Villa Poggio Salvi's Wines Evoke the Story of Montalcino

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Brunello di Montalcino is a wine that is near and dear to our hearts at K&L, but it wasn’t until I started researching recently did I learn that the Montalcino region was known primarily for a sweet, sparkling wine called Moscadello until the 1960s. The deep, seductive Sangioveses that we know and love were, in fact, a bit of a fluke. The Banfi family bought up much of the land in the 60s to produce Moscadello, and, according to Jancis Robinson, failed miserably. To recover, they planted Sangiovese, and it was (clearly!) a huge success. From about 25 producers in 1975, Montalcino grew to 120 estates by 1995. Vino Italiano calls Montalcino the “boondocks” in the 1970s but by the 1990s, there was investment from big Italian players such as Piero Antinori, Angelo Gaja, and the Frescobaldi clan.

It was during this sea change that Luca Belingardi’s grandfather bought Villa Poggio Salvi as a country retreat from his life in Milan. His name was Pierluigi Tagliabue and, in 1979 when he bought it, the country villa was only a couple of hectares of vineyards. He named his estate Poggio Salvi, meaning “healthy hill,” and it turned out to be in a prime location for Sangiovese, with great rocky soils called galestro that impart minerality and elegance to the fruit. Little by little he enlarged, recognizing the site’s potential, and today the estate holds 50 acres in Montalcino, plus an additional 50 more in Chianti Colli Senesi as of 1998.

Located on the south side of Montalcino with southern exposure, their primary estate benefits from powerful cooling breezes from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea. The southern side of Montalcino is warm and generally gets grapes riper than the northern side, so that cooling breeze is essential in maintaining the grapes’ acidity. It was especially important during last year’s harvest. According to Luca: “The 2017 harvest was warmer than average. Usually we harvest at the end of September, but last year it was the beginning. 2017 was was crazy in Europe in general, and the last 10 vintages you feel this warming trend. We are lucky because we are one of the highest wineries and we face south, close to 500 meters, 1500 feet. We can stay fresh and cool, which is important to maintain higher acidity.”

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You really can’t avoid the issue of climate change when you speak with winemakers these days. It’s something that anyone involved in agriculture is contending with on a day-to-day basis, and that will undoubtedly affect farming methods for years to come. Luca says, “Global warming is going on, so we are thinking ahead, and studying. In a couple of years, we’ll add irrigation. Up to now, we’ve needed no irrigation at all. But it will be necessary in case of emergency. What will happen in 100 years, who knows? But in the next 20 years, all over Tuscany, there will probably be higher temperatures, more irrigation.”

Luca’s family has been there through the last 40 years of evolution in Montalcino, but are very rooted in Pierluigi’s original vision. His grandfather understood the importance of Sangiovese, and was an early ambassador for it. He prized the idea that the wine is born outside of the cellar, and that the Sangiovese Grosso grape is what makes Montalcino special. Luca says it’s “a wonderful grape, and we have the best expression of it in Montalcino.” To accurately capture the essence of that grape they harvest everything by hand, selecting the best fruit in the vineyard so only the highest quality makes it into their cellar. Luca has modernized the production, but still values the traditional method of ageing their wines in only Slavonian casks as Pierluigi did.

Luca grew up in Milan and studied winemaking there, but spent his childhood visiting Montalcino. Ten years ago, he moved to Montalcino full time, and is raising his children there among the vines. The rest of his Milanese family is involved in the winery, but he is the only one who is in Montalcino, on the ground, 100 percent of the time. And his role in the family business seems to be the perfect fit for him. He says, “This is a position where I can see the production, but also travel. What I like in my position is that I can see the big picture, from the vineyards to the cellar to export market.”

Villa Poggio Salvi’s wines are all deeply rooted in the family’s love for the land and the grape, and represent great values for the region. His 2016 Rosso, for instance, is bright and lifted with notes of cherries, violets, and tobacco, with a dusty core of tannins and singing acidity. It’s a weeknight steak wine if ever there was one. In general, there’s a sense of tradition to the Poggio Salvi wines, and they tell the fundamental story of the region: things change, methods modernize, but a haunting soulfulness remains, reminding you that what’s in your glass couldn’t be from anywhere but Montalcino.

- Kate Soto