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Winter wine tasting in Montepulciano and Montalcino in southern Tuscany

The area's famous reds can be found during tours of wineries in the region.

March 15, 2009|Susan Spano

SIENA, ITALY — The grapevines of southern Tuscany rest in winter.

You see them in soldierly rows around the hill towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino, tethered to stakes like crucifixes, brown, gnarled and seemingly dead.

Not so. This dormant time in the life cycle of the grape is the beginning of rich and fruitful life to come, which even winter travelers can appreciate by touring wineries in the hill country about 50 miles southeast of Siena.

The region is renowned for complex red wines chiefly made from the Sangiovese grape, brought to America by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, but arguably most deliciously at home in Tuscany.

On our trip to Siena last month, my sister, Martha, and I made appointments to tour and taste at two vineyards. At Poggio Antico, about five miles outside Montalcino, and Tenuta Valdipiatta, near Montepulciano, the tours are free, though sampling the full range of wine costs about $25.

Since 1984, a family from Milan, Italy, has owned Poggio Antico and it's now run by the founder's daughter Paola Gloder Montefiori, one of the many women involved in southern Tuscan winemaking. The estate's 80 acres of vineyards, winery and acclaimed restaurant (closed when we visited) sit atop a ridge reached by a long, curving, cypress-lined drive. In fair weather, we were told, the Tyrrhenian seacoast is visible on the western horizon, but in a February fog we couldn't see past the parking lot.

Our guide, a young Italian woman who had studied grape cultivation at UC Davis, took us into the highly mechanized fermentation room and the cellar, explaining how the estate produces its highly prized Brunello, the wine that made the Montalcino region famous.

State-certified Brunello bears the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) seal, meaning that it has been produced following a strict set of rules. A Brunello di Montalcino must, among other things, be made of 100% Sangiovese grapes, aged for at least four years (including two years in oak casks) and bottled in the Montalcino area. Younger Brunello is called Rosso di Montalcino, and is about half as expensive as the older vintage.

After the tour, Martha and I sampled five Poggio Antico wines at a counter in the tasting room, including a memorable red-brown 2003 Brunello di Montalcino ($42 per bottle) and a fine Rosso ($22).

From there, we drove on to the lovely Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano where we stayed at the four-room Locanda San Francesco, run by Cinzia Caporali, the daughter of a local vintner. She arranged a tour for us at Tenuta Valdipiatta, a small, homey winery started by her father in the late '80s and now managed by another Caporali daughter, Miriam.

Tenuta Valdipiatta lies by a stream in a valley below Montepulciano surrounded by the winery's 70 acres of vineyards, planted mostly with Sangiovese grapes, but also with a smattering of Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. These are mixed with Sangioveses to yield special homemade varieties such as Tenuta Valdipiatta's Trefonti.

Martha and I were tasting Trefonti and the vineyard's all-Sangiovese grand cru Alfiero when the winery's founder, Guilio Caporali, turned up, trailed by two golden retrievers. He put a perfect coda on our oenological investigations by sharing with us the winery's Latin motto: Licet sitis sine siti, which, when translated, suggests you don't have to be thirsty to drink.

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susan.spano@latimes.com

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