Situated on a promontory with its distinctive Palazzo dei Priori tower and the town fortress visible for miles around, Montalcino epitomizes the medieval Tuscan hilltown. Famous for its Sangiovese-based wine, Brunnello di Montalcino, the town reflects prosperity generated by global demand for a world-class commodity. Tourists are present, but not in the hordes one sees in Siena or Florence, and most of the street life seems the everyday goings on of a small town, albeit one surrounded by vineyards and dominated by the wine industry.
The medieval walled hilltown is divided into four contrade or neighborhoods: Borghetto, Travaglio, Pianello, and Ruga. Each neighborhood has its own emblem, flag, colors, and headquarters located within the city walls (similar to Siena’s contrade). However, instead of a horse race – the Palio – Montalcino hold an archery contest called the Sagra del Tordo (the ‘festival of the thrush’).
Like most of Tuscany, the town has been settled since at least Etruscan times and its history is complex and detailed. It fought against Siena in the Battle of Montaperti (1260), so came under the influence of Siena and was the site to which the Sienese retreated when Florence regained control of Siena in 1555. Soon thereafter (1559) Montalcino and much of the rest of the province came under the control of the Florentine Medici family.
Despite its spectacular location, Montalcino was a poor place for many centuries. It was not until the revival of the wine industry in Italy overall in the 1980s, and particularly the role of the Biondi-Santi family in creating a brand identity for the excellent wines made from the Sangiovese Grosso variety, did Montalcino’s fortunes turn for the better. It was the first Italian wine to receive the prestigious Denominazione de Orignine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) designation in 1980. Production of Brunello di Montalcino is highly regulated. Brunello ‘normale’ must be aged in oak for 2 years and at least 4 months in bottle before release; ‘riserva’ must be aged in oak for 5 years, with at least 6 months in bottle before release. Unlike Chianti Classico which can contain grapes other than Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino is 100% Sangiovese.
Contributions by Courtney Shannon and Jason Kallingal.