Wine in Montalcino – The story behind Brunello

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Image:  Heidi Butzine

During my trip to Italy last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the town of Montalcino. On the way, we drove through some of the most gorgeous wine country I think I’ll ever see (even if it was raining!). Harvested vineyards were dotted with tractors, huge hay bails and villas peeking out of small cypress tree forests perched on small hilltops. One cannot help but feel how much life today is still inspired by reverence for the land, wine and its ancestry.

We arrive at the heart of Montalcino and enter a walled medieval hilltop town not on a horse but in a Peugeot. Within the walls of the fortress, I am fascinated by watching people on scooters, on cell phones and in internet cafes carrying out their modern lives amongst historic castles and churches.
We visited a 13th century castle at the center of town. It stands today very much intact and its prominence is not ignored. This structure nods to the past but makes room for a bustling wine bar inside. It is here where we sit down for a bite and learn a bit more about Brunello wine and the pride of Montalcino.

Montalcino is a city in Italy within the Brunello region. Technically Brunello is not the name of the grape, but the name of wine made from that grape. Brunello is made from 100% Sangiovese. The grape is actually a clone of the Sangiovese grape with larger fruits, called Sangiovese Grosso. The word Brunello means “brownish” referring to the color of the grapes and the wine is referred to as Brunello rather than Sangiovese Grosso.

There are rules about how Brunello wine must be made. It must be aged in oak casks for at least two years and aged in the bottle for a minimum of 4 months. Wine makers dedicated to traditional methods will often let their wines age a little longer and anywhere from three to five years before release. While there are requirements for aging in order to be deemed a Brunello, it is ultimately the wine makers who will determine if the grapes require an earlier or later release based on carefully assessing the development of the wines throughout the aging process.

There is a category of Brunello called Riserva. This means that the wine has been aged an additional year beyond the Brunello normale. Riserva wines are generally more expensive and whether the price equates to quality is based on how the wine is aged by the producer. Some wine producers take the same stock of grapes and just age them an extra year and call it Riserva. Other producers pride themselves on using grapes from a single vineyard that are designated specifically for making Brunello Riserva, using only the very best from their harvest.

The particular wine producer has as much of an effect on the quality of wine as the year or vintage does. The true gifts and talents of a good wine producer are based on what they can do with their best and worst harvests each year. How can you tell the good from the bad? The best way is, of course, to taste the wine for yourself but here are some of my favorites:

For Brunello that is more elegant, with refined and silky tannins, I enjoy Castello Banfi, Poggio Antico, and Castello di Camigliano (Antinori). For a fuller body, more fruit and more presence of oak, there are Altesino, Tenuta il Poggione and Campogiovanni. If you’d like to try more of a rustic style meaning it may have more of an edge, a bit less refined and rough or slightly acidic, try Biondi-Santi, Il Marroneto or Capanna.

You will need to pay for the pride of Montalcino. Most good Brunello ranges from $50 or more. However, if you are not patient enough for Brunello or don’t have enough of the green stuff in your wallet to pay for the experience, many wineries also offer a Rosso di Montalcino. This does come from the same Sangiovese grapes, but this is a very different wine from Brunello as it is a much lighter, fruitier red wine to be enjoyed when it’s young.

Brunello is a special wine in many ways. It can combine many flavors all it once. It can be rich and perfumed, yet brawny, and also elegant all simultaneously. You probably wouldn’t pick a Brunello for simple sipping; this hearty wine is best enjoyed with some pretty hefty food partners like steak, game, hearty mushrooms, rich stews or heavy pastas. It is a different kind of wine experience and one I hope you will enjoy more fully having read this.

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