Postcards from Italy

Wine Tasting in Montalcino

When you picture a Tuscan hilltown, what comes to mind is probably more or less Montalcino. With its fairytale castle above, vineyard-covered hills below, and warren of winding lanes and pretty squares, this village in the scenic Val d’Orcia is sent directly from central casting.

When you picture a Tuscan wine, what probably comes to mind is more or less Montalcino’s flagship red, Brunello. With centuries of history, Italy’s first DOCG recognition, and a unique microclimate and terroir that gives this 100% Sangiovese wine a more fleshy texture, smoother tannins, and more complex dark-fruit-driven flavors than Chianti (, this iconic red has become so popular and prestigious over the past half century that it has almost single-handedly transformed Montalcino and the surrounding area from one of the poorest in the region to one of the wealthiest.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

For a quintessentially Tuscan experience, there is nothing like a day touring the wineries surrounding Montalcino and tasting what many consider Italy’s greatest wines. We have spent time nosing around the local wineries many times over the years, and always discover something new and memorable. Here are some of our tips:

A Brunello Primer

To get started, you may want to brush up on some basics about Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello is a 100% Sangiovese wine that is only produced in the hillsides and valley floors surrounding Montalcino, a growing area made up a patchwork of dozens of tiny individual microclimates and terroirs, and much of the style and quality of an individual wine depends on the altitude and sun exposure of each vineyard. Vineyards located at the foot of the Montalcino hills along the Orcia River generally produce wines more intense in color, tannins, and dark fruit flavors due to the thicker deposits of clay in the soil. Vineyards higher on the hillsides with shallower layers of shale and clay tend to produce lighter-bodied wines, less tannic and with more red fruit and floral flavors.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Regardless of where the individual vineyard is location, all Brunello DOCG wines must be aged in a specific way: Normale wines require five years of aging (minimum two years in oak) and four months in bottle. Riserva wines require six years of aging (minimum two years in oak) and six months in bottle. Some producers prefer the more traditional large barrel aging, and some have begun to age in smaller French barriques; the former produces wines with dried fruit and flower flavors that age well and the latter wines with black fruit and chocolate flavors that are often ready to drink sooner.

Which brings us to how long you should wait before uncorking a Brunello. The answer: as long as you can. Brunello wines are known for their bold fruit flavors and high tannins and acidity. The fruit aroma is what makes this Tuscan red so enduringly popular, but the tannins and acidity give young wines a tart, astringent note that makes you hit the brakes. These same two characteristics, however, extend the wine’s life, pushing its peak of perfection a decade or more into the future when the tannins and acidity have softened enough to let the complex, deep aroma shine through.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

A Brunello that ages into a classic doesn’t happen every year, unfortunately. You need a perfect ripening season, paired with the right microclimate and terroir for a stellar vintage. In any season, there can be areas in the DOCG territory that turn out spectacular vintages, and areas just on the other side of the hill that are duds. When judging, don’t rely solely on the Brunello consortium’s star-rating system—we’ve noticed that not all 4 and 5 star years are created equal—or the simple DOCG label; you’ll need to know which areas within the DOCG territory were the best for that particular vintage, and then have the patience to wait it out.

Now you know the basics. It’s time to taste!

Getting around

A day of wine tasting around Montalcino can be done from Florence, but it ends up being an unpleasantly long day. By far the better option is to stay in Montalcino or one of the nearby hilltowns of the Val d’Orcia (—Pienza or Montepulciano are good choices, or, slightly further afield, the city of Siena. The Val d’Orcia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has some of the most stunning scenery in central Italy. Drives through this area are a delight in themselves, though it’s always a good idea to hire a driver when spending the day cantina hopping.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

If you opt to stay in Montalcino, you can walk from vineyard to vineyard along a route that sets off from the center of town and descends past 10 or so wineries. This is a fantastic walk to do in the spring or fall when the weather is mild (though, if it has been a wet season, the mud may make it unpleasant to attempt).

Where to go

There are dozens of wineries (cantine) in the Montalcino DOCG territory, from the big name labels like Barbi, Biondi Santi, and Altesino to the tiny, family-run vineyards that we prefer. Our favorites right now are:

Canalicchio di Sopra: this cantina has been run by the Pacenti-Ripaccioli family since 1962, and their wines have an elegance that belies the cantina’s small size.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Podere le Ripi: architecture buffs will particularly like the new cellar here, built entirely of hand-laid bricks and featuring a barrel room inspired by the Pantheon. The estate includes an example of Tuscany’s famous creti senesi, or the clay hills and ridges that cover vast areas outside Siena and give the landscape a lunar look.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Mastrojanni: this unassuming winery surprised us with its quality labels, and was the best wine we tasted on our last visit to the area.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

What to taste

Montalcino’s most prestigious (and expensive) wine is Brunello, and should be the centerpiece of any area tasting. That said, Montalcino also produces three other recognized and protected wines, which are worth sampling:

Rosso di Montalcino: this is also 100% Sangiovese grown and bottled in Montalcino, but required just 1 year of aging with no oak aging requirements.

Sant’Antimo: this includes any single-varietal wine or blend (labeled bianco or rosso) from Montalcino containing any white or red grapes allowed in Tuscany and bottled within the province of Siena. These wines may include Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and others.

Moscadello di Montalcino: this white wine can be still, sparkling, or late harvest (requiring 2 years of aging) made with 100% Muscat Blanc.

Where to eat and sleep

Montalcino: If you are staying in town, try Re di Macchia (Via Soccorso Saloni 21, Montalcino; +39 0577 846116), a simple trattoria with great Florentine steak.
Montepulciano: If you are taking a day trip from Montepulciano, try L’Aquacheta, a favorite for tourists but with monumental Fiorentina steaks made from local Chianina beef and grilled over wood coals that won’t disappoint.

Accommodations: The elegant Castiglion del Bosco estate in the countryside outside of Montalcino is a luxury Rosewood property combining Tuscan elegance with five-star amenities. If you’d rather stay in the heart of a village, the chic La Bandita Townhouse in Pienza is a good choice.

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore