Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Il Palazzone: The Quintessential Montalcino (Tuscany) boutique winery

I made my first trip to Montalcino in April 2011 as part of a Bordeaux Index team visit to Tuscany. Laura Gray, Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, a producer located on the hills of Montalcino, and I were Twitter compatriots at the time and she reached out to me to offer a visit to her property. I was, unfortunately, on my way back to Florence when I got her message and, so, missed out on the opportunity.

Through the years Laura and I have stayed in touch via social media and email and we truly had a moment during the time that the Consorzio was voting on allowing up to 15% Merlot in Rosso di Montalcino wines. We were both on the "no" side and shared many a thought on the subject. I remember waiting anxiously on the day of the vote for her to make me aware of the results and what a relief it was when I got her email that the resolution had failed.

While prepping for my trip to Contrada dell'Etna this year, I was able to arrange a visit to the Vini Franchetti Tenuta del Trinoro estate in Val d'Orcia and thought to combine this with a visit to Il Palazzone. Laura was in agreement and so we were on. I would finally get to meet her in person.

The best laid plans ... I got an email from Laura on the Wednesday prior to my Friday visit: her son had had an accident and she would not be able to host me personally as planned. Instead, she had arranged for a colleague -- Esther Mercedes Juergens -- to conduct the tour in her stead. I totally understood.

My upcoming post, then, will be based on my conversations with Esther, subsequent email communications with Laura, and secondary research of public sources.

Il Palazzone, according to Laura, translates to the Big Palace and is often used to describe any big house. In the picture below, the structure to the far right is the Il Palazzone of relevance to us. "This is the oldest building on the property and gave its name to the estate." Though overlooking the property, the house is not owned by the estate.

As it relates to wine, Il Palazzone is a boutique Brunello di Montalcino producer located high-up on Montalcino hill and sourcing fruit from the vineyards surrounding the property (Due Porte), as well as two additional vineyards in the Castelnuovo dell'Abate sub-region of Montalcino.

I arrived at Il Palazzone at the appointed time and was warmly greeted by Esther. She apologized again on behalf of Laura and provided some context for her being here today. As owner of the wine tourism company www.vino-vistas.com, she had led many a tour to the Il Palazzone and was intimately familiar with the estate an its history.

Esther Mercedes Juergens

Il Palazzone, she said, had originally been an olive grove. It was bought by one Mario Bollag in the 1980s. The olive trees suffered dramatically in the freeze of 1984 (In a contemporary LA Times article, a grower named Franco Cencioni said "of the 1300 olive trees in his nearby grove in Montalcino, 80% show no sign of life."), so Bollag took them down and began planting vines instead. Bollag was not alone:
In response to the rapid expansion of vineyards in Montalcino, in 1995 the Consorzio stopped authorizing land for Brunello production. The decision has definitely had a series of welcome repercussions for winemaking (forcing producers to have plots in multiple subzones), for prestige of product due to the enforced limited production and for land value given that producers wishing to expand or start new property are forced to buy or rent existing vineyards (Laura Gray).
Bollag sold Il Palazzone to Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time Warner, in 2000. At that time the estate owned the 1.5 ha La Due Porte vineyard. In 2004 the estate added another 2.5 ha of vineyards with the purchase of two plots in the Castelnuovo dell' Abate subzone. The difference in terroir between the upper and lower elevation vineyards are demonstrated annually by a two-week-earlier blossoming and veraison of the latter over the former. The characteristics of the various Montalcino sub-regions and the Il Palazzone vineyards are shown in the figures below.

Esther sees Montalcino as an excellent environment for grape-growing: (i) there is a cooling seabreeze in the afternoon and (ii) the diurnal temperature variation aids in acid retention and flavor development.

Looking out over the Due Porte Vineyard

The estate is, by and large, organic but is not certified as such. Farming practices are guided by a set of principles that the estate refers to as Responsible Agriculture. The elements and characteristics of the system are shown in the table below.

