The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Brunello di Montalcino – Sangiovese at its greatest ~ Saturday, April 28th, 2012
An Italian icon: The greatest wine of Italy? While subject to debate, we can all be certain of this: other than Barolo and Barbaresco, along with the best of Sagrantino di Montefalco, there is no greater single-grape wine than Brunello di Montalcino. Crafted from 100% Sangiovese Grosso, the local strain of the grape, Brunello has fast become one of the most prestigious, most admired, and most sought-after premium Italian wines by collectors and enthusiasts.
But would it surprise readers to learn this was not always the case? In fact, back in the 1970s few people had even heard of Brunello, and Montalcino was one of the poorest villages in this part of Tuscany. This only began to change in the 1980s, when an increasing number of producers began taking better advantage of the regional terroir of the area. Protected from summer storms by Monte Amiata, rising 5,600ft (1,700m) to the south, the conditions under which Brunello is produced are decisively different to the more northerly winegrowing regions of Tuscany, the weather much warmer and precipitation much lower.
Soil compositions are also different. Containing lower quantities of the famous galestro—schist-based, or friable shaly clay—deposits found throughout much of Chianti Classico between Florence and Siena, soils throughout Brunello tend to contain higher traces of limestone marl, or alberese, as part of their makeup. Additional constituents also vary considerably throughout each unofficial ‘subzone’ of the denominazione. Brunello di Montalcino was also one of the first demarcated regions to be granted DOCG status in 1980.
Today, with over 2,000 hectares now under vine, distinctly different styles of Brunello have begun to emerge within the subzones. North of the Montalcino village, where soils are based largely on limestone and clay, wines are not as powerful as those further south, but represent some of the most fragrant, elegant Brunellos produced. This is also due to the high elevation of the vineyards, which rise even higher south of the village, up to 1,640ft (500m). This is where some of the most prestigious operations are clustered, with Biondi-Santi, the most well-known Brunello producer, effectively leading in price.
Here, soils are more calcareous, lending greater acidity and minerality to the wine. However, one must remember that many producers will blend grapes from multiple areas to craft a more homogenous, qualitatively ‘streamlined’ type of Brunello. Though single-vineyard Brunellos are on the rise, grapes blended from multiple areas remain the norm.
Speaking of multiple areas, there are still a few other subzones worth mentioning. One of these is located in the southeast corner of the DOCG, around Castelnuovo dell’ Abate. Here, winegrowers enjoy an unusually diverse composition of soils from different geological epochs. While temperatures are warmer, elevations of up to 450m result in wines of especial complexity and breeding—both highly sought-after in the best Brunellos. Similar conditions can be found around Tavernelle, where vines are grown at lower elevations.
In contrast, vineyards around Sant’ Angelo in the deep southwest must contend with the hottest, driest conditions of the DOCG. At relatively low elevations, this is where Brunellos of distinctly powerful, ‘streamlined’ disposition are made—think Castello Banfi and Col d’Orcia, wines of high fruit concentration and alcohol.
At present, these are the most established unofficial subzones of the Brunello denominazione. While there has been discussion of making them official, the likelihood of this is remote. The reasons are the ones you’d expect: red tape, political bickering, and petty jealousies—all deadly obstacles in a place like Italy.
But this hasn’t deterred winegrowers from striving to improve quality. From developing better clones of Sangiovese Grosso to seeking out the best sites, not just from the unofficial subzones but other areas such as the northwestern parts of the DOCG, the possibilities for crafting better Brunello seem endless.
Even now, the bar is set pretty high. While all Brunellos, harvested at a maximum of 45hl/ha, must be crafted from 100% Sangiovese Grosso and aged for at least 2 years in oak and 4 months in bottle (6 months for Riserva), the wine may only be released to the public 5 years (6 years for Riserva) after the harvest.
When young, the taste of a Brunello may remind one of a finely crafted Chianti Classico Riserva, only with more depth and complexity. Aromatics are also oftentimes similar: dried wild black cherries, red plums, cedarwood, chestnuts, herbs, roasted meats, leather, Chinese black tea, and spice. In contrast, those aged in greater quantities of French oak barriques will show less cedary/savoury overtones and more mocha, vanillin, and fresher black fruits. While the choice of stylization will depend on the producer, all Brunellos ought to possess great structure, firmness, texture, and breadth.
A great Brunello should also age extremely well, better than virtually any other type of Sangiovese-based wine. After a decade in the cellar, its youthful flavours normally give way to a bouquet more dependent on cedar and wild game, complimented, if not dominated by, dried red fruits, cigar box, tobacco, and all kinds of spices. These are typically the most common types of notes to detect in a well-aged Brunello, the best of which can easily keep for over twenty years.
Of serving prerequisites, Brunello, which should always be decanted, is best enjoyed at temperatures around 15-17°C. Food pairing options are numerous: grilled and cured red meats plus wild game of all types are often quoted as being top choices, along Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, dried fruits, and fresh breads with olive oil. Others argue that the greatest Brunellos are best enjoyed on their own. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong approach.
Note to readers: In my last column, on vintage port, it was written that 2005 was a widely declared vintage. That information was incorrect, as many of the best houses, in point of fact, decided not to declare; instead opting for single quinta bottlings. Apologies for the error.