Brunello di Montalcino: Reflecting Place, Philosophy, Vintage

Montalcino, Italy, vineyard
Hills and vineyards around Montalcino, Italy
I usually write about wines that are on my budget – no more
than $25, and most often considerably less. But there are some wines that will never
be had for less than $50+ but which are considered by most experts to be worth
every penny. For me, these are special occasion wines. Italy’s Brunello
di Montalcino
is such a wine. 
Once considered rare, Brunello has enjoyed a growing
worldwide popularity in the last few decades, thanks in large part to the
Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino, which hosted a tasting I attended last
week in Beverly Hills, and to sommeliers like Taylor Parsons, Beverage Director
at Republique in Los Angeles (formerly wine director at restaurants Mozza,
Spago and Campanile) and speaker at the event. Parsons, who advises consumers
on food pairings, believes that there is a move on the wine consumer’s part to
understand the details of wine, and he has a passion for Brunello that he’s
eager to share.
Brunello di Montalcino is one of the gems of Italian red
wines, and ironically is also considered one of the youngest. It was only in
the mid-19th century that wine producers around the foothills
between Siena and Florence (which battled over Montalcino frequently), and
strategically located overlooking three rivers, decided to break with Tuscan
tradition of blending varietals and began to exclusively base their wines on Sangiovese. A series of experiments
lead to the Brunello wine of Montalcino.
The Sangiovese grape is highly valued mainly because it can
be aged long, allowing red wines of nuance and quality to be produced. It’s
high acid and tannins also make it a good food-pairing wine. Brunello di
Montalcino requires that the wine be aged a minimum of 24 months in oak casks,
4 additional months in bottles (6 months for “Riserva”), and cannot be sold
until January of the fifth year
following the harvest (sixth year for Riserva). A minimum of 5 years aging, when combined with
precise winemaking methods and the fact that Brunello di Montalcino is now
extremely fashionable, all support its hefty price tag.
But there’s more to the story. The municipality of
Montalcino is a pristine landscape, and boasts just 3,000 acres of vineyards
(compared to nearby Chianti with 41,000 acres) with ancient stone structures
dotting the landscape. The vineyards are 1800 feet above sea level and bounded
by rivers and protected by a forested mountain, creating a “territory made for
wine,” per the Consorzio’s literature. Its soils are rich and varied, but
different aspects (directions) of the vineyards create variety among crops. The
climate is Mediterranean, tending toward dry. Irrigation is not permitted in
the vineyards, so Mother Nature plays a big role year to year.
And the 2009 vintage, which we sampled last week, while a warm
one, was not so warm that it affected the wines negatively. In fact, the wines —while
not all full-blown yet – were highly drinkable and elegant.
Parsons says Sangiovese “is not just a tannic, earthy
red.”  While it’s reflective of a place,
a philosophy, and a vintage, he says, it is also susceptible to a heavy hand in
the wine cellar. But Italians have “figured out the best place to grow it to be
reflective of its terroir.” Because of its acidity, Sangiovese pairs well with
rich, fatty meats – typical Tuscan foods – as the acid cuts through the fat. But,
says Parsons, “the very thing that makes Brunello good with meat means your
average drinker will not drink it as an aperitif.”
Brunello di Montalcino achieved DOC classification in 1966,
which, like France’s Appellation Contrôlée,
specifies the geographic area, permitted grape varietals, and minimum alcohol
level. It achieved the higher-status DOCG (the “G” meaning Garantita, or
Guarantee), which means that in addition to all DOC requirements, the wines
must be bottled in the region of production and are subject to tasting by the
Ministry of Agriculture. All DOCG wines carry a numbered seal of approval on
the bottle.
Three wines that I liked:
($49-$59, displayed the
sour cherry notes typical of Sangiovese, with powerful yet balanced tannins and
Banfi ($90, had an iodine character, “like
walking on the beach,” according to the tasting panel. I found this wine quite
elegant and complex, with good acid but not too much tannin.
Le Chiuse ($60, was balanced and elegant
with a nice minerality and smooth tannins.
You can find these wines at
or check with your local retailer. And for a list of Consorzio del Vino
Brunello di Montalcino producers visit
Until next time, Ciao!