Col D’Orcia

Italy, Brunello di Montalcino

Col D’Orcia

“We are a traditional producer looking towards innovation – the most important core value is age-ability - we respect and protect the core of acidity,” says Col d’Orcia’s owner, Count Francesco Marone Cinzano. This is the story of the “biggest of the small wineries” in Brunello di Montalcino. 

Enlighted Tradition

Count Francesco Marone Cinzano is a member of an aristocratic family with a long history of winemaking that goes back to the 16th Century. Originally the family came from Piedmont and was based around the city of Turin. Some of the family members were farmers who grew grapes and were authorized to distill spirits. There were two brothers, Giovanni Giacomo Cinzano who oversaw the grape-growing side of things, and Carlo Stefano Cinzano who owned a shop in Turin selling confectionery and liqueurs. Using aromatic herbs and plants from the Italian Alps, the brothers created a red vermouth in 1757, which became the famous aromatized wine ‘Cinzano’, later to become a global brand. The family was also instrumental in developing the Moscato grape and Asti Spumante sparkling wine in east Piedmont. Asti enjoyed worldwide sales. Francesco comments that at one time, almost every family celebration, baptism, or birthday in Italy and further afield would be celebrated with either Champagne or Asti Spumante. The Cinzano family continued a long-standing tradition of making both wines and spirits through the 18th and 19th centuries. In the mid-19th Century, Francesco’s family became consultants to the Royal House of Savoy and the King of Sardinia. Francesco’s grandfather was a great friend of Umberto II, the Crown Prince of Piedmont, and they spent weekends skiing, hunting, and sailing together. In 1940 Umberto II bestowed the title of ‘Count’ on Francesco’s grandfather; Francesco comments that it is the only aristocratic title in Italy bestowed purely for services to wine. 

As a young boy, Francesco often visited wineries and vineyards with his father, and he has fond memories of Christmas celebrations with the many children of the Cinzano workers. Another childhood memory is coming out of the sea after swimming and being given a little taste of Asti Spumante, which, because it was sweet, contrasted with the saltiness of the sea to create a very memorable taste sensation! He also remembers being fascinated as a boy by the several huge fridges used to store selected vineyard yeasts all year round, ready to be used for just a few weeks during the fermentation of the sparkling Asti Spumante.  

Over the years, there were major economic recessions and various takeovers and mergers in the wine business, and the Cinzano company ended up being owned 50% by IDV. Francesco’s father sadly died in a car crash in 1989. Francesco found himself obliged to sell the remaining 50% of family shares in the business, and in 1992 Cinzano became wholly owned by IDV. However, Francesco’s father had the foresight in 1973 to buy the 70-hectare Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino estate in the southwest part of the DOCG, which Francesco inherited. Col d’Orcia already had a successful management team in place at that time, and Francesco found himself as strategic CEO but without a very active role to play, but he was keen to make his mark. 

In the intervening years, he had married Marcella, a professional photographer, in Barcelona, and she was keen to see the world. She told him she had not married him to return immediately to live in Italy, and so it was they both arrived in Chile in 1995 with their two young children to see if they could set up a wine business there. Francesco was encouraged in this by his friend, Miguel Torres, who had planted vineyards in Chile 15 years earlier, as far south as he was able to go at that time, in Curicó Valley. Francesco was keen to explore and develop the areas where the conquistadores had originally planted vines, so he went further south to Maule Valley, even though, at that time, it was difficult to find workers who were willing to work that far south. There he found plantings of 100-year-old ancestral vines. 

He created his company “Erasmus” and started making wine with Bordeaux varieties, producing his first Erasmo Cabernet Sauvignon in 2001. He was instrumental in developing the area of Maule and also two local native varieties: Pais, Chile’s native red grape variety, and Torontel, of which there are a few hundred hectares and from which he made one of Chile’s first-ever sweet wines. Pais was introduced by the Spanish conquistadores and is considered to be the same as Argentina’s Criolla Grande and California’s Mission grape. Torontel, Francesco believes, is not related to Argentina’s famous Torrontes, but to date, there have been few DNA studies on its origins, although it is thought to be related to both Muscat and Sultana. 

After 10 years of building and creating a successful business in Chile, in 2005, Francesco and his family returned to Italy and to Col d’Orcia where by now, the general manager was preparing to retire, and Francesco would be more involved. 

