In the world of grape growing there are varieties and then there are places, and then there are varieties that take on the names of places. Most who live within the local area understand completely as they were brought up to learn it as general knowledge. However, it is a clear source for confusion for anyone outside of that locality. The Montepulciano wines are just that. A trip to Italy may help clear the concept by visiting with the locals, but that is not always feasible. I cannot just see our publisher springing for his entire readership to travel to Italy to understand the difference between Montepulciano the grape, and Montepulciano the place, and the local knowledge that basically defines the place, and then the grape that defines that place. That’s what he pays me for. So sit down, put your magazine in front of you and I’ll do my best to be your tour guide through the Tuscany region of Italy.

Montepulciano (the place) is also called the Commune de Montepulciano. It is located in eastern Tuscany about 70 miles (110 km) southeast of Florence and 110 miles (180 km) north of Rome. The commune is about 65 square miles (165 km2) and sits at about 2,000 feet (600 meters) above sea level. It is a classic medieval piece of history. It is a walled city, with a castle and cathedral that is rich in the history of Italy. What is most interesting about Montepulciano (the place) and Montepulciano (the grape) is they apparently have nothing in common, or maybe so? And now in the words of the late Paul Harvey, it’s time for “the rest of the story.”

The records of the wines produced in the Montepulciano region go back to the 14th century. It was a region known for delicious red wines that were extolled by Pope Paul III in the 16th century. Francesco Redi called the region the “king of wines” in his poem “Bacchus in Tuscany.” Then, in the late 18th century, some of the wines produced earned the distinctive title Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; essentially the best of the best! What is different about the grape and the region from which its name is derived, is that Montepulciano (the grape) is not a sanctioned grape of the Montepulciano DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata). That distinction would go to Sangiovese and other varieties, of which Montepulciano is not one.

In a perfect world, this would be a cut and dry situation; the region Montepulciano and the grape Montepulciano. But the plot thickens after getting some references from a colleague of mine who I consider an expert on Italian varieties. In the Old World, it would almost seem apparent that over the tens of hundreds of years that grapes have been cultivated regionally, it could be assumed, or fairly assuredly, that there was some form of crossbreeding, hybridization, or random loss of records that would lead to the confusion around grape varieties. What is known about these Old World winegrowing regions is that varieties have an assumed role in their localities. An unspoken knowledge that the locals have told the story so many times, it begs to be never spoken again.

An interesting passage found at the National Grape Registration of Italy (Registro Nazionale Delle Varietà di Vite) written by Bruni in “Montepulciano,” (Principali vitigni da vino coltivati in Italia – Volume II, Ministero dell’Agricoltura e delle Foreste, 1962) reads via English translation “many have considered, and continue to consider that Montepulciano is synonymous with Sangiovese, or some form, as the ‘Brunello,’ the ‘Blackthorn,’ or ‘Morellone’ widespread in the territory of Montepulciano.”

This source is essentially a summary of the notes and writings of historical literary figures in Italian history. In addition to this, also included in the source there are considerable references to the regions of Tuscany, Abruzzo, and Piedmont, and referencing varieties like Aleatico Rosso, Sangioveto, and Cordisco, to name just a few for the sake of simplicity in this article. In this long drawn out text, the writer is pointing out the geographical diversity of the region, and the similarities and differences of the local varieties as well. It seems all very plausible, given the time span by which people have had to think about this. But in the end, the writer concludes “this diversity — from the Sangiovese and ‘Montepulciano’ — appeared for a long time to us, for which it is to confirm once again that the two varieties should not be considered synonymous. In conclusion, we can say that the ‘Montepulciano’ grape variety characteristic of Abruzzo and other regions of central Italy, is (a) variety whose origin remains unknown and that the characters and attitudes is clearly distinct from the ‘Sangiovese typical‘ of Tuscany.”

Phillippo Mazzei, from a notable family of Tuscan viticulturists in the early 19th century even goes further to call Sangiovese, a “false Montepulciano.” Oh my, who is one to believe?

As a scientist, I am always of the nature to work toward the black and white picture. There is a grape, and there is a region. So, for argument’s sake, let’s just work on the assumption there is the grape variety Montepulciano.

