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Brunello di Montalcino Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines

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Excerpt from Chapter One

Montalcino's Early History

Based on archeological excavations, we know that the area of Montalcino was inhabited as far back as ten thousand years ago. Excavations throughout the territory have uncovered numerous Etruscan and ancient Roman artifacts, tombs, and ruins, including Roman villas. The most notable find at the Poggio alla Civitella archeological site, just three kilometers from the center of Montalcino, is slowly revealing a fortified Etruscan city that is still waiting to be fully unearthed.

In the Middle Ages, Montalcino prospered thanks to its convenient location along the Via Francigena, the road that pilgrims took from all over Europe for their journey to Rome. They would stop in Montalcino not only to rest but also to visit the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, the beautiful Romanesque abbey that sits in the quiet valley in Castelnuovo dell'Abate. The abbey was abandoned in the mid-fifteenth century, then restored by the Italian government at the end of the nineteenth century when it became property of the state. For many decades the abbey risked becoming merely another museum. Deprived of its clergy for over five hundred years, Sant'Antimo opened its doors as an abbey once again only in the late 1970s, thanks to the determination of an order of Augustinian friars, or more precisely, canons, after they had fought a long battle with Italian bureaucracy to recover the church and canonic housing and establish their religious community at the abbey. Sant'Antimo has become famous once more thanks at least in part to the canons' mystical and hypnotic Gregorian chants.

The Sant'Antimo Abbey that stands today among cypress trees and olive groves against a backdrop of vineyards dates to the twelfth century, and was built over another Benedictine monastery originally constructed at the end of the eighth century, which in turn had been erected at the site of an earlier chapel dedicated to Saint Antimo. Though there are various unfounded legends regarding the French king Charlemagne and miracles at the site, it does appear that Charlemagne put his official seal on the partially constructed monastery in 781 when he visited on his way back to France from Rome. In 814 Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, granted the abbey his protection and donated it gifts, ensuring not only that it would become an important religious destination for pilgrims, but also that both Sant'Antimo and Montalcino would serve as main rest stops for merchants and soldiers. Montalcino's fortunes continued to rise when, in 1462, the town was elevated to the then highly coveted status of cittá (city) by Pope Pius II, a member of the illustrious Piccolomini family from nearby Pienza.

Montalcino also played a crucial role in the incessant and violent conflicts between the Republics of Florence and Siena. Montalcino, annexed to Siena in 1260 after Siena won the Battle of Montaperti, became the last stronghold of the Republic of Siena. When Florence and her Spanish allies conquered and occupied Siena in 1555, the heads of Siena's tattered city-state, along with thousands of its citizens and its allied French troops, fled to Montalcino. There, protected by the town's fortified walls and its impenetrable fourteenth-century fortress, they withstood a brutal siege that lasted for four long years and ended only when Spain and France signed a peace agreement in 1559. Montalcino, and the remains of the Republic of Siena, went under the control of Florence's Cosimo I de' Medici, and became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Today Montalcino locals proudly point out that their town and their ancestors literally held down the fort for the peninsula's last independent republic; it is an episode that underscores the fiercely independent and individualistic nature that the town and its people boast even today.

Due to the grueling four-year siege, Montalcino never benefited from the Renaissance that illuminated so many other cities and towns in much of Tuscany. The thousands of militants and refugees from Siena drained the town's resources and destroyed the local economy. Montalcino entered into a state of limbo, and would only begin to shake off its stagnation after the unification of Italy in 1861, when the state began building an infrastructure of roads and bridges across the country and more importantly, railroads. The first train arrived in one of Montalcino's hamlets, Torrenieri, in 1865, connecting the isolated town to the rest of Italy and civilization. It was at about this time that a few of Montalcino's wealthy gentlemen farmers, most of whom already made a well-known sweet white wine called Moscadello, began experimenting with red wine, eventually leading to the creation of Brunello.

Economic relief didn't last long, however, and hard times returned to Montalcino by the early twentieth century. The town had always been dependent on agriculture and the many products it derived from its surrounding woods, including charcoal made from carbonized wood, produced with an antique and laborious method, which fueled fires to heat homes. Montalcino's craftsmen also used local wood to make numerous goods, including baskets and other wicker products that were once essential household items in rural parts of the country. The two world wars generated crippling economic depressions, and as peasant farmers were called to arms, farms lay neglected for years, wreaking further havoc on Italy's agrarian economies that produced little or nothing during the wars and in their immediate aftermath. Already in a sorry state, Montalcino's countryside was further laid waste in June 1944, when the Allies passed directly through the town, liberating it from the occupying Germans.

