An authentic taste of Tuscany. Wine lovers who want a true taste of Tuscany should discover the little-known wines of Montecucco, urges Richard Baudains.
Stand at the centre of the historic borgo which gives its name to the area, and on one side the horizon is defined by the massive outline of Monte Amiata. On the other, on a clear day with good eyesight and a little imagination, you can just make out the sea beyond the lines of rolling hills. In the morning, a warm breezefrom the coast rattles the windows; in the evening a stiff, cool wind, which comes down from the mountain, rustles the leaves in the vineyards. In all directions the eye is met by a patchwork of woods, olive groves, pastures, arable land and vineyards in a landscape of centuries-old biodiversity. Narrow, bumpy lanes link the villages in the sparsely populated countryside and medieval castles look down on the valleys from their strategic hill-tops. There are no major towns, no electricity pylons, no advertising hoardings, no arterial roads, no aircraft flying overhead. This is Montecucco, Tuscany’s last unexplored wine region. As a recent denomination, Montecucco is largely unknown outside an increasing circle of admiring critics and wine professionals. The historic Tuscan DOCs were created in the 1960s; the first DOCGs in the 1980s. Montecucco only formally came into being in 1998. At that time, the producers’ register contained a mere 10 or so names and the area had barely 100 hectares of vineyard.
In the past decade, Montecucco has grown at an extraordinary pace, not only in size but also in quality and ambition. Today there are almost 800 ha under vine, around 70 producers and an annual output of 1.8 million bottles. The wines are starting to be sold in international markets, but a wide range is not readily available outside the region – yet. Promotion of the wines is gearing up and we will certainly be seeing more of them in the future.
The Montecucco DOCG zone is located in the most northerly part of the province of Grosseto. To the south are the coastal hills of Morellino di Scansano, while to the north, across the river Orcia, lies Montalcino. Although the DOC takes in a vast area, most of the wine growing is concentrated in three of the seven comunes entitled to use the name Montecucco: Castel del Piano, Cinigiano and Seggiano. There are also smaller producers around the villages of Civitella Paganico and Campagnatico. Castel del Piano, on the lower slopes of Monte Amiata, has vineyards which stretch up to 450 metres above sea level, but the typical elevation for the DOCG goes from 300 metres to about 380 metres.
Soils around Cinigiano, at the heart of Montecucco, are generally lean, dry and stony, with large areas of fragmented sandstone similar to that found in Chianti. Moving south-west towards the ‘Montecucco is largely unknown outside an increasing circle of admiring critics and wine professionals… This is Tuscany’s last unexplored wine region’ coast they become finer, while closer to Monte Amiata, at Castel del Piano and Seggiano, volcanic soils predominate. In terms of climate, the latitude guarantees the sunshine of southern Tuscany, but the heat is mitigated by altitude and the alternating air currents, which encourage gradual ripening and preserve the aromas and good acidity. The conditions for wine growing are extraordinary, but history is made by people, and a crucial role in the development of the DOCG has been played by the dynamic local consorzio, which brings together a group of estate owners, from third or fourth generation smallholders to new boutique winery proprietors and major investors with vast managerial experience. Claudio Tipa belongs to the latter category. Towards the end of the 1990s, Tipa, a leading industrialist in hightech communications and security systems, decided it was time for a new challenge. He had an appointment to look over a castle with a view to buying into a wine production area in the southern Maremma. When the appointment fell through he asked the estate agent accompanying him if there was anything else going in the area. It transpired that there was a dilapidated place in the hills further north. The minute Claudio Tipa saw the medieval castle of Colle Massari, he knew he had to buy it, even though it came with only a single hectare of vineyard. The decision marked what he describes as ‘the most fantastic period of my life’. His first wine came out in 2002. In the 10 years since, Tipa, who is president of the consorzio, has transformed Colle Massari into a thriving 110 ha wine estate, which is one of the driving forces behind Montecuccco, not only in wine production but also in wider social and financial spheres. Then there are the historic figures of the area represented by farmers such as Riccardo Catocci, from Le Calle, who has always produced wine alongside the halfdozen other typical agricultural products on his organic farm. Or Leonardo Salustri, long-standing member of the consorzio, whose highly acclaimed old-vine selections have a cult following among Sangiovese lovers. Then there are newcomers, such as Simone Toninelli, at Amiata, who studied law then crossed over to agronomy and now makes a micro production of prize-winning wine from tiny plots among the highest in the DOCG. Another newcomer is Daniele Rosellini, former oenologist of the Chianti Classico consorzio, a winemaker and agronomist with a distinguished career in consultancy and estate management. He chose Montecucco for his own estate and winery because of the combination of soils and climate for growing Sangiovese – he called it ‘Campi Nuovi’ because he was planting on virgin soils.
Every producer has his own story, but they form a cohesive group, with many shared philosophies. A key example of this is the commitment to growing organically. A high proportion of the top producers in Montecucco practise organic or biodynamic viticulture. The climate and the natural balance of the ecosystem favour non-invasive approaches, as Claudio Tipa discovered. ‘It was easy to go organic when we started out, because everything here already was,’ he says. But this is not just about respecting the rural status quo. What the Italian call ‘bio’ is one of the cutting-edge research areas in viticulture. As Colle Massari agronomist Giuliano Guerrini points out, ‘organic growing isn’t a step into the past, it’s three steps into the future’. The other key area of consensus is in the approaches to vinification. Montecucco is an area of hand-crafted wines that aim for natural expressions of the grape variety and the terroir.