Brunello di Montalcino
Article By: Sandy Block, MW
Brunello's illustrious reputation is as strong in Italy as it is worldwide, although this is not an explanation for why Americans buy and order it without anxiety. After all, Barolo and Barbaresco have relatively few adherents in the US, outside of Italian wine aficionados, despite their lofty status on the home market. Neither does the uniformly outstanding notices Brunello receives among English language journalists and critics bear on its broad acceptance here - one can think of a dozen categories of wine lionized by the specialist wine press, such as Alsace, Austria, the Douro Valley, and Ribera del Duero, that are virtual nonentities in the broader market. Rather there is something about the style of Brunello di Montalcino, dark-colored, brilliantly aromatic, richly extracted, concentrated in flavor but usually polished and velvety in texture, that gets people at all levels of experience and interest excited. The name itself connotes quality, and it's clear upon first taste that Brunello is not an esoteric "taster's wine" but is accessible to a range of consumers beyond just experts. Because not a large volume of wine is produced, and the bottles tend to be expensive, an aura of exclusivity and fashionability surround Brunello. Not quite yet a cult wine category, it has nonetheless entered the field of vision of many wine drinkers who consider it classy despite their lack of ease drinking anything else from Italy. Few may be so loyal that they choose only Brunello, as the wine habit by nature encourages exploration, but it is definitely one of a small handful of acceptable options if there is interest in a big red wine for a diverse group which can be ordered with perfect confidence in its acceptance and popularity.
The best most recent illustration of this broad acceptance occurred at the New York Wine Experience in October. Three of the top 10 wines of the year 2002, according to the editors at the Wine Spectator, were Brunello di Montalcino. As publications tend to do, the Spectator fell in love with the 1997 vintage in Tuscany. The wines had a uniformly intense flavor and polished texture, the tannins were strong but the wines were surprisingly delicious at what is the beginning of a long aging curve. The two editors moderating the tasting panel of the year's best wines were unreserved in their endorsement. This matches the praise that the vintage received in other influential publications. Consequently, as the movement of wines in the $50 and over a bottle category has been extremely slow due to economic uncertainties in the past few years, retailers report strong success in selling Brunello, which is priced considerably higher.
Interestingly enough Brunello di Montalcino is not one of Italy's ancient wine treasures. In fact, its origins date back only to the 1880s and to the efforts of a single family, Biondi-Santi, who were the first producers of the wine after they earlier had discovered that a smaller-berried clone of the predominant Sangiovese grape, known as "Sangiovese Grosso", thrived in the warm, southern Tuscan hilltop vineyards of Montalcino. The great benefit at the time, other than flavor concentration, was the fact that this clone exhibited stronger resistance to phylloxera, which was beginning to plague the vineyards of Tuscany after having ravaged through neighboring France. The resulting wines produced from Sangiovese Grosso were so much stronger than others being produced in Tuscany at the time, most of which were blends of white and red grapes, that they easily withstood an unusually long period of cask maturation. The wine, and the grapes from which they were made, gradually acquired the name "Brunello" because of the dark brownish color of the grapes when fully ripened.
Biondi-Santi remained the only producer of Brunello until after World War II and the estate only released the wine on rare occasions in the greatest vintages. Between 1888 and 1945, only four vintage declarations qualified. As recently as 1960, less than a dozen estates bottled Brunello di Montalcino. But today, along with the explosion of interest, there are 220 growers and over 150 bottlers (up from 100 in the late 1980s). The Consorzio of Brunello producers, incorporating virtually all of the winemaking estates, was established in 1967, just after Italian authorities declared Brunello one of the country's first DOC classified wines in 1966. This group plays a vital role in helping establish and administer production codes (by a decree passed in 2001, it actually controls production protocols for the zone down to very basic details) as well as leading in the marketing and promotion of Brunello abroad. Unlike the consorzio in the neighboring Chianti Classico region, the group in Montalcino enjoys almost unanimous participation among the region's producers and has been quite effective in helping develop Brunello's reputation as a unique "brand."
