Support our mission
 
The hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino is thought to have been settled by the Etruscans around  814. It is most for -- and  deservedly so -- for its Brunello of Montalcino wine.
The hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino is thought to have been settled by the Etruscans around 814. It is most for -- and deservedly so -- for its Brunello of Montalcino wine. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
The hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino is thought to have been settled by the Etruscans around  814. It is most for -- and  deservedly so -- for its Brunello of Montalcino wine.
The hilltop Tuscan town of Montalcino is thought to have been settled by the Etruscans around 814. It is most for -- and deservedly so -- for its Brunello of Montalcino wine. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Samples of some of Biondi-Santi's Brunello of Montalcino wines: Rosso di Montalcino, left, comes from Sangiovese Grosso vines is younger than 10 years old and  aged for more more 12 months in Croatian oak casks; the Annata, center, is produced from Sangiovese vineyards between 10 and 25 years old and the wine is aged for three years before bottled; the Riserva wine is produced from Sangiovese vineyards more than 25 years old and also aged for three years in Croatian oak casks.
Samples of some of Biondi-Santi's Brunello of Montalcino wines: Rosso di Montalcino, left, comes from Sangiovese Grosso vines is younger than 10 years old and aged for more more 12 months in Croatian oak casks; the Annata, center, is produced from Sangiovese vineyards between 10 and 25 years old and the wine is aged for three years before bottled; the Riserva wine is produced from Sangiovese vineyards more than 25 years old and also aged for three years in Croatian oak casks. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Fresh flowers are some of the many goods for sale during the weekend outdoor market in the heart of Montalcino, in the hills of Italy's Tuscany region.
Fresh flowers are some of the many goods for sale during the weekend outdoor market in the heart of Montalcino, in the hills of Italy's Tuscany region. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
The fortress of Montalcino sits at the highest point of the town and was built in 1361. Some of the town's pre-existing walls were made part of the fortress, which houses -- you guessed it -- a wine shop.
The fortress of Montalcino sits at the highest point of the town and was built in 1361. Some of the town's pre-existing walls were made part of the fortress, which houses -- you guessed it -- a wine shop. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Montalcino's duomo, or cathedral, is dedicated to San Salvatore and thought to have originally been erected in 1000. It underwent major reconstruction from 1818 to 1832.
Montalcino's duomo, or cathedral, is dedicated to San Salvatore and thought to have originally been erected in 1000. It underwent major reconstruction from 1818 to 1832. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
A trip to Tuscany would not be complete without a meal of wild boar, coupled with a glass of  Brunello di Montalcino wine.
A trip to Tuscany would not be complete without a meal of wild boar, coupled with a glass of Brunello di Montalcino wine. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
The Abbey of Saint Antimo in the neighboring town of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, about five miles from Montalcino, traces its origins to a small oratory built in 352 and is said to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. The friars receive guests by appointment, and English is spoken.
The Abbey of Saint Antimo in the neighboring town of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, about five miles from Montalcino, traces its origins to a small oratory built in 352 and is said to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy. The friars receive guests by appointment, and English is spoken. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Breathtaking panoramic view of the rolling hills that are synonymous with the Tuscan region of central Italy of Montalcino  shows the town's setting setting in its glory.
Breathtaking panoramic view of the rolling hills that are synonymous with the Tuscan region of central Italy of Montalcino shows the town's setting setting in its glory. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
An old cistern now decorates a small piazza in Montalcino.
An old cistern now decorates a small piazza in Montalcino. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
A crane is silhouetted against a setting sun, a sign of modern construction making its imprint near the old town of Montalcino.
A crane is silhouetted against a setting sun, a sign of modern construction making its imprint near the old town of Montalcino. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Laundry dries in a cold winter day from windows of one of the many stone homes characteristic of Montalcino, in Tuscany.
Laundry dries in a cold winter day from windows of one of the many stone homes characteristic of Montalcino, in Tuscany. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Franco Biondi Santi,90, follows in the footsteps of his ancestors in producing the famed Brunello of Montalcino wines. His great grandfather, Clemente Santi, who studied pharmaceuticals, is credited with coming up with the idea in the 1860s of harvesting the Montalcinese grape earlier than usual, thus increasing the longevity of the wine. Clemente's grandson, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, produced the first Brunello di Montalcino, and the family's first Reserve dates to 1888. Franco Biondi Santi still has two bottles.
Franco Biondi Santi,90, follows in the footsteps of his ancestors in producing the famed Brunello of Montalcino wines. His great grandfather, Clemente Santi, who studied pharmaceuticals, is credited with coming up with the idea in the 1860s of harvesting the Montalcinese grape earlier than usual, thus increasing the longevity of the wine. Clemente's grandson, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, produced the first Brunello di Montalcino, and the family's first Reserve dates to 1888. Franco Biondi Santi still has two bottles. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
The ivy-covered villa Il Greppo is the family home and winery of the Biondi Santi family, with nearly 120 acres of land for vineyards just a few miles outside the Tuscan town of Montalcino.
The ivy-covered villa Il Greppo is the family home and winery of the Biondi Santi family, with nearly 120 acres of land for vineyards just a few miles outside the Tuscan town of Montalcino. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Harvested Sangiovese grapes, used to produce the famed Brunello di Montalcino wines, are aged in solid Croatian oak barrels.
Harvested Sangiovese grapes, used to produce the famed Brunello di Montalcino wines, are aged in solid Croatian oak barrels. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Wine shops throughout the town of Montalcino stock and sell many varieties of Brunello wines from several vineyards in the area.
Wine shops throughout the town of Montalcino stock and sell many varieties of Brunello wines from several vineyards in the area. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Patrons chat outside the famed Caffe Fiaschetteria Italiana 1888, a wine shop  decorated inside with red velvet sofas and yellow marble tables, originals from its opening 124 years ago.
Patrons chat outside the famed Caffe Fiaschetteria Italiana 1888, a wine shop decorated inside with red velvet sofas and yellow marble tables, originals from its opening 124 years ago. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Narrow cobblestone roads and stone houses are customary throughout the Tuscan town of Montalcino.
Narrow cobblestone roads and stone houses are customary throughout the Tuscan town of Montalcino. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)
Colorful artwork that naturally includes grapes on the vine decorates the main roundabout leading into Montalcino.
Colorful artwork that naturally includes grapes on the vine decorates the main roundabout leading into Montalcino. (Sandra Jontz/Stars and Stripes)

