It is no secret that Tuscany produces some of the best red wines in Italy, but for many, arguably the best of all Tuscan red wines is Brunello di Montalcino.
Montalcino, located less than 100 km. south of Florence, is famous for its red wine derived exclusively from brunello, a variant of sangiovese. Ferrucio Biondi-Santi whose family still owns and operates the eponymous winery in town discovered brunello.
This grape variety comes in bunches of small grapes. Small grapes possess a better ratio of juice to skin in favour of deep flavour, so this variety yields deeply flavoured, elegant, powerful, and long lasting wines.
The climate of Montalcino is ideal for brunello, being a little warmer than Chianti, a little farther north around the town of Siena.
Ever since Brunello di Montalcino acquired fame in London during a state dinner, many entrepreneurs invested substantial capital in acquiring land, planting vineyards on carefully selected plots, and built wineries with the most modern equipment.
There are now two styles of Brunello di Montalcino – traditional and svelte (modern). Traditional winemakers like to age their wines in very large Slovenian upright oak barrels that yield subtle, elegant powerful wines that can be cellared for a long time. They are bright cherry red, with aromas of smoky rose petals, and sour cherries. Many are austere, angular and very elegant in structure.
“Modern” wineries prefer small French barriques that yield more fruit driven wines. They sport a dark red colour, are soft because of the use of French oak, velvety, chocolaty (because of high toast levels of barriques) and smell of black fruit and taste rich. The svelte model ages well, yielding rich and opulent wines. They are concentrated, intense, and powerful versions with distinct aromas.
The latter pleases the nose and is full bodied on the mid-palate, much to the delight of North Americans.
The rules of barrel aging are strict, and strictly enforced, being two years in barrels and two years in bottle. Exceeding minimum requirements is permitted but very few wineries go that route.
Wines aged longer in large barrels are not necessarily better, but different to those aged in small barrels.
Northern Montalcino produces subtle, complex wines with berry aromas and earthy flavours, whereas vineyards that are located in the south yield robust, perfumed, intense and concentrated wines.
Montalcino’s vineyards have expanded considerably since 1990 and now yield 58,500 hectolitres of Brunello di Montalcino and Riserva, and 30,000 hectolitres Rosso di Montalcino.
Some wineries blend the wines of northern and southern Montalcino to achieve a broad style that reflects overall aromas and flavours.
Rosso di Montalcino must be barrel aged for one year and four months in bottle. These are flavourful, fruity, and robust wines that should be enjoyed with food i.e steaks, beef roasts, game stews, roasted root vegetables, and medium-rare Florentine steaks.
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 tonnes per hectare. Needless to say, Rosso di Montalcino costs one-third of regular Brunello.
If you are interested in buying a few bottles of Brunello di Montalcino bottles, be aware that vintages differ. Consult a wine chart before making a purchasing decision, and better yet, if possible, taste the wine in question.
The best place to buy is the winery (call ahead for a appointment), but failing that, you can visit the Fort of Montalcino’s wine store that offers the products of all Brunello di Montalcino wineries.
The following wineries enjoy an excellent reputation: