Brunello di Montalcino

This episode will stay on the European continent and move to a very old and renowned wine making area in Italy.  Since I am planning to make my second wine tour in Italy in the near future (ok maybe just in my mind and dreams right now…) and we have already gone through the beautiful nebbiolos of the Piedmont, I feel like I cannot hold off any further in delving into Tuscany!  Yes, this beautiful area of rolling hills, olive groves, and of course beautiful, soulful sangiovese!  

Yes Tuscany is the place of dreams… where many years ago now several of the members of this list gathered to celebrate each other and our beautiful friendships that are still blooming today. This was the first place where I learned of my searing accelerations on the bike as I attacked and dropped many a domestic Italian pro out on the roads.  And the place where I first tasted what is widely regarded as one of the great red wines of the world… Brunello di Montalcino.  Unfortunately my remembrance of the specific bottle is cloudy if anything.  Likely due to some concussive effects from a kick-boxing match I entered into a local Florentine club which resulted in an expulsion… but the fleeting memories I do have are of pure beauty… so with that intro let’s look a little more closely into the wines of the hill town of Montalcino.

Montalcino is a small region in Tuscany just a bit south and west of Chianti (see map below).  Chianti has more wide spread exposure as it is a larger region and the wines are generally less expensive than the wines from Montalcino, and while there are some fabulous wines being made in Chianti, I think most wine drinkers and critics would agree that the best sangiovese in Italy comes from Montalcino.

Wine has been made in Montalcino for many years, but the wine that would become Brunello di Montalcino did not come about until the 1860s-70s.  Initially the area was known for a sweeter white wine called Moscadello.  However, as early winemakers began to experiment with the local clone of sangiovese, they began to realize by the late 1800s that they had the potential for something special.  Unfortunately, just as Brunello was poised to take off, World Wars I and II devastated the area and crippled the nascent wine industry.  In fact in the 1950s-60s Montalcino was one of the poorest towns in all of Italy with very few families still working vineyards. However, thanks to the persistence of some great growers and winemakers (most notably Tancredi Biondi-Santi) the region was recognized as a producer of one of the best red wines in the world and Montalcino is now a luxurious and posh resort/vineyard town.   

Montalcino is a very complex region thanks to the fact that the soil composition, altitude, and exposition of the vines vary markedly throughout the region.  In fact the region is generally divided into subregions which I would love to delve into, but I am afraid that most of you would glaze over even at the thought… I do happen to have a lovely book dedicated solely to Brunello that goes through the different geology and geography of each region in a brief review of 300 pages if anyone is interested.    In a brief, vastly over simplified summary, there is a fair amount of marine sediment with pockets of limestone-based soils and some shale/clay soils called galestro. The lower and warmer areas of the region tend to have more clay and fertile soil and thus the resulting wines are not nearly as good.  Montalcino is also the only region in Tuscany that requires the wines to be made from 100% sangiovese.  The other famous areas that grow sangiovese (Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano) are allowed to blend other grapes in for the final wines.  The clone of sangiovese grown in Montalcino is sangiovese grosso and the local clone is referred to as brunello which is where the name of the wine originated. As you can see below, the ancient walled city of Montalcino is quite picturesque and would certainly make a lovely vacation spot…

For those of you not familiar with sangiovese, it produces wines with high levels of acidity that are generally lighter colored.  The skins do not have as many anthocyananins as many other red grapes and thus the wines are generally crimson rather than the dark purple often seen in today’s reds. In fact, in the late 90s and early 2000s when people began to notice very dark colored Brunellos being released, there was a scandal called Brunellogate which resulted in an investigation of many wineries who were accused of adding additional grapes to their Brunellos to add color!  The aromas of sangiovese are classically red berry fruits (tart cherry, strawberry, red currant) along with savory notes (sandalwood, balsamic, black tea, leather, gamey/barn notes) and underlying floral/spice (violet, anise, rose hips) and hints of dusty earth/loam.  The tannins for sangiovese are surprisingly potent for a lighter colored wine and when the wines are young these can be harsh and overwhelming.  The high acidity of the grape helps to balance the tannins and with bottle age the tannins mellow to make beautifully balanced, fresh, and delicious wines.

