The Two Faces of Brunello di Montalcino
Modern or classic…both approaches reflect the true identity of this iconic red.
Campanilismo, a quirk in the Tuscan personality, is stamped into the region’s very landscape. Campanilismo is defined as the visceral, almost obsessive, self-importance assigned by the competitive micro-municipalities across Tuscany and measured by the always-oversized church steeple of each. This “my-church-tower-is-bigger-than-yours” attitude has historically created deep divides across the territory.
But Montalcino, home to Tuscany’s greatest wine, is an anomaly because it has successfully moved beyond this stubborn mentality. “We have Brunello to thank,” says Filippo B. Fanti, a local Brunello wine producer. “We have lived in moments of crisis and discord. Success unites us, it does not divide us.”
This is an intriguing claim, given the fact that two distinct styles of Brunello di Montalcino are emerging, vintage by vintage—the traditionally styled wines and the modern interpretations. Quality levels have been extraordinarily high for both.
Brunello is a pure expression of a superior clone of Sangiovese known as Sangiovese Grosso (also called “Brunello”) that produces fuller, richer berries. Brunello is the only Tuscan red wine that is not a blend.
Lovers of old-school Brunello look for the delicately ethereal aromas typical of the variety: forest floor, wild berries, violets and balsam (menthol or eucalyptus) backed by higher tannins and acidity for longer cellar aging. New schoolers are attracted to black cherry fruit and toasted vanilla notes from aging in smaller barrels—characters that yield a softer, consumer-friendly and ready-to-drink wine. Both styles exhibit freshness, balance and power, offering natural kinship to food, especially succulent grilled steaks.
Two producers can be credited with Brunello’s phenomenal success, and they represent opposite ends of the Brunello spectrum. The first is Biondi-Santi, whose founder, Ferruccio Biondi Santi, “invented” Brunello in 1888 by becoming the first to bottle it. Biondi-Santi isolated the celebrated Brunello-Biondi-Santi-11 clone at the Il Greppo estate to make elegant wines for long cellar aging. The second is American-owned Castello Banfi, which has used intelligent marketing, high volumes and a modernist, stylistic approach to bring Brunello overseas. Banfi is Brunello’s leading ambassador, and although it produces 60,000 cases of Brunello a year, the wine’s quality is always top-notch.
Nevertheless, Brunello remains an expensive wine at $50-plus and draws mostly connoisseurs and collectors. Unlike many New World wines that cost as much but are released one or two years from harvest, Brunello’s price tag reflects the burden of holding the wine off the market for four years. According to the DOCG disciplinary that governs winemaking, Brunello di Montalcino must be released no sooner than the fifth year after the harvest. In 1980, the rules required 42 months wood aging, but that number has since been lowered to 24 months (with the remaining time in bottle). This modification allows for increased flexibility and stylistic variables.
For example, enologist Cecilia Leoneschi, who works for Castiglion del Bosco, prefers to age only in small French barrique for the minimum time required and then leaves her wine for the remaining time in bottles. “We want immediately enjoyable wines upon release,” she says.
Then there are middle-of-the-road producers like Altesino’s Claudio Basla, who uses a combination of 20% French barrique for four months and 80% larger oak casks for three years for his normal Brunello. “Every producer chooses a style, and I want to make an elegant wine but one that isn’t just an expensive gift,” he says.
Traditionalists prefer to age exclusively in larger Slovenian casks for longer periods so that refined wood flavors are dosed out slowly and guardedly. Gianfranco Soldera, a Brunello purist and not a man to mince words, ages “as long as it takes until my taste buds tell me it’s ready.” He means it: His 2001 Brunello di Montalcino was still resting in oak casks 10 years later.
This pursuit of consistent quality as well as stylistic variety within strict regulations has led to the wine’s worldwide popularity—Brunello is a wine superstar, and the region itself has seen staggering growth. Recently, as many as 10 new wineries have been inaugurated each year, bringing the total up from a mere 25 producers in 1975 to 240 today.
Fortunately, through regulation and the very lay of the land, Brunello is protected against excessive growth. Brunello di Montalcino earned the prestigious DOCG status for stringent quality-control guidelines in 1980. The territory is well defined and compact at 4,700 acres of vineyards, with virtually no room for expansion. Brunello also benefits from what many recognize as the best producers’ association in Italy. The Consorzio boasts one of the highest percentages of membership of any Italian consorzio (almost each bottler in the territory pays dues and is an active member) and represents a uniquely unified and dynamic bunch.
