery by getting to taste wines not normally poured or getting a longer time to speak with the producer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After traveling through Europe following graduation from UC Berkeley, Kelsey found one common theme within every country she visited: wine. The culture that each different country developed around the enjoyment of wine and food inspired her to want to continue to explore that world. While living and working full-time in the Bay Area, Kelsey is continuing to pursue her interest in wine. She recently passed the WSET level 2 and is keen to continue her education throughout all the levels. As she continues to learn more about the world of wine, she hopes to continuing traveling and expanding her palate.