More Surprises from Tuscany's
Bottomless Well of Great Wines
By Don Clemens
In my history of wine traveling, I have always found great pleasure in virtually everything Tuscan: the people, the food, the historic art and architecture and, most certainly, the wines (of course!) It seems that every year that passes brings with it at least a handful of new wine appellations in Italy – and especially in Tuscany! So, I thought that I’d bring some attention to one of those appellations that has recently come to my attention by adding a few personal notes about a small winery that is making – at least in my estimation – some pretty remarkable wines.
First, I’ll drill down to the area by using a useful map.
Montecucco DOCG map with views of Italy and Tuscany
Over many years of tasting the wines of Tuscany, I have realized that, like many people, my journey into Italian wines began (in my relative youth) with the Sangiovese blends purportedly coming from the area somewhere between Firenze (Florence) and Siena. As Italian wines grew far past the straw-festooned bottles of simple pizza-parlor “Chiantis” of – to be honest – not the highest quality wines, I began to realize that the bottle shape often determined the quality of the wine within that bottle. Italy’s winemakers also recognized that they needed to make some statement to the world that they were serious about quality. So, in the 1960’s, the winemakers/winegrowers of northern Italy introduced something that completely altered the Italian wine consumers’ world: Denominazione d’Origine Controllata – D.O.C. Actual regulation of which grapes would be allowed to be made into the named wines coming from a given growing area was almost revolutionary. And, as time went on, more and more of these D.O.C. wines appeared on my retail shelves. And, in addition, this thing called D.O.C.G. began to appear within some of these regions. Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita! Wow! Not only were some wine regions defined, but they were GUARANTEED! These folks were SERIOUS!
The most important D.O.C.G. in the 70’s was Brunello di Montalcino. Others soon followed, and even Chianti began to straighten out its reputation. Sub-districts began to assert their characteristics and reputations with knowledgeable consumers. Piedmont’s Barolo, Barbaresco and Tuscany’s Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. appeared soon after, and there would be many more to follow. Montecucco was awarded this status in 2011.
Located between Morellino di Scansano to the south and Montalcino to the north, this zone, completely within the now famous Maremma DOC, is situated on the slopes of the dormant volcano, Monte Amiato.
Monte Amiata, Montecucco, Tuscany, Italy
This region was introduced to me by my good wine-friend, Evelyn Basile. She has developed an acquaintanceship with Alberto and Silvestro Ottonelli, the proprietors of the winery and vineyards of Muschi Alti, who produce some astounding wines in the Montecucco region. (Evelyn Basile, by the way, runs a highly informative website of her own on Facebook at “Fine Wines Buzz”.)
A little overview of the region might be helpful to some other newcomers. Lying between the Tyrrhenian Sea on the southwestern side of Tuscany and the slopes of Monte Amiata to the northeast, the land is rugged and not at all like the pristine vineyard lands of the Chianti DOCs. Wildlife abounds, especially feral pigs (which are very destructive in agricultural areas), and small farms are the norm and small wine producers are the rule. And that is probably the primary reason that we do not know much about or see many wines from Montecucco, even though it has achieved DOCG status for some of its wine production. There are several dozen wineries producing some excellent wines, but they are generally too small to penetrate the U.S. wine market.
So. To Muschi Alti (High Mosses). I almost feel as though I know Alberto because of the frequent messages that I have gotten about him, his vineyards and olive groves, his winery and his hobbies. The picture that I have is of a very hard-working family, with a passion for quality. The winery is the main reason for my interest, but I must confess that anyone who trains dogs to hunt for wild boars is NOT the usual thing I see in a winemaker’s profile!
The small town of Campagnatico, a “suburb” of Grosseto, is where the winery is located. Its vineyard land area is only about 7 hectares (less than 20 acres) in size. The olive groves are only marginally larger.
