This an excellent article by Inside IWM and published in March 2016
In the great pantheon of Italian wine, the importance of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is celebrated for its ageability, structure, cult status and sophisticated palate, Brunello di Montalcino essentially owes its impressive reputation to three things: a clone known as Sangiovese Grosso, the extraordinary microclimate of the region, and the Biondi Santi family which today continue to make Brunello under the Le Chiuse and Biondi Santi labels. Were any of these factors different or missing, Brunello as we know it would likely not have happened, and it would be a very sad world indeed.
At 150 years old, Brunello di Montalcino is a relative upstart in the world of Italian wine. In the mid-1800’s, Clemente Santi realized that one strain of grape growing on his estate seemed to withstand both rot and phylloxera. He focused his attention on a clone of Sangiovese that he called Brunello, or “little brown one.” (This clone later was isolated and named BBS11.) His son, Feruccio Biondi-Santi, was the first person to bottle and release a single-varietal wine fermented from this grape; a handful of bottles remain from his 1881 inaugural bottling. Arguably, the Biondi-Santi family has had a greater impact on Brunello than any other family has had on any other Italian wine.
While the idea that Feruccio “invented” Brunello is more myth than fact–historical evidence dates award-winning Montalcino wines to years well before 1881–there is no disputing that the family established guidelines for the Brunello di Montalcino, shaped those guidelines with an iron fist, and remained the only makers of the appellation until around W.W. II. Moreover, by intentionally keeping production low and pricing the wine high, by choosing to skip vintages they saw as inferior, and by mindfully creating a wine that requires intense ageing, the Biondi-Santi family effectively created the Brunello mystique–a magical wine that you have to pay a lot to get and wait to enjoy.
But the other important piece in the Brunello puzzle is the region itself. While it’s indisputable that the Biondi-Santi family recognized potential of the Sangiovese Grosso and that they developed the grape into its quintessential expression, neither of those achievements would mean a thing were it not for the extraordinary terroir of Montalcino. Brunello begins around the hilltop town of Montalcino located in the southern central reaches of Toscana, just south of Firenze. Its elevation that ranges between 820 and 2,170 feet means that Montalcino, more than any other important wine growing area in Toscana, benefits from the Mediterranean breezes that blow across the region. Moreover, Montalcino has intense climactic diversity; in the region’s approximately 3,000 acres, there are two different major microclimates, five separate climactic zones and 24 unique sub-microclimates.
To understand the singularity of Montalcino, you need to consider that although the town is only 25 miles south of Siena, it is higher, dryer and cooler than the surrounding Tuscan regions–most of Toscana has a yearly rainfall of 35” a year; Montalcino receives about 28”.
The township of Montalcino essentially splits the DOCG area into two broad categories: those vineyards north of the town, and those to the south. Northern vineyards have calcareous clay soil, higher altitudes, a cooler microclimate and they create more aromatic, structured and elegant wines. The vineyards to the south possess a more Mediterranean climate, a lower altitude, and sandier soil; these factors cause grapes to ripen about a week earlier than those in the north and to create fuller, juicier, rounder, more approachable wines.
However, because of the extreme popularity of Brunello, the uniformly high price the wine garners, the multiple microclimates and the varying quality of the wine, some winemakers (including Franco Biondi-Santi) are arguing the need for the DOC to separate the DOCG zone into five smaller sub-zones. Statistics illustrate the argument for stronger regulation; in 1960 there were only eleven bottlers of Brunello and 157 acres planted, but by 2004 those numbers had exploded to 175 bottlers and almost 6,300 acres.
Minimum aging requirements in Brunello di Montalcino DOCG tend to run longer than other zones in Italy. The Brunello normale is an annual production with a requisite aging period of 4 years (this involves a combination of minimum 2 years in barrel and at least four months in bottle). Even though the total minimum aging requirement is less than four years, producers abiding by Brunello DOCG cannot release wines until 48 months after the vintage year. Riserva denotes a bottle that is crafted exclusively in vintages that are deemed of high quality, derived from the producer’s best grapes, and aged for a minimum of five years (a combination of minimum three years in barrel and at least six months in bottle); the same rule regarding release date applies to productions of both riserva and regular Brunello.
Brunello di Montalcino varies by producer and microclimate, but in general it is medium to full-bodied, with a heady aroma of black fruits that are echoed on the palate. Many people also note black spices like licorice, a whiff of bitter orange and a slight earthy quality. Alcohol percentages range between 13.0-14.5%. Brunello is made to be aged. In general, it is best starting at about ten years after vintage. The 2010 vintage of Brunello has been lauded as a benchmark, but even wines from “off” vintages can be excellent.
If you would like to buy some great examples of Brunello go to Italian Wine Importers
Ciao ciao e buon vino
Alan e Carolyna