Brunello di Montalcino

The recent news stories in the wine press have been very much focused on Brunello di Montalcino, and that prompted us to have a look at the youngest of all of Italy’s great and prestigious wines.

In 1888, Ferrucio Biondi-Santi identified a superior clone of Sangiovese, known locally as Brunello (also Sangiovese Grosso), and vinified it into a dense, muscular wine that he labelled Brunello di Montalcino. As such, he is rightly considered the father of this great Italian wine.

In the first 57 years of production of this prestigious wine, only four vintages were declared, which led to a reputation for rarity, prestige and high prices. In addition to that, ancient vintages were very impressive and encouraged new producers to get established in the area in the 1980s, followed by much-increased international interest. As a result, a region that boasted 150 acres and 11 bottlers in 1960 developed to over 3,700 acres and 175 producers by 2005.

Ferrucio’s role in Brunello di Montalcino’s genesis means it is perhaps not entirely surprising that when Italy’s wine authorities decided to create regulations for the production of Brunello di Montalcino in 1968, they followed his specific methods, rather than basing the rulebook on widespread customs and habits. This is the reason why Brunello is a single-varietal wine (and should continue to be for the foreseeable future, local producers having overwhelmingly voted against a move to allow international grape varieties in the blend in September 2011).

Historically, very long ageing periods used to prevail in the production of this very ambitious wine. 42 months in Slavonian oak was the legal minimum in 1968, and it was confirmed in a revision of the regulations in 1980. It was only in 1990 that this legal minimum was brought down to 36 months, then to 24 months in 1998. The main reason for this change is most likely to have been the inconsistent quality caused by old casks of sometimes dubious state and vintage variation (with fruit that was not necessarily rich enough to stand up to the oak). Since 1998, the minimum ageing is 48 months: at least 24 in oak, and the balance in bottle (at least 4 months).

One of the most important factors that explains the quality and style of Brunelllo di Montalcino is the climate enjoyed by the area around the town of Montalcino, 70 miles south of Florence. With annual rainfall of around 700mm, it is the driest Tuscan DOCG zone and also much warmer than any part of the Chianti area. Add the cool breeze coming from the Mediterranean (which helps lengthen the ripening process and keep rot at bay), and we can understand why the Sangiovese grapes here fully ripen much more consistently than their Chianti counterparts, and are generally healthy and packed full of flavour.

Whilst 120-odd years is not a long enough period to be able to draw up a precise classification of sub-sites within the region, we do know that there are two main parts of the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG with noticeable differences: on the one hand, the northern part of the zone, with Galestro soils (marl-like) and higher altitude, which produces more aromatic wines. On the other hand, the area around Sant’ Angelo in Colle, with more clay in the soil and a higher average temperature. The harvest is usually a week earlier and the wines fuller and more forward. Some producers choose to blend both sub-zones to achieve a balanced style.

Another driver for quality in the region is the fact that it was the first DOCG to be graced with a “second-wine DOC”, Rosso di Montalcino, the (relatively) lighter wines which can be released at only 1 year old. This cash-flow-friendly wine allows producers to counteract the financial burden of lengthy ageing rules for Brunello and find a route to market for the grapes that, whilst perfectly good, are perhaps not concentrated and powerful enough for their top wine. The result is a higher density and higher quality for the Brunello. Meanwhile, the Sant’ Antimo DOC uses the same boundaries as Brunello but allows the use of the many international grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot) that are still planted in the area.

Our Brunello 2006 offer can be seen here.

One Comment

  1. Posted Sunday 8 July 2012 at 23:13 | Permalink | Reply

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