Muschi Alti winery, built by Alberto and Silvestro Ottonelli
Given that this area is in Tuscany, it should come as no surprise that most of the red wines produced are made from predominantly, if not exclusively, Sangiovese. International varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Alberto has worked ridiculously hard to modernize everything about his operation, from the purchase of large barriques for red wine aging and the purchase of a modern wine press. It is clearly a labor of love, since his total production is currently less than 2000 cases.
The five red wines he produces are “Poggio al Corso” (Syrah), “Le Cornete” (Cabernet Sauvignon), “Scornabeccaia” (Merlot), “Le Piagge” (Sangiovese) and “Ottonelli” (Montecucco DOCG, Sangiovese 60%/Alicante 40%). He also produces a rose’ wine, “Rosamunda” (Sangiovese) and a white wine, “Orbaco” (Vermentino).
Muschi Alti, Current Releases
1. “Orbaco” 2019, IGT Vermentino
Appearance and Aromas: Medium-deep straw yellow clear appearance, moderate, youthful aroma intensity with notes of citrus (lime?) and tart apple with wet stones. Flavor profile: Dry, medium-bodied, moderately tart and flavorful, reminiscent of citrus/tart apple and hints of green herbs (oregano?). Long finish. Very pleasant and easy drinking. Food Pairings: Grilled Tuna, Black Cod, Chicken with Pesto, Veal Piccata – 87 Points
2. “Scornabeccaia” 2018, IGT Merlot
Appearance and Aromas: Dark, purplish hue; youthful and aromatic, reminiscent of black fruits such as blueberry, blackcurrant and blackberries; Flavor profile: dry, full-bodied, very fresh with medium tannin and well balanced. Hints of sweet oak; lots of black fruits dominant. Modern style with loads of fruit, youthful tannins. Food Pairings: Grilled Ribeye and Flank Steak, BBQ Brisket, assorted hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano - 89 Points
3. “Le Piagge” 2015, IGT Sangiovese
Appearance and Aromas: Deep, clear, ruby hued, with hints of red cherries, vanilla and “sweet oak”; Flavor profile: dry, medium-full bodied, with medium rounded tannins and good balance. Red fruits dominate the flavors – cherry, strawberry. This is a well-made, concentrated Sangiovese, it has surprising power. Food Pairings: Bistecca Fiorentina, roasted beef dishes, and of course pasta with red sauce. – 89 Points
4. “Poggio al Corso” 2018, IGT Syrah
Appearance and Aromas: Dark, purplish hue; powerful, youthful aromas of black cherry, vanilla, earth and oak; Flavor profile: dry, full-bodied and smooth, with medium round tannins and well-balanced mouth-feel; powerful flavors of blueberry, black cherry, vanilla and “sweet oak” barrels. A real surprise from Tuscany – it reminds one of Australian Barossa shiraz! Food Pairing: Heartier fare such as BBQ’d ribs and brisket, charcuterie platters, firm cheeses. – 94 Points
5. “Ottonelli” 2018, DOC Montecucco, (60% Sangiovese/40% Alicante)
Appearance and Aromas: Deep purplish hue, youthful aromatics, redolent of cherry and black berries. Flavor Profile: Dry, medium-full bodied with medium tannins and good balance; the flavors follow the aromas, but with “woodsie” forest notes. Well made; seamless from nose to palate. Food Pairings: Grilled Beef, Marinara and Meatballs, wild game. – 92 Points
6. “”Le Cornete” 2016, IGT Cabernet Sauvignon
Appearance and Aromas: Deep purplish hue with aromas of dark fruits such as blackcurrant and blueberry; sweet vanilla and toasted oak. Flavor Profile: Dry, medium-full bodied, with fresh acidity, medium tannins and good balance. It is a flavorful wine, following the aromas. Hints of blueberry, black raspberry and “Blueberry Pastry”. Very well made, elegant, concentrated and mouth filling. Enjoyable now, but will certainly benefit from a few more years of cellaring. Food Pairings: Prime Rib, Beef Wellington, Bistecca Fiorentina, roast leg of lamb. – 94 Points