But Brunello's acceptance is a recent phenomenon outside of specialist circles. Quality at best was erratic during throughout the 1970s, as it was for most famous Italian wine zones, but somehow Brunello's prestige was such that when new regulations went into effect it was the first wine awarded the coveted DOCG status in 1980. Beginning in the mid 1980s, several top vintages in succession excited foreign wine writers and buyers (1988 was a particular stand out) so that a mini-boom resulted, making the wines more profitable. A familiar cycle followed, allowing the best producers to re-invest in higher levels of quality and the finest small estates to begin producing their own wines. The famed 1990 vintage stood out as a watershed, fully as important in firming up the zone's reputation internationally at its time as 1997 has become more recently in taking it to another level. An export explosion began and demand has not waned since, despite the generally weak vintages which followed in the early 1990s. When in the year 2000 the outstanding 1995's wines were released to wide acclaim, a frenzy over the 1997 vintage had already taken hold. Hyperbolic pre-release endorsements had begun to appear in all of the major American trade and consumer wine publications, first with regards to Tuscany in general, and then specifically as pertained to its greatest red wine, Brunello. After the wines were released for sale, comments like the following, from Tuscan resident and Wine Spectator senior editor James Suckling, were not uncommon: "The one Italian wine you must buy this year is 1997 Brunello di Montalcino," a vintage which, he said "delivered the highest percentage of outstanding wines I have yet encountered in my tasting career."
Small, although steadily growing production has kept prices advancing during this period of increasing demand. Total production is capped today at about 450,000 cases, which is up from approximately 350,000 in 1999, and only 110,000 in 1986. About 65% is exported, with the US market, the largest outside of Italy, accounting for about a quarter of the overall production. As production has increased, so has a division among the most quality conscious and best capitalized producers, versus some of the smaller estate growers who are only recently bottling their wines. In the latter camp there are many who maintain outstanding quality procedures, but also some who push production capacity to its limit of nearly 4 tons per acre, and who produce as little of the "second wine", Rosso di Montalcino, as they possibly can in an effort to satisfy demand and maximize profits. One of the DOCG regulations which is strictly enforced entails "de-classification" of at least 30% of the production each vintage from Brunello, with its longer aging requirements, to earlier maturing Rosso, which is a DOC that must age for only a year prior to release.
The uniqueness of Montalcino, it's generally agreed, results from its privileged high altitude terroir, located about 25 miles south of Siena. The area is quite sunny during most growing seasons and consequently produces very ripe grapes whose potential alcohol levels often reach 14 per cent without difficulty. Another characteristic is unusually high extract levels. The total Montalcino zone covers about 60,000 acres of extremely hilly acreage in the southern part of the Chianti zone, but the terrain is so rocky that only about 5000 acres can be cultivated, and only about half this acreage is planted to Brunello, without any possibility of expanding the vineyard area. The zone's generally warmer climate and brilliantly luminous sunshine typically create rich, lush, concentrated fruit, which moderates the sometimes obtrusive acidity of the Sangiovese grape. But Montalcino's grapes rarely over-ripen because cooling winds are quite strong at the high elevations where the vines grow. In contrast to this uniformly good weather, the region's soils are quite diverse, with the area in the north and east of the DOCG high in clay and volcanic materials, producing wines of perfume, finesse and elegance, the western part of the zone chalkier, with gravel and marl, producing highly structured wines, and the soils in the center and south noted for their high proportion of "galestro", or calcareous stony soils, which are prevalent further north in Tuscany's Classico region and produce wines of great richness. Many producers like to blend from among these various soil types as they feel it produces a better balanced, more harmonious Brunello, although there are some outstanding single vineyard designated wines as well, that many critics feel are the highest expression of the DOCG.
The maturation requirements for Brunello have been somewhat controversial in recent years, with many local voices raised in opposition to the now mandatory 2 years in cask, regardless of vintage conditions. The argument is that there are some years where the wines are lighter and would suffer from having to spend two years in wood. In fact, it was only in 1998 that the minimum legal cask aging went from three years down to two (covering wines from the 1995 vintage), although current regulations still mandate that the release date is the same as before, no earlier than the fifth year after the harvest. This stipulation gives the big wine plenty of time to harmonize, and also has the effect of creating anticipation in certain years. As Brunello is always the last wine to be released, there have traditionally been strong expectations awaiting the wines' arrival. For instance, while we are drinking 2003 whites from New Zealand and 2000 reds from California, the 1998 Brunello di Montalcino have just hit our shores.