One of the first things he did was to introduce some of the things he had learned in Chile, and he began the conversion of Col d’Orcia to organic viticulture. He says he “wanted to bring back Col d’Orcia to the kind of viticulture it would have had before the Second World War with a mixed agriculture of farm animals, fruit trees and plants in the vineyard.” In 2015, he started to use biodynamic preparations such as 501. I asked if he could really see a difference using these preparations, and Francesco assured me he could. He thinks the compost heap, for example, matures much more quickly using them. He says that he can see a transformation using biodynamic products but that they don’t just take things on “blind faith.” They also do extensive research and development, some of which are with the University of Florence. Biodynamic preparations “improve the level of ripeness and reduce the green flavor elements in the grapes and in the finished wine, while still allowing them to pick at around 14% - 14.5%.” As for being certified biodynamic, Francesco says that, at 145 hectares, they are just too big for that. They cannot logistically pick all their grapes on days determined by biodynamic protocol. “But we are biodynamic in practice; every single bunch of grapes is touched by a human hand.” They have their own recipe for the compost heap, too - in collaboration with Florence University, they are using zeolite derived from volcanic rock. This substance has the extremely useful ability to retain water and release it back to the vines when they need it. These qualities are especially useful in the recent and accumulating run of hot, dry vintages. Zeolite is used by NASA to grow plants in space, while in the more earthly realm, Col d’Orcia uses cow manure from a herd grazing on nearby Monte Amiata as part of their “special recipe” compost. 

Francesco believes that not enough attention is paid to the evolution of the vines and the vineyards themselves in response to climate change.

“We are seeing a most interesting aspect, how the vineyards are evolving to cope with droughts, water bombs, heat waves, etc. The accumulation of calcium in Sangiovese to produce thicker cell walls in the plant is increasing.” It is as if the plant is protecting and defending itself against these extreme weather conditions. Perhaps the plants’ own defenses will provide part of the final key to quality. 

Col d’Orcia makes two different Rosso di Montalcino and three different Brunellos, namely Brunello di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino Poggio al Vento Riserva, and Brunello di Montalcino Vigna Nastagio. The Poggio al Vento is a single vineyard wine that is released later than normal. The name means “windy hill” because it is often windy with the winds coming from Monte Amiata. This is a southwest facing vineyard on a predominately sandy soil, which was a former seabed, and produces sturdy, long-lived wines with a traditional feel. The Vigna Nastagio is the result of a long-standing collaboration with Florence University. This wine, aged in 500-liter tonneaux for the first 12 months, is intended to be more accessible at a younger age with gentler tannins. Col d’Orcia considers it a cross between a modern and traditional style Brunello.

Col d’Orcia Brunellos are more affordable than many others and are sold widely, but especially in Norway, Canada, and Sweden, the wine’s primary market. They are powerful, deeply dark-colored wines that are often very reticent in terms of aromas and flavors for the first 10-15 years of their life. They are much more “old school” and traditional in style and can come across as austere in youth, but the best wines have a great capacity to age for up to 30-plus years in some cases. I tasted the Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1968 in November 2023, and I can say that for me, it was the best wine of their historic range of wines because it was not at all oxidized, and it has such vibrant acidity and liveliness. In recent years since 2016, perhaps I have also noticed more refinement of tannins, especially with their Brunello Vigna Nastagio; the palate texture is also much gentler yet dense and rich at the same time. 

"We are a traditional producer looking towards innovation."

So how does Francesco characterize Col d’Orcia’s style of Brunello? “We are a traditional producer looking towards innovation – the most important core value is age-ability - we respect and protect the core of acidity.”  Things have changed over the years in the winery, where extraction and maceration times are much shorter than in the past. In the 1980s, maceration on the skins would typically take 45 days, but in recent vintages, it is more often 24-25 days. “Sometimes nowadays, we even separate the skins from the juice before fermentation has finished.” In recent vintages, this has resulted in a more refined quality of tannins.  

Since taking over the reins of Col d’Orcia, Francesco has doubled the size of the vineyards his father left him, increasing them from 70 to 140 hectares, and he has led the conversion of the whole estate to organic viticulture, becoming a certified organic estate in 2013. Col d’Orcia is the third-largest Brunello producer and the largest organic wine-producing farm in Tuscany. But when I ask Count Francesco whether Col D’Orcia is a big producer, he answers: “We think and act like a small producer, so let’s say we are the biggest of the small producers.”

Article & Reviews by Susan Hulme MW
Photography by Svante Örnberg

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