When Riccardo Campinoti’s family bought some of the highest vineyards around Montalcino in 2002, few had high hopes for the place.
“When I started, this area was considered …,” he laughs as he rocks his hand back and forth, “a little bit of a loser.”
The problem with Le Ragnaie, a small estate that climbs to 621 meters (2,037 feet) above the village of Montalcino, was that it sat at an altitude considered too high to produce good, classic Brunello.
At the time, Brunello di Montalcino was legally limited to vineyards below 600 meters, which excluded the highest part of Le Ragnaie. It was only in 2015 that the Brunello di Montalcino governing body scrapped the vineyard altitude limit.
Times have changed. Montalcino’s heights are now in vogue, due to the twin forces of climate change and wine lovers seeking out livelier, fresher wines.
At the same time, Campinoti, 47, a strapping, largely self-taught producer, has seen his fortunes rise. In the 19 years since his first vintage, Le Ragnaie has produced 29 Brunellos, including single-vineyard bottlings, scoring 90 points or more in Wine Spectator's blind tastings.
These are topped by an excellent current vintage, 2016, with a flush hand of Le Ragnaie Brunello di Montalcino ($84) at 96 points and all four of its single-vineyard bottlings ($180 each) scoring 96 to 98 points.
“It was luck,” Campinoti says of Le Ragnaie’s success, which has helped him buy up vineyards throughout the appellation, increasing the estate’s vines from the initial 10 acres to 50 acres. “When we released our first wines [in the late 2000s], it was luckily the end of the fashion of rich wines and Brunellos that were nearly black.”
“It was the beginning of the trend to more elegant wines,” he continues as he walks along the top of a slope of bush-trained old vines behind his winery, “and at 600 meters here, you can only make wines with more elegance and freshness than power.”
We jump into his dusty, old, red Fiat Panda and go for a spin in the local countryside. He drives down a dirt road with Etruscan ruins, where former grazing lands and wheat fields have been cleared by some of Italy’s most famous wine names for vineyards even higher than Le Ragnaie's.
“Now with global warming,” he says, “everybody wants to plant higher.”
To the right, he points to southern-exposed slopes where earth movers are busy clearing out boulders for a planting of Angelo Gaja’s Pieve Santa Restituta. Farther along the road to the left is a recently planted amphitheater-shaped vineyard of varied exposures belonging to Marchesi Antinori’s Pian delle Vigne.
“Twenty-five years ago, these areas weren’t suited for vineyards. It was too cold,” says Campinoti. “Now, when Antinori and Gaja come up here, it’s a sign that things are changing.”
The success of Le Ragnaie hasn’t been all chance. Campinoti has proven to be a sharp producer with good instincts.
Le Ragnaie, the name of the estate’s locale—after the nets local hunters once used to trap birds—was founded in the early 1990s by another family who made rustic wines from the property. After it hit financial difficulties, Campinoti’s father, a Siena-based construction-machinery producer, stepped in and bought it for his family in 2002.
The obvious choice to run it was Riccardo, a bright business school graduate who had developed an obsessive interest in great wines.
In his first couple of vintages at Le Ragnaie, Campinoti says he made “more technical wine.” Though he has always fermented with indigenous yeasts, he initially deployed intensive extraction techniques in his cellar, along with Bordeaux barriques for aging.
But Campinoti changed course soon after traveling to favorite regions, like Italy’s Piedmont and France’s Burgundy, where “I broke everyone’s balls asking questions.”
“I learned that the wines that pleased me were made with a lot of attention in the vineyards,” he says, “and with simple, traditional vinifications.”
For his third vintage, 2005, he hired Siena-based agronomist and enologist Maurizio Castelli, who was attuned to the nuances of Montalcino. Together they moved to longer maceration times and using only gentle pump-overs. Out went the barriques and in came traditional larger oak casks.
“Maurizio taught me respect for the terroir and to not try to force things,” Campinoti says.
Today Le Ragnaie produces a Toscana IGT red from unclassified vineyards, a Rosso di Montalcino, a Brunello di Montalcino and, depending on the vintage, up to four single-vineyard Brunellos, each from parcels of no more than 2.5 acres.
V.V. (for Vigna Vecchia) is Le Ragnaie’s freshest, cool-climate Brunello from a half-century-old vineyard around the winery. Petroso comes from a vineyard nearly touching Montalcino village at an altitude of 450 meters and Casanovina Montosoli from a vineyard north of the village, at 300 meters. At the relatively rich end of his spectrum, where muscularity meets finesse, is Le Fornace, from an old vineyard he bought in 2005 in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, in the warmer southeastern part of the Brunello appellation.
“The sun is more intense here,” he says walking in this eastern-exposed vineyard at 400 meters, relatively high for this area. “It makes wine rounder, but at this altitude, you can still work in elegance.”
Looking back on a run of winning wines, Campinoti reflects that it might not have worked out this way had tastes and climate not tipped in his favor.
“If we had done it 10 years earlier, nobody would have wanted the wine,” he says. Now, he adds, “Montalcino is moving higher.”