By Maxine Howard
Montalcino, a small town in the southern part of Tuscany, is the only place winemakers can produce Brunello. It was the first to receive a DOCG designation guaranteeing the origin of this product. The grape from which Brunello is made is not unique: it is the Sangiovese grape grown around Italy and in other countries around the world. But this variety is Sangiovese Grosso, and the grapes are larger than those of the Sangiovese used in Chianti.
To be called Brunello, a Sangiovese must be:
- Grown in Montalcino
- Aged in oak two years
- Aged in the bottle four months
- Bottled in the production area
- Beleased no sooner than January 1 of the fifth year following harvest
In addition, the wine must have a minimum alcohol content of 12.5%, although most are over 13%.
The terroir and climate vary through the growing area. The ground characteristics run from loose to rocky, the slopes have varying orientations, and the mild Mediterranean weather will have differing impact based upon placement of the vines. But there is one unifying characteristic to the Brunellos: they age slowly and retain their fruit and structure for many years.
The 2010 is said to be the best vintage in recent history, surpassing the previously revered wines of 1997. A major reason for the success of the 2010’s was the longer-than-usual growing season.
At a tasting of seven representative bottles from 2010, the strengths of Brunello and the variations among producers was on full display.
A bottle from Sassetti Livio Pertimali displayed what I considered classic traits for the wine: it had a pronounced aroma of dark fruit. On first taste rich, dark fruit came forward tempered by a wonderful earthiness. It displayed both roundness and length. The tannins were well controlled, but remained at the finish. This wine is aged for 36 months in Slavonian oak (from northeastern Croatia) and 6 months in the bottle. The alcohol content is 14%, and it retails in the US for $65.
I had a very different tasting experience with the Brunello from Le Macioche. The producer says the grapes are harvested manually before vinification in wooden vats with spontaneous fermentation by wild yeast and a 25-day maceration period. The wine is aged for 36 months in oak and 14 months in the bottle. The wine announced its distinctiveness immediately with an aroma that was both floral and herbaceous. The taste was lean, with well-controlled fruit and a slightly tannic finish. It was startlingly different from the other Brunellos, but was very tasty on its own terms. The alcohol content is 14.5%.
Perhaps my favorite bottle of the tasting was from Le Chiuse. This property is owned by the Biondi-Santi family, which was the original producer of Brunello. Le Chiuse ages its wine in Allier and Slovenian oak barrels for three years. The aroma was of dark fruit; the first sip demonstrated a richness, intensity, and body that demanded attention. The wine had great structure. Its tannins, although controlled, were still substantial. The wine will definitely benefit from additional aging, but you can already see that this is a great Brunello. The alcohol content is 14.27% and it retails in the US for $50 to $60.
Based upon this brief survey of the Brunellos of Montalcino, it is clear that the 2010 vintage is worth seeking out and cellaring for the future. It will pair well with a fine steak or leg of lamb, but will also be a great accompaniment to your cheese course.