MONTALCINO AND ITS CITY-BASED BEAUTIES
Montalcino has always been an area relatively cut off from traditional communication routes, a feature that reaffirms its proud independence resulting from its city history. Rising above the land on top of a hill, and reaching an altitude of 564 meters above sea level, Montalcino saw its greatest physical development take place around a Medieval nucleus, although the city itself was already inhabited during both Etruscan and Roman times.
The crowning architectural glory of Montalcino is the Fortezza, built in 1362 by the Senese people. The Fortezza was consequently used for four years as a capital structure by Siena during the last years of the Senese Republic, following the fall of Siena to the Florentines in 1555.
The Fortress thus becomes a physical symbol of a “challenging” past, and the town absorbs this sensation as it completely encloses itself within the wablls of the Fortezza.
"Thirteen towers of fortification around the walls can be seen," writes 18th century historian Giovanni Antonio Pecci.
“And in the highest place a great fortress, with a donjon in a hexagonal shape, with four bastions, and embanked walls, with a chapel and dwellings, where, as long as they were able to continue gazing upon it, the commander and soldiers lived,” Pecci concludes.
What’s in a grape? Well, the Sangiovese grape is at the heart of the Montalcino wines. Check out its profile, Sangiovese Grapes: Tuscan Saint or Devil?
In the 1940s, demolitions and restoration works were carried out in this area, and today, when visiting the Fortezza, you are able to grasp the organization of this defensive structure that played such a critical role in the lives of its Medieval and Renaissance inhabitants.
In addition to the physical representations of civil power, structures attesting the area’s religious nature are also plentiful (the Duomo, the Church of Madonna del Soccorso, the Church of Sant’Agostino), but unfortunately, the radical renovations and restorations that took place and overlapped each other throughout the centuries have compromised the spiritual and aesthetic nature of Montalcino’s churches, hospitals, and convents.
However, a ray of light from this does appear, and allow is to grasp a hint of the area’s rich artistic and architectural past: visit the Civic and Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art to fill your eyes with exceptional artworks. Set up and arranged impeccably in the Convent of St. Augustine, the museum offers a pleasingly digestible collection of artworks of indisputable quality. The arrangements are also thoughtfully presented in order to maximize your visit to the museum.
OUTSIDE OF MONTALCINO
The middle road of three leading to Montalcino also brings us to a most extraordinary testimony of Medieval architecture and spirituality: the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. This breathtaking structure is without a doubt an exquisite gem within a fascinating itinerary that you can put together for a weekend (or a week) exploring Montalcino’s surroundings.
You can find the Abbey peeking out on the lower right hand side just before you reach the town of Castelnuovo dell’Abate, just about 10km from Montalcino. The Abbey can be found nestled amongst the olive and holm oak trees that preside over this quiet plain, a secret area within these hills.
The structure of Sant’Antimo is shrouded in legend, and history would imply that it was built in 781 by Charlemagne. The goal was to create an structure honoring the grace of Saints Antimo and Sebastian, who were responsible for ending the pestilence ravaging Charlemagne’s army located in the Val d’Orcia.
Want to know how these areas and Montalcino wines are promoted throughout Italy? The Consortium of Brunello di Montalcino Wines has a big hand on this. Learn more about their role today!
The Abbey of Sant’Antimo reached its maximum beauty between the 11th and 12th centuries. Today, it’s a curiously beautiful monument that however leaves no immediate influence on the Sienese and Tuscan countryside in a general sense.
The Abbey of Sant’Antimo’s greatest legacy perhaps is having been awarded a podestà in the 13th century, thereby granting the nearby town of Castelnuovo d’Abate a certain degree of local power an importance.
One of the area’s most interesting towns is definitely San Quirico d’Orcia, located just 15 minutes driving distance from Montalcino. San Quirico was the seat of an imperial vicar in the 12th, century and passed to the hands of the Sienese in 1256. The town has also been known for its exceptional artisanal abilities, specifically in the field of entrepreneurial skills, like building.
Among the marvels we can visit today are the Orti Leonini, the 16th-century gardens created inside the ancient bastions. Don’t miss the splendid Collegiata, a 13th-century church with a marvelous Romanesque portal, whose knotted columns rest on sculpted lionesses. Also worth a visit is the small church of Santa Maria Assunta and the Antico Spedale with its lovely Renaissance well dating back to 1543.
Heading through these lands via bike is a dream - no wonder that the Giro d’Italia does it all the time. Check out this year’s version, Giro d’Italia and Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino - a Divine Duo.
Heading downhill towards the Amiata mountain, a stop at the town of Bagno Vignoni is a must. This city is blessed with natural thermal waters rich in calcareous iodine substances, magnesium, and iron. The waters are pleasantly nearly free of sulfur elements, and these waters were frequented by the Romans, who knew a good thing when they saw it.
The town’s historic landmark, its ancient thermal pool built in the literal heart of town, is a site to be enjoyed with eyes only.
