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Sampling the Vino

Brunello di Montalcino exudes the smell of mossy, damp earth and musky berries. It tastes of dark, sweet fruits and dry vanilla. It's also the backbone of Montalcino's economy. As the deep ruby liquid mellows to garnet, the wine takes on its characteristic complex and slightly tannic aspect. Brunello is one of Italy's mightiest reds, a brawny wine that can tackle the rarest bistecca alla fiorentina. It's also the perfect accompaniment to game, pungent mushroom sauces, and aged cheeses.

Although Montalcino has produced wine for centuries, its flagship Brunello is a recent development, born out of late-19th-century sangiovese experiments to concentrate the grapes through strict cultivation methods. Most Brunellos are drinkable after about 4 to 5 years in the bottle, and the complex ones are best after 10 years or so (few last beyond 30 years). Bottles of 2001 are excellent. Avoid 2002, but Brunello bucked the Tuscan trend by producing good 2003s. Every vintage since 2004 is considered very good or better, with 2007, by many reviews, shaping up to be truly outstanding. Montalcino's wine consortium (tel. 0577-848-246; www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it) is at Piazza Cavour 8, and staff members are happy to answer questions and provide information on vini.

In town, the best informal introduction to the deep-red liquid is some time spent at the Enoteca La Fortezza (tel. 0577-849-211; www.enotecalafortezza.it), inside the fortress. The stone-and-brick vaults are filled with excellent wines and grappa, as well as prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese, and Montalcino's famous honey. The staff is adept at helping you and the wine get better acquainted, and glasses start at 4€. The Brunello generally starts at 7€. Plates of simple pasta dishes, crostini, or cold cuts and cheese to accompany a tasting cost around 8€.There's free shipping on mixed dozens of selected labels. The enoteca is open the same hours as the fortress.

On the town's main square, the 19th-century cafe Fiaschetteria Italiana, Piazza del Popolo 6 (tel. 0577-849-043), offers more imbibing pleasure, open Friday through Wednesday from 7:30am to midnight. A glass of wine ranges from 5€ to 12€.

If you prefer to go right to the source, many Brunello estates welcome visitors. Poggio Antico (tel. 0577-848-044; www.poggioantico.com) is 4km (2 1/2 miles) south of town along the Grosseto road (right-hand road at the fork). Its Brunellos, especially the riserva, are consistently voted among the top 100 wines in the world by oenological magazines -- and this boutique winery often holds the number-one spot among Brunellos. Their sangiovese-cabernet "Supertuscan" Madre is elegant and velvety. Cantina visits are free but must be reserved at least a day in advance (more in summer). The direct-sales store is open daily to drop-ins from 10am to 5pm; you can also taste there. (Prices range from 2€ for a Rosso di Montalcino to 22€ for all five of the estate's superlative wines.) Poggio Antico also has an excellent restaurant.

Banfi (tel. 0577-877-505; www.castellobanfi.com) above Sant'Angelo Scalo, 10km (6 1/4 miles) south of Montalcino, is part of an American-owned exporting empire, an enormous ultramodern vineyard with a massive cantine. It's a little corporate, certainly, but there's no arguing with the outstanding quality of the wines: The riserva in particular is precisely balanced. Banfi also runs a small museum (4€ admission) on the history of glass and wine in its medieval castle. The huge enoteca (wine cellar) sells books, ceramics, packaged local foods, and all the Banfi wines. This is also where you go for tastings; a selection of three wines costs 15€. The enoteca and museum are open daily from 10am to 7pm (until 6pm Nov-Feb). Call ahead for an appointment (best at least a week in advance) to take a free, 1-hour guided tour of the cellars at 4pm Monday through Friday (3:30pm Nov-Feb). They also run eatery La Taverna, where you can pair Montalcinese cooking with multiple wine tastings (for example, 3 courses with 3 wines at 55€ per person). In 2005, the estate opened a group of 14 luxury units called Il Borgo (tel. 0577-877-700; www.castellobanfiilborgo.com; 320€ double, 580€ suite), open March through October.

