Henry’s Favorite Wine (These Days)
The gift of being uncool.
By Henry Beylin, Gjelina Group’s Wine + Beverage Director
Vino Nobile is historic. It’s been produced for a very long time. And like anything that’s been around, it’s had ups and downs. The name sounds important, regal even, and there’s truth to that. In 1685 the Renaissance poet Francesco Redi in his poem “Bacco in Toscana” called it the “King of all wines” and, sure enough, it was soon served in European royal courts. That’s where the name comes from - it was served to Nobility so it must be noble. But that was then.
From the post war period until, well, pretty recently, the wines, with some exceptions, have been underachieving, overcropped, over “produced,” and influenced by international trends and styles that have no place in this once enviable zone.
Vino Nobile is made around the medieval town of Montepulciano in southwest Tuscany, a town as gorgeous as any depiction on old-school wine labels. There’s a leather industry there. I once spent thousands of dollars in Montepulciano on leather shoes and jackets that I will never have occasion to wear. One pair of shoes was red. They’re in the garage now next to the cowboy boots I bought made out of some Costa Rican Lizard.
The wine is based on the Sangiovese grape as all traditional Tuscan reds are and should be. There is simply no better marriage of place and grape. At some point in the ‘60s some local authorities decreed that 10-20 percent of regional white grapes be used in the blend. This diluted the depth and grace of the wine and together with the new fertilizers to increase crop yield, planting international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to include in the blend, introducing French Barriques for their oaky flavors and a general race to popular mediocrity led to Vino Nobile being passed over by Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino which rose in fame around the same time for good qualitative reasons.
But things are looking up once more. White grapes are no longer required and most producers do not use them. Crop yield, aging requirements and the percentage of Sangiovese required increased (at least 70% but the best producers use much more and some use a full 100%) and a new wine category was created: Rosso di Montepulciano, a little brother companion to Vino Nobile that can be made from young vines leaving the best grapes to mingle only with themselves. And while some producers make wines that are still international in style without regional specificity, more and more are embracing the honesty of the region and realizing they don't need to chase trends. They don’t need red leather shoes.
And then there are producers like Le Bertille. Folks who have always stayed the course and remained true to the region as it was and whose work will make it so again. The wine is made by a lady named Olympia. I don’t know her well but there’s a combination of gentle confidence and grounded earnestness that translates to her wine. Le Bertile Vino Nobile is made with 90% Sangiovese with the rest being local varieties. If wine could be comfort food this would be the one for me. The flavors are familiar and you’re happy to see them. Dark berries, purple flowers, baking spices, leather, underbrush, a hint of thyme, soft chewy tannins and a clean, focused finish. The flavors are mature, extracted, round and giving. You recognize them. And they seem to be saying “you were always ok.”
*One postscript: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is not to be confused with Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo which is a grape grown in the region of, you guessed it, Abruzzo. Aside from a few incredible producers, this is basically a table wine to be consumed with a meal cooked by people who don’t know how to cook.