For a sliver of time, during a recent long holiday weekend, I found myself spelling happiness differently from anyone else — varying letters strung together to form the name of an ancient Etruscan hilltop town that, for three days, for me, became synonymous with happiness.

Montalcino.

I love Tuscany — a retreat from the frenzied life of Naples, where I reside. It’s a refuge, a quick getaway to recharge the batteries, if you will. I already had fallen for the neighboring hilltop town of Montepulciano, larger and perhaps better known, and I adore the Chianti region (though not so much its wine). The leather markets of Florence are unparalleled.

Then I discovered Montalcino.

Happiness.

The area is surrounded by vineyards. How can one not love that? And they are vineyards that produce one of my favorite wines: Brunello di Montalcino.

One particular long weekend began with a tour of a winery. In the hills of Tuscany, where else would you begin? (Rhetorical question — but in case you needed an answer: nowhere. A winery is where to begin.)

There are many from which to choose; I drove up the cypress-lined driveway to Il Greppo, the estate that houses the now-famous Biondi Santi winery — the very family credited with producing the first bottle of Brunello di Montalcio in 1888, director Franco Biondi Santi, 90, said during an interview.

Franco Santi’s grandfather, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, began making the wine using 100 percent Sangiovese grapes indigenous to the region. Ferruccio Santi also improved on a bottling and preservation technique started two generations earlier by Clemente Santi, who harvested the grapes earlier in the season than usual, thus paving the way for producing a wine that can be preserved for decades, if not centuries.

Franco says he uses the same techniques his ancestors used 124 years ago — why mess with perfection, says the man who started working in the family cantina in 1930. The family’s Brunello Riserva, for example, is exclusively produced with grapes from vines that are 25 years old or older. It also relies on the right amount of rain, because artificial irrigation systems are not permitted if the wines are to be true Brunellos.

In 1999, Wine Spectator magazine classified the 1955 Brunello Riserva Biondi Santi among the editors’ “dream dozen” as one of the 12 best wines of the 20th century.

While an entire weekend could be devoted to touring Brunello-producing vineyards, Montalcino and neighboring Castelnuovo dell’Abate offer tourists some spectacular alternatives.

Montalcino’s hilltop perch offers visitors stunning views over the Asso, Ombrone and Arbia valleys of Tuscany, and throughout the town, the cobblestone roads — some rather steep — wind between and around stone houses, churches and quaint shops.

The pentagonal-shaped fortress of Montalcino sits at the highest point of the town and was built in 1361. Some of the town’s pre-existing walls were made part of the fortress, which houses — you guessed it — a wine shop.

In Castelnuovo dell’Abate, about five miles from Montalcino, visitors can tour, by appointment, the Abbey of Saint Antimo, which traces its origins to a small oratory built in 352 and is said to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy.

DirectionsFrom Naples, take the A1 Autostrade north past Rome. Take the Chiusi-Chianciano Terme exit and follow signs for Chiusi-Chianciano Terme or Montepulciano until you see signs for Montalcino.

TimesMost winery visits and wine tastings require an appointment, so look on the website of the winery you wish to visit for information.

CostsCosts vary, so the website of the winery you wish to visit is your best bet for information. My visit to the Biondi Santi winery cost 15 euros, but didn't include the sit-down tasting.

FoodWhile Montalcino isn't brimming with restaurants, there are a number that pepper the town, some tucked away in tiny alleys. Dishes to try include ribollita, a Tuscan soup made of beans and vegetables and sometimes served in a bread bowl or with bits of bread tossed into the soup; wild boar; steak Florentine; and tripe.

InformationThe Official town website is montalcinonet.com (in Italian).

Migrated

stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up