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Posted: Tuesday, July 01 2008. 11:27

Montalcino : Think Brunello, Drink Rosso

One of Italy's top three red varietals is Brunello di Montalcino, a long living, complex and well structured wine produced from Sangiovese Grosso. However, the young and vivacious Rosso di Montalcino from the same vine costing less than a third may be ideal alternative for the tax ridden Indian market, feels Subhash Arora 

Montalcino is an obscure, medieval and beautiful town 40 kms South of Siena, the boundary of Chianti Classico region. It stands on a hill which stands out like an island it the heart of Tuscany. After a seemingly never ending journey from Delhi to   Rome via Munich (Italy is no more connected directly with India - che peccato! what a pity!), a tired you are dismayed that another 250 kms are still to be covered back North.

Reaching Montalcino

A View Of Capanna Vineyards
Driving much lesser distance from Mumbai airport to Nashik vineyards takes me 5-6 hours, the journey usually made less arduous because of the company and beautiful ghaats en route. We are fortunate to cover the distance to Montalcino in about two and a half hours in the Mercedes mini van arranged by the hosts.

Time goes by quickly, enjoying the seaside on our left for the first 40 kms and then the beautiful country-site. Big plots of vineyards with small boards displaying Col d'Orcia, Banfi, Suga and Argiano with our guide-chauffer pointing to the Castello di Argiano and Castello di Banfi through the Mumbai monsoon type  downpour signal that we are about to reach our abode for the next four days.

El Brunello

Our first encounter with brunello was- not the wine but the hotel. El Brunello is the hotel you pass by, just before entering Montalcino. The all-in-one manager, concierge, barman et al. of the 4-star small property was awe-struck by the congregation of a record number of Indians he encountered for the first time.

The dinner laid out in the restaurant had, at our special request- mostly vegetarian entrees which included riso, pasta, polenta, salads, cheeses to remember a few. What was common to all was Rosso di Montalcino 2006 from San Lorenzo. Everyone concurred that it was a very enjoyable wine. Mildly tannic, fruity and medium body wine was easy drinking and it was a love at first sight for most of the group, 'the delwine 14'.

Think Brunello

Stefano Campatelli (L) With Michele Shah and Stefania Tacconi (R)
The tasting organised by the hosts, Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino at the new office in downtown Montalcino next day had 64 bottles opened and ready to taste. There are over 210 producers out of a total of about 250 producers/growers of brunello grape, who are members of the Consorzio. Stefania Tacconi of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino who had worked hard to make this tasting a reality tells us that all producers are members of this Association-this must be a record of sorts.
A few of these wines had already been present at the Vinitaly India Tasting and Seminar conducted in January this year by Michele Shah, the visit co-ordinator. However, in the short time of a couple of hours I managed to taste 44 labels.

My personal notes show ratings of the wines varying from 3.5/5 to 4.75/5. Most of the Brunellos were of very good to outstanding quality. All were 2003 vintage, released on January 1 this year. An exceptionally hot year has produced wines with less finesse and ageing potential but they would be ready to drink earlier, during the next 2-4 years.

Big Wines, Small Wineries

A rather unique experience in Montalcino is that of wineries being rather small compared to other areas even in Italy. The land holdings are extremely small making wineries correspondingly petit. About 2000 h/A of vineyards are classified as Brunello and about 250 as Rosso.

The Big four among them own over 450 h/As; Banfi (170), Frescobaldi- Castel Giacondo (152), Col d'Orcia (74) and Cantina de Montalcino (600. This leaves other  200+ producers with around 1550 h/A, at an average of under 8 h/As. The lowest holding is .26 h/A (less than an acre). No use for economies of scale here.

The land cost is prohibitive. It has undergone a drastic escalation of over 2100% since the appellation was started in 1967. Currently the going rates are €350-500,00 h/A.

All this translates for higher costs of production and naturally the wine. Fortunately, the hit is taken more by the Brunello due to the increasing demand. Rosso still gets less punishment.

Earning the first DOCG for red wines in Italy in 1980, the 1967 born appellation decrees the use of a max. 8 tonnes of grapes per hectare, though some producers keep the yield as low as 5 tonnes to keep high fruit concentration. It must be aged for 2 years in oak casks and 4 months in bottles. The release in the 5th year means it has to be aged longer in the cask, tank or the bottle. Riserva may be released in the 6th year  and is usually produced in outstanding years, the last released vintage being 2001.

It is a very serious wine with complex aromas, silky tannins, full structure, balanced acidity, lasting fruitiness coupled with minerality that comes from the special soil of vineyards at 250-500 meters heights, an exceptionally long after taste and a long aging potential.

Gracious aging Brunello

Biondi Santi - Oldest Bottles of The Cellar
One of the biggest qualities of Brunellos is their aging potential and the complexity and finesse that can develop in well crafted wine. Most producers recommend a Brunello bottle to be opened after 7-10 years and estimate the life from 20-30 years.  Franco Biondi Santi, the current owner of Biondi Santi, one of the old, well respected and established producers (His  Riserva 2001 retails for $420) , feels  that some of his Brunellos would last for over 50 years. In fact, some vintages over 100 years are still sleeping peacefully in his special, dark cellar under lock and key. 

According to Gianfranco Soldera, the owner of Case Basse di Soldera, considered as the most regarded craftsmen of Brunello by many, "a great wine is long lived. It must improve, at least in the first twenty years, and give different sensations as time passes."  Soldera (Reserva 2001 retails for $250) believes there are only about 50 great wines in the world including his Brunellos, and need very appreciative audience. 

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