Tuscany's Montalcino: Home of Brunello
The ancient Etruscan settlement of Montalcino is perched high on a hill with a commanding view of the valleys of the rivers Orcia, Asso and Ombrone. During its more than two millenniums of recorded history, the town has experienced much turmoil and strife.
The 10th century saw the area invaded by Saracen warriors, and between the 12th and 16th centuries there was constant war and political upheaval. During this period, Montalcino's alliance with Siena to the north resulted in the construction around 1300 of the town's Rocca, an imposing fortress abounding in bastions and towers. This served the inhabitants well in their defense against numerous intruders.
In 1553 Cosimo de Medici's armies failed in their attack on the Rocca, but when Siena fell two years later, its leaders escaped to Montalcino and there established an independent walled town with a republican government. However, in 1559 Montalcino had to surrender to Medici rule as a result of the treaty of Chateau Cambresis between France and Spain.
With the Medici crest now adorning the wall of the fortress, the population finally returned to a more peaceful and productive life. Castles and estates were turned into farms and the people devoted themselves with a passion to the land. The farmers of the region had tended their vineyards for centuries and were already famous for their red wine called vermiglio. Indeed, the planting of vineyards has been documented as early as the year 789 when a priest donated a strip of land on Mount Amiata to a local church. First wine exports occurred already in the 14th century. The rich red wine of the region even played an amusing role in a 1553 siege of the town when the commander of the garrison rubbed the wine into his cheeks to simulate robust health and was thereby successful in reassuring his hungry troops.
Wine production is now abundant and growers are proud of their vineyards, precisely laid out to obtain the best quality of grapes. In the late 1800s, attention became focused on the Brunello grape, grown only in these vineyards. It is actually a Sangiovese Grosso, a clone of Chianti's Sangiovese. Today, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is considered one of Italy's best red wines. The grapes are carefully selected, the wine is extra-aged to yield superior quality and, in 1966, it won DOC status. In 1980 it was elevated to DOGC status and became one of the most expensive wines in the world.
The Montalcino Municipal and Diocesan Museum of Religious Art contains a fine collection of 14th to 16th century Sienese paintings, including the grans polyptych of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary and the stories from her Life by Bartolo di Fredi; a collection of painted wooden sculptures; a number of 17th century paintings and sculptures, and a collection of works by Arturo Luciani (1861-1936). Church vestments and gold-work from the 16th and 17th century are displayed, along with a fine collection of majolica jugs and local artifacts which date from the end of the 13th century to the early 14th century.
Noteworthy monuments in the surrounding area include Castello Banfi, an 11th century castle turned into a wine vault. Established a mere 20 years ago, the Banfi winery is now one of Italy's top wine producers. The estate comprises a total of 7,100 acres of which around 2,400 are planted with vines. It is unique for its composition of single vineyards in that each is planted with a separate type of grape. Built partly above and below ground, it combines state-of-the-art computers and natural elements to provide ideal conditions for aging and storing wines year round. The castle also houses an interesting collection of glasswork, including pieces from the late Roman period, 18th century bottles from England, 18th and 19th century blown glass goblets from Murano, and Art Nouveau bottles mounted on silver.
In the countryside about 8 kilometers from Montalcino is one of the most beautiful abbeys in all of Italy, the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo. Founded in the 9th century and completely reconstructed in Romanesque style by Cistertian monks around the 12th century, the church's vast interior is partially done in luminous alabaster. Above the altar is a wooden crucifix of the 13th century, while below the altar is a vaulted crypt believed to be of the 11th century. A handful of Benedictine monks hold daily prayers and sing Gregorian chants open to public attendance.