Brunello di Montalcino:
The Great Red Wine Of Tuscany ~ Part I
CAPSULE REPORT: R. Veronique Fitzgerald reports on one of the world’s great red wines, made of the Sangiovese grape. It’s a clone of the same grape used to make Chianti, a neighbor in Tuscany; but there’s a world of difference. Take a tour of Brunello di Montalcino, its history and environs; learn what to expect from the new release; and see what bargains you should be snapping up while they’re still on the shelf. This is Part I: An overview of Brunello. Information on the new vintage, plus tasting notes and buying tips, is in Part II.
In the eastern reaches of Tuscany, a grape cultivated for millennia (since the time of the ancient Etruscans) was ignored for most of history. Today, it makes a red wine in demand by many, Brunello di Montalcino (broo-NELL-loe dee MOHN-tahl-CHEE-no). Brunello is the grape’s nickname. It means “the little dark one,” so named for the brown hue of its skin. It is made from the Sangiovese (SAN-joe-VAY-zay) Grosso (GROS-so) grape, a clone of the grape used to make Chianti. Chianti is a neighbor in Tuscany, as are Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (also made with Sangiovese) and the dessert wine Vin Santo (made from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes).
Some wines from this area are called “Super Tuscans,” an informal class that has emerged since the 1970s. Some are made outside of DOCG regulations (e.g., are blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon), but of extremely high quality and commanding hundreds of dollars per bottle upon release. Even the “regular” Brunello bottlings are pretty super, part of a vibrant culture and are often the center of celebrations. Brunello di Montalcino is one of the most expensive and revered wines of Italy.
A DOCG* since 1980, the hill town of Montalcino rises almost 1,800 feet above the valleys of the Ombrone, the Orcia and the L’Asso Rivers. It lies about 70 miles southwest of Florence, just south of the city of Siena, and offers stunning views of the surrounding valley in addition to its great wine.
*DOCG is an acronym for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita—literally, “wine from an area that is controlled and guaranteed.” This is meant to indicate that the land on which the grapes are grown produces fruit of the highest quality. However, all of Chianti and Tuscany are designated DOC or DOCG growing areas, despite the fact that not all the wines produced in these areas are top quality. So, the designation is relative, at best, in the way that wines from Napa Valley are generally better than wines from Texas. There are four major categories of Italian wines, of which DOCG represents the highest quality with the most stringent regulations regarding yields, and the wines must pass an evaluation by a tasting committee (the “guarantee”). The four categories are Vino Da Tavola, table wine that can be made from any grapes (although some very fine wines that don’t conform to standard rules must be called Vino Da Tavola); Vino a Indicazione Geografica (IGT), which assures that the grapes came from a specific locale; Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), equivalent to the French AOC, where the grapes come from well-defined regions and are made according to specific rules that preserve the traditional wine-making practices of those regions; and Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which is more stringent than DOC regarding yields and other criteria. Tuscany has 29 DOC and 7 DOCG areas.
Ferruccio Biondi-Santi is credited with creating the style of today’s Brunello di Montalcino, at the end of the 19th century. He started his first vineyards of Brunello with the goal of creating a long-lived wine. His first estate, Il Greppo, is perched in the mountains at an altitude of roughly 1,500 feet. (For those of you who question how grapes can be grown on mountains: The most challenging land grows the best grapes. The farther the roots have to dig down in rocky soil to find nutrients, the better the flavors in the wine.) Today, Il Greppo is stewarded by the sixth generation of Biondi-Santis. Ferruccio, the third generation, learned his viticultural skills from his grandfather, Clemente Santi. Ferruccio’s son, Tancredi, carried through his father’s vision by typifying the style and marketing Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino, with great success.
Today, Brunello’s† welfare and reputation are protected by The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, a voluntary association of producers created in 1967, after the region first earned its DOC. Based in the town of Montalcino, with a population of slightly more than 5,000, the Consorzio represents 250 producers. They are responsible for marketing the wines of the region at home and abroad, as well as rating the vintages and upholding the standards of the DOCG. In the Middle Ages, Montalcino was known for its tanneries and leather goods. Today it’s a wine town.
†Note that Brunello wine is produced in the town of Montalcino; Brunello is the nickname of the Sangiovese grape. The wine is formally called Brunello di Montalcino. There is a municipality of Brunello, in the region of Lombardy, in the north of Italy. No Brunello wine is made there. It can get confusing!
Modern Brunello is a full-bodied and earthy wine—mushrooms on the nose, and red berries on the palate, are classic characteristics, along with a deep, rich texture. It is vinified to be conducive to long periods of bottle aging. Riserva wines are more complex still. The less expensive Rosso wines, which we’ll discuss below and in Part II, are lighter and less intense, with a younger, fresher character.
Just as France imposes appellation rules (AOC) on the wines (and other agricultural products) of various regions, Italy has regulations for its DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata, products. In the case of Brunello:
Most wineries also make a second tier Rosso di Montalcino DOC (Montalcino Red), a less-expensive version of Brunello, which is lighter and less intense and has a younger, fresher character. It can be released after only one year of aging and helps to keep cash flowing into the estates while the Brunellos and Riservas enjoy long, luxurious aging. Also, it enables producers to make a better Brunello for the DOCG level wine because they can reserve only the best grapes for this purpose, using the rest to make Rosso.
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