Great Italian Wines: Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany

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).

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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.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.