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Enzo Tiezzi, Montalcino

Montalcino is one of those towns like Bordeaux, Porto, Beaune and Napa whose very name is synonymous with excellent wine, but Montalcino is tiny compared to these other places, both the town itself and the acreage under vine. About 5,000 acres are devoted to Brunello and less than 1,000 to Rosso di Montalcino and even when combined that is no more than 14% of the Napa Valley acreage.

Unlike it’s more famous Tuscan sibling Chianti Classico, a little further to the north, Brunello was an obscure wine little known outside Italy until the 1970s when its total production was under 100,000 cases a year, about the same size as a billionaire’s wine cellar these days.

According to Kerin O’Keefe in her well-researched book titled simply 'Brunello di Montalcino' it was at a dinner at the Italian embassy in London in April 1969, attended by various dignitaries including the Queen, that Brunello finally gained international fame, largely as a result of the sensational Biondi Santi 1955 that was served at the dinner to wide acclaim.

Today Montalcino is a name known to wine lovers everywhere but I’d be willing to bet that Tiezzi is not a name that is familiar to many people reading this, nor was it to us six years ago when we first visited Montalcino. How we came to be spending time chatting and tasting wine with Enzo Tiezzi was just one of those fortuitous things that happen when you travel with an open mind and an open itinerary.

The trip we took to Montalcino was something of a spur-of the-moment thing and lacked any real semblance of planning or coherence. My excuse looking back is that it was a long time ago and in those days we were mostly content to wander around new places and drop in unannounced to taste and buy wine. We learned quickly that this was not an efficient or particularly courteous way of going about wine tastings in Italy and since then we plan carefully and always make appointments.

Anyhow, after our arrival at a delightful bed and breakfast in the valley below Montalcino we went to dinner nearby and of course what else can you order other than a Brunello when you’re in this neck of the woods. Taking the waiter’s wine recommendation, after first restricting him to a reasonable price range, we found ourselves looking at a bottle of the 2008 Tiezzi Vigna Soccorso with no real idea of what to expect.

Enzo Tiezzi winery in Montalcino, Italy

Neither of us had ever heard of Tiezzi. Back then I still had much to learn about Italian wines and Elena hadn’t even begun her sommelier training, but we were both immediately impressed, doubly so because it was one of the cheaper Brunellos on the entire wine list. Since then by the way I am no longer cynical about taking wine recommendations in restaurants, especially in Italy with regard to local wines because we have invariably found them to be genuine attempts to satisfy a customer and not simply to push more expensive wines as is often the case in the US.

The first thing we did the next morning was to call the winery to see if it was open so we could buy the fabulous wine we’d just had the night before with dinner. Enzo himself answered and invited us over straight away. Keeping faith with my lifelong motto of it never being too early to have a glass of wine, we finished our breakfast and hurried over.

Most wineries in Italy are hard to find because they all seem to be down unmarked winding country roads but not Podere Soccorso, as Tiezzi’s cellars and office are called. It’s actually well within walking distance of the town of Montalcino, and just below the church of Madonna del Soccorso which is visible at the top of the hill in the photograph of the Soccorso vineyard below.

The entrance road, or rather narrow passageway, has no sign and it looks like you’re about to go over a cliff but it’s the only turning there is. Once past the church the road drops steeply into the Soccorso vineyard and you’re quickly at Tiezzi’s place of work with its lovely sweeping views of the Val d’Orcia that make you wish you worked here too.

Enzo was waiting for us and gave us a quick tour of his modest but functional podere and then started opening some wine.

Before we get to the wine let me say what a great guy Enzo is, friendly and very hospitable with probably more knowledge of Brunello than anyone else alive. He’s a native of Montalcino and has spent his whole life in the wine business, starting at the age of 19 before the end of the 1950s. He completed University and a post graduate doctorate (on Brunello) while still working for Poggio alle Mura at a time when Brunello was still relatively unknown outside Italy.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Enzo was chief winemaker/oenologist for various prominent Brunello estates as well as being President of the Consorzio del Brunello for several years. Finally in 1989 his own label began when he rented vineyards at a farm called Poggio Cerrino just outside Montalcino and then purchased it a few years later. In 1999 he had the opportunity to buy the old, storied vineyard at Soccorso which had been abandoned some years earlier and he began a multi-year replanting and reconstruction project. At 80 years old he is still going strong and finally getting well-deserved recognition for his wines, though perhaps not enough internationally.

Enzo opened all three of his wines for us, Poggio Cerrino, Vigna Soccorso and the third being the 2012 Rosso di Montalcino, (he makes a very small amount of Vigna Soccorso Riserva but strangely it's not even mentioned on his website). The Italian DOC rules regarding the Brunello designation is that they cannot be released for sale until January 1st of the fifth year after the harvest so when we were there in the summer of 2015 Enzo’s most recently released Brunello vintage was the 2010. With our first sip we quickly got over our disappointment that the wonderful 2008 from the night before was no longer available.

