Waves of panic tempered by excitement continue to hit a married couple as they drive their elegantly built Italian car from Milan, Italy to the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. “What could be the urgency?” the woman wondered as they were called to Montalcino with an urgent message. “Maybe…no, it couldn’t be possible…it could be possible?” said the husband. They had already lived an incredibly adventurous life, betting everything on their passions and love for each other, but they could potentially receive an offer, an offer they could never refuse, that would give them more responsibility than they could not have imagined. Would it end up ruining the wonderful life they’ve already created? Or would it bring more joy and excitement to the fantastic journey they were already on together?
They were a mixed couple when it came to their birth backgrounds as Maria Gemma was an American-raised Italian-American and Neil Empson was a New Zealander with a passion for classic cars, but their souls were cut from the same cloth as ‘after. their first marriages didn’t work out, they found each other and within 11 days of their first date, they were married. Maria had spent a lot of time in Italy and wanted to live there and that suited Neil as he believed he could restore classic cars, a lifelong passion, and sell them to buyers all over Europe. As they happily struggled, living in a small closet in an apartment in Milan, drippings of money came in when Neil could sell a car. Eventually, they ended up importing wines to the United States because their love for Italian food, wine, and people would set them on that path.
In 1972 it was a big gamble when they started in the wine import business, not to mention the Italian wine import business, but it didn’t matter that it ended in financial ruin for them, because the close friendships they formed with Italian wine producers were all that mattered – and that’s how Empson Selections was born. There was not yet an established wine-drinking culture in the United States, and many parts of Italy were still recovering from the deep economic depression primarily caused by World War I and World War II. Ridiculous as it may seem today, some Tuscan winery owners were giving them away for next to nothing in the 1970s and early 1980s.
And so this couple, filled with the vibrant energy of having a second chance at life, after being in business for almost a decade, had received a fax from the owner of Costanti, a Brunello di Montalcino wine producer with who they had worked with from almost the very beginning, saying it was vital that they both come to Costanti as soon as possible.
The next morning they drove through fields of sunflowers as the sun began to rise and Montalcino’s famous mist began to slowly encircle their car, making the whole experience a dream. they eventually found themselves driving to the Costanti estate where they found the owner, Emilio Costanti, an older man who was a doctor by trade and never had children, standing next to a young man . Soon they would find out the urgent news – Emilio was leaving his estate to his great-nephew Andrea, and he would take over after finishing his studies in a few years.
Costanti and Fuligni wineries
Maria and Neil Empson initially started their import company bringing Italian wines to the United States and eventually Canada with long dinners, shared vacations and sipping wine into the wee hours of the morning with wine producers from of multigenerational families. It wasn’t a good life back then in terms of making a lot of money, but it was a good life. It is quite unusual for a wine producer to stay with the same importer for so long because nowadays it is common to switch from importer to importer as there are always other companies promising the moon and the stars. Maria and Neil’s daughter Tara currently runs the business as they decided to retire in the 80s a few years ago, although it is a much more competitive and unstable world of wine – where wine drinkers wine faithful have become a rare breed, Tara still cherishes those memories of falling asleep at those long dinners where her parents formed lifelong relationships, and that will always be at the heart of Empson no matter how hard the world changes around them.
Over many decades, as Empson Selections celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, they have been able to build one of the largest portfolios of exceptional Italian small wine producers. Costanti is undoubtedly known among Brunello di Montalcino wine lovers as one of the great producers who always make wines that exemplify the elegance, finesse and power of Sangiovese from the heart of Montalcino.
Along with Costanti, Empson imports Fuligni, which is not so far from Costanti, and they are both located where historically there has been a concentration of fantastic estates. Costanti and Fuligni are centrally located in the designated Montalcino wine-growing area, where the “most complete, finest and truly excellent Brunello wines” are produced, according to leading Italian wine expert and award-winning wine writer Ian D ‘ Agate. Ian also spoke of the two estates having superb locations and how both are “lucky to have the best winemaking teams in all of Montalcino”.
