Just 20 kilometres south of Siena, Tuscany, and the hilly enclave of Montalcino, measures 16 Km. in diameter, and the eponymous town sits at its highest point. The medieval town appears sleepy and stuck in time, but not when it comes to wine; red wine in particular. Here, the now world-famous Brunello di Montalcino was born, and continues to thrive.
It is one of Italy’s best, and the best tasting red wine derived from a sangiovese clone; which happens to be Italy’s most popular red grape variety.
Montalcino is relatively isolated from the mainstream of wine trade and this may partially explain why this high-quality red wine remained obscure for a long time after Ferrucio Biondi-Santi discovered the clone with better flavour and physical attributes than regular sangiovese.
Brunello, literally translated, (the little brown one) yields wines that taste intense and layered and age very well. In fact there are still a few bottles of Brunello de Montalcino from the 19th century in the cellars of Biondi-Santi.
The wine remained relatively unknown both in Italy and abroad well into 1960’s.m Until Banfi, an American wine importer of Italian origin, decided to promote Brunello de Montalcino after establishing a large estate in the region. From then on, demand surged, partially because Banfi was successful in marketing the wine in the U S A. Only well-planned and funded promotional activity can succeed in the U. S.A. However, with fame and increased demand, the inevitable happens – prices start moving upwards.
By 2002 there were well over 70 producers of Brunello de Montalcino (more than ten times in the past 50 years), producing close to six million bottles, whereas in 1960 this number was 100,000.
In the 1960’s the Italian government promulgated wine laws. For Brunello di Montalcino, the minimum barrel aging was stipulated as 42 months, plus 12 months in the bottle.
Occasionally, the fruit fails to ripen fully. This happens infrequently in Montalcino. Such vintages are described as “mediocre” or “less successful”.
Grapes that are not fully ripe yield a wine that does not benefit from lengthy barrel aging. Thus, in 1990 the compulsory barrel aging was reduced to 36 months and 12 months in the bottle. The wine may be released five years from harvest date.
For riserva quality, one more year of aging is required. Some winemakers age their wines in 225 litre French (Allier and Vosges) barrels for a short time and make up the required ageing in the bottle. This keeps the wine vibrant.
A Brunello de Montalcino
of a highly rated vintage requires at least ten years of cellaring before it sheds its youthfulness, then the flavours harmonize.
It is important to distinguish Brunello di Montalcino from Rosso di Montalcino, which is made from grapes that are grown by pruning less vigorously, hence increasing yield by one ton per hectare, and barrel aged only for six months and for an equal period in bottle. For Brunello di Montalcino the yield is eight tones per hectare. Needless to say, Rosso di Montalcino costs one-third of regular Brunello.
Here are now two styles – traditional, svelte model that ages well, yielding rich and opulent wines, and more fruity, concentrated, intense, and powerful versions with distinct cherry aromas. The latter pleases the nose and is full bodied on the mid-palate, which North Americans like.
Presently, 65 per cent of Brunello di Montalcino goes to the U S A, five to the United Kingdom, ten to Switzerland, and an equal amount to Germany. Canadian liquor control boards, mainly by the government owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario, purchase a small quantity.
In Europe, Swiss and Germans travel to Tuscany, even for a weekend, and visiting tourists are responsible for much of the sales.
The fortress of Montalcino is now both a museum and a wine shop, featuring local agricultural products namely pecorino Toscano cheese, honey, salumi and wines from all estates.
Many wineries, including Col d’Orcia, Altesino, and others, are involved with clonal selection research to determine the most suitable for the region. Meanwhile, the Biondi-Santi clone is declared a National heritage by the Italian government as clone 5 BBS.
Sangiovese is highly sensitive to its environment, thin-skinned, slow ripening, and prone to rot if it rains when the grapes are ripe. Brunello possesses the same characteristics and grows best in Montalcino, as the region is warmer and drier than further north in Tuscany. Over-cropping dilutes its flavour. 6 – 7,000 vines per hectare works best, with severe pruning to limit the yield to five to five-and-a-half tons per hectare, although legally eight tons are permitted.
In Montalcino, the soil is clay based with patches of galestro (crumbly marl-like soil). Clay based soils yield structurally strong wines, whereas those of galestro produce elegant and refined wines.
The best and richest wines emerge from the sun-baked vineyards south of Montalcino.
Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo vineyard is located there.
Just outside of town is Fattoria dei Barbi, owned and managed by Donna Colombini-Cinelli. Her son is now in charge of day-to-day management of the property, in addition to another vineyard in Maremma closer to the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.
Fattoria dei Barbi is well known for its cellar-worthy wines, particularly riserva quality. Fattoria dei Barbi’s wines are reasonably priced. The 400-hectare property produces cheese, wheat, sausages and ham. The on-site restaurant serves typical Tuscan fare, well worth experiencing.
Barrel aging has now become problematic. Previously, wineries employed botte (upright Slovenian oak barrel with a capacity of 75 hectolitres). Now winemakers are debating whether they should employ 25 hectolitre-botte, or use French oak (Allier or Nevers) with 225 litre capacity. Small barrels age the wine faster and impart strong oak flavours if maturation is prolonged. Then there is the question whether old barrels should be used (second or third year) as opposed to new ones for every vintage.
Of course, any winery can decide to sell Rosso di Montalcino after one six months of barrel aging, but the flavour difference is noticeable, as is the price.
Here are some of the most reputable Brunello di Montalcino wineries:
Fattoria dei Barbi, Biondi-Santi, Col d’Orcia, Marchesi Antinori, Argiano, Castello Banfi, Tentua Nuova, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Val di Sugo, Siro Pacenti, Conti Constanti, Casa Nova delle Cerbaie, Fanti, Il Palazzone, Lisini, Salicutti Piaggione, Livio Sassetti, Silvio Nardi, Castelgiocondo, Casanovo di Neri, Tentimenti Angelini, Capanna, Marchesi di Frescobaldi, La Gerla, Poggio Antico, Romitorio, and Roberto Cosini.