My second week visiting Italy saw me take the long drive down to southern Tuscany and the famous village of Montalcino. Brunello di Montalcino, made from the Sangiovese grape, is one of the great wines of Italy, but one which I don't get to taste that often in large part due to its expense (in the words of my father, a wine you want someone else to buy for you). Just a few days here taught me a great deal about the region: its beauty, the extraordinary diversity of the wines, and the surprising youthfulness of such a renowned winemaking area.
The village is located just over an hour south of Florence and the vineyards of Chianti, producing more austere, mature, and long-lived expressions of Sangiovese. The wines must be 100% Sangiovese, called Brunello here, and to be designated Brunello di Montalcino the wine must have been aged for at least five years, two of which have to be in barrel.
However, these rules allow a lot of flexibility, leading to a variety of styles. The traditional rules stipulated four years in barrel, usually old and large, and some producers still follow those historic guidelines. This ageing results in pale, garnet-coloured wines, with a hint of oxidation, and earthy, mushroom aromas. More international producers prefer new French oak barriques, which lead to heavier, darker-coloured, and spicier wines
Further differences come from where the grapes are grown. Although Montalcino is a small growing area, there are distinct sub-zones - which, frustratingly, the local authorities refuse to map and classify. These differences come from proximity to the sea, aspect, altitude, warmth, and the chances of rain. All of this means Brunello di Montalcino is a difficult wine to pin down.
Given Italy's long history, one would think that these many differences have arisen from centuries of winemaking experience. There is, indeed, plenty of history here. The property of my new favourite producer, Sesti, features an eighth-century church that stands on a pagan site dedicated to the Roman god, Janus. However, the modern history of Brunello di Montalcino dates back to just the 1880s, when the region's oldest winery, Biondi-Santi, were the first to make wine solely from Sangiovese (in contrast to Chianti, which has historically been a blend). Until after the Second World War, Biondi-Santi was the sole producer in the region and, although their wines no longer stand out as they once did, they laid the benchmark for the standards and practices of the area. For thirty years after the Second World War, Montalcino was a deprived and unpopulated rural ghost town, until the 1970s saw gradual investment followed by a boom of interest in the 1980s. Now, there are over two hundred wineries. It's astonishing to think of this beautiful area, dominated by prestigious wineries, and attracting visitors from all around the world, as neglected and poverty-stricken, but that's how far Montalcino has come in just under fifty years.
the other Montalcinos
The wines are expensive, and require patience on the part of both the producer and the consumer. There is a younger wine, though, called Rosso di Montalcino which only requires a year's ageing before release. The temptation is to dismiss it as a younger, fruitier, and inferior version of Brunello, but Elisa Sesti evocatively described it as an opportunity to "herald the new vintage," a chance to taste the region's wines three or four years before the Brunellos are released. On the other scale is Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, which is aged for at least six years before release, three of which must be in barrel. These are substantial, oaky, tannic wines which are not for the faint-hearted.
There a few whites made, but the only one to fall under an official Montalcino classification is Moscadello di Montalcino, which can be still, sparkling, or sweet, and is made from the high-quality strain of Muscat, Moscato Bianco. Despite the contemporary dominance of Sangiovese, Moscadello is the historic wine of Montalcino, dating back to at least the 1500s.
Capanna Moscadello di Montalcino 2014 (€11; ✪✪✪✪)
The sweet, late-harvest version of Moscadello, which must be aged for at least a year. Low in alcohol (9.5%), rich in floral, grape aromas, but light bodied, refreshing, and high in acidity. Despite the low alcohol and light body, the sweetness of the wine stood up to chocolate. As testament to the friendliness of the locals of Montalcino, everyone at my table was given a complementary glass at the end of a delicious meal.
Sesti Rosso di Montalcino 2014 (€19; ✪✪✪✪✪)
This is a superb example of a Rosso: youthful, fruity, approachable, but with complex layers beneath that fruitiness, with grainy tannins, lively acidity, and depth of flavour. This is Montalcino at its youthful best.
Castello Romitorio Brunello di Montalcino 2011 (€40; ✪✪✪✪✪)
The latest release across the board of Brunello is the 2011 vintage, which saw a very warm summer, resulting in wines with very ripe, forward aromas. What's astonishing about the wines, including this one, is the high acidity despite the warm vintage. It's tingling, offsetting the ripeness of the wine and balancing the tannins and spices from the oak. The fruitiness of the wines makes them very enjoyable now.
Sesti Brunello di Montalcino 2008 (€50; ✪✪✪✪✪✪)
I tasted the 2008 and 09 side by side. The latter (✪✪✪✪✪) was noticeably spicier and riper, while the 2008 was subtler but still very expressive with aromas of smoke, earth, red cherries and raspberries, figs, dates, and prunes, with grainy tannins and a long, gradual finish. Sesti are one of the traditional producers who use large, old oak barrels (as well as closely following ancient lunar calendars), and it's this more restrained style of Brunello which I prefer.
Tassi Selezione Franci Brunello di Montalcino 2004 (€120 in a restaurant; ✪✪✪✪✪✪)
Due to the long ageing before release, as well as the naturally high tannins and acidity of Sangiovese, Brunello is a wine which will develop maturity and complexity with time. At twelve years old, this is a wonderfully expressive wine, still with fresh red fruit, herb, and spice aromas, on top of earth, mushroom, and dried fruits. The tannic and acidic structure hold the wine together, and will do so for some years yet. This 2004 was drunk alongside white truffle pasta and guinea fowl - an indication of the rich foods that Brunello will soften.
There are perhaps few greater, more memorable experiences in the world of wine than tasting older Brunello. There's a sophistication, a subtlety, and a beauty to these wines which is best not described but simply tasted and enjoyed. I know I will be drinking a lot more Brunello than I used too, and my life, if not my wallet, will be richer for it.