BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO

While there are promoters of wines like Etna Rosso, Chianti Classico, Amarone della Valpolicella and Taurasi (and Aglianico del Vulture) as the ‘other great red’ of Italy, it’s pretty hard not to vote for Brunello di Montalcino as the peer to Barolo and Barbaresco. By the sheer weight of unarguably good, if variably-styled wines produced in any good vintage, that fetch both greater reviews and money than any of the other contenders, Brunello is right up in Italy’s ‘Div 1’ with the Piedmont pair.

It’s a relatively young concept, with the region actually being fairly white-dominated historically, and the first real references to Brunello are only traced to the 1830s and 60’s. The advent of a Brunello of Montalcino wine made from a designated clone of Sangiovese which came to be known as ‘Brunello’ is generally acknowledged as dating from 1888. Even at the (nearby) Siena Exposition of 1933 there were just four Brunello wines presented and of those only two were actually bottled (the other two, as was quite normal for a lot of wine then, were presented in demijohn or from cask). It wasn’t until the 1960s that people outside Italy became at all aware of this Brunello di Montalcino.

Established as a DOC in 1966 and a DOCG in 1980, the region is defined by the municipal limits around the walled city of Montalcino – an historic and lovely town approximately 80 kms south of Florence – and only around 140 km⁴ in total area. The status of Montalcino as the source of Tuscany’s (therefore the world’s) greatest Sangiovese wines, is hardly disputed and then only by a few (very, very) convincing examples from Chianti Classico and the odd Super-Tuscan, most of which are likely to come from within Chianti Classico, or even Montalcino itself, anyway. Unlike Barolo or Burgundy, for example, Brunello di Montalcino is not (in any formal way) identified by any hierarchy or single-vineyard/Cru/MGA system, although there is the ability to recognise individual vineyards by the use of Vigna or Vigneto preceding the vineyard name eg Il Poggione’s Vigna ‘Il Paganelli’ or Carpazo ‘La Casa’. These do have further yield restrictions compared to those labelled just as Brunello di Montalcino (see Brunello Rules and Numbers). There is a general recognition of three main zones, and that these each do have a general zonal expression (see Brunello Terroirs). In this respect, we might think of Brunello di Montalcino more similarly to Bordeaux. While most of the production is devoted to Brunello di Montalcino and Riserva, there is a significant “second” wine produced under a Rosso di Montalcino DOC.

ROSSO DI MONTALCINO

As a general observation, and over a few decades, I’ve always rated Brunello very highly for the consistency across producers – not of style so much as just a general high level of quality. Likewise for Rosso, for which I cant easily think of a rival as a more generally consistent second wine. Happy to hear other contenders? The whole idea that these plantings are fundamentally to make Brunello, seems to me a noble idea – not one I treat with any cynicism – and the fact that far less, nearly half as much, is made as Rosso, supports this notion. That is to say, much Rosso di Montalcino generally starts life in a viticultural sense, with the intention of being Brunello.

Its fate is determined by one or a combination of factors thereafter; such as new plantings, batches (either at picking stage or even in barrel) that may be lighter or better suited to earlier presentation to the market, or just because a producer needs a more economical version to turn into money a bit sooner than the 5 years mandated before release of Brunello. Moreover, I have found Rosso to be an authentic earlier/easier drinking version of Brunello, and a wine which reliably says “I’m Montalcino”.

Occasionally they can be very good, maybe even called mini-Brunello. In a difficult year like 2014, producers like my own Pertimali put far more, in fact most, of their production to Rosso, with the declassified result being a very characterful and even more brawny wine than usual. From what we expected to be cool and maybe even a little too-light vintage, 2018, many (Rosso) results have been frankly superb. They are classy, complex and fascinating, Montalcino-accented, Sangiovese in their own right. So if you come across Uccelliera, Podere Brizio, Le Ragnaie, Il Marronetto ‘Ignaccio’, Conti Costanti, and plenty of others, like the relatively easy to find Argiano, or my ’18 Pertimali, don’t hesitate. For around $50 they can give serious enjoyment. Then there will be 2019…

Brunello Rules and Numbers

The DOCG for Brunello di Montalcino requires;

  • 100% Sangiovese – known locally as Brunello – the ‘brown one’
  • Area under vine: 1,448 ha (2018)
  • Former maximum vineyard elevation of 600 m no longer applies – response to warming
  • Maximum production per hectare: 80 quintals (8,000kg) per ha
  • To identify as a single-vineyard (Vigna or Vigneto) yield reduced to 70 quintals/ha
  • Release is the 1st of January, 5 years following the harvest
  • Minimum 24 months of that ageing in wood.
  • Riserva can be applied with one more year ie in the 1st of January, 6 years following
  • Minimum alcohol: 12.5% by volume
  • Minimum total acidity: 5 grams per litre
  • Minimum dry extract: 26 grams per litre
  • Production: 777,800 cases (2018)

Rosso Rules and Numbers

  • 100% Sangiovese – known locally as Brunello – the ‘brown one’
  • Maximum production per hectare: 90 quintals (9,000kg) per ha
  • To identify as a single-vineyard (Vigna or Vigneto) yield reduced to 80 quintals/ha
  • Release is the 1st of September of the year following the harvest
  • Minimum alcohol: 12% by volume
  • Minimum total acidity: 4.5 grams per litre
  • Minimum dry extract: 24 grams per litre
  • Production: 422,200 cases (2018)
  • Rosso allowed to use screwcap from 2016.

