Interview with Laura Gray – Il Palazzone, Montalcino IT

I met Laura through this website when she read my article on a trip to Montalcino. I was sadden to learn I was a stone’s throw from Il Palazzone while tromping around Montalcino and missed their winery entirely. Laura and I have become “Internet friends” over the last year as I’ve become enamoured with Il Palazzone. I was thrilled Laura took the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview. I hope you enjoy…

1. How long has Il Palazzone been around – what is it’s history?
Il Palazzone was founded the late 1980s and was bought by the current owner in 2000. There are documents that mention the presence of vineyards on the property in 13th century so it seems certain that wine has always been produced here.

2. Where are you located?
The estate is just minutes from the centre of Montalcino. There are signs for the property at the mosaic-man roundabout, directly below the Fortress.

3. How many vineyards do you have?
We have a total of ten acres of vineyards in three quite different areas of Montalcino. All the vineyards are planted with Sangiovese Grosso and are authorized for the production of Brunello.

The wonderful thing about Montalcino is the enormous variety of terroir and the micro-climate in a rather restricted production area. This means that the grapes from each of our vineyards have quite different and complimentary characteristics.

The Due Porte vineyard, our youngest, is 530 metres above sea level and north-west facing. The altitude gives us excellent ventilation and an extreme day/night thermal excursion which is ideal for developing aromatics. The Vigna del Capa, located down below the hamlet of Castelnuovo dell’Abate, is over 200 meters lower and south facing so presents strong fruit and body. The vineyards here are over thirty years old. The harvest is distinguished by lovely saline mineral notes thanks to the presence of marine fossils in the soil. The third vineyard, also over 30 years old, is also close to Castelnuovo dell’Abate, in an area known as “La Fornace” due to the iron, magnesium and manganese in the soil. The grapes from this vineyard have a distinctive mineral component.

4. How much wine do you make?
We make between 8,000 and 12,000 bottles a year. We keep our yields low in order to make the best possible wines. We are in the lucky position of being able to make vintage-based decisions. This is important in Montalcino since one of the DOCG regulations prohibits any kind of mechanical intervention with climate e.g. irrigations, smudge pots etc.

5. What wines do you make?
We make Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Rosso del Palazzone (a 100% Sangiovese table wine) and Lorenzo & Isabelle IGT Toscana. Lorenzo & Isabelle is a Supertuscan made to commemorate the memory of the owners’ parents and their splendid marriage, which is honoured by the harmony and balance of the blend of varietals: Cabernet France, Sangiovese and Petit Verdot. So far we have only released the 2005 vintage of this wine.

6. What methods of fermentation and aging do you use?
Our wines ferment in stainless steel and, when possible, we allow the natural yeasts to start fermentation. The wine then goes into enormous botti, large Slavonian oak barrels. The current DOCG legislation for Brunello prescribes 2 years in wood before release on the 5th January after harvest. We still respect the original legislation since our Brunello always spends four years or more in wood.

7. How long should you cellar your wines?
It depends very much on the vintage – and, of course, whether the wine can be cellared properly. If you are planning on keeping a Brunello upright on a mantelpiece in full sunlight it would be better to drink it straight away… As a traditional style Brunello, our wines are made to evolve and develop in complexity over time. A great vintage (2006, 2004, 2001, 1999, 1997) can easily spend 15 years improving. The oldest vintage that we have in the estate library is the 1995 which I “have” to taste periodically. This wine has yet to peak and is drinking beautifully at the moment. Often a good Brunello will be like a tight ball of wool. All the elements are there but they will only unravel if you give them time.

8. Is your wine available for sale in the United States?  If so, where?
Yes! We are one of two Brunello’s in Domaine Select Wine Estates portfolio (www.domaineselect.com) They are based in New York but have a network all over the US. The owner is an American so our US presence is very important to us.

9. Tell us about your olive oil production and program?
We make about 700 half litre bottles of IGP Toscana Extra Virgin Olive Oil. We pick the olives by hand and press within hours of picking at the award-winning Franci press. Our yields are preposterously low – usually less than 9kg of oil for every 100 kgs of olives picked. The result is exquisite oil, with a lovely artichoke bouquet and the elegance typical of high altitude oils. The IGP certification means that the oil is made within Tuscany and has undergone panel testing and lab analysis to meet very high standards of quality and “tipicità”. In order to place this liquid gold we created a club in which members own an olive tree. They have their name on a hand-painted ceramic plaque which hangs on their tree and a certificate of ownership plus three bottles of freshly pressed oil delivered to them. I have just finished sending out the harvest 2010 oil to all our members.

10. Tell us a little about yourself. How did you and your husband meet, how many children do you have, etc.
I’m always rather embarrassed by this question since visitors often assume that I left Britain with a training in wine and a burning ambition to be in this sector. Actually I graduated with a degree in English Literature from Oxford University and a burning ambition to be with my Italian boyfriend. Who happened to be from Montalcino and who I have since married. This all started thanks to my parents who made the mistake of taking me to Tuscany as an adolescent, full of Bertolucci images and E.M.Forster quotes. Marco and I now have three children whose names (Isla, James and Nia) and red hair are testimony to my Scottish genes. Along the way we have had a cult restaurant (La Fortezza del Brunello, S.Angelo in Colle, 6 tables, 600 wines..), I qualified as a sommelier and now find myself with a fifteen year career of winery administration behind me. . Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing now if Marco had happened to be from Milan…

11. What is always in your fridge?
My mother-in-law’s tomato salsa, pecorino (sheeps’ cheese from nearby Pienza) and anchovies “sotto pesto”

12. What wine do you always have around to drink?
Our house quaffing wine is the Rosso del Palazzone and whatever is Marco’s latest experiment from the cellar. One of the many advantages of living on site is that every evening we inherit whatever has been opened in tasting room.

13. What wine do you serve for special occasions?
Apart from Brunello, my favourite wines are Amarone and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Anything else that you’d like to share?
We love receiving visitors to the property and showing people what we do here. We are building a new cellar which will be solar powered. This is just part of our efforts to make the best possible decisions in terms of the environment; we use locally sourced untreated posts in the vineyard, have adopted a lighter bottle and recycled cardboard for our boxes and, most importantly, we do manual work in the vineyard whenever we can and intervene as little as possible.

If you can’t visit in person but would like to look through a little window onto Montalcino, you can follow Il Palazzone on Twitter (@ilpalazzone) . We were the first estate in Italy to put our twitter id on the label. We are also on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ilpalazzone).

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