Table 1. Il Palazzone Responsible Agriculture System (Source: Il Palazzone)
Element Characteristics
  • No chemicals
   - Treatments made utilize base metals allowed by EEC 2092/91 governing organic farming
  • Manual labor rather than anti-fungal treatments
   - Strip away vine leaves by hand in order to give bunches as much air as possible
Cultivate biodiversity
  • Avoid chemicals as much as possible
  • Try to replenish the sol and environment
Fertilization Organic fertilizers in the vineyard
  • Cover crops — nitrogen-rich leguminous plants such as lupins and fava beans in alternate rows
  • Cover crops plowed into earth, enriching and fertilizing the soil
Support posts Locally grown chestnut for support posts
- Do not need to be treated with preservatives

The vine training system employed is cordone speronato, along with some experiments with Guyot. Vine density ranges between 5000 and 6000 vines/ha. The vineyards are dry-farmed. Yield and fruit quality are managed via (i) a green harvest and (ii) leaf pulling two to three weeks prior to harvest. Yields are less than 5000 kg/ha.

In response to my query regarding the Il Palazzone winemaking philosophy, Laura stated thusly:
We hope to have wines that show an authentic expression of vintage; that incredibly complex set of moving natural variables intersecting with luck and human decisions. My expectation is that each wine should embody weather in the glass. I also consider the quality of our wines entirely dependent on our work during the year in the vineyard ... That said, of course our wines will have a common thread -- as easily identified as siblings to their parents.
Optimal harvest time is determined by a combination of factors to include weather, sugar and acid levels, taste, and color. Viticultural and enological decisions are within the purview of Maurizio Castelli, the estate's consultant winemaker.

Following a manual harvest, the grapes are brought into the reception area where they are sorted and destemmed. They are then fermented/macerated in large Slavonian oak vats for 18 to 20 days with frequent pumpovers and delestage. Each plot is vinified separately using indigenous yeasts.

Malolactic fermentation and aging are also conducted in Slavonian oak. The wines are racked depending on the vintage and development. "There are no hard and fast rules since we try to interpret each vintage as it presents itself." The wines are never fined but are filtered in the years where the vintage dictates such.

The estate ages its regular Brunello for 4 years, twice the Consorzio obligation. A Riserva is produced in the years when there is a perception that "the vintage will be considerably improved by a further wood aging." To date Riservas have been declared in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2010. The Brunello spends 4 months in bottle as a Consorzio requirement but the estate is always happy with more time.

The Brunello is a blend of the three terroirs. Blending is effected just prior to bottling and is generally done in one of the vats if the volume is below 50 HL (the size of their largest vat). The contribution of each vineyards to the blend is vintage-dependent but, in general: Capa contributes fruit, sugars, and puissance; Vecchia gives minerality; and Due Porte gives aromatic complexity and elegance.

Cellar Master Stefano Sassetti

The wine remaining after this blending goes into a label called Rosso del Palazzo NV. The most recent version of this wine is designated 1/16 and is a blend of the 2011 and 2014 vintages, years in which the estate opted to not produce Brunellos. According to Esther, 2014 was wet and cold during the summer and was a very difficult vintage for Montalcino. This wine showed bright, dark fruit along with nutty and herb characteristics. Bright, fresh, and with high acidity. Slightly unfocused and shortish finish.

We opened a fresh bottle of 2012 Brunello di Montalcino for the tasting and it had a core of dark fruit surrounded by herbs, leather, spices, and a minerality.  Young, hard tannins point to the need for lengthy cellar-residence.  We switched to a '12 that had been opened previously -- but which we had passed up due to being unsure as to exactly how long it had been open -- and it exhibited a bit more oxygen-assisted brightness. Great finish on both wines.

Lorenzo & Isabelle is a Supertuscan blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. It has been bottled only twice: 2005 (released in 2007) and 2013 (released in 2017). I tasted the 2013 edition. Darkest color of the wines tasted today. Herbaceous. Perfumed. High-toned. Silky smooth on the palate along with a spiciness. Late-arriving tannins. Moderate acidity but lengthy, mineral finish.

In one of my very informative exchanges with Laura, she noted that "one of the special aspects of smaller wineries is that there are no fixed recipes or kneejerk logistical decisions but that we can behave in a very intuitive way both in the vineyard and in the cellar ..." And that is the beauty of this estate. That, and the incisive, insightful, socratic management and communication skills and practices of one Laura Gray.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Love your post, brought back great memories from our visit in 2015 to taste their 2010 vintage, thank you.