There really is little question as to what the two most famous and prestigious wines from Italy are: Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino. That is not to say they are the best wines, but that they have a history of being some of the best wines exported from Italy. The next series of articles will examine Brunellos (for a review on Barolo see the previously posted three part series on this site).
Brunello di Montalcino is a wine made from grapes grown in vineyards surrounding the hilltop town of Montalcino (about 5 miles south of Sienna) in Tuscany.
Brunello is really a type of wine made from the Sangiovese grape, the same grape that is the backbone of Chianti. In the 1840’s Clemente Santi isolated a specific strain of Sangiovese that had smaller grape berries and was more resistant to disease. Thirty years later, his grandson, Ferruccio Biondi, upon his return to the family farm after the war for Italian unification “Risorgimento”, planted that clone. Biondi named the grape Brunello, which means little brown one. In the 1880’s the name Biondi-Santi was introduced for the wines made from this Brunello clone. Whether it was a combination of the soils, the climate and the altitude, or the clone alone, the wine from these grapes was richer, more tannic and more intense than the wines of the day.
Biondi recognized the quality of these wines and the fact that they could not only age, but would improve for years in the cellar. At that time in Tuscany, the preference was for wines that were soft and ready to drink. Many red wines were even made in the frizzante or fizzy style. Biondi was an innovator though. At Biondi-Santi, wines were stored in large oak casks for four years before bottling. The wines were then held longer in bottle before releasing.
The first great vintage of Brunello was 1888. It is a mythical wine and in fact, five bottles still exist in the cellars of Biondi-Santi. One other innovation from Biondi-Santi was pricing. Biondi recognized the costs to produce and the value of his wine and his pricing was much more aggressive than any of the wines of the day. This strategy created a long history of high prices for Brunellos in general which is still true to this day. Biondi-Santi wines continue to be some of the most aggressively priced of all Brunellos on the market today.
Despite this rich history, Brunello was pretty much of a one-man show for the next 60 to 70 years. Then, in the 1950, a few other estates began making and marketing Brunello including Barbi, and Constanti. The world acknowledged that Brunellos were some of the best Italy produced. Yet, the Italian wine market was much more successful on the lower end wines. Bordeaux and Burgundy wines ruled the high priced tier of wines. Between the 1950’s and the 1970’s, things took a turn for the worse for Italy’s grape growers.
At this time, Italy’s farmers were battling social and economic issues. In an effort to escape the rural poverty, many people migrated to the cities for employment and to start new lives. Many of the vineyard owners throughout Italy, and Montalcino was no different, found themselves owning property with little commercial value and few workers to help them with the hard tasks of farming. Taxes and bank debts went unpaid and many farmers chose or were forced to sell their lands at very low prices. Then investors with money moved in, bought the undervalued land and began to develop it. The Cinzano family from Piedmont bought the Col d’Orcia estate in 1973.
According to official figures, in 1975 there were only 25 producers of Brunello with an annual production of less than 6,700 cases per year. Two American importers John and Harry Mariani, had made a lot of money importing and distributing Riunite. The family had long ties with Italy and they took some of their profits and created the Castello Banfi Estate in 1978. The Mariani’s pumped a lot of money into the local economy. They built a large winery utilizing the latest technologies. Most Italian wineries at this time were small and most vineyard holdings were too. Banfi created a mega winery and amassed large vineyard holdings. Today they own 7100 contiguous acres in Brunello with about a third of that being devoted to vineyards (or around 30% of all of Brunello).
Perhaps it was their American background, but they also recognized the value of tourism and kept that in mind in the construction of their facilities. As will be discussed in a future article in this series, the Banfi Brunellos are decidedly modern and international in style. The wines are derided by some (and lauded by others), but have no doubt, without the Banfi money and investment along with the resultant publicity, Brunello would not be the household name it is today. Thanks in large part to their commitment, the good times for Brunello were now on the horizon.
Soon new investors came with money to the area. Some of the large Chianti producers began to also invest in the area. In 1989, Frescobaldi bought the Castel Giacondo estate. In the 1990’s Antinori bought Pian delle Vigna and from the Piedmonte, Angelo Gaja bought Pieve di Santa Restitua. At the same time many other smaller wineries hit the scene with an eye towards quality artisanal winemaking. By 1995, the number had increased to 120 estates producing just fewer than 300,000 cases. There are new producers making more wine all the time.
The result for today’s consumer is that there is now a dizzying array of Brunello’s on our shelves. Prices have escalated, especially after the much heralded 1997 vintage. A bottle now retails for between $40 to $300 or more. With this expansion, however, came variable results in terms of the quality in the bottle. No longer is the name Brunello di Montalcino enough to ensure outstanding quality. There are a lot of Brunellos that are no better than a simple Chianti despite a price that may be five times as expensive. In addition, like many regions in Italy, there is a split in winemaking styles between the modern producers and the traditional producers. Whether you prefer one style to the other is a matter of taste. At these prices, however, it really pays to know what you are looking for.
In the next article, I will discuss the DOC requirements for Brunello including the amount of ageing they require. I will also explore the differences between traditional and modern Brunellos. In addition, vintage matters and the most recent vintages will be discussed including the yet to be released spectacular 2004’s. Brunello Risservas are also produced that are even more expensive, but are they worth the added price? As always, I will try to give you some producers to watch out for and discuss food-paring issues.
There is also a cloud on the horizon for Brunello. As this article is being published, a scandal is brewing in Montalcino. Reports of producers using grapes from outside of the DOC zone, and other non-Sangiovese varietals are surfacing. Even more troubling, as if that were not enough, reports of grapes from southern Italy and elsewhere being used to doctor Brunello are surfacing. The authorities are investigating. It is important to remember at this time, that this disgrace is just in the rumor stage. Nothing has been proven. Everyone with an interest in Italian wines is staying tuned for further details.
Until then, if you want to find a bottle to drink, you should be aware of a wine called Rosso di Montalcino. Do not be confused by the name. These can be very nice wines but they are more similar in quality to Chianti than to Brunello. They are made from the lesser barrels of wine of Brunello producers and from grapes grown outside the Brunello DOC limitations. Often called Baby Brunellos, they are lighter wines that provide early drinking at a fraction of the cost. The wines also see significantly less time ageing before they are released. Nice wines can be found for under $20 or $30. Look for wine made from 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005. 2004 seems to be the best of the vintages for these. These wines will hold nicely in a cellar for 5 to 7 years as a general rule and even longer from the better producers or in the best vintages. Rosso’s have nice dried cherry Sangiovese flavors, buttressed by leather and often a bit of orange or tea notes.
Rosso di Montalcinos can give you some insights into a particular producer both in terms of style and of quality levels. I would suggest that you experiment with what is available on your store shelves and in your price range. Next time, we will continue with our discussion of Brunellos.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.