Wine 101: Italy Region Deep Dives: A Tale of Two Montepulcianos

This episode of “Wine 101” features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner Allegrini, which is located in northern Italy, in the Veneto region. The Allegrini family dates back to six generations of making wine in the Valpolicella region, which means “land of many cellars.” Valpolicella is also the name of one of Allegrini’s most famous red wines, made from the historic grape called Corvina that imparts signature notes of almond. To try Allegrini, follow the link in the episode description to

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores both the grape and the town Montepulciano and how these two sharing the same name can create confusion for wine drinkers. Tune in to learn more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and look, there’s a big divide between chocolate and white chocolate lovers, right? Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup white chocolate versus Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup dark and milk chocolate. I mean the white chocolate, when it hits, it just hits me. What am I? Oh, I’m doing an episode.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From VinePair’s podcasting network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And how are you this week? Today?

Oh, yes, we stay in Tuscany. We’re still in Italy. We have more to talk about. There’s a big confusion on this one word: Montepulciano. It’s a grape, it’s a town. It’s two different regions. How do we..? Let’s clear some stuff up.

Okay, wine lovers. I remember the day it happened to me and I’ll never forget it because after it happened once, it continued to happen, and I was like, “Okay, we got to clear some things up here.”

It was a long time ago. I had an Italian wine bar and restaurant. I was behind the bar one night. This couple comes in. They’d just come back from Italy. They were awash in the Italian culture. They wanted to come straight to an Italian place after being on the “boot.” And it was so wonderful. Let’s continue this awesomeness. You know how it is. They take a look at the wine list and they go, “Oh, look, Montepulciano. We’ll have two glasses of Montepulciano, please.” All right. So I’m pouring them each a glass of Montepulciano. And as I’m pouring the glass, they’re talking about their trip and how much they loved it. And how they were romping around the Chianti Hills. And they ended up in a place called Siena. And then from Siena, they went to this famous town called Montepulciano.

And the wine was just wonderful and the views and the people and the culture and the food — it was so great. And they’re so happy to be sitting here in New York, having a glass of… wait? I was pouring them a glass of Montepulciano. They were talking about a town called Montepulciano thinking they were going to have a wine from… It was a little bit confusing. So, I had to explain to them that what they’re drinking is not from the town that they visited. This is something completely different. And the look of confusion on their faces was just like, “Wait, what?” But they did enjoy the wine that was in their glass. Now, I know you right now are going, “Okay, Keith, this is a fun story but I am so confused.” And that’s kind of the point because wine is so ancient. And the words that associate with the wines are also ancient and the world happens and words get mixed up.

And the word Montepulciano on the American market for wine is kind of confusing, because not only is it a grape, but it’s also a town, and those two things are not related at all. So let me clear the Montepulciano issue up here. In central Italy on the eastern coast is a region called Abruzzo, at one point it was called Abruzzi. So you might see that around, and it’s a little bit confusing because at some point this region was split up into a bunch of smaller little regions because of some royal guy who wanted to divide his realm. But at some point, the government split Abruzzo with another region called Molise, which was part of Abruzzo. So now it’s Abruzzo and then Molise is a separate region. That’s confusing but I just needed to get it out there. Because you’re going to see that.

Anyway, Abruzzo is very, sort of mountainous. I mean, extremely — a lot of places in Italy are ancient — but Abruzzo is ancient, like crazy ancient because it’s on the Adriatic. So it’s had a lot of humans coming and going for long periods of time. Going back to the Neolithic era, there’s actually fossils from the Neolithic era there. Abruzzo has mainly two varieties. There’s a white wine grape and a red wine grape. The white wine grape is called Trebbiano and that is their white wine grape. It’s their white wine. Their red wine grape is called Montepulciano. And when you drink a wine, a red wine from Abruzzo, you’re drinking a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The grape Montepulciano, from the region of Abruzzo, and at some point we’ll do an episode on Abruzzo and go through all the small little areas in there because they’ve done a lot of work to bring themselves into the future of wine.

There are some DOCG things going on in there — Montepulciano taking on different personalities and so is Trebbiano. It’s very cool. This is Montepulciano. And when you go to a wine bar in the United States, especially an Italian wine bar or Italian restaurant, it’s often the case that the most affordable wine by the glass and the most affordable wine by the bottle is a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. There is a large production going on in Abruzzo. And you are going to see a lot of it on the American market. There are a lot of winemakers in Abruzzo that are making more focused, more structured, dark, beautiful Montepulciano. But what you’re going to see a lot on the American market is good, everyday, affordable Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. If you were to walk from Abruzzo, northwest into Chianti, towards the province of Siena, it would take you about two and a half days give or take.

And it’s in the province of Siena that there is a town called Montepulciano. It’s spelled exactly like the grape in Abruzzo. And the town of Montepulciano is very famous in the Chianti, Siena area. It has a very storied past. It has a lot of documentation, like a lot of well-documented wine regions in Italy. You have a pope’s cellar master saying how great the wine is. It starts showing up in records around the late 18th century and the town itself is on a hill and then surrounded by hills. And on those slopes of those hills grows Sangiovese. And here they call their Sangiovese “Prugnolo Gentile.” Just west of the township of Montepulciano and its surrounding vineyards is a valley. And then another grouping of hills around the township of Valiano. And on those slopes, they grow Sangiovese. This is the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG wine region of Italy.

