Battle of the barrels festival in Montepulciano, Tuscany

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The fields are turning golden brown from the emerald green of spring. The rolling hills of Tuscany shimmer from the heat of the summer sun. This is August when many Italians take their holiday, and it is the time of festivals in Tuscany.

Just a 20-minute drive from Montepulciano is the independent holiday getaway of Cignella. The former Tuscan farmhouse has been converted into nine self-contained villas and four apartments, each with their own personality and unique style. Daily breakfast can be added to the booking and facilities include a swimming pool (open May to October) surrounded by a raised lawn with plenty of seating and sun loungers. To make the most out of the region Cignella recommend bringing a car – there is private parking onsite.

Ferragosto, the Night of Saint Lorenzo & The Bravio

There is the Ferragosto, the Night of Saint Lorenzo, the famous Palio of Sienna and a lesser known but highly entertaining weeklong Renaissance style celebration in the hilltop village of Montepulciano called the Bravio delle Botti.

The festival takes place on the last week of August along the main streets of the town. It is an original challenge between the eight Contradas, neighbourhoods, of the village that compete for a painted cloth banner.

Rolling the barrel

The Bravio is the actual name of the beautifully painted banner bearing the image of the Patron Saint of the town, Saint Giovanni. Two athletes from each neighbourhood, called Spingitori, roll a 160lb empty wine barrel in an uphill race for over a mile along the streets of the town until they reach the front of the Cathedral in the Grand Plaza.

This a grueling physically demanding exertion that can be full of surprising drama. Barrels turn sidewise or crash into each other throwing the athletes into frustrating efforts to keep from falling behind the leaders.

Montepulciano celebrates for a week prior to the race. Each Contrada will parade through the main square. Its residents dressed in Renaissance clothing in the colours of their district.

Communal dinners are held in the neighbourhoods and the whole village is decorated in the colourful flags of the 8 districts. Heralds trumpet out each parade from the windows of the medieval town hall with its crenellations and tall tower called the Palazzo Comunale whose central tower dates back to the 16 th century and reminds you of  the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

I was fortunate to witness the parade of one Contrada. The whole town dressed in their finery sat in the stands around the square and watched the representatives of the Contrada Talosa in gold and red costumes, with large flags and drummers march into the square.

The flag bearers performed difficult flag waving and tossing of their large banners into the air and catching them before they hit the ground to beat of their drummers.

Later in the day, I saw the town magistrates parade the Bravio through the square dressed in their medieval finery with the symbol of the town, a Griffin, on their costumes. A spectacle to remind one of the pageantries of the Renaissance.

The festival started back in 1373 as a horse race between the regions like Sienna’s, race around the El Campo. Today’s names of the Contradas are the same that have always been. They are the Cagnano, Collazzi, Coste, Gracciano, Poggiolo, San Donato, Talosa, and Voltaia. They maintain the same colours, coat of arms and ceremonial parades as they have for centuries.

The horse race for the Bravio continued until the 17 th century when it was stopped to maintain public order. The recent history of the Bravio began in 1974 when a local priest had the suggested the swapping of the old horse race for a barrel race. The oak barrels are an important symbol of Montepulciano. Only here is the famous wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, aged in them.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine must come from vineyards on the hills which surround Montepulciano. The key grape variety grown here is Sangiovese. Sangiovese grapes must make up at least 60–80 percent of the final wine. The aging period for any Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a minimum of 24 months (36 months for the Riserva wines), of which at least 12 months must be spent in oak barrels. Local winemakers have long used large Italian botti.

The larger barrels provide less oak flavour in the finished wine. Oak barrels are used here not so much for their flavour as for the slow, controlled ageing they provide. This tradition has now become enshrined in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOC laws.

While visiting Montepulciano make sure to visit the Ricci family winery, The Cantina di Ricci.  It is located just off the city center and it is one of the best winery tours you will ever take.

You meet your guide in a large outdoor patio with views of the Tuscan countryside and the church of San Biagio.  The tour takes you down an equestrian brick staircase several floors where you will see huge black wine barrels of Slavonian oak, wooden wine presses, and a golden cave where the Etruscans stored their wine before the time of Christ.  The cellar is roofed by a monumental succession of arches and sustained by massive pillars which together reminded me of a Cathedral. This tour finishes with a tasting of three vintages of the Vino Nobile with appetizers.  The wine is full bodied, elegant, and a deep red.  It has been heralded as one of the best wines produced in Tuscany.