Brunello di Montalcino stands out as royalty among Italian red wines with its luxurious flavors of dark cherry and subtle spices, glorious ruby hue, and long aging potential. This noble Tuscan red is made from 100% Sangiovese Grosso grape, a clone of the Sangiovese grape. By Italian law, they must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels and another four months in their bottles, with another year of aging to earn the distinction of a riserva which furthers their sophistication and aging potential.
Often compared with the greatest Bordeaux’s, these wines were made to pair with local foods, especially cinghiale (wild boar) in a rich tomato ragù, or local mushrooms prepared with polenta.
Although they can be expensive ($30-$100 USD or more), the combination of the seductive nose of cherry cola and herbs, the gorgeous tea-stained red color, and their gripping luxurious taste are well worth every penny.
Related post: Brachetto d’ Acqui: A Frizzante Wine Guide
The name Brunello itself is an Italian word meaning roughly “little brown one.” In the glass, it typically shows a garnet or ruby color, sometimes with violet highlights. Grapes with thick skins will extract a more vibrant color, while vines with higher yields could show off lighter, almost tea-like coloring. This tendency for lighter coloring is what tempted the so-called Super Tuscan producers in the ’70s to add other grapes to bolster its color.
This wine gains its titular brown character after significant aging, where an amber edge will precede a more red-brown tone. Remember, it is often built for long aging. You won’t tend to see much of a change for the first ten years in the bottle.
Brunello is a pure expression of the Sangiovese grape. The best examples show off bountiful red or dark fruit (red or black cherries, blackberries, red or black raspberries). Other hallmark aromas are plums, prunes, figs, licorice, and sweet spices. As it ages in the bottle, it should gain complexity in its scent notes as tertiary flavors develop and begin to show through.
To drink a good Brunello di Montalcino is to understand the proper relationship of tannin, acidity, and time to the overall balance of the wine.
Young bottles may have overly astringent tannins. This grippy character combined with Sangiovese’s acidity may leave your mouth feeling dried out after a sip. Time in the bottle will soften the tannins and allow them to become finer. At the same time, its acidity tends to come into focus. The result is a silky, seductive mouthfeel that is the very definition of wine getting better with age.
The Sangiovese grape has a long history and has been mentioned as far back as the 1500’s. It’s prevalent throughout central Italy as it needs a long warm growing season to fully ripen. It’s a grape with thin skin and can be prone to rot in years with abundant fall rain. Outside of Italy, Sangiovese is far less popular. Argentina is second in production but only grows about 4% of what Italy does.
As, perhaps, Italy’s premier viticultural region, the rolling Tuscan hills are dotted with vineyards. These wineries produce Chianti, Brunello, and other “Super Tuscans”. All of these varieties are based primarily on the Sangiovese grape. A notorious grape whose name literally means Jove’s (aka Jupiter, aka Zeus) blood.
In contrast to some of the other styles in the region that incorporate grape varieties from outside Italy, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, to impart favorable characteristics to the end product, by law, to be labeled DOCG, Brunello di Montalcino must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes.
Montalcino itself is a hilly region in the southern part of Tuscany, about 25 miles south of Siena. The region encompasses a surprisingly diverse area in terms of average temperature, altitude, and soil composition. This last factor results from Montalcino’s geologic history as an island in what was a shallow sea that covered Tuscany millions of years ago. As the ancient sea receded and returned several times in the intervening time, it left a soil that was built to grow outstanding Sangiovese. The soil is thin to keep yields in check and concentrate flavors and rich in minerals from those ancient seabeds, which adds complexity to the grapes produced there.
As a result, bottles from different producers may exhibit different characteristics in different vintages, but the warm climate and unique terroir lend themselves to wines that are universally sought-after.
Over the past decades, competition has emerged as part of the divergence between two competing styles of Brunello di Montalcino. These differences mainly revolve around the application of oak in the aging process. The modern method involves aging in new oak barrels like a typical French Bordeaux or California Cabernet. The result is the addition of vanilla and black fruit flavors and can lead to early maturing wines. The traditional method is to use extremely large and previously used Slavonian oak barrels. This choice imparts comparatively little of the oak flavors in favor of the undertone notes of the Sangiovese itself.
The DOCG requirement requires it be aged for 5 years (6 for a riserva designation) before it can be sold with at least 2 of those years in the barrel.
In Italy, without wine, it’s only half a meal. The tried and true rule-of-thumb “if it grows together, it goes together” applies here. In Tuscany, trademark dishes of rich meats like boar are tailor-made to stand up to the wine’s intensity. Meals featuring tomato sauces also compliment it extremely well, tending to bring out its herbaceous notes. In my opinion, a good glass pairs equally well with nothing more than good conversation.
Try it Out
Right now is a great time to dive into Brunello di Montalcino. 2015 and 2016 are widely considered to be a double-header of outstanding vintages although different in expression. 2015 has a reputation of producing flamboyant multifaceted wines, while 2016 is regarded as a more reserved but still excellent vintage.
Remember that they are held back for 5-6 years before they hit the shelves, so it is still possible to find outstanding examples of the style, often at an affordable price. Bottles from the 2010 vintage (if you can find them) are the perfect candidates to begin drinking now, but their high quality will command a high price. Here are some examples to keep an eye out for.
Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2012 — One of only 39 riserva releases in Biondi Santi’s over 125 year history. It achieved a perfect 100 rating from Wine Enthusiast and has the potential to be aged for decades. If you can afford it and if you can find it, don’t hesitate.
Gaja Sugarille Brunello di Montalcino 2010 — A symphony of what a Brunello is supposed to be. Intense and complex while also being impeccably structured and refined. A special occasion bottle if there ever was one.
Talenti Brunello di Montalcino 2016 — Focused and balanced with balsamic and red cherry, this is a great representative of its vintage. I’d recommend getting two bottles if you have the opportunity. Although it’s an age-worthy bottle, you may be tempted to crack one open early and will likely be rewarded both now and later.
Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino 2015 — In a world where bottles easily go for over $100, this gem is still available for under $40. It’s got a round juicy character that’s full of flavor, showing off red berries and a long finish. This is an equally great candidate for your cellar or to have with your pasta dinner tonight.
When choosing your stemware, pick a glass with a longer stem and a wide bowl, often referred to as a Burgundy glass, will optimize the perfume of the subtle complexity of the wine. So much of the pleasure comes from the nose, the preamble to the sip, that the wider Burgundy glass will enhance the aromatics.
Decanting is the act of pouring from the bottle into a larger vessel for greater airflow. This can also remove unwanted sediment. For a younger bottle, leave the wine in a decanter for several hours, it will soften the powerful tannins and help the fruit, spice, and earthy notes shine through.
Brunello was the wine that opened my eyes to the world of what fine wine could be. It’s a variety that commands your attention from its very first impression. It’s a big wine and it’s the one I reach for to accent life’s biggest moments. It will always have a place of pride in my cellar and I hope in yours too.