And here’s where the story becomes classically Italian. After a very convivial hour in Enzo’s company we were ready to buy and so we asked what the prices were. He quoted us 17 euros for the Poggio Cerrino 2010, 22 euros for the Vigna Soccorso 2010 and less than 10 euros for the Rosso 2012. My credit card was out in a flash but Enzo shook his head and told us that he didn’t take credit cards. So I quickly emptied my wallet, grabbed Elena’s purse and emptied that too and then ran to the car to scoop up all the loose change for the toll booths and piled everything up on Enzo’s desk.

A short time later we drove away with a good stock of the cheapest high quality Brunello that you could ever get your hands on and it still wasn’t even lunchtime on the first day. I wish I’d had a bit more cash on me though because prices like that are long gone and now I make sure to have plenty with me whenever we visit vineyards in Italy, just in case. I realized when preparing this article that we haven’t been back to Montalcino since 2015, probably because there are so many new places to visit all over Italy and Montalcino is not exactly undiscovered.

Tiezzi vineyards just below the town of Montalcino in Tuscany

However, over the years as we’ve continued to open additional bottles of those 2010 Poggio Cerino and Vigna Soccorso Brunellos we’ve noticed that they just keep getting better.

And in that same year, 2015, we went back to Montalcino a second time in the late fall when we realized what a great year 2010 was for Brunello and bought a variety of other producers’ wines, so since then we’ve had plenty of more famous 2010 Brunellos with which to compare the Tiezzi wines.

We've just published the results of a horizontal tasting of ten other 2010 Brunellos and almost all of them are excellent and approaching full maturity. The Tiezzi Poggio Cerrino rates very well alongside them but the Vigna Soccorso is among the best of the whole group and perhaps our absolute favorite.

Tiezzi Poggio Cerrino 2010 and Vigna Soccorso 2010

So the next time a friend is busy extolling the virtues of a new great wine made by some young hotshot garagiste in California selling at an inflated price, think about the 61 years of knowledge and experience that Enzo Tiezzi pours into his Brunello and ask yourself which one you’d rather buy blind.

And coincidentally it appears that this article may be very timely because from everything I’ve read, the recently released 2016 Brunello vintage is being described as an annus mirabilis and the best since 2010. Time for that long overdue trip back to Montalcino to see Enzo Tiezzi.

Tasting Notes:

Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio Cerrino 2010

Grape variety: 100% Sangiovese (by DOCG regulation)

Fermentation: wooden vats for over 20 days

Aging: 44 months in large Slavonian oak barrels*10/40 hl

Classification: DOCG

Alcohol: 14.5%

Age of vines: average 35 years

US Availability: Saratoga Wine Exchange, NY

UK Availability: Lay & Wheeler Wine Merchants, Colchester

Quite tawny at the edges with noticeable ripeness on the nose that fully mature wines often have. Plenty of fruit left and sufficient acidity but also that slight concentrated reduction of stewed fruits redolent of liquorice that some people find almost a flaw but we love. Quite soft tannins and a very smooth even finish. More than a match for a steak. The next evening still plenty of life, garnet in color and just a real pleasure to drink.

Brunello di Montalcino, Vigna Soccorso 2010

Grape variety: 100% Sangiovese (by DOCG regulation)

Fermentation: Slavonian oak vats for over 20 days

Aging: 44 months in large Slavonian oak barrels*10/40hl

Classification: DOCG

Alcohol: 14%

Age of vines: average 12 years

US Availability: Saratoga Wine Exchange, NY

UK Availability: Lay & Wheeler Wine Merchants, Colchester

This wine has a translucent rim right around the edge of the glass but then quickly goes from garnet to deep red and quite youthful looking as you move to the center. On the nose it’s peppery, deep, rich and quite intense. There’s lots of mature dark flowers and slightly decaying black fruit and tertiary notes of burnt jam. Lots of layers to this wine with leather and tobacco also on the nose as it sits in the glass and aerates. A hint of nutmeg too. But there is still enough tannin and acidity for this wine to last many more years. It’s fabulous now though with balance, power and finesse and a fully developed palate of complex flavors. Just a gorgeous wine, a true expression of Sangiovese at its best. How is it not better known I wonder.

*Note on oak barrels:

The whole subject of oak in winemaking is complicated and contentious. Everything from the size of the barrel, how many vintages it has been used for and what type of “toast” was applied to the oak when it was new could be discussed at great length in a really boring article. Instead I’ll just mention the key points as I understand them as it relates to Brunello.

In common with other Brunello producers Tiezzi uses Slavonian oak botti, which are the large containers normally used for maturing both Brunello and Barolo.

For Brunello this is typically anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 liter capacity (10-50 hectoliters, or hl). Lots of other wines in the world are matured in French oak barriques, the most common size being 225 liters so significantly smaller. Wine in botti therefore has much less contact with the oak and the botti themselves are naturally dried rather than toasted so the wood is more neutral which allows for a longer maturation period in barrel while preserving the fruit. Barriques on the other hand are toasted according to the winemaker’s instructions to one of three levels, either light, medium or medium plus and are typically replaced every 5 years whereas botti last for 25+ years.

(Slavonia is one of the four historical areas that make up Croatia and not to be confused with the country of Slovenia).


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