Jan 10: Brunello di Montalcino is one of the highly acclaimed Italian wines which are elegant, harmonious and age-worthy. The 2006 vintage released in January 2011 was a 5-star rated vintage that appears to be outstanding but young right now whereas the 2010 vintage awarded 5-stars based on barrel samples holds promise when it goes public in January 2015, writes Subhash Arora who visited Montalcino recently
Bru-nel-llo! B-r-u-n-e-l-l-o!! B-r-u-n-e-ll-o!!!
Brunello-the three syllables, eight- letter word, with seven musical notes that dance on the palate of any discerning wine connoisseur, is the best regarded Tuscan classified wine. Regarded as one of the top wines of Italy universally, it is actually the name of the grape that makes the docg Brunello di Montalcino, a favourite of many an elitist wine lover in India.
Montalcino is an obscure, medieval beautiful Tuscan town 40 kms South of Siena and 150 kms north- west of Rome. It is perched on a hill in the middle of a valley making it not only very picturesque but the slopes also helping to produce grapes of high quality. Brunello is the local name (derived from Brunette) of Grosso, a clone of Sangiovese which grows in abundance in Tuscany
Brunello brings to mind a 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 meter heights and the exceptionally persistent and long after taste. It reminds me of the long maturity period of Brunello di Montalcino, with most quality producers recommending opening of the bottle after 8-10 years and storage life of 20-30 years or even more.
Brunello reminds me of Ferruccio Biondi Santi who created the Brunello wine in 1888, his son Tancredi Biondi Santi who improved the production to perfection and who was also one of the architects in the development of Standards for the Appellation when it was formed in 1967, and Franco Biondi Santi, the grandson whose estate I visited a few years ago and who is upholding the oenological tradition of the family. I am reminded of the Top 12 list of Wine Spectator for the 20th century that includes only one Italian wine- Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1955 Biondi Santi.
It reminds me also of Gianfranco Soldera, the proud owner of Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera, one of the Brunello producers who produce only the top end Brunello di Montalcino and no Rosso di Montalcino (which some people incorrectly refer to as the second wine). Out of the blue, he had once sent me a beautiful book about his estate after I had written an article on Brunello and had invited me to visit his estate. I am told he is quite arrogant-it has kept me away from visiting his estate which is nevertheless, on my ‘one of the places to visit before I die’ list.
|Brunello bottles at the local popular enoteca
On the other hand there is his next door neighbour Pieve di Santa Restituta owned by Angelo Gaja, who too produces only Brunello and although he does not encourage visits, he has welcomed me on two occasions after the refurbishing of the antiquated winery was completed last year, It is no surprise to me that Gaja has done wonders to the wine after he purchased it in 1995 after a brief partnership with Roberto Bellini who now owns Podere Brizio. Gaja is fast getting recognised for his outstanding Sugarille and Rennina Brunellos although there are sons of the soil who claim Bellini produced great wines too.
Brunello brings to the memory a simple wall in downtown Montalcino (Centro) where interesting looking tiles designed by different artists, each representing the stars given to the vintage every year, are cemented- 2010 just received 5 stars, the highest rating for any vintage based on tastings by a panel of experts.
Brunello also brings unfortunately the memories of the controversy of the 2003 vintage when the magistrate of Siena had deduced the presence of a small quantity of unauthorised grapes ostensibly to tweak the wine for the US palate. Wines from some of the producers were detained at customs and were released later, only after government intervention. Fortunately, Brunello came out relatively unscathed despite fears to the contrary, the price and demand pressures due to recession notwithstanding.
According to the strict rules of the appellation, 100% Sangiovese from the designated, classified and approved vineyards can only be used for Brunello di Montalcino. The yield must be less than 8 tons a hectare from 25+ year old vines and after a minimum aging of 2 years in oak casks and a total of 4, the bottling must take place within the production area.
The vintage of 2006 was tasted last month at Montalcino in the new setting of the city museum and was shifted from the Fortezza which is under renovation now but is not expected to be the venue for future annual tasting events anymore. The event was unfortunately devoid of tasting and interacting with the producers apparently due to the physical space limitations.
Although primarily a food wine that would go perfectly well with red meats, game and possibly chicken made in red wine sauces, the tannins are silky and mellow enough to make it a meditation wine when fully ready to drink. One can even enjoy it if after dinner over a long and serene period of chatting with close friends or simply watching the world go by. Brunello could be a delightful company to vegetarians and their cuisine too- a big plus for India where around 500 million people are vegetarians and a significant minority do not eat meat.
Brunello of Sonoma
Brunello also reminds me of the problem of Brunello of Sonoma that erupted a few years ago, with the homesick or proud Italians who are smart enterprising producers based all over the world and who try to emulate the best from their country. At least three California wineries had started using the Brunello name for their wines. The Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino had asked them to stop using the name or else They would file a case against them for fraudulent use of the label.
While I wonder what happened to the issue, Petroni Vineyards in Sonoma is one such producer whose website still lists the 2005 vintage of the controversial wine, Brunello of Sonoma. Perhaps the winery managed to shield itself because U.S. regulations do not prohibit the use of the term Brunello for the United States and the producers claim they are only using Brunello grapes and hence the name of the label- no doubt keen to encash on the global popularity of Brunello.
