More than a bit of pretense and swagger swirl around elite wines like Brunello di Montalcino, the Tuscan red made by a competing who’s who of Italian families important in the worlds of wine and industry.
Then there are the interesting outliers: the newcomers, little guys and hardworking locals who find their niches in their patches of earth.
Lately, I’ve been drawn to the wines of one of those exceptions—Tenuta Le Potazzine, a winery run by hands-on, local women that has grown up from nothing over three decades to become an outstanding producer of Brunello.
Now 28 years old, Le Potazzine is the fruit of the work of Montalcino native Gigliola Giannetti, her ex-husband enologist (now out of the picture) and their two daughters, who have stepped up to help run this 12-acre estate a couple of miles southwest of town.
Here, Giannetti, 55, stands out as a story of grit and determination—one that I’d like to believe you can taste in the wines.
“These are the potazzine,” Giannetti says as she introduces daughters Viola, 28, the enologist, who also works with her mother in the vineyards, and Sofia, 25, who works in the office and does a bit of everything as necessity dictates.
Potazzine, a local name for small songbirds that populate the Tuscan countryside, was the nickname given to Giannetti’s girls by their maternal grandmother. So it was a natural name for the estate when it launched in the early 2000s with its first Brunello, from the 1997 vintage.
On a bright September day before harvest, I am standing in the Le Potazzine vineyards with all three of the women as they randomly sample what seem to be ripe Sangiovese Grosso berries.
“If we had just looked at the chemical analysis, we would have harvested last week,” says Giannetti. “Everything was correct: sugar, pH, alcohol.”
“But,” she adds, “we wait.”
Giannetti then mashes a pair of grapes between her thumb and fingers, testing the tackiness of the juice.
“We are waiting for the grapes to become a little sticky,” she says. “Then it will be better. That means we will have tannins like lace.”
“If we harvested now, we could make an excellent wine,” she adds, “but we want to make a grande vino.”
Giannetti knows about “grande vino.” In the last decade, Le Potazzine has released 10 Brunellos or Brunello Riservas scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings, culminating in the current 2016 vintage (95 points. $107).
Brunello and its sibling—lighter, fresher, easy-drinking-when-young Rosso di Montalcino—are Le Potazzine’s two main wines. They are distinguished during harvest by selection on the sorting tables outside the winery by Giannetti, her daughters and cellar manager Roberta Tiberi.
“We are four women who select the grapes,” Giannetti says. “Sensitivity and patience, we have.”
The quality of the harvest determines how much Brunello will be made. After that, she says, “we do almost nothing in the winery.”
Their minimalistic winemaking starts with fermentation with ambient yeasts, conducted without temperature controls in steel tanks and conical wood fermenters housed in a small spick-and-span winery. After long fermentations that last over a month, the wines are aged in large Slavonian oak barrels.
Le Potazzine Brunello is released after five years of aging and could be classified as a Riserva on that basis. In four exceptional vintages (2004, 2006, 2011 and 2015), Le Potazzine saved one cask for an additional year of aging and released exactly 3,000 bottles and 500 magnums as Riserva.
“Because our Brunello is already a Riserva, when we make a Riserva it must be super-wow,” Giannetti says.
Giannetti has Brunello in her blood. And on her extraordinary career path, from office worker to Brunello producer, she has seen more of Montalcino than most anyone.
She was born on Montalcino’s historic Argiano estate, where her parents worked in the cellar and vineyards. Out of school, at 19 years old in 1985, she worked as an office assistant for the legendary Franco Biondi Santi of Biondi-Santi. Two years later, after saving and borrowing money, she decided to quit her job to launch her own business—a wine shop on the central square in Montalcino.
Her parents tried to dissuade her from throwing away her steady job at a great winery. “My father told me, ‘You don’t understand anything,’” she recalls now with a laugh.
In 1993, the year Viola was born, Giannetti and her then-husband, consulting enologist Giuseppe Gorelli, decided to buy a country house and surrounding vineyards on a high plateau at an altitude of more than 1,600 feet. The vineyards were poorly planted, she recalls, and the area was not seen as the best for ripening Sangiovese.
“Thirty years ago, nobody wanted to invest in this altitude of Montalcino,” she says. “The contadini [local small farmers] said you can’t make a wine of 13.5 [percent alcohol] up here. Thirty years ago, we didn’t think the climate would change.”
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After they spent four years replanting vineyards, in 1997, Le Potazzine produced its first vintage—about 300 cases of Brunello (93 points, $60) that established its reputation and runway for success.
As tastes moved away from bigger Brunellos to fresher versions, and local growing seasons grew hotter and drier, Le Potazzine accumulated more critical successes.
Meanwhile, Giannetti’s life continued to take more twists and turns.
In 2001, she jumped at the chance to buy the small restaurant next to her wine shop and opened Le Potazzine Vineria.
For a while, it all worked. Her daughters grew up into smart, young women, and the couple was able to juggle it all—a retail shop, restaurant and winery.
Then four years ago, Giannetti’s marriage fell apart, and Gorelli left to start his own label. That seems to have pulled mother and daughters closer together as they have taken on the work formerly done by Gorelli.
In 2021, when Italy reopened after a year of on-and-off, COVID-related closures, Giannetti and her daughters even had to wait tables in the restaurant due to staff shortages, fitting shifts in between their work at Le Potazzine.
They seem, remarkably, to take it all in stride.
“It’s not easy being a woman: You need to demonstrate that you can do 30 percent more than men,” Giannetti says over lunch with her daughters. “For this reason, we can’t delegate anything. We can’t pay anyone else to do this work.”
Her daughters nod in wholehearted agreement, which helps explain Le Potazzine’s continued success.