You can never lose your desire for the Brunello wine. Your susceptibility returns at the same rate as the glass fills.

~Author Saul Bellow in his essay, “Winter in Tuscany,” which was inspired by his stay at Fattoria dei Barbi.

Every Italian wine represents the unique characteristics of the geographical location – the terroir – from which it’s derived and Brunello di Montalcino epitomizes it. If you’ve never been to Montalcino, a hill town and commune located in the province of Siena in the Tuscany region of Italy, there’s a scene in the 2020 film, Made in Italy, which features actor Liam Neeson and his son, actor Micheál Richardson, that will help you understand its magnificence. The real-life father and son portray father, Robert, and son, Jack. Jack would like to sell the home they have there so he can buy an art gallery he runs in London. Robert, who is a painter, reluctantly agrees, but secretly hopes his son will change his mind after spending time there.

At one point, the pair are eating breakfast on the patio in the back of the house and Jack, who is doing his best not to love anything about the house, which was vacated and left to deteriorate after his mother’s death, dryly remarks, “Well, at least the view is good.” He’s facing the view. Robert, however, has his back to it—a spectacular view of the sun-drenched, verdant rolling hills that are so symbolic of Tuscany.

Without turning around and in excruciating detail, Robert perfectly describes the view to Jack. As he does so, his voice reveals his profound love and admiration, and everyone who shares that love for Italy immediately understands. Those who have never been, experience a few moments of cinematography that capture the breathtaking panorama and the sublime beauty of Montalcino.

When you sip a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, you are imbibing that same beauty. You’re tasting the unique biodiversity of the earth from which the wine is derived. It’s considered one of Italy’s best wines precisely because of the unique geographical characteristics of Montalcino. The high altitude of about 1860 feet and a dry climate allow the Sangiovese grapes to ripen more fully there than in other regions, like Chianti, where they’re also grown. The grapes must be grown in the hills, but the altitude can’t exceed 1969 feet above sea level.

Montalcino is about a two-hour drive south of Firenze. The area, which is the largest in the Siena province and includes about 119 square miles, encompasses both the charming, historic hill town and the surrounding land. The town dates to Etruscan and Roman times. The walls surrounding the town were built during the 13th century and the fortress was built in 1361 by Sienese architects.

According to the Consorzio del vino Brunello di Montalcino, since 2004, Montalcino has been included among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The area is surrounded by forest and bordered by the rivers Ombrone, Asso, and Orcia. Only about 15 percent of it’s harvested for wine grapes. The rest is used for olive groves and other crops. The population is a little over 5,000.

There is a unique mix of soils in Montalcino. The soils in the low areas are loose, but the soil becomes denser at higher altitudes. According to the Tuscan Wine School, “…the number of different soil types really cannot be exaggerated; there are clay-rich pockets of soil as well as red ones, and the Monte Amiata to the south which was once a volcano, also greatly influences the area, soil, and climate. The soils are so varied that one producer identified 29 different types in his vineyards alone!”

Sangiovese, the Jupiter of Grapes

The climate is prevalently mild during the entire growing phase of the grapevines, with many clear days that allow for a gradual and full ripening of the fruit.

~ Consorzio del vino Brunello di Montalcino

The superiority of Brunello di Montalcino hinges on the quality of the Sangiovese grapes grown there. In addition to the unique mix of soils, the climate of the area makes it near-perfect for vineyards. As mentioned earlier, the terroirmakes the magic. The climate is Mediterranean with less than 30 inches a year of rainfall that happens mostly in the spring and late summer.  Snow is possible at altitudes above 1300 feet. Partly due to the wind, which provides a good habitat for the vines to grow, fog, ice, and late frost are rare on the hillside. The area is protected from storms and hail by Mount Amiata, which stands at 5702 feet.

Though there’s varying folklore around the origin of the word Sangiovese, most oenophiles favor the one where it’s a derivation of the Latin phrase, sanguis Jovis, which refers to the blood of the Roman god, Jupiter. Like Zeus, he’s considered the god of all the other gods, as well as the god of the sky who can strike lightning bolts at his enemies. The Sangiovese grape could also be deemed the god of all other grapes because it’s the most widely planted grape in Italy, as well as the most well-known and popular. The regions where it’s the most cultivated grape variety are Tuscany, Romagna, and Umbria.

Sangiovese vineyards are a spectacular sight with the deep and vibrant plum and purple of the grape globes and the bright and plush green vines. These settings are so jaw-droppingly beautiful that it’s not uncommon to see artists set up a plein air painting these beautiful marvels of nature. In addition to being used in Brunello di Montalcino, where it’s the only varietal, Sangiovese grapes are also used in Rosso di Montalcino, Chianti, Carmignano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, Sangiovese di Romagna, and Super Tuscans like Tignanello.

These resilient grapes adapt to the varying soil types but particularly thrive in soil with high concentrations of limestone, like the Alberese soil found in Montalcino.  According to Ricasoli, a Chianti producer, this type of soil, “…dates back to the Eocene, a period even before the Pliocene: in this case, it’s actually more than 50 million years old! It’s a stony soil, rich in calcium carbonate and clay and poor in organic substances.”

