Variety

Wells of red, red wine

Tanushree Podder | Updated on February 22, 2013
The hilltop town of Montepulciano

In vino: The hilltop town of Montepulciano. - TANUSHREE PODDER

San Biagio church

San Biagio church - TANUSHREE PODDER

A wine bar in town

A wine bar in town. - TANUSHREE PODDER

The Piazza Grande

The Piazza Grande. - TANUSHREE PODDER

Montepulciano produces one of Italy's oldest and famous red wines in a spectacular setting.



The first sight of the hilltop town was stunning. Even though I have watched its beauty unfold in popular films like Under the Tuscan Sun and The English Patient, on arriving I felt like I was magically catapulted into a medieval era. The sudden bout of rain and dipping temperature couldn’t dampen my spirit — I was raring to explore the bounties of the town.

Tuscany is dotted with quaint villages and picturesque towns on hilltops, verdant and inviting. These tiny towns, often with less than 5,000 inhabitants, have so much to offer that one wonders why they don’t attract that many tourists. We were at Montepulciano, a beautiful region famed for its wine. After the throng of tourists at Florence, it was a delight to soak in the bucolic ambience of the place.

A blend of history and art

Straddling the lofty ridge of Monte Poliziano, the town appears to be straight out of a medieval pastoral painting. With its ancient structures, rolling meadows and miles of vineyards dotted with charming houses, it is the stuff dream destinations are made of. Stomping uphill through its medieval alleys, my knees groaned and muscles complained until I arrived panting at the centre of town.

Here you find the Central Corso, a street that stretches endlessly all the way from the Porta al Prato to the Piazza Grande. Tall, medieval residences flank the street, their shuttered wooden windows presenting a picture of disinterest.

A bunch of Renaissance structures called Palazzos hemmed the Piazza Grande. Cheek by jowl stood a medieval well, cafés and wine shops.

The Palazzo Comunale, a crenellated Gothic structure complete with a tower, stood on one side of the square. It was designed on the lines of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. The Duomo, with an unfinished exterior, is a grim and damp place, but it houses several fascinating works of art — ‘Madonna with Child’ by Benedetto da Maiano, Taddeo di Bartolo’s triptych, and ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ painted in 1401.

Many of the structures inside the walled city date back to the 15th century. In a remarkable effort at conservation, no major construction has been undertaken here since 1580.

Two famous Italian architects, Antonio da Sangallo the Elder and Vignola, are credited for beautifying the palazzos and the adjoining areas. Sangallo also designed the San Biagio, structured in white travertine — the Taj Mahal of Montepulciano.

In the winemaker’s cellar

But I was not here for the Renaissance structures. It was the wine that had brought me — the region has always been known for the delectable red wine it produces. Standing on the terrace of San Francesco, I gazed at miles of vineyards rolling into the distance, their neat rows broken by olive trees. Like the riotous canvas of a moody artist, hues of green, purple, red and yellow dazzled my eyes.

Manufactured since the 8th century, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has single-handedly catapulted the town to global fame, prompting the famous physicist and poet Francesco Redi to proclaim it ‘the king of all wines’ in the 17th century.

Poliziani, as the people of Montepulciano are known, have been making the wine in family-run wineries. The centro storico is lined with wine-tasting shops, from the smaller producers to the larger ones offering their best produce. On my itinerary were wine-tasting tours of several cellars. First stop: the historical Cantine Redi.

As we enter the darkened cavern, down slanted steps that riders once manoeuvred their horses on, I am seized with wonder at the labyrinthine twists of the cellar guarding the owners’ precious store of wine. As Montepulciano is strategically situated between Rome and Florence, travellers, soldiers, wealthy traders and mercenaries made pit-stops to buy, raid, pilfer or seize the prized red wine.

Walking into the barrel room, several feet under the Piazza Grande, I was surprised at the number of aged oak casks it contained. The ancient cobbled steps led us deeper into the bowels of the earth, until we finally reached the lowest level, where we wound our way around many more wooden casks and an ancient well.

“Water and wine, two important necessities,” smiled the guide. “They are both here.”

Rosso di Montepulciano is the second kind of wine the town produces. This is a softer, smoother version of the Vino Nobile, as it is aged only for about six or seven months. The violet-flavoured and ruby red Vino Nobile, on the other hand, is one of Italy’s oldest wines.

I emerged back at the Piazza, warmed by the wine I had tasted. The sun was peeping out, warming up the conversation and my frozen fingers, and life suddenly felt much more beautiful.

I took one last look at the marble vision of San Biagio — nestled amongst the verdant vineyards and cypress trees in the distance, and painted in the golden hue of the setting sun. That was one lovely ‘goodbye’.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Montepulciano is 110 km from Florence. Swiss Air and Lufthansa operate flights to Florence. You can take a bus into town, which is best explored on foot; so don’t forget your most comfortable pair of shoes.

Accommodation

Although most tourists visit on a daytrip from Florence, the town offers several options ranging from B&B to starred hotels.

Wine and food

On a good day, you are likely to find groups of wine tasters milling around the Piazza, lending it a festive atmosphere. Enjoy the wines with snacks such as panzanella and bruschetta. The pork, cheese, pici (handmade pasta) and honey are famous locally. A piece of advice: leave your diet plans at home.

Events

Bravìo, a traditional wine barrel race, takes place on the last weekend of August. Bruscello, a musical extravaganza, is held at the Piazza Grande in August every year.

Published on February 21, 2013

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