Montalcino may be one of the most beautiful places in Tuscany. The town itself sits bathed in sunlight atop a large hill, with sweeping vineyards and forests descending from it in flowing circles like the drape of a long, tiered skirt.
It’s a rather small and remote place—some 240 mostly family-owned wineries. But for many wine lovers, the very best Tuscan wines are born here as Brunello di Montalcino. Which is why, when Stefano Ruini, lead enologist for Tenuta Luce, offered to come to our office bringing some bottles, I could not resist.
Luce (LOO-chay), as it is known (the name means “light” in Italian), is owned by the famous Frescolbaldi family who have been making wine in Tuscany since 1300. And while Luce makes some Brunello di Montalcino (from the required Brunello clones of sangiovese), it is not primarily a producer of Brunello.
Instead, the winery makes its own proprietary wine that, from its creation in 1993, has been a 50/50 blend of merlot and sangiovese. Amazingly, even though the merlot cuttings came from Bordeaux, the wines from them have the high level of freshness and wonderful salty undercurrent that is characteristic of great wines from Montalcino. And the wines (see below) were stunning.
Here are some of the ideas Stefano Ruini shared:
- Many of the best vineyards in Montalcino are laced with schist. Layered and friable, schist warms quickly in spring—a good thing since sangiovese needs a long season to ripen fully. (Unripe sangiovese—sour and thin—is definitely not desirable).
- In Montalcino, merlot provides tannin, structure, and fruit, but it also has high acidity (which it usually doesn’t have in Bordeaux and which it absolutely doesn’t have in California).
- There are more than 100 different clones that today fall under the banner of being “Brunello” clones of sangiovese.
- For Ruini, while clones are important, they take a big backseat to site. “if you take the best clone of sangiovese and plant it in the worst most fertile place, you’ll make terrible wine,” he assured me.
With the exception of Luce’s every night wine called Lucente (See the Wines to Know in June 14, 2019 edition of WineSpeed), the Luce wines are expensive. But any one of these would make a spectacular gift (even a gift to yourself).
LUCE 2016 (Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy) $120
A woodsy rich wine with dark fruit and worn leather flavors and a wonderful hum of saltiness. Lots of tannin promises a long life ahead for this wine, but the tannin is very fine, and cannot be felt as any sort of astringency. This is a very masculine wine yet fresh at the same time. The dark flavors and saltiness made everyone in our office hungry for homemade pasta in a meat sauce. (14.9 abv) 93 points
LUCE Brunello di Montalcino 2013 (Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy) $135
This was a hot vintage and it shows. Some pretty aromas reminiscent of an old cedar chest, but the wine slightly missed the mark on freshness and complexity. (15% abv) 89 points
LUCE 2012 (Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy) $100
If great wine beams out its energy (and I think it does), then this was the wine of the tasting. Exquisite balance and complexity. A rush of aromas and flavors—cedar, roses, tar, salt, dark fruits, meat juices. Very alive and prancing on the palate. (13.5% abv) 95 points
LUCE 1999 (Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy) $80
Beautiful. Incredibly long and sustained on the palate. Cedar and exotic spices like cardamom. Touches of balsamic and a wonderful woodsiness and saltiness. Proof of how compelling fine old wine can be. (14.5% abv) 95 points