** It’s also interesting to note that the most southerly of the Chianti zones, Chianti Colli Senesi (of the ‘Hills of Siena’) also takes in the whole of the Brunello and Rosso production area. With even Rosso fetching more for a bottle than virtually anything ‘Colli Senesi’ it’s no surprise that not a lot of area’s production appears under a Chianti label.

The Brunello Terroirs

Instead of being identified by a Cru system or even a notional/unofficial hierarchy, some understanding of the various personalities of the Brunello zone is provided by considering it as three very general zones. North of Montalcino, the limestone-riddled (‘Galestro’) soils and a cooler climate result in the sleeker, more compact wines, where their underlying structures and finishes are more prominent. Perhaps from these you expect the least fruitiness, and the descriptors tend more to the smoke, undergrowth, stock/soy, dark spices and porcini notes. South of Montalcino and to the east (right-hand side of the zone map) where the Tyrrhenian sea moderates and the soils of the slopes are loam and silty-sandy, the wines are more powerful and show richer notes of dark fruits and tar, some blackberry, but plenty of the soy/stock things too. Over in the south-western section, are the ripest and brawniest wines…in general; and here you’ll expect some jam, raisin, chocolate and prune, in wines which need all the structure and acid zing they can muster. In siting of vineyards for the best results they’re looking for elevation and avoiding too much clay. It’s just a matter of preference, as to the style you most like? Well, sort of…

This relatively young zone has spent much of these recent decades in various forms of turmoil; debate about the boundaries and whether the prestigious name Brunello should be lent to so much of what is allowed to be produced within, and the use of other varieties, have been the most overt conversations. Less argument is made about winemaking inputs – it is a free country, after all – but the overuse of oak and other processing methods to arrive at a richer and more ’obvious’ Brunello wine, by some proponents, have certainly clouded how accurately we can pin style to place. Of course few wine regions around the world haven’t been through this already. Overall though it’s reasonable to say that (mercifully) the modernists have mostly had to give way to the traditionalist school. The result I think, is a Brunello, elevated by generally traditional and unforceful means, and with less and less (new) oak influence; a Brunello more inclined to speak of its terroir, and to be able to showcase its natural structures and real Montalcino personalities. Can’t be a bad thing?

Brunellogate 

There are three key elements over the last decade and a half, which have led to the fairly healthy situation in which Brunello di Montalcino finds itself now. The most traumatic of these was the scandal known as Brunellogate or Brunellopoli (in Italy), when in 2008 authorities began investigation into the alleged use by some producers of other, non-authorised varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, to soften, lengthen and otherwise ‘internationalise’ the smell, taste and texture of Brunello. Even though the originators of the specs for Brunello toyed with the idea of allowing the use of these others, way back in the 60’s and those agitating for this had never relented, the debate was finally sealed by the scandal. The investigation petered out and the varieties debate was all left in the past, along with the use of too much winemaking artifice, by the advent of the spectacular 2010 vintage.

From here on it just seems that most producers agree that they should be making Brunello di Montalcino – Brunello of Montalcino. Just as Gigondas producers realised that what they should be making and what we would pay the most money for, is authentic Grenache that speaks of its terroir, a Pauillac that is first and foremost a Pauillac, or a Greenock Shiraz which doesn’t need big syrupy ripeness or oak to show most proudly.

 A Note on Vintages

Only time will tell if the recent, fabulous 2016 or 2015 vintages are as great as ’85 or 1978, but whatever happens they continue a pretty good run. Having tried plenty of wines from all vintages over the last couple of decades, I’d group them something like this;

  • Difficult conditions, some good wines made – 2000, 2002, 2014
  • Pretty warm to hot, many good examples, including oldies still going well – 2003, 2007, 2009, 2011
  • Underrated – 2005, 2008 – as in some regions (eg Barolo), some outstanding wines made
  • Very good vintages, so close to great – 2004, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015
  • Hard to argue against greatness – 2001, 2016

Of other older vintages, and ones which you might occasionally come across, I’ve found most reputable makers’ Brunello from 1990 and 1997 still ticking along nicely.

And coming? 2017s are clearly in need of good winemaking to control the warm conditions, 2018 Rossos have generally shown superbly (as a hint to the biggies) and 2019 looks to be potentially great.

Some Favourite Sources and Further Info

For that crucial historical background;

  • Italy’s Noble Red Wines – Sheldon & Pauline Wasserman (1985)
  • The Finest Wines of Tuscany & Central Italy – Nicolas Belfrage MW (2009)
  • Brunello Di Montalcino – Emanuele Pellucci (1981)

More contemporary analysis and detail;