Environmental conditions also set Montalcino apart. Located 70 miles south of Florence, the thickly forested Montalcino area is drier and warmer than Chianti Classico and fruit regularly reaches maximum ripening for fuller, more powerful wines (often over 14% alcohol). Proximity to the sea allows for good ventilation and cool evenings, while Mount Amiata to the southeast forms a natural barrier against harsh weather and hail. The town of Montalcino is perched 1,800 feet above sea level, with higher altitude vineyards prone to greater day and nighttime temperature extremes, which can evoke crisp acidity in the wines. The lower quadrants of Brunello’s territory, surrounding Sant’Angelo in Colle to the south, are flatter and warmer, resulting in more robust wines. Soil types are mixed and range from limestone to red clay.
These conditions, and the territory-wide commitment to quality, have brought Brunello di Montalcino to the attention of the world. Vintages like the widely popular 1997 and 1999 catapulted the wine to sudden, and perhaps fleeting, cultdom. But the excellence and overall consistency of more recent vintages—2001, 2004, 2006 and 2007—firmly grounds Brunello as a wine with the potential to become a household name and represents a coming of age for Brunello di Montalcino.
Getting to Know Brunello
The Ambassador: Cristina Mariani-May
More than any other producer, American-owned Castello Banfi has introduced the world to Brunello. “My father, uncle and grandfather worked as wine merchants since 1919 and knew what consumers wanted,” says Cristina Mariani-May, the energetic face of Castello Banfi today.
What she represents is an immense property topped by an 11th-century castle and hamlet—7,100-acres, 2,400 of which are planted with vineyards. Banfi produces 50,000 cases of normal Brunello and 7,500 cases of their Poggio alle Mura Brunello.
“We did clone research in our vineyards and made efforts to raise the standard of not just our wines, but of Brunello overall.”
The Historian: Franco Biondi Santi
In the spring of 1944, fearing WWII fighting would rip through Montalcino, Franco Biondi Santi and his father, Tancredi, laid bricks throughout the night to wall up bottles of Riservas dating from 1888 to 1925. “If we had not saved those bottles, the world would never know the extraordinary aging ability of our Brunello,” says 84-year-old Franco. Today, he presides over the celebrated Tenuta Il Greppo vineyard and winery.
The First Lady: Donatello Cinelli Colombini
Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who heads Montalcino’s Casato Prime Donne, is a trailblazer: Hers is the first Italian winery to be managed by an all-female staff. She’s also a wine producer (with a second 800-acre property in Trequanda, Tuscany), tourism advisor for the municipality of Siena and head of Tuscany’s Women of Wine group. Her team has shaped a wine that embodies the best of modern, New World-style Brunello, attracting new devotees.
The Artist: Andrea Cortonesi
Between leased land and his own, Andrea Cortonesi’s Uccelliera vineyards are located at 500, 800 and 1,100 feet above sea level, respectively. Each has different soils, varying plant density, vine age and exposure. For his Brunello, Cortonesi uses temperature-controlled fermentation and both French barrique and traditional casks for aging, and does everything himself. “The best irrigation in winemaking are the drops of sweat off your brow.”
What makes Riservas and Rossos different?
Riserva Brunello di Montalcino is produced exclusively in the best vintages and is released six years after the harvest, instead of five years as is the case with Brunello di Montalcino normale, as the classic version of the wine is known. A Riserva wine represents the producer’s best selection, or is sometimes sourced from a specific vineyard site deemed superior thanks to its exposure, soil and maturity of the vines. Consequently, Riservas cost about 20 to 30 percent more on release.
Because Brunello di Montalcino is held back from the market for such a long time, a category was created to give producers all-important cash flow security, especially in problematic vintages. Rosso di Montalcino can be marketed one year after the harvest. The relationship between Rosso and Brunello is perfectly symbiotic, and in a sense, Rosso di Montalcino is a guarantee of higher quality than its big brother, Brunello. In off years, producers sell declassified Brunello as Rosso di Montalcino and stay in the market. Consumers also win because they are buying wine that was born Brunello, at a much lower price point.