The first half the twentieth century proved almost fatal for Montalcino's nascent Brunello production. In addition to the catastrophic wars of the period, there were also outbreaks of phylloxera, the root-eating aphid that nearly destroyed winemaking throughout Europe.. Only a handful of Montalcino estates were making Brunello at the beginning of the twentieth century, when production was nearly thwarted during the First World War. After the Great War, all of Italy was immersed in poverty and there was little request for quality wine. Montalcino's vineyards lay in ruin. Tancredi Biondi Santi, whose family had created Brunello at the end of the nineteenth century, saw local wine production plummet and realized that Montalcino's winemakers needed to work together to keep the sector alive. In 1926, he founded the Cantina sociale Biondi Santi e C., a cooperative cellar headquartered in the center of town. He invited other local growers to join him, offered them use of his cellars and equipment, and encouraged them to replant their forsaken land with Brunello vines. The united growers began replanting their ruined vineyards, but yields were understandably low those first years before vines reached full maturity. Just as the new plants began yielding better fruit and production started increasing, the most devastating wave of phylloxera attacked Montalcino's young vineyards in 1930. The area had barely recovered when Italy entered the Second World War in June 1940. By 1944, with demand for quality wines once again nonexistent and most vineyards abandoned for the second time in a just a few short years, Tancredi and the other members dissolved the Cantina sociale.

The aftermath of the Second World War was even more devastating than the postwar years of the earlier conflict, and would be felt for decades. Montalcino, as all of rural central Italy, was dependent on the mezzadria, a sharecropper system dating from medieval times that would not be completely phased out until after a 1967 law prohibited all new contracts under this feudal arrangement. The mezzadri, or tenant farmers, worked a plot of land and gave a large share of everything they cultivated or profits from crop sales to the landowner. They were not specialized farmers but grew a bit of everything they needed to subsist under the system known as coltivazione promiscua (also called coltura promiscua), where rows of vines would be planted between rows of olive and fruit trees and rows of wheat that would then be cleared as soon as possible each year to make small plots of pasture land for the one or two heads of cattle the small farms possessed.

Yet by the 1950s these centuries-old traditions began to change, as Italy began its transformation from a feeble agricultural economy into an industrialized nation. Suddenly, small sharecroppers working a handful of acres could no longer survive due to the development of industrialized and specialized farming enterprises that muscled out the region's tenant farmers. The younger generation of mezzadri, better educated than their usually illiterate fathers and grandfathers, chafed at what was essentially a class system. Further advances in technology also destroyed the steady living of Montalcino's woodsmen, as electricity and oil replaced wood for home heating, and oil-based products, namely plastic, replaced wooden and wicker goods. This steep decline in Montalcino's two main sources of employment and revenue dragged down the local craftsmen: carpenters, tailors, and cobblers closed their doors.

While much of Italy's countryside was going through the same challenges, Montalcino was hit particularly hard. Throughout much of the 1950s, based on per capita income, Montalcino was ranked the poorest commune in the large Province of Siena, and was one of the poorest communes in the entire region. It is nearly impossible for anyone who has recently visited Montalcino's beautiful and luxurious estates of restored stone villas and immaculate cellars surrounded by manicured vineyards, often with the owner's brand new Mercedes or Porsche parked out front, to fathom the utter misery that engulfed the area only five decades ago. In 1959 the Montalcino newspaper, La Fortezza, published the results of a survey on the state of local farms: "210 farms were in bad condition, 281 had no toilets, 243 were without electric lights, 281 had no drinking water, and 135 were without acceptable dung-pits."

Unable to live in these repulsive conditions, a few sharecroppers courageously broke free and somehow managed to buy their own small farms, relying almost wholly on the recent access to financing. Far more farmers, however, abandoned the countryside altogether and moved to the cities to find more lucrative work and better living arrangements. If, in 1951, the consensus registered 10,203 inhabitants in Montalcino, by 1971 there were only 6,297; and this figure dropped to just 5,520 residents in 1981.

By the mid-1980s, however, Montalcino, formerly the poorest commune in the Province of Siena, had become the richest municipality in the province, thanks to the area's liquid gold: Brunello.