A CUPFUL OF HISTORY…
In ancient times, the environs of Montalcino were inhabited by that fascinating civilization, the Etruscans. The origins of this people are mysterious: according to some historians, they migrated from Lydia (today’s Turkey); others maintain they were the most ancient inhabitants of present Tuscany, Umbria and northern Lazio; one recent theory even posits their origin in northern Europe. No matter where they came from, the Etruscans have intrigued generations of researchers. In many ways, they were actually the archetype of the modern Italians as the world imagines them! Even then (8th to 3rd century B.C.E.), they were a pleasure-loving people living on a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and fish, using olive oil as dressing and wine as their main beverage. They took great care in their dress and were amazing craftsmen who produced beautiful jewellery and a great variety of lovely… shoes! Another art they excelled in was pottery, and this is one of the reasons we know that wine was at home in the Etruscan household. Many artifacts have survived: some with characteristic decorations in black and red that describe drinking scenes, others consisting of jugs and goblets made of a uniquely Etruscan ceramic material called bucchero, characterized by its dark, metallic color like the deep, dark hue of Etruscan wines which they contained; then also, oinochoe (rounded wine jugs with a single handle) and rython, vases made to look like animals or human bodies or body parts (female heads, legs, Satyrs) and provided with two holes a larger one for pouring wine into, and a smaller for drinking from. All these exquisite archaeological finds supply important information on the Etruscan civilization and its widespread use of wine, as well as the respect and near-ritual connotations it enjoyed.
Most artifacts have been found in underground cemeteries that faithfully reproduced Etruscan houses and the objects therein. One such find a drinking vessel known as kylix uncovered near Chiusi in 1868 depicts, red on black, the Etruscan wine god, Flufluns, playing a game of cottabus with a maenad (the equivalent of a bacchante). The game itself (Sicilian in origin) centered on wine: it was all the rage in ancient Greece and consisted in throwing wine from cups (from a distance) into metal basins or pots that functioned as targets, without spilling any. It was played at the end of a banquet, with the last drops of wine remaining in one’s cup, and the host would provide the winner with such prizes as a beautiful boy or girl (if the winner was a man) or a piece of jewellery (if the winner was a woman). Etruscan women, incidentally, unlike the Greek (only courtesans or concubines could take part in banquets), are depicted side by side with men, sharing the banquet bed with their husbands.
Etruria was unfortunately conquered and absorbed by Rome, but its love of fine wine lived on amongst the Romans and thanks to the Roman Empire spread far and wide in neighboring regions and nations, Gaul (present France) first and foremost. In fact, Titus Livius (Livy) would write (Historiae, Book V) of a group of petitioners from Chiusi, traveling to Rome in search of help against a Gallic invasion. According to Livy, this was caused by the high reputation of wine production in the former Etruscan territory. Another source more of a legend has it that wine was imported into Gaul from Chiusi via an Etruscan bodyguard called Arrunte, who chose to help the Gallic invasors as a revenge against the local Luchmon (Etruscan king), who’d seduced Arrunte’s wife…
At any rate, from the II century B.C.E., the Romans took over, enhancing and expanding the beauties and resources of such regions as the area round present Montalcino. The Romans’ rational organization and efficient roadways did much to further the region’s wealth and prosperity. This continued even after the decline of the Roman Empire, for by the early Middle Ages, the agricultural and viticultural resources, not to mention the rich woodland, of the area supplied the means of subsistence to a thriving local economy. Pottery and wine were still at the forefront of production and once again, ancient artifacts tell us a great deal about life in Montalcino country. For example, the town’s Museo Civico Diocesano (Municipal Diocesan Museum) features an extraordinary collection of 52 tankards in majolica, locally produced between the late 1200s and the early 1300s. The tankards are beautifully decorated with scenes from daily life that plunge us straight into the past, as in the case of Etruscan pottery centuries before.
Another historical source is dated 1685: “Bacco in Toscana”, Bacchus in Tuscany, by a native physician, naturalist and poet called Francesco Redi. This famous poem sang the beauty and vinicultural riches of Tuscany so eloquently that it may be said to have launched the love of this region abroad. In fact, William III, King of Scotland, England and Ireland apparently read the poem and sent some envoys to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, in charge of supplying the English court with such wines as Moscadello di Montalcino.
From that time onwards, Tuscan wines have never ceased to fascinate the world, reaping countless accolades and general consensus.