Last but not least, we have Pienza, just over 20 km from Montalcino. This charming small town is hands-down one of the most aesthetically-pleasing balconies of the world, if not the most well built. Pienza provides us with a walkable masterpiece of Renaissance architecture and urban planning. In addition to its impeccable buildings (the Duomo, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo Piccolomini, Church of San Francesco, ancient Romitorio, and Pieve di San Vito), you can enjoy a magnificent wide-lens view of the wonderful Val d’Orcia landscape spread out below.
THE SLOPES OF BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO
What about the Montalcino wines? Well, it’s quite a challenge to describe the local wines following precise geographical designations alone thanks to the distinctive characteristics of the Brunello di Montalcino wines. Literature often provides a glimpse of the areas’ four territories but that result in wines expressing multiple visions of this proverbial nectar.
Let’s give it a shot though….
- Northern plots of Montalcino have northern winds capable of bringing temperatures down significantly. The soils are fertile and loose, and the Sangiovese grapes therefore tend to take on more aromatic profiles with decidedly more robust bodies.
- Western plots are affected by sea breezes, carried by the mistral wind. This impacts the areas’ grapes and musts, which generally take on salty characteristics. The soil is stony, more disintegrated and coarse, which gives its wines a mineral note and flavor.
- Southern plots have a sheltered position, so the winds don’t represent a dominant feature. Average temperatures are higher, grapes ripen earlier and the soil is generally more permeable, with a richness of skeleton and limestone. This makes the soil not as fertile and harder than its counterparts.
- Eastern plots face Mt. Amiata, sometimes reaching considerably high altitudes. Winds once again feature here: gullies and sands characterize the territory, resulting in strong wines with roundness and notable character.
For a video explanation of Montalcino’s natural bounty, don’t miss Filippo Bartolotta’s Miracle of Montalcino video series. Kick off with a geography lesson, with Episode 2 of 6 - The miracle of Montalcino - Majestic Nature.
THE WINERIES - WHERE TO ENJOY AN UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE
Following a general outline, we’ll head to the south-eastern part of the wine region first. A must-include stop here is to Podere Le Ripi, an incredible oasis where the winemakers (and you) are in direct contact with nature. Here, the main objective is not only to make wine, but to also preserve the integrity of the land’s soil.
A successful blend of intelligent planning, farmer’s know-how, pragmatism, respect for the territory, and adherence to local traditions all help make the winery create superlative wines. These values are all enclosed in the very soul of the winery’s founder Francesco Illy, and of his talented partner, Sebastian Nasello.
Curiosity piqued by the mention of Podere Le Ripi? Check out the folks behind the magic, in Podere Le Ripi's Inspiration Lies Within its Wine-Makers.
Health and well-being of the area’s plants, animals and people - these ancient values help guide one’s scientific vision as we taste the wines produced here. These wines also highlight the area’s peculiarities and geographical features mentioned above.
Continuing our enological exploration, with our north-south-east-west trajectory, heading further south we find the ancient winery of Argiano, dating back to 1580. Today, the estate’s wines can be enjoyed in a most idyllic context, the estate’s 16th century fairytale-like villa.
Heading west, don’t miss a stop to the Tenuta le Potazzine. Here, you can explore the solid agricultural approach the wine-making family has espoused, and you can sip on the estate’s impeccable wines that express a satisfying stylistic originality.
Continuing east, we find La Fornace, a small winery of 7 hectares of vineyards and olive groves. Here, the Giannetti family expresses the simple, pleasing and authentic side of Brunello wine in their glasses.
Finally, to the north, you’ll want to visit Franco Pacenti. Located in the area’s Canalicchio basin, the region is rightly considered amongst the most expressive wine region within this denomination.
We’ve got some more Montalcino ideas and thoughts for you here, Giro d’Italia and Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino - a Divine Duo.
WHERE TO EAT
Great Tuscan specialties revisited with skill and an interesting choice of innovative dishes combined with a wide variety of wines (mainly Brunello di Montalcino)
Piazzale Fortezza, 6 - 53024 Montalcino (SI) / Tel. 0577 848191
You can dine under a beautiful portico with high arches (an ancient market). The ambience is deliberately informal but of good substance with very well prepared and tasty local dishes and wines.
Via Giacomo Matteotti, 1 - 53024 Montalcino (SI) / Tel. 0577 846186
Boccon di Vino
Creative dishes and Tuscan wines in a rustic, family-run restaurant with a beautiful terrace overlooking the hills of vineyards and olive groves to meet the Giannetti family and find in the glass all their simple, good and authentic side. In the northern part, finally, it is good to plan a visit to Franco Pacenti, in the basin of Canalicchio, a classic and historical area, rightly counted among the most suitable of the denomination.
Locality Colombaio Tozzi, 201 - 53024 Montalcino (SI) / Tel. 0577 848233
WHERE TO SLEEP
Hotel Il Giglio
Housed in a 17th century palace, this quaint, family-run hotel features beautiful exposed stone walls, dark wood furniture and very bright decor.
Via Soccorso Saloni, 5 - 53024 Montalcino (SI) / Tel. 0577 848167
Don’t miss the Mamablip video series exploring the Miracle of Montalcino - wine, history, culture and more!
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