The region for which it is best known is Abruzzo to the south and east of Tuscany. You will also find it in Marche, Molise, Apulia, Emelia-Romagna, Umbria, Latium, and Puglia. It is also known locally in Abruzzo as Cordisco, Morellone, Primaticcio, and Uva Abruzzi to add a little more confusion. In Abruzzo, they distinguish two sub-varieties of Montepulciano, Primitivo and Cordisio. The former should not be confused with the Zinfandel clone, Primitivo, rather it refers to the earlier ripening nature of Montepulciano in that region. I rely on my Italian friends to interpret these writings, but in many instances there is not a direct translation from Italian, or for that matter, many other languages, into English. Often phrases are said, and depending on the context is how they get interpreted. I speculate that this is probably the root source of how grape varieties can take on multiple identities in the Old World.

In terms of vineyard area, Monte-pulciano is the third most planted grape in Italy. At the last agriculture census in 2010 the total area of Montepulciano was 34,824 hectares (86,000 acres), a figure that was up 14.3% from the previous census in 2000. It barely beat out the variety Catarratto for third place but Catarratto area had declined 46% in that same 10-year span so there is likely no further competition assuming the trajectory has not reversed itself dramatically. Trebbiano is the second most widely planted winegrape in Italy and its coverage declined 42% in the first decade of the 21st century, but its area was still almost double that of Montepulciano as of 2010. In case you are curious, Sangiovese is the most popular grape in Italy, with 71,558 hectares (177,000 acres) devoted to it.

In the world of wine, international wine that is, the wine grape type, vineyard management, yield, and wine styles of the region are based on a specific set of rules established locally. In Italy, these rules are based on the DOC system. The DOC system in Italy is somewhat confusing but established to more or less develop a hierarchy of the wines produced in each region. I briefly bring up the DOC system of Italy so that you actually understand what you are purchasing. Just because you see “Montepulciano” on the label does not mean that is the grape the wine was produced from.

To be assured that you are purchasing Montepulciano (the grape) look to see if the label states “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.” This would be indicative of the wine being produced under the rules of the local DOC. Within the Abruzzo DOC, there is also a DOCG — the “G” meaning Garantita, indicative of a higher quality wine or higher standards in winemaking, and those labels would read Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teamano DOCG. Sometimes you will only see “Montepulciano” on the label. These also will be wines from Abruzzo or other regions that produce the grape. Wines that are labeled “Vino Rosso di Montepulciano,” or “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” are from the DOC of Montepulciano and are Sangiovese-based wines according to the local rules. While the best examples of the grape come from Abruzzo, the grape is permitted in 20 of the 95 or so DOCs in Italy, so sometimes a little more investigation is needed.

Outside of Italy you do not find the grape as prevalent. Only 82 acres are listed as planted in California, a very similar climate to Italy. Cropping levels are less in California than Italy at about five tons per acre versus seven tons per acres in Italy. The Italian DOC limits cropping to a maximum of seven tons per acre. Because the grape ripens later, it is not a favorable variety for regions where cold sets in early. So reasonably low cropping levels would be desired. I found some listing of wines produced in Southern Oregon, but the variety is not listed in the Oregon grape crush report produced by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The same is true for the state of Washington. There is a report that about 20 wineries in Australia produce it. So the general picture — while likely produced in small quantities elsewhere — is that its premier territory is Italy.

The wines produced from Montepulciano exhibit characteristics of low to medium tannins, cherry, red plum, hints of clove, and sometimes slightly vegetal. The more aged wines show some coffee and chocolate notes.

Such a notable grape, being the third most produced wine in Italy, means that is has earned a standard it must live up to. It has been the mainstay red grape — and increasingly so in the last 15 years — in Italy, so it must have become a local delight. To be a local delight, the grape has to have earned a place at the table. When you travel to Italy, you understand that your meal is not only about the food, but also the wine. The typical food it would pair with is your favorite Italian fare of pasta, fish, and pizza. In my world you can’t go wrong there.

