Italy: A Passion For Brunello di Montalcino

He’s a sturdy and tall man with large hands. Tufts of grey hair flapped in the wind as he talked to us about his vineyards and the improvements and expansion he’s made in the last two years to his cellar and winemaking facilities. Half of his shirt was untucked and peeking out from under his cream colored corduroy jacket, and while he looks a bit more like the farmer he’s been for the last 15 years, his command of the English language and passion for the finer things in life revealed a bit of his past as a successful executive in the shipping business.

Piero Palumucci along with his wife Elisabeth are proprietors of Fattoria Poggio di Sotto, a small farm and winery south of Montalcino overlooking the village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Poggio di Sotto consists of 12 hectares of vineyards and about 1,400 olive trees. Piero and Elisabeth produce about 2,000 cases of wine annually including Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino and Moscatto, a desert wine that he makes simply for his family and friends. Oh. And of course, he makes a grappa.

He stands tall and proud wielding a toothy smile as he explains how his vineyards and the valley that is their home run from 200 to 450 meters above sea level. Insisting this valley is the best place to grow Sangiovese in Montalcino Commune because of the Southern and Eastern sun exposure. The grapes get more hours of sun and the valley cools nicely in the evening. The perfect climatical recipe for great Brunello.

The Palmucci’s office, winemaking, storage and bottling operation are under the beautiful stone farmhouse they call home. A new addition has enabled Piero to move the barrel storage out of his office. Using the latest and best in equipment, Piero is sure to point out, he has created a classic gravity flow winery using modern techniques. The man wreaks with passion as he walks us through his cellar explaining that he drops more than half of the fruit in the vineyard and thereby possibly producing less juice per hectare than any of his Brunello brethren.

He pulls the protective plastic cover over his moto table. Explaining that no one else in Montalcino has this expensive table. His eyes focused and assured yet his smile disarming as he explains that 4-5 workers hand pick grapes from the clusters of the Sangiovese Grosso grapes picked from his meticulously managed vineyards. We walk over to a small two-wheeled machine. This is the pump that he uses to pump the wine after fermentation and during barrel racking. It’s expensive, Piero assures us, but worth it. Why? Because it’s more gentle on the wine.

To tell you the man is passionate about quality tells you nothing about Palmucci. He’s obsessed with quality. And he’s obsessed about controlling the process. He has the ability to produce much more wine than he currently does. He will increase slightly. But to produce much more will endanger the quality because it will be more difficult to control the process.

His barrel storage cellar is large and the large cellar dwarfs the small inventory of Slovenian oak casks. There’s room for expansion. But then I notice sprinklers on the floor in the center of the room. Palmucci explains this is for controlling the humidity. He ushers to a control panel on the wall and makes a few adjustments then the sprinklers eke out a fine mist. He smiles as we gaze across the room. I wanna be a kid and run through the fine mist, but I restrain myself as Palmucci leads us to the bottling room.

Once again Palmucci explains this is the best bottling machine available. And it’s expensive, of course. But his comments shouldn’t be confused as boasting, he assures us that if he buys cheap he’ll just have to replace it. Best to buy for the future. This man wants to produce great wine — for the duration.

We see what appears to be a simple mechanical contraption shoved in the corner of a hallway. It’s not so simple. It’s a device that allows him to place the bottles after bottling and corking so that they sit upright for a few days while the cork expands and sets. Then he simply tilts this device like a wheelbarrow and the wine bottles rest on their side until ready for release. Which for Brunello is 5 years after harvest.

Tasting the wine and we can revel in Palmucci’s passion for quality. We’re drinking the 1998, not a great year for Brunello. Not like 1997. But that may have been an anomaly. We learn later that the weather for the last five years has not touched 1997’s amazing conditions. Palmucci coats the Riedel glasses with his 1998 Brunello. Then pushes the stem toward me and tells me to smell the glass. I like this process I see used quite often in Tuscany. He does the same for Tim then pours us each a glass while explaining that Sangiovese is never dark purple. And warns that if we see Brunello as such, chances are it is not 100% Sangiovese. Sangiovese is never dark. The wine is a bit ruby a bit brick red. Fruit and floral notes surround a core of herbs and spice. On the palate it’s delicate, smooth with soft tannins. The finish is long. I swirl it my mouth as the juice blankets my tongue, teeth and roof. Hmmm. This is good. From Palmucci’s perspective as he nestles the bottle between his two large hands is of me smiling. I see him waiting in anticipation for a response. An emotion. Some sign from me that I’m enjoying the wine. I nod. Speechless. What am I supposed to say. I bring the glass to my lips again while looking directly in his eyes. Nod again. he smiles.

“For me the pleasure is making something other people will enjoy,” Palmucci breaks the silence. For Tim and I, he’s achieved that. To be sure his wine is not cheap. Yet it’s not the most expensive in Brunello. But it has to be. His detail and expense into his total hand operation is costly. And he refuses to compromise.

We throw our purchases of wine and olive oil in the back of the Punto and drive down the long dirt road passing hectares of vineyards with clusters of grapes dotting the ground. A sure sign that Palmucci isn’t joking. He’s a serious a winemaker as I’ve ever met.

Photos: 1) Poggio di Sotto wines, olive oil and grappa; 2) Piero Palmucci, perhaps the most serious and passionate producer of Brunello di Montalcino; 3) the home, office, winemaking facility and cellar for Fattoria Poggio di Sotto; 4) the cellars of Poggio di Sotto – note the sprinklers used for controlling humidity; 5) the view to Castelnuovo dell’Abate from Fattoria Poggio di Sotto.