When Italy exports its wines, it often sends along stories that are as epic as the flavor in your glass. With Brunello di Montalcino, the tale is particularly rich. The first bottles of the elegant red wine were produced in 1888 when a land owner who was also a chemist teamed with his grandson to take advantage of a variety of vinifera grown only in the small hilltop town of Montalcino. The hybrid sangiovese grosso grapes are large bulbs of fruit with lush skin grown on sinewy vines knifing into soil thick with minerality, mintiness, and herbaceous notes that are translated into the best Brunellos.
That first estate, Biondi-Santi, was the only producer of the wine for decades and its 1955 Brunello was the sole Italian selection among the 12 best wines of the 20th century, according to a ranking published by Wine Spectator. The winery continues to be the leader among Brunello producers but it has plenty of competition now. Winemakers must adhere to strict standards in order to legally adorn their bottles with the valuable Brunello di Montalcino name. First, all the wine must be produced in Montalcino, a Tuscan village roughly midway between Florence and Rome, using only sangiovese grosso grapes (also known as Brunello, or “Little Brown One”) and must be aged for five years after harvest — including a minimum of two years in an oak barrel — before reaching the retail shelves.
It’s a long time for the producer to wait to see revenue, which is one reason why the wines are both expensive and rare. But like so many of the finest things in life, they’ve proven to be worth the time. Brunello wines are sought after primarily because of how well they age, making them collectible items. I began collecting Brunellos a couple of years ago and in so doing gained a deeper understanding of the wine’s qualities and its delights. The size of sangiovese grosso grapes creates a wine with more skin, causing a high level of tannin. Over time, that tannin breaks down in the bottle, changing the Brunello structure from a drink with a dry finish and a bold punch of alcohol to a smooth, delicious, graceful elixir that makes you delirious for more.
Old Brunellos followed the Biondi-Santi method of keeping the wines in large Slavonian oak casks for up to five years after harvest but the modern variety of the wine allows for smaller barrels to be used in aging. That change has given some Brunellos an increased taste of oak from older vintages, which rankles some connoisseurs. Yet, at the same time the advantages of modern winemaking — including technological advancements such as computerized temperature and humidity control — have allowed for more consistent and in some cases more refined Brunellos. The number of winemakers has exploded in Montalcino, as well, with 250 producers, several of whom have outlasted challenges.
Following a controversy 10 years ago when an investigation revealed that some winemakers in Montalcino were adding grapes other than sangiovese grosso to try to control the flavor and structure of their Brunellos, Italian authorities and the community of winemakers reinforced their standards. As a result of those efforts and some good fortune with weather, recent Brunello varietals have been rated among the finest in history.
According to a Wine Spectator chart, three of the past four Brunello releases are among the best half-dozen editions since the start of the 21st century. Lorenzo Gucci, the export manager of Altesino wines, calls 2010 “a perfect vintage; the type of vintage any winemaker wishes to have every year.” Gucci was in Canada for the 2019 Vancouver International Wine Festival, where he was promoting the 2013 Brunello along with Altesino’s other wines. Similar to 2010 and 2012, the 2013 vintage, released last year, has received outstanding reviews. Altesino, one of Montalcino’s most heralded wineries, shows a classic Brunello ideal for aging. Meanwhile, Marchesi Antinori, which also poured its wine in Vancouver, delivers a 2013 Brunello with enough smoothness and elegance that you can drink it now. Interestingly, Carpineto’s Brunello, produced from grapes grown in the highest elevation of the appelation, tastes Burgundian, underscoring the nuances you can find from a single-variety wine in a tiny region.
The story of Brunello seems to be evolving and may even be winning the ongoing debate between what region — Tuscany or northwestern Piedmont — possesses the finest Italian red wine. Barolo has its claim but Brunello, with its exclusivity and stringent winemaking process, continues to gain in stature.
According to Christie’s Auction House, the Biondi-Santi legacy helps to put Tuscany on top. “While some might argue that Barolo is the king of Italian wines,” Christie’s says, “when looking at the extraordinary balance, elegance and longevity of Biondi-Santi’s wines, there is a compelling argument that it is Brunello that deserves the crown.”
If a good bottle of wine can be measured by its ability to present a taste of the soil, vines, and rocks of the land where it is grown — thus taking its consumer on a journey through the palate — then Brunello truly is worthy of the regal titles it is accumulating.
Italy’s Organic Wine Forerunner
Although not as celebrated as Tuscany or Piedmont, Abruzzo is a respected wine region on the southeast of Italy, close to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. It’s also home to pioneering Jasci & Marchesani, the first completely organic winery in Italy, which has been operating since 1978.
“Sustainability is very important to us. We have always been mindful of agriculture, of what we are doing to the land, and now we are finding more people share our concern,” says proprietor Nicola Jasci.
Environmentally conscious wine drinkers will be pleased to know Jasci’s wines are marvelous — fruity and complex and wonderfully aromatic. Among the varietals at the Vancouver wine festival was the 2018 Trebbiano, which demonstrates the classic characteristics of that Italian white grape.