Wine making in the Montalcino region can be quite varied.  The regulations of the region requires that Brunello be aged a minimum of 5 years after the harvest prior to release.  This includes a minimum of 2 years in oak and 4 months in bottle.  If the wine is to be released as a Riserva, the requirement increases to 6 years total (2 years in oak) and 6 months in bottle. The type of oak used for aging is different throughout the region and depends on the winemaker.  The traditionalists generally use large, old Slavonian oak botte that provide very little wood influence to the wine.  In the 1990s many winemakers began using smaller French oak barrels for aging and these wines are generally softer, more rounded, and considered to be a more modern style of Brunello.  I personally prefer the traditionalist style, but I recommend that you try both and see which you prefer!

In addition to the world-renowned Brunello di Montalcino, many producers also make a lighter version called Rosso di Montalcino.  Generally considered to be the little brother to the bigger Brunello, these wines are not aged as long in wood and are generally designed to be consumed young. These are fresh, vibrant, and utterly delicious wines and are generally about 30-50% cheaper than the Brunellos. These wines can be a great way to try new producers and see if you wish to drop the bigger $$$ on the Brunello. Rossos are also required to be 100% sangiovese.

Sangiovese is a versatile food wine due to its high levels of acidity.  Some of the classic pairings include tomato based pasta dishes as the acidity in the tomatoes and the acidity in the wines match quite well. Ribollita is a classic pairing with some of the lighter bodied Brunello wines.  Also locals tend to cook frequently with cinghiale (wild boar) and rich boar sauces with pasta or cinghiale stews would be a lovely match. Risotto is a lovely pairing with sangiovese, especially with lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.  Bistecca al Fiorentina is another classic pairing with Brunello.  Many other hearty meat dishes or stews would also be excellent.  Another local pairing which I have not personally tried is salted cod that is cooked with basil, garlic, tomato, and basil.  A lighter Brunello or Rosso is reportedly fabulous with this.  I also personally enjoy sangiovese wines with good pizza… a simple, but family friendly meal that still allows the wine to show well.  

Well now that we have a general understanding of the wines of Montalcino, let’s get down to some of the preferred producers out there!  As I noted above, I tend to prefer Brunellos that are elegant and ethereal rather than the bigger, blockier style so my recommended producers will tend to lean that way.  Biondi-Santi is generally considered the winery that put Montalcino on the map and their traditional styled Brunellos are recognized as one of the great reds of the world.  They age very well, often needing a minimum of 10-12 years to show well. If you have the chance to try one, don’t miss it.  If you have $300-500 to drop on one of their Riservas, feel free to invite me over to try it!  Another cult, classical producer is Gianfranco Soldera and his Casse Basse estate. The production here is very small and the price tag very high… I have had the chance to drink a 1998 Soldera (in 2017) and I will say it was phenomenal. Incredibly pure fruit with beautiful secondary nuances that seemed to float over my tongue… it was truly a wow wine for me.  My personal favorite Brunello producer is probably Salvioni.  The Cerbaiola estate run by the Salvioni family produces wines of pure delight. The production here is also small, so they are not easy to find… but if you see one, grab it!  Another estate that makes unreal Brunello and probably the best Rosso I have ever had is Poggio di Sotto.  These wines seem light and almost fragile, but when you take a sip, the power and weightless seeming flavors just explode over the palate. This estate was recently sold, so the newer releases may change in style.  We will have to watch and see.  Another of my personal favorites is Il Marroneto.  This is another wine of pure beauty that is generally in the $50-70 range. 

Additional Brunellos that I thoroughly enjoy include: Conti Costanti, Altesino (very good value as often available for $40-50), Le Ragnaie, Sesti, Livio Sasseti, Cerbaiona (Molinari), Pian dell’Orino, Casanova di Neri, Salicutti, Il Poggione, Lisini, Caprili, Gianni Brunelli, Le Chiuse, and Mastrojanni.  

While Brunello is not cheap (these recommended wines generally run from a low end of $35 up to several hundred) it is worth the splurge to grab a few and cellar them. Also, if the price tag of Brunello turns you off, Rossos from many of these producers start in the $20 range and are delicious examples of sangiovese.  

I hope that you will all be able to get out and try some of these over the next month.  As always, please feel free to send me notes on interesting tastings, questions, etc.  I hope that this otherwise finds you all well and with that I will bring another edition to a close.  Until next time…

J. “Galestro” Newman, CSW