Brunello, the Grand Duke of Italy
by Debra Meiburg MW
If Barolo is Italy’s undisputed king of wine, then Brunello is the grand duke. Produced in the outskirts of the remote Tuscan village, Brunello di Montalcino is considered by many to be Italy’s second finest wine.
For decades Montalcino was an inaccessible, isolated wine district in central Italy, with the first paved road not reaching the village until 1960. Though grapes have been grown in Montalcino’s hills since before recorded history, only in recent decades did it become a regulated viticultural region or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).
Montalcino wine quality first came into its own in the late 1880’s when the Biondi-Santi family chose to buck the regional rough-and-ready trend in wine styles. Clemente Santi scoured the Tuscan countryside for its best performing vines and returned to Montalcino with grosso sangiovese, a variant of Chianti’s favoured sangiovese variety. Locally the variety became known as brunello, which roughly means “nice dark one’’ hence the region’s legally designated name, Brunello di Montalcino.
Brunello di Montalcino is the only wine region in Italy required to produce wines from 100% sangiovese. Though the same grape variety is used in Chianti, Brunello di Monalcino wines have more body, colour and extract because Montalcino’s poggios, or rolling hills, capture more rays than their Chianti neighbours. Montalcino wines are so deeply coloured that in the 1550’s power struggle between Sienna and the Medici princes in Florence, it is said that an exhausted and starving garrison commander dabbed his cheeks with Montalcino wine to create an impression of red-cheeked health to reassure his troops.
As with much of Italy, two styles of wine are emerging from Montalcino. Traditionalists age their wines in old Slavonian vats that impart no wood flavour or texture, merely serving to soften and mature the wine in a slightly oxygenated environment. Modernists insist that aging their wines – at least partially – in French oak barrique adds complexity and elegance to the regional style. As with any mountainous wine region, hills and valleys create different growing conditions that result in varying depth and weights. The northern hills of Montalcino are graced with fewer sunlight hours than southern Montalcino, which results in lighter, but firmer perfumed wines. The southern slopes invite sunshine and thus producer riper, softer wines which have an affinity to new oak.
Most producers designate their bottling as either normale or riserva. Until 1998, normale required 50 months aging before release to consumers and riserva required yet another year. Producers argued that the regulations were too rigid: in lesser years, such lengthy maturation depletes the fruit characters entirely. Concessions were made and ten years ago the aging minimum has been shortened to two years in oak plus a few months in bottle, though most producers still age their wines longer. Look out for 2004 vintages, one of the Italy’s finest within the past decade.
The Biondi-Santi family still produce some of Montalcino’s finest wine, but there are many other excellent winemakers who produce these black-cherry scented beauties. Also look out for Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino, Camilgliano, Ciacci Piccolomini or Pertimali.