Brunello di Montalcino: The King of Tuscan Wines
What are the origins of Brunello di Montalcino?
The history of Brunello di Montalcino dates back to around the mid 1800s when Clemente Biondi Santi experiments with cloning the classic Sangiovese variety which was cultivated in Tuscany. The terrain around the city of Montalcino mostly contained marl, solidified clay from several million years ago that is quite rich in salt and minerals, which produced wines that were sharp, not so full-bodied, and had a very high acidity.
At the same time, it was already understood that these wines could age for several years.
To help deal with the lack of color, tannin, and freshness, Clemente Biondi Santi decided to use the Sangiovese Grosso BBS11 clone (Brunello Biondi Santi 11) which produced smaller bunches and grapes with a thicker skin. After years of experimenting even with the type of wood to use for the barrels, he decided that it was best to age the wine in Slavonian oak barrels, which were more neutral and better able to maintain the organoleptic characteristics of Sangiovese. Some wine producers started to produce Brunello, but the very first bottles that officially came out (which can still be seen at the winery) are from the Biondi Santi estate. It was the year 1888.
It can be taken on good authority that Brunello di Montalcino was already being produced in the mid 1800s. It was not yet made from 100% Sangiovese grapes nor was it aged for five years. At that time, local varieties like Canaiolo and Colorino were added to improve the flavor and color.
Until the end of the Second World War, the wineries which produced Brunello were very few and were mostly rich or noble families. But everything changed when, at the beginning of the 1960s, the Italian government decided to abolish sharecropping. The countryside was abandoned and most of the population emigrated to northern Italy, France, Germany, and the United States. Farms were put up for sale at very low prices, but only a few farmers managed to buy them.
They were not aware of it back then, but they were ushering in the great transformation which brought Montalcino to be one of the most famous places in the world for the production of fine wine. They started to produce wine, bottling only a very small quantity of Brunello and selling the rest in demijohns (obviously at lower prices but in this way they could turn a quick profit).
The Brunello that was sold by these few wineries did not have a broad market as it was too expensive and not well known. It was in 1967 when these few producers decided to create the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino as an organization to safeguard, regulate, and develop this wine. Since then, the wineries grew from sixteen to the 250 today. The number of bottles has increased from just over 100,000 per year produced in the 70 hectares back then to 10-11 million per year in the 2,100 hectares of today.
In the 80s and 90s, there was an exponential and continual increase of new local producers, Italian and even foreigners, driven by the knowledge that the wine produced here is truly exceptional.
The alchemy created between Sangiovese Grosso and its terroir has permitted Brunello di Montalcino to become one of the most known wines in the world.
In the aughts came high scores from the most trusted wine publications and wine journalists in the world, consequently numerous consumers understood that Brunello had (and still has) something special.
What are its characteristics?
One of the characteristics that brought Brunello di Montalcino to be considered one of the best wines in the world is surely the balance between elegance and strength, freshness and longevity. The Sangiovese Grosso produced here, known as “Brunello” only in Montalcino, does indeed express all that is asked from a great wine.
Before being able to be sold as Brunello di Montalcino, it must, however, follow rigorous production regulations. In fact, to be labelled as Brunello, it can only be produced within the historical borders of Montalcino and only from Sangiovese Grosso grapes. In addition, it can only be released on the market on January 1st of the fifth year following the harvest and only after having passed all the official inspections and checks as per production regulations. In these five years, it must be aged for a minimum of two years in barrels and four months in the bottle.
Each producer can decide to prolong the bottle and barrel ageing times.
Worthy of mention is that in 1980, Brunello di Montalcino was the first red wine in Italy along with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to obtain the DOCG appellation, Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed and Origin.
What are the best vintages?
Currently there is a scale which rates the quality of the vintages from 1 to 5 stars. After analyzing the chemical components and tasting numerous samples of the wine produced in the entire Montalcino area, a committee of experts gives a rating for the average quality of that year. As usual, a lot depends on the weather conditions as it is certainly the thing that most affects the quality and also the quantity of the wine produced in Montalcino.
The best vintages produced in the last forty years are: 1985,1988,1990, 1995, 1997, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2019 which will be released on the market in 2024. Special mention also to the 1999, 2001, and 2013 vintages.
What are the historical wineries?
The most important historical wineries in Montalcino are certainly Biondi Santi, Fattoria dei Barbi, Costanti, Argiano, Canalicchio di Sopra, Franco Pacenti, Siro Pacenti Baricci, Capanna, and Nardi, among which are some of the founding members of the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino in 1967.
Other historical wineries are Ciacci Piccolomini, Mastrojanni, Lisini, Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia, Altesino, Caparzo, Pieve di Santa Restituta (now known as Gaja). Finally, also a special nod to Banfi, the biggest winery in Montalcino, founded in 1978 after the purchase of the Castello di Poggio alle Mura by the Italian-American Mariani family.
How much does a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino cost?
The price of a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino has increased considerably over the last decade, first of all because of the incredible quality and the increased demand in all world markets.
The average price now ranges between €30 and €70 per vintage, but there are also bottles over €100 and up to €350.
Why? They are wines produced by historical wineries in very limited quantities and of exceptional quality, which is its own niche market mostly for collectors and enthusiasts of special bottles.
What can it be paired with?
Being a full-bodied wine, it pairs well with structured dishes like red meat and game. An excellent pairing can also be with cheese, especially with aged pecorino cheese.
How to enjoy it
Given its complexity, it is recommended to drink it in big wine glasses, crystal or glass, with a big bowl so that all its fruity, ethereal, and balsamic aromas can be released.
It is advisable to store the bottles horizontally in the dark at a temperature of 16°-18°C (60°-65°F) and to open about three hours before drinking.
The best time to drink Brunello is between seven and twenty years after the harvest, but some vintages can be aged up to 30-40 years.