Suffice to say that this story is probably not unique to the grape varieties of Italy, and according to my Italian colleagues the story has been told so many times people are somewhat tired of telling it and it subsequently gets shortened or is not told at all. I love to travel and hear about the local customs that integrated the grape, then becoming wine, to the local food customs. With enough discussion over the evening, often including plenty of wine, the stories open up, and there you are, with a local’s perspective on the wine of the region. Enjoy!

Montepulciano Recipe (5 gallons/19 L)

This is a simple way to make Montepulciano from juice concentrate. Juice concentrates generally are adjusted for pH and acidity so that no further adjustments are necessary. Concentrate is readily available from many home winemaking suppliers. Typical packaging is in 46-ounce cans. Some adjustment to the calculations may be necessary if packaging is different than listed here.

5 cans (46-oz. packaging) Montepulciano juice concentrate, ~68-70 °Brix.
3.5 gallons (13 L) distilled/de-ionized water
5 grams Lallemand EC-1118 yeast
10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution. Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
5 grams Go-Ferm (or equivalent yeast starter)
10 grams Fermaid® K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
Malolactic starter culture. Freeze-dried or equivalent

Other equipment or needs specific to this recipe:
6-gallon (23-L) food-grade plastic bucket
5-gallon (19-L) carboy
Racking hoses
Ability to warm about 4 gallons (15 L) of water to 60–65 °F (15–18 °C)
Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of ~75 °F (24 °C).
Ability to hold wine at 38-40 °F (3–4 °C) while settling.
Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments.
Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter (mL)

Step by step

1. Clean and sanitize your winemaking tools, supplies and equipment.

2. Warm water to about 65 °F (18 °C). Add the water to your bucket. You will use ~3.5 gallons (13 L) of water to dilute the concentrate. You are targeting 23–24 °Brix so have your refractometer handy. Sometimes this is not an exact science.

3. Add five cans of juice concentrate, using the warmed water to completely dissolve remaining concentrate in the can. Mix well. This can be done in the bucket or a pot on the stove. In the end, you will have about 5.5 gallons (21 L) of juice in the bucket at about 23 °B.

4. Mix in to the juice the Fermaid® K or equivalent yeast nutrient.

5. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Mix the Go-Ferm into the water to make a suspension. Measure the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension and the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the difference in temperature of the yeast and must exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.

6. Initiate the fermentation at room temperature (~75 °F/24 °C) and once fermentation is noticed, (~24–48 hours) move to a location where the temperature can be maintained at 75–80 °F (24–27 °C). You should see signs of fermentation within one to two days. This will appear as some foaming on the juice.

7. Two days after fermentation starts, dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (usually ~ 20 mL). Add directly to the carboy.

8. Leave alone until bubbles in the airlock are about one bubble per minute. This is usually about two to three weeks. Start measuring the Brix every 2–3 days.

9. The wine is considered dry, or nearly dry, when the Brix reaches -1.5 °Brix or less.

10. When a stable Brix reading is found, and in a normal situation this is about 10 days post inoculation, it can be assume that you can initiate the malolactic fermentation. Use the freeze-dried culture. Add directly to the wine.

11. Observe the carboy for bubbles evolution in the neck daily. This is an indication of the malolactic conversion (MLC). When the bubbles cease, that is the end of the MLC.

12. At this point, add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is the equivalent to ~40 ppm addition. Transfer the wine to the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy. After two weeks, test for pH and SO2, adjusting as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite). Check the SO2 in another two weeks, prior to the next racking, and adjust while racking. HINT: Rack to another sanitized 5-gallon (19-L) carboy, or your bucket. In the case of the latter, clean the original carboy and transfer the wine back to it. This is done at about 4–6 weeks after the first SO2 addition. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at the target level by monitoring every 3–4 weeks.

13. At about three months you are ready to bottle. Be sure to maintain sanitary conditions while bottling. Once bottled, you’ll need to periodically check your work by opening a bottle to enjoy with friends.

Sulfur Dioxide Additions:
The recipe calls for specific additions of sulfur dioxide at specified intervals. Once these scripted additions are made, you must monitor and maintain at the target concentration; adjusting as necessary using the potassium metabisulfite solution previously described or by methods of your own choosing. Testing can be done at a qualified laboratory, or in your home cellar using various commercially available kits.