Fuligni’s cellar master, Daniele Zeffirini, noted that Fuligni and Costanti wines were “special” due to their location in Montalcino; they have high elevations, ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 feet, so they sit above fog, avoiding frost and disease and enjoying a mild climate, having the famous Tuscan galestro (rock crumbly from their marly soil) in their vineyards combined with a lot of limestone which gives a “minerality, elegance and aging capacity” to the wines, according to Daniele.
Both areas have a long history; Fuligni dates back to the 1920s and cellar master Daniele has known the Fuligni family since he was a child, and Costanti is part of the birth of Brunello di Montalcino with documents proving they were making it in the 1800s, but Andrea Costanti said his family made wine in Montalcino as early as the 1600s.
Exceed the dream
As Tara Empson reflected on the fact that next year would be the 50th anniversary of the Empson and Costati collaboration, she mentioned that her father always said to watch over Andrea Costanti and make sure he thrives. “My dad is so proud of you,” Tara said, and Andrea replied, “Your parents were always friends, but they were very important to me in creating what Costanti is today,” so that he was telling how they introduced him to his winemaker, Vittorio Fiore, all those years ago. Vittorio, now 80, taught Andrea not just wine making, but a deeper “philosophy” of the world of wine.
Even though that fateful day the Empsons didn’t inherit a winery, they knew they inherited the responsibility of making a young man successful, and Andrea exceeded what they thought was possible. .
2019 Costanti, Rosso di Montalcino DOC, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Andrea Costanti does not like to consider his Rosso as a second wine of Brunello di Montalcino, because it is rather to classify the Sangiovese, in a given vintage, as being better for a younger wine which is intended to be consumed earlier. This 2019 has a stony minerality on the nose with red cherry and plum fruits and a hint of cardamom spice with complex earthy notes that had good weight on the palate with juicy black and red fruits.
2017 Costanti, Rosso di Montalcino “Vermiglio” DOC, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. “Vermiglio” is Costanti’s unofficial “Riserva” Rosso di Montalcino and is therefore aged two more years. An elegant Rosso with hints of crushed stone and a touch of oak with tension on the palate with marked acidity, bright cherry with hints of leather and savory spice on the finish.
2017 Costanti, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2017 was a very warm vintage so it’s ready to drink now and Andrea says they’ve learned to find the balance during the warmer vintages since 2003. They didn’t make a Riserva in 2017 as they don’t only do when they know the wine will age for many years. The nose has forest floor notes with dark black cherries and a round, lush body with flavors of cherry pie and blackberry jam with enough freshness to balance it out.
2016 Costanti, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2016 is considered one of the best vintages for Brunello di Montalcino because there has never been a better balance of elegance and structure for all producers at all levels. Aromatic nose with baking spices and truffles with remarkable harmony between ripe fruit and vibrant acidity with a long, expressive finish of orange blossom and lavender accented with earthy notes along the cut-length finish the breath.
2019 Fuligni “SJ” Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy: A blend of Sangiovese and Merlot that was first made in 1977 and is only produced in small volumes, 1,500-2,000 bottles per year, but it’s a nice blend that shows the great partnership between Sangiovese and Merlot. This 2019 vintage has 70% Sangiovese and 30% Merlot and the nose has delicious aromas of blueberry jam with dried bay leaf and cherry liqueur on the palate with an underlying graphite note.
2017 Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Crumbly rock on the nose with bright red and black fruit that had silky tannins and an intoxicating mix of rosemary, dried rose petals and hints of chalk among the fleshy fruit.
2016 Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Tuscany, Italy: 100% Sangiovese. Riserva is made from Fuligni’s best vines, and cellar master Daniele Zeffirini says 2016 is also one of the greatest vintages. Captivating aromas of rose oil, fresh tree bark and intense minerality from the nose already make this an impressive wine with finely etched tannins that caress the palate throughout the surprisingly long finish.
2013 Fuligni, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG, Tuscany Italy: 100% Sangiovese. 2013 is considered a “classic” vintage because it has lots of acidity with lots of structure and flavors of fresh fruit. This 2013 Riserva has an intriguing earthy quality that opens with wildflowers and black cherries that have mouth-watering acidity and slightly firm tannins that provide good structure that elevates the wine.