The Sangiovese vine has a medium-sized pentagonal leaf. The petiole, which is the stalk that joins the leaf to the stem, is medium length and green with some pink accents. The grape bunch is large and compact. The grapes are beautiful and uniform with an almost globe-like shape. The skin has a frosted appearance. The pulp is fleshy, and the juice is lightly pink. On average, there are two to four large seeds. Though they make great wine, the grapes themselves tend to be tart.

The harvest, which is called La Vendemmia in Italian, begins in late September and continues through October.  The Baricci family, producers of Brunello di Montalcino and among the founders of the Consorzio del vino Brunello di Montalcino, has this story of the annual harvest on their website that makes it come to life for the consumer whose never been to Montalcino, or has never witnessed the grape harvest.

“Unlike in the past, with the changing climate, the harvest usually takes place the last week of September. It represents the final act after a long period of daily activities from early in the spring with constant and meticulous controls, initially of the tiny buds right through until you reach the ripe bunches in autumn.

The harvest is entirely manual and the grapes, before arriving in the cellar, are carefully viewed and a selection made. Prior to that, in order that they represent the best raw material that our land has to offer us, there are 3 selections made throughout the course of the summer to guarantee us that the wine comes only from the best fruits available. On average the harvest takes only 3 days and this short period of time therefore gives us the opportunity to assess and to seize the right moment for the collection (harvest) based on when there is the highest degree of maturity of the grapes.”

The Beauty of Brunello di Montalcino by Jenifer Vogt

Birth & Evolution of Brunello di Montalcino

Perhaps the most famous selection of Sangiovese was first promulgated by Biondi Santi of the hilltop town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany in the late 19th century. This particularly deep-colored, tannic selection is known as Brunello and thus Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most noble and long-lived wines made entirely of this local vine specialty, was born.

Jancis Robinson, wine critic

According to the Consorzio del vino Brunello di Montalcino, archeological finds show that wine has been produced in Montalcino since the Etruscan times, or over 2000 years. Regulations for wine production, including how and when it should be made, were in place by the Middle Ages. In 1744, the first known reference to the outstanding wine made in the commune appeared in a travel book written by merchant Charles Thompson. He wrote, “Montalcino is not particularly famous, except for the goodness of its wines.”

The Consorzio attributes the discovery of the wine known today as Brunello di Montalcino to Clemente Santi, a renowned writer and scientist with a science degree from the University of Pisa. He was the first to experiment with a clone of Sangiovese called Brunello at his family’s farm, Tenuta Greppo. His 1865 vintage was awarded a silver medal by the Agrarian Committee of Montepulciano in 1869. His grandson, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, is credited with the first pure Brunello wine, made with no other varietals or additions. Together, they perfected it. The Biondi-Santi family website dates the first vintage of what is now known as Brunello di Montalcino to 1888.

One of the key characteristics of Brunello is how well it ages. According to the Rare Wine Company, “What Clemente and Ferruccio had discovered was that Brunello, grown in Montalcino’s high-altitude very rocky galestro and clay soils and given a lengthy fermentation and maceration with the skins, followed by extended aging in cask, produced a very structured, aromatically complex and long-lived wine.”

For many years, due to limited production by only a small handful of producers who followed the Biondi-Santi family’s lead, Brunello remained a highly desired, expensive and rare wine consumed mostly by a small cadre of the in-the-know wealthy.  It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the wine became broadly recognized by the international wine elite. In 1966, it earned the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) mark, a prestigious stamp for Italian wine. The designation specifies production area, methodology and high quality standards.

In 1967, the Consorzio del vino Brunello di Montalcino was created, ”… as a free association of vignerons whose aim was to safeguard their product and emphasize its best qualities.”  It creates a network and community for old and new growers who work together to safeguard the standards for and image of their product. The consortium is also charged with promoting Brunello di Montalcino around the world and it does so by organizing events and building relationships with the media and wine writers and critics.

In 1980, Brunello di Montalcino ascended from the DOC to the more prestigious Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) level in the Italian wine appellation system.  It was, in fact, the first wine to earn this designation, which was created as a platform of recognition for Italy’s most superior wines. There are only 74 Italian wines that have earned DOCG status. There are currently more than 200 producers of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG.

According to Wine Insiders, “…Brunello offers a fleshy texture with primary flavors of blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry, chocolate, leather and violets. Brunello wines usually have medium-to-high tannins, high acidity, high alcohol and a medium body. Brunello exhibits an excellent aging potential, with oak aging being universal for a legal minimum of 2 years in oak and 4 months in bottle. Riserva Brunellos require at least an extra year of aging, and the finest examples can be aged for a decade or more.”

There is a marked difference between young and aged Brunellos. As with many young wines, young Brunellos are fruity and flowery. They contain notes of cherries, strawberries, blackberries, licorice, violets, espresso, and firm tannins.  They can be highly acidic. Brunellos aged a decade or more are tempered and reveal notes of dried figs, candied cherries, hazelnuts, leather, and chocolate. The tannins and acidity are mellow, leaving a more prolonged and sweeter finish.

Brunello di Montalcino pairs exceptionally well with Florentine Steak.  It’s also the perfect wine to pair with most complex dishes with a strong taste of umami, such as stewed and braised red meat dishes or roast turkey with a dense, fig stuffing.

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