With roughly 250 wineries producing Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino and other Tuscan DOC wines, I have a lot of drinking to do to decide on my personal top ten (right, life could be worse). However, a perfect winery visit in Tuscany doesn't just consist of fine wines, but also of great views, beautiful buildings and last but not least nice and welcoming people with interesting life stories to tell.
The order in the list below indicates the vicinity of the wineries to Montalcino's town center (see winery map below) and not any personal preference. To get the best out of your visit, be sure to book an appointment beforehand.
IN WALKING DISTANCE (bring a pair of comfy shoes)
- A) IL PALAZZONE A couple of kilometers from Montalcino, this winery can be reached by foot - i.e. you can taste as much as you like and won't have to worry about driving back into town. Owned by Richard Parsons, the winery is run by husband and wife team Laura and Marco, who will make sure you taste but also understand Brunello. Can't come out or would like to refresh your memory about anything Brunello beforehand? Have a read through Laura's highly knowledgeable Palazzone wine blog or read my Brunello maker interview with her here.
- B) BRUNELLO TORNESI A small family run winery with a gorgeous view over the Val d'Orcia and mount Amiata. The father and daughter team are true Montalcinesi ready to refer several generations' work of agricultural knowledge. Their elegant Brunello and Riserva are wonderful testimonies from one of the highest vineyards in Montalcino (they'll be happy to give you a lift back to town in case you buy too many cases).
- C) BIONDI SANTI If you're into history you will have to stop by here. The oldest still existing bottles of Brunello (dating back to 1888) keep maturing in Franco Biondi Santi's cellar. No other winery in Montalcino has been producing Brunello for as long as the Biondi Santi family. History has its price. Unless you happen to have unlimited spending power, you may want to fill your shopping basket somewhere else.
- D) PIAN DELL'ORINO Right next door to the famous Biondi Santi estate, Pian dell'Orino is a totally different story. This young, small and organic estate is run by a couple who cares madly about biodynamic winemaking and agriculture. Even if that means spending long afternoons spraying herb tea or homeopathic tinctures on drooping leaves. You may laugh, but the approach works and produces great wines.
- E) CASTELLO ROMITORIO owner Sandro Chia started off his professional career with art not wine (he was part of the famous transavanguardia movement). Once his art started selling he decided to buy the Romitorio castle in 1984 and turned it into a stunning property. He's obviously trying to make sure, that the world will remember him for more than just his artwork at the MOMA.
- F) FONTERENZA Owned and run by the lovely twin sisters Margherita and Francesca, who are very passionate about producing great biodynamic wines and incredibly knowledgeable about anything organic. Ask them for a few tips if you are planning to turn yourself into an organic hobby gardener (that's what I did).
- G) COLLEMATTONI Finally a true local. Montalcino's wineries are a multicultural hotpot. The great wines and the beauty of the landscape have brought many a foreigner (Milan and the rest of Italy included) to this area. But nothing nicer than the people who are literally from the land. The Bucci family has been living at Collemattoni for generations. The winery is run now by Marcello Bucci, who pours the Tuscan ancestral knowledge straight into his organic wines.
- H) UCCELLIERA As we're talking locals: here's another man whose family has been farming Montalcino's lands for centuries. Andrea Cortonesi is best described with the French term vigneron. His enthusiasm and passion for anything wine are visible in every inch of his land. And Uccelliera lies in prime position if you want to visit Sant'Antimo abbey too.
- I) SESTI - CASTELLO DI ARGIANO Tuscany has a medieval castle or Renaissance villa at every road bend. Nevertheless I don't know many locations that leave the visitor as besotted as Castello di Argiano's beautiful medieval hamlet. And the Sesti wines are as congruent and true to terroir as the stunning hamlet and vineyards where they are produced (read on here for further ratings and accolades).
- K) CUPANO A Frenchman goes Brunello. Lionel and Ornella, the French-Italian owners had already been holidaying in Montalcino when most farmhouses in the countryside didn't have electricity yet. After a career in film-making and journalism they decided to blend French savoir-faire with Brunello wines. Take time to have a stroll through Camigliano (a lovely tourist-free village that belongs to the council of Montalcino) before or after your visit at the Cupano winery.
Once you've tasted yourself through the above wineries, you'll realize that my preference goes to the small producers. My idea of a good wine is linked to a vintner who can be found talking to the vines (and at times to the people who visit his or her vineyard).
This said, some medium to big scale estates have been crucial to Brunello wines conquering of the world. The biggest and one of the most important players here is Banfi, the sponsor of the Montalcino Jazz & Wine festival, one of the best summer jazz festivals in Italy. The Castello Banfi wines are very much made for the American market, so don't go looking for an artisan product here. These are not the wines I personally like to drink, even though the winery seems to supply work to half of my Tuscan village. Maybe one day Banfi realizes that it could do these hills a lot of good if it decided to go organic like Col d'Orcia, its neighbor and another of Montalcino's biggest estates.
And as we're talking about music. Wine and music lovers who have an open mind may want to check out the Paradiso di Frassina winery, where vines and their respective grapes can happily listen to Mozart whilst growing along (research on the effect of this is partly sponsored by Bose and carried out by the university of Pisa). People with more interest in history than music should stop by at the lovely Collosorbo winery. It seems that part of the cellar has been in use since Etruscan times. No idea whether that's myth or fact, but be sure to walk badly behaved kids through the secret passage. The sole mention of getting shut into it got mine to behave well for the rest of the visit.
If you have endless time up your sleeves print out the Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino's winery map, which supplies location and contact details of all the wineries in Montalcino (or download the vintners association's new Brunello app) and taste your way through more than 200 estates to define your very own top ten. The Consorzio's map is also great for people new to Montalcino and its Sangiovese wines, as it supplies basic knowledge about Brunello's history, its territory and the best vintages of the last 65 years. You can get a print-out copy of it at Montalcino's tourist office.
If you'd like to explore other wine making areas in Tuscany, my 7 Tips on how to taste Tuscan Wine right at the Winery will also be of help.