Fattoria dei Barbi (tel. 0577-841-111; www.fattoriadeibarbi.it), 5km (3 miles) south of town on the road to Castelnuovo, makes a mean Brunello di Montalcino riserva, Vigna del Fiore. The cantina also sells Moscadello and vin santo and is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 1pm and 2:30 to 6pm, weekends from 2:30 to 6pm. The slightly refined Taverna (tel. 0577-841-200) serves a good meat and pasta using their own farm products (olive oil, cheeses, and, of course, wine) at a middlin' price, open Thursday through Tuesday from 12:30 to 2:30pm and 7:30 to 9:30pm. Cantina tours cost 5€ per person and are given Monday through Friday at 10am, and 1, 3, and 4pm; booking is required. You can buy their delicious cheeses and salami from a separate on-site outlet weekdays from 8am to noon and 1 to 5pm (closed 4pm Fri).

Smaller wineries tend to offer a more personalized service, and also require booking in advance. Among our favorite Brunello producers happy to receive visitors is Sesta di Sopra (tel. 0577-835-698; www.sestadisopra.it), just west of Castelnuovo dell'Abate.

If you're merely looking for a decent wine to drink on the terrace at your agriturismo, you'll find a great selection in every price bracket at roadside bottle-shop Bruno Dalmazio, Via Traversa dei Monti 214 (tel. 0577-849-019; www.dalmazio.com). It's just outside the center beside the road to San Quirico.

A Romanesque Abbey near Montalcino

In a pocket-size vale bounded by low green hills, the Cistercian abbey of Sant'Antimo (tel. 0577-835-659; www.antimo.it) rises amid olive groves. Its church is one of the most intact Romanesque countryside temples left in Tuscany, although its monastery is mostly ruins. Since 1992, a handful of French monks have inhabited what's left, and the church interior echoes with their haunting Gregorian chant seven times every day -- you're welcome to attend a service; contact Montalcino's tourist office for the timetable. The first stone was supposedly laid on the order of Charlemagne in A.D. 781, but the current structure dates from 1118. Its amalgamated Lombard-French architecture has produced a building of singular beauty, with strong, simple lines of pale yellow and white stone. The fabric of the walls is studded with recycled materials, some inscribed and many with fantastic medieval (and even a few Roman) reliefs. One side of the campanile supports a medieval relief of the Madonna and Child, and the carvings of animals and geometric designs around the doors are worth study. Before going inside, walk around to the back; at the base of the apse is a small, round window through which you can glimpse a bit of the 9th-century crypt underneath, part of the original church where St. Antimo himself prayed.

The honey-colored travertine interior of the church, with its second-level women's gallery adapted from Byzantine models, is filled even on cloudy days with a warm, diffuse light. Several of the column capitals have intricate alabaster carvings. The second down the right aisle tells the story of Daniel in the Lion's Den. You can descend to the cramped crypt, where you'll find a Pietà fresco, and spend time admiring the carvings -- a plethora of eagles and evangelists, sheep and medieval Christs -- throughout the church. Behind the high altar and its 13th-century wooden crucifix is an unusual three-apsed ambulatory that gets plenty of sun -- your best bet for seeing that luminous effect on the alabaster. Ask the guy at the postcard desk "Posso vedere la sagrestia per piacere?" (Poh-so ved-air-ay la sah-gres-tee-yah pair pee-ah-chair-ay) for a peek into the sacristy and its cartoonish 15th-century frescoes by Giovanni di Asciano on the Life of St. Benedict, interesting for their earthy details and the animal extras that often seem wonderfully oblivious to the holy events happening around them. (One scene features two blatantly amorous pigs.) Sant'Antimo is open to visitors Monday through Saturday from 10:30am to 12:30pm and 3 to 6:30pm, Sunday from 9:15 to 10:45am and 3 to 6pm. Admission is free.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.