(The current website of Petroni describes the controversial wines only as Poggio all Pietra Sangiovese and not as Brunello di Sonoma. Interestingly, they have managed to retain Rosso di Sonoma-perhaps because it is more generic and also because it is a
blend of majority of Syrah (51%), and a minority of Sangiovese (42%) with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon (7%) whereas Rosso di Montalcino is 100% Sangiovese. Brunello is a GI product and cannot be used by any country which is a signatory to WTO-editor)
Outstanding Vintages of Brunello
If you are shopping for Brunello di Montalcino remember that 1990, 1995, 1997, 2001 and 2004 were the earlier outstanding vintages. Both 1992 and 2002 were only fair vintages while 2003 was not considered outstanding though it was an excellent vintage. This was due to the excessively hot summer making the wines ready to drink earlier and not as age-worthy.
Avoid 2002 as excessive rains made the crops too dilute and unfit for quality Brunello. In fact many of the better producers decided not to produce Brunello for this vintage.
Brunello Super Seconds
I came across an American website (where else!) with a nomenclature specifying a few Montalcino wineries as Super Seconds, presumably on the lines of First and Second Growths of Bordeaux where Chateaux like Cos D’Estournel are unofficially rated as Super Seconds. The editor includes wineries like Il Palazzone, Valdicava, Cerbaionia, Salvioni and Poggio di Sotto- all of them fetching $100 or more in the retail market.
It is difficult to see the proud producers of Montalcino accepting the unofficial classification though nobody questions the quality leadership of Biondi Santi and Soldera. It might be interesting to keep a watch on this unofficial classification with the number of Brunello producers growing almost ten-fold during the last 30 years and many connoisseurs and critics complaining that the Brunello quality has been gradually deteriorating because of too many players.
|Wines of Col d'Orcia
Banfi, Col d’Orcia, Tenute Silvio Nardi, Casanova di Neri, Pieve Santa Restituta, Castiglion del Bosco, La Poderina, Pian delle Vigne, Castello Tricerchi are but a few of the Brunello producers present in India. Many more are eager to have the Indian aficionados enjoy their product.
Quality of Brunellos is matched only by the hype and high prices which have escalated many-fold in the last couple of decades and can be exorbitant, especially in India because of heavy import duties. However, Montalcino offers excellent and affordable substitute in the form of Rosso di Montalcino. Nick-named as the ‘little brother’ of Brunello and produced completely from the same Sangiovese clone but under less strict condition of yield and ageing, it makes an excellent younger drinking wine.
At the lunches served on both days, the wines available for tasting and drinking with The meals were all Rosso di Montalcino. Most producers agree in private that Brunello is not the daily drinking wine even for them (one has to consider the opportunity costs as well) but Rosso is, which is available almost at a third of the cost of Brunello.
Think Brunello, Drink Rosso has been the consistent advisory from delWine and Indian Wine Academy for several years and remains unchanged. No producer disagrees with our view, especially for India where people drink wines very young and don’t like to store or do not have proper means to do so (most wine fridges are good enough for storage for several years but cannot control the humidity which is important for long term storage) .
Say Hello to Brother Rosso!
Brunello can be stored away for a few years-perhaps ten or more to derive the maximum pleasure at affordable prices in future-the price of Brunello in an outstanding vintage like 2004 and 2006 would always go up, if purchased from a reputed producer.
Forgotten Cousins di Brunello
One of the limitations of Montalcino, like Montepulciano is that they do not produce much white wine-giving you the impression that white wines may be for the peasants. However, an interesting exception is Moscadello di Montalcino doc which offers a sweet white wine which is quite reasonably priced.
There is yet another appellation for wines produced in Montalcino- Sant'Antimo Rosso and Bianco doc which offer alternatives with the authorised grapes from the region- all at prices that would not burn a hole in your pocket. A good spectrum of white and red wine is available and possible to source from-a majority of producers make this wine also, especially since it gives them an opportunity to experiment with diverse grape varietals and their blends.
A few producers like Caparzo have a delicious white wine called Le Grance- an unusual blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Traminer which I enjoyed before dinner with Elisabetta Angelini, the owner of Caparzo at her estate. It is an added bonus that it is very reasonably priced. Similarly, the Pinot Grigio Sant’Antimo I tasted at the Col d’Orcia estate had a definite personality of its own.
The 2006 vintage was awarded 5-stars in 2007, based on the barrel tasting making it an outstanding vintage. A tasting of over 80 labels was convincing enough that it was a well-deserved rating, with over half of the wines tasted deserving a gold medal in a wine competition. The wines were generally closed at the moment though and need a couple of years in the bottle to make them suppler and rounded with softer tannins.
Incidentally, nothing to do with the vintage, I found most Brunellos tasted to have nice legs and tears (perhaps so called depending upon whether you are single or married!). This has nothing to do with the flavour or quality of the wine but adds to the romance of looking at the glass after swirling.
Similarly the 2010 vintage getting 5-stars was surprising for some but most producers agreed that the colour extraction had been exceptional during this vintage and the beautiful dark colour released was not a regular feature for Sangiovese and that the vintage has the potential to be one of the best so far in this millennium.
The customary ceramic tile displaying the 5-stars awarded to this vintage was added to the existing ones on the second day of the tasting to become a part of the history of the town of Montalcino, adding to the ‘complexity’ of my favourite wall.
Next time you visit Rome or Florence (about 105 kms north), make it a point to visit this beautiful wine region and a historical town and enjoy the world-class Brunello or even Rosso, Moscadello and Sant'Antimo. In the meantime, if you can lay a hand on the 2006 vintage, you should not hesitate in picking up a couple of bottles for laying down for a decade or more, provided you have a good storage system.
Click Here to View the Individual Vintage Rating Tiles