Wine notes

Saturday 3 April 2010


The next stop on February's en primeur tastings in Tuscany, beginning with Chianti Classico, was Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This series of en primeur tastings, concluding with the wines of Brunello di Montalcino, on which I will report later, saw Italian and international journalists, buyers and restaurateurs flock to the region to assess the latest vintages that come onto the market this spring.

This year the Consorzio of Vino Nobile seemed to be particularly concerned with our dermatological health, to judge from the series of bath products and moisturising creams made with the 'essence of red grapes', which all tasters found in their hotel rooms. Although the list of their ingredients dutifully states 'Vitis vinifera', it doesn't specify whether this is the revered Prugnolo Gentile, as Sangiovese, the principal grape of Vino Nobile, is known here.

On a more serious note, the Consorzio announced that with around eight million bottles on the market, their sales volume had remained stable since last year, although they did admit that the average price of their wine had decreased. This must have had a considerable impact on the region that exports about two-thirds of its total production, its most important markets being Germany (28%), Switzerland (26%), and the USA (18%), with the UK representing a modest 5%.

Some important changes took place in 2009, of which the most relevant was the modification of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano production regulations, just before the introduction of last year's CMO/OCM. The modification has not been without controversy, as it increased the percentage of 'authorised grape varieties' other than Prugnolo Gentile, including the non-indigenous Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, raising eyebrows as well as the question as to why the proportion of Prugnolo Gentile should be reduced in a wine that has been considered so Nobile all these centuries.

The formulation of the amended regulations is slightly cryptic, too, in that they state that the proportion allowed of 'additional grape varieties' (ie the aforementioned foreign intruders) is increased from the original 20% to 30%, while the firmly local Canaiolo can be included only to a maximum 20%. This still gives conscientious producers the chance to produce a Vino Nobile consisting of Tuscan varieties only, but the modification cannot shake off the impression that the Consorzio doesn't think very highly of Canaiolo. It's intriguing too that the (legal) addition of white grapes to the fermentation tank will be reduced from the current 10% of the blend to 5% over the next five years. This is a step in the right direction that is too late and too timid in the eyes of purists.

All this has not led to a clearer image of this wine, which finds itself stylistically between Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino. Author Nicolas Belfrage MW has aptly described Vino Nobile as combining the elegance of Chianti Classico with the firm structure of Brunello di Montalcino, seeing this firm structure as a guarantee for ageworthiness of the wines. But it seems that some producers are only too happy to use the new, increased proportion of Merlot to make wines in an earlier-maturing, more international style. And it is true that one is well advised to drink the tannic, more classical examples of Vino Nobile with food.