And you’ll remember from the previous episode of Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, just like Brunello or Barolo or Barbaresco, claimed to be the first DOCG on the Italian market. Not sure who was the first, but those four in one year were awarded DOCG. So, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a really important region. And what’s interesting is that it is smack dab in the middle of two other styles in that you have the Chianti region surrounding it, and then you have Brunello di Montalcino very close to it. And not only is it kind of between two styles, the region itself, because of its modern history and rules and changing of rules, also has two different styles within its own region. This region and its rules have gone through a significant amount of changes throughout the years too. I think, to me, it sounds a lot like it was trying to modernize itself while still trying to hold onto its traditional values in wine.

And the result is two different styles within the region like I said. Traditionally, wines from Vino Nobile di Montepulciano were based on Sangiovese, just like a lot of wines in this area, but were also blended with native grapes like Canaiolo, Mamolo, and even some Trebbiano, the white wine that I mentioned from Abruzzo. And just like in Chianti, over time Sangiovese became the predominant variety in the blend. And when the rules were being changed throughout this modern history of this region, Sangiovese took a prominent role. Then at some point during the history of this DOCG, they changed the rules again to allow international varieties, or I should just say French Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Amarone variety, Syrah. When international varieties were officially allowed in these blends, it created a lot of controversy with traditionalists saying, “What are you doing? You’re messing with the terroir-driven wines this place has always been known for.”

Well, what it did was it actually divided the producers of the region. Some of them enjoy the older style. Some of them enjoy the newer style. So now we have these two personalities in one region based solely on the winemaking style. If you were to do the more traditional style with the native varieties, because of Canaiolo and Mamolo, these wines need a little bit more prolonged aging. When you blend it with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or even Syrah, and you expose it to new French oak, it can be ready sooner. And a lot of winemakers at some point opted for that. And even though the more modern approach gained dominance for quite some time, that is today starting to wane a little bit with a lot of winemakers going back towards the more traditional method.

And with that age-worthiness, I’m not really sure if the rules are going to change again, but one thing they do have in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, just like in Brunello di Montalcino, they have another DOC called Rosso di Montepulciano, which is why that can be released earlier. And what’s emerging is the more popular style tends to be today… It’s actually kind of cool, it’s right between the tanginess and the cherry notes of a Chianti in the deep dark, fully structured-ness of Brunello di Montalcino. It’s kind of right in the middle. It’s deep in color. It’s dark, it’s soft. It does have good acidity and they have age-worthiness to them as well, but it’s not going to be as age-worthy as Brunello di Montalcino, more along the lines of a Chianti, maybe a couple years give or take, but the DOCGs do see two years before release.

So there’s a lot going on here. You have a very famous region that is surrounded by other famous regions that has its own personality, but actually has two personalities. But even then it has a personality that’s similar to the two neighboring regions around it. It’s just an expression of Sangiovese. And like I said, in the Tuscany episode, that’s what Tuscany basically is. A lot of these regions are just different expressions of Sangiovese. And the reason why I said, “If you walked,” because why would I say that? I was thinking about how vines travel. And I was thinking about the proximity of the Chianti region and Abruzzo and how Abruzzo is part of central Italy. And that north of Abruzzo is an amazing place called Le Marche, another great episode we should do. In Le Marche, they blend Sangiovese with Montepulciano in two of their wine regions.

But in Abruzzo, no. I mean, I’m sure there is Sangiovese there, but it’s not a thing. Montepulciano rules the day. And after all this time, they are not interested in Sangiovese, even though it surrounds them. But I was looking at the path from the town of Montepulciano, like walking, to Abruzzo, and you pass through some towns. You get Montepulciano, of course, the town. You start from there. You pass through Perugia in Umbria, Montefalco in Umbria, Todi, Terni. These are significant towns. And in Perugia in Montefalco, you will find Sangiovese. Sangiovese shows up.

The thing is when you’re looking at the origins of Montepulciano, there’s not a lot going on there. It is the red grape of the area of Abruzzo, it’s been there forever and that’s their grape. But because of that sort of line of trade and travel between the two towns, if you were to just do that walk, it does make sense that, because it’s central Italy and Sangiovese is so prominent, that for a long time, there were people actually calling Montepulciano “Sangiovese,” so there’s a lot of confusion there as well.

And I’m not really sure about how the grape Montepulciano became that Montepulciano, but it does seem there was a little bit of confusion somewhere in the Middle Ages between the town and the grape. But this is how it works out now: If you’re drinking a red wine from Abruzzo, it’s going to be from the grape Montepulciano, and it’s going to be called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. If you’re drinking a wine from the DOCG Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, you are going to be drinking a wine based off the Sangiovese grape. The name of the wine is named after the town. That’s the confusion. And a lot of people, when they go to Italy to visit, a lot of people go to Tuscany. It is one of the most traveled Italian regions for tourists in existence in Italy.

So when people come back, they often have gone to the town — the beautiful town — of Montepulciano. And in the beginning of this episode, when I was talking about that couple, this happened a lot at my Italian restaurant. Because there was confusion there. But the thing is, there’s something beautiful in both. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a really awesome wine to explore because it has these two different styles within it. They’re very age-worthy and they’re beautiful, elegant, majestic, Italian red wines. Then you have the grape Montepulciano in Abruzzo — amazing wine. There are people making Abruzzo Montepulciano that is expensive, small-production, well-structured beautiful stuff, but there are a lot of winemakers out there making very good, easy drinking, everyday meals to share with friends, communal Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. So I hope I cleared things up for you guys.

So when you’re out there, you know what you’re looking at, you know what you’re enjoying. You’re not going to be confused, because wine can be confusing. It’s ancient and we’re deciphering it now. I’ll see you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.