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Wine Education
Brunello di Montalcino Fine tuning history inside the bottle
Christopher Sawyer

Known for the deep, ruby red colors, concentrated flavors, and a wonderful balance between power and elegance, Brunello wines have a flavor that is distinctive from those in the rest of Tuscany. One of the main reasons for this is the layout of the land.

From the hilltop, the communal territory of Montalcino shoots off to the north, south, east and west. During growing season, the region is warm and dry during daytime, cool at night, and protected from harsh winds off the Mediterranean by the nearby Mount Amiata. Most of vines are planted on thin or rocky soils comprised of limestone, clay and splintered shale commonly called marl.

 

Made to Age

In general, Brunello wines are made to age. Once the grapes are picked and fermented, the wine spends a minimum of 2 years in oak casks, a minimum of 4 months in bottle (6 months for riserva), and cannot be sold until the fifth year following harvest.

Yet despite all these interesting traits, this prestigious style of wine has been relatively hard to find in the United States over the past few decades. Luckily, that trend is changing. Today, nearly 25 percent of the wines produced in the region are exported to the states. And now, the word is starting to spread.

 

Brunello on Tour

In late January, newly released wines from the highly-touted 2001 vintage were presented to full-house crowds of wine media and trade in San Francisco and New York City as part of the annual Benvenuto Brunello tour, organized by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, a voluntary association of producers that set the bar for quality in the region.

 “In the great sea of wines made around the world, there are always those that are recognized as a symbol of quality from a specific area, said Stefano Campatelli, executive director of the Consorzio. “Now that more wines from Montalcino are available (in the U.S.), we are very happy that the interest continues to expanded to a much more diversified set of consumers.”

Over 50 producers participated in the tour. And across the board, the powerful 2001 Brunellos were indeed showing very well. Most featured brilliant aromatics, ripe-berry and cherry flavors, spice, balanced tannins, richness and depth.

In addition, many of the producers also poured samples of the 2004 Rosso di Montalcino, the younger, medium to full-bodied versions of Brunello that requires only one year of aging. This vintage also shows signs of high levels of maturation and intensive flavor.  

 

Clonal Selection

 

The Sangiovese Grosso grape variety  - named “Brunello” in Montalcino -  has been planted in the region for quite some time, but not officially recognized until the late 19th century. The pioneer of this movement was Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, who bottled his first wine made with grapes grown on his Tenuta Il Greppo estate in 1888. From there, Brunello wines have gone on to earn DOC status in 1966 and DOCG status in 1980.

Today, the modern renaissance of Brunello has been fueled by the use of variation of the original grape variety or clones, which tend work best at specific vineyard sites and soils. As a result, many of the more recent plantings feature smaller grape clusters are highlighted by intensive ripe-berry flavors, more structure, bigger tannins, and that priceless touch of unique personality that can only be found in the Montalcino area.  

One of the biggest proponents of this new clonal research is Col d’Orcia, a legendary wine estate that dates back to the 1700s.

Currently, the winery is working with 25 separate clones in order to achieve greater complexity, structure, and potential longevity once wine is bottled. Like the search for the Holy Grail, it’s a continuous on-going process.

Another key player in this movement is Castello Banfi. Founded by the Mariani family in the early 1980s, the winery now controls over 7,000 acres of land in the area, 2,400 acres of which has been planted.

The winery has since gone on to test hundreds of presumed clones in 38 different types of soil present on the estate through the judicious process of micro-vinification. The result has been six specialized clones now registered by the Italian government.

“Today we do not have one clone, but a selection of many clones planted on the optimum sites that can create more complex wines that really express the greatness of the region over time,” said Rudy Buratti, winemaker for Banfi.

“The challenges have always been there,” said Emilia Nardi, managing director of Tenute Silvio Nardi, a mountainside winery located near Casale del Bosco. “Now it’s time for everyone in the region to step up and move on to making the best wines possible with each vintage to come.” 

 

Connecting the Dots

On the marketing side, the Consorzio has also recently unveiled a new electronic online “identity card” system that can track the numeric code printed near the top of each bottle. In essence, this system is designed to provide consumers and members of the trade with more information about each bottle of wine, including where and when the grapes were picked, the pH, acidity and alcohol levels, and more information about the producer.

“The network is an important tool that we believe will further educate people that drink wines from Montalcino, as well as help promote each producer that is a member of our organization,” said Campatelli.

In general, Brunello wines retail in price from $50 to $125; the Rosso di Montalcino wines from $30 to $50. With cuisine, these wines work great with grilled fish, roasted red meats, wild game, mushrooms, truffles, and mature cheeses such as pecorino toscano or parmigiana. In essence, they area definitive food and wine experience.