We all have those special bottles. These are bottles of fluid that is somehow more than wine -- a miraculous mix of wine and memory that are created in some of life's most fantastic moments. This is one of those bottles.
Early on in my relationship with Ruth -- the Spring of 2003 -- we took a trip to Tuscany. It was one of those perfect vacations that most people dream about. Perfect weather, fantastic food, gorgeous scenery, you name it. It was an early test of our relationship, and the beginning of her love affair with wine.
At that point, however, her tolerance for tasting wine (patience level and interest) was not as high as it is today. After two full days of nothing but wine in Montepulciano and Montalcino from dawn 'til dusk, she was tired. As we wound our way out of Montalcino to the last winery of the day, the afternoon sun was dipping lower over the spring green of the Tuscan countryside. We arrived at the small stone winery and its simple farmhouse and parked the car next to the edge of the hill in the sun, where Ruth had decided to stay in the car and nap, while I completed the final tasting of the day.
I walked into the stone winery building to find no one there, and so marched up to the farmhouse, where I was greeted with a warm smile and a booming "bongiorno" by owner Piero Palmucci. The next words out of his mouth were (in English), "You are alone?"
"Yes," I said.
His eyes narrowed. "You mean you came wine tasting by yourself?"
"Well, not exactly," I explained. "My wife is taking a nap in the car. She is not a huge wine lover yet, and she has seen 10 wineries already today, so..."
"That is not acceptable," he said in reply, with nearly a straight face.
"Trust me," I said, "she'd really rather nap. To her, all these wineries are the same."
"No. Absolutely not," he said with a grin, "If she does not come with us, she will regret it for the rest of her life."
I could see this was going to get ugly. "OK, I said, if you feel so strongly, you go wake her up."
And that's just what he did. And much to my surprise (must have been his Italian charm and the "regret it forever" line he used) Ruth agreed to come along on what turned out to be a two hour private tour of his entire property, every square inch of which evidenced Palmucci's passionate and nearly pathological obsession with detail in winemaking. From the custom floor-level sprinklers he has installed in his barrel room to control humidity, to the totally gravity fed crush and fermentation process, to the special metal device he has designed to easily turn a metal crate of 324 bottles ninety-degrees (to allow settling first vertically and then horizontally), Palmucci has spared no expense nor overlooked any opportunity to improve the quality of wine he makes.
Along with his wife Elisabeth, who runs the winery back office and shipping operations, Palmucci works about 28 acres of vineyards and around 1200 olive trees in the Montalcino appellation. Our visit coincided with the completion of the shell of his winery building (which had not yet been furnished or floored), as well as the preparation of several more acres of vineyard, which are now doubtless already planted. His small farm sits high on the side of a hill about a 20 minute drive from the town of Montalcino where it receives a bit more sun than other vineyards in the area, along with cooler evening breezes.
Poggio di Sotto produces only around 2500 cases of wine each year, and employs one of Tuscany's most famous consulting winemakers, Giulio Gambelli, who has been dubbed by his peers as the "Master Taster." With his help, Palmucci pursues what is clearly his singular and driving passion: to make the best Brunello in all of Montalcino. Listening to him talk, you'd think he believes he's nearly achieved that goal already. In addition to being incredibly passionate, Palmucci is not the most modest of winemakers. Yet he is fiercely independent, suggesting to me at one point in our conversation that he'd boot Robert Parker right off the property if he ever arrived looking to taste his wine. He eschews ratings, as well as market pricing, and tends to set his prices near the highest end of the spectrum for Brunello.
Palmucci's enthusiasm and charm are infectious, and the two hours we spent, literally arm-in-arm with him, around his winery are some of our strongest and favorite memories of our entire trip. The memories would have been just as good, should his wines have not turned out to be decent. Luckily they're much better than that. The best Brunello in the world? I don't think so, but pretty darn good, and if this Rosso that we hand carried back from the trip is any indication, they're only getting better with time.
Light ruby in the glass, and paler at the rim with hints of orange, this wine has an ethereal nose of dried herbs, candied nuts, raisins and a light meaty note which emerges with some more air. In the mouth it is soft and velvety with nice acidity (higher than typical for Montalcino wines?). Its flavors are a delightful mix of coffee, cherry, toffee notes, and hints of tart plum and incense as the wine heads into its excellent and very lengthy finish. This is a very complex Rosso di Montalcino that lacks only the slightest hint of depth that might separate it from a Brunello.
We drank this last week with a roasted veal chop rubbed with rosemary and garlic. You couldn't ask for a better pairing than that.
Overall Score: 9.5
How Much?: $38
This wine is available for purchase on the internet, though the 2000 vintage may be difficult to find.
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