Less controversial in Montalcino than elsewhere in Italy has been the relatively recently introduced practice of aging some wines in new French oak barriques rather than in larger neutral containers (locally called "botti") of primarily Slovenian origin. Some producers use barriques, others don't, and still more adjust their mix of practices based on vintage considerations, but since the flavor profile of the wine lends itself easily to a wide range of techniques (the principal point being that the wines are so intense there is little danger of their being overpowered by new oak flavors), Brunello winemakers are not engaged in divisive rhetorical squabbling about the advisability of one protocol versus another. The development of new, more perfectly ripened clones of Sangiovese Grosso in particular has been cited as a factor that permits the barrique-aging regimen, because the wines now are able to support more intense oak phenolics without being swamped in tannin. There is also much less ideological lamentation from the press over potential loss of traditional identity and uniqueness with respect to Brunello di Montalcino (perhaps in part because the wines are of such recent origin) than one often hears regarding changes affecting classic European wine zones such as Piedmont or the Northern Rhone Valley. If an international style of red wine is emerging some feel obliterates uniqueness and homogenizes wines into a similar flavor profile, fewer voices appear to be raised against it here. In any case, the practice of barrique aging Brunello seems to be increasing.
There has been somewhat more controversy, however, surrounding the regulations about how long the wines must age. A major change occurred beginning in the 1995 vintage, with a reduction of wood maturation from a mandatory three years to two. Debate has now centered on proposals to reduce the period further, but there is resistance to change among some of the top producers who feel that this would be a shortsighted compromise of the wine's traditional style to meet current market demands. The important point, and this is in keeping with the general philosophy affecting Italian wines from other prestige appellations, is that the overall length of aging has not been reduced, so that the mandatory time in bottle before sale has actually been lengthened. A consensus has emerged that bottle aging mellows big red wines and increases their drinkability and nuance upon release, whereas a lengthy sojourn in wood can potentially dry out the fruit.
Perhaps a further key to Brunello's reputation is its point of difference compared to all of the other great classified Tuscan wines - it's 100% Sangiovese, without any blending whatsoever. Because it's often more fleshed out and less angular than Sangiovese from elsewhere in the region, it's a badge of pride not only for the zone, but for all of Italy. This practice had come under attack in some quarters during the 1990s, but the brilliant success of the wines, in both the domestic and the export markets, has silenced the debate for now among those who were advocating the legal addition of other grape varieties. This is due in some measure to the clonal improvements that have been noted, and the more flexible aging requirements, but also, without question, to the string of very fine vintages, of which 1997 is only the most famous. The Consorzio rates each of the vintages according to their quality potential, and in the last several years they have awarded the top ratings of 5 stars to two vintages (1995 and 1997), 4 stars three (1998, 1999 and 2001) and 3 stars to two (1996 and 2000). These numbers can be misleading as they don't take into account the style of the wines. For instance, the 1996s are wines which are brilliantly forward and were delicious upon release, and the 1999s are reputed by insiders to be as strong in many cases as the fabled 1997s, and in fact more classically balanced. 2000, which experienced a withering heat wave that tended to stress the vines and overripen some of the grapes (irrigation remains illegal in Montalcino despite having been ratified as an emergency option in Chianti Classico) will produce much less wine than average, by about 10 to 15%, so those that are bottled will probably be the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, prices for Brunello have risen relentlessly since the release of the great 1990s in 1995, following this run of generally terrific harvests and the resulting strong demand. Brunello's good luck streak, it should be noted, ran out in 2002, which will be difficult overall in Tuscany, and in particular in Montalcino, due to uncharacteristically heavy rains near harvest.
Note should be taken of the generally excellent quality of the Rosso di Montalcino DOC wines during this period, and the extent to which their wines remain modestly priced. Because of the mandatory "de-classification", Rossos from a great house are often spectacular in a great vintage, and they can be extremely good in lesser years (when the house makes little if any Brunello, and uses their best grapes for Rosso production). Of course this also means that less scrupulous producers can indiscriminately vinify and label the majority of their wine with the more famous name and higher price tag every harvest if they chose to do so because they are allowed to make 70% of it as Brunello - but in practice this has not generally been a major problem. As is in keeping with our demand for other wines, such as Champagne and Port, the American market is extremely loaded in the direction of the more expensive products. Rosso di Montalcino is not as vibrant a category here as Brunello is. In fact, it is considerably rarer, while costing only a fraction of the price. Rosso typically bottles only about half of the amount of wine on average as its more illustrious sibling. It can represent spectacular value at a price that is generally about a third as expensive. Generally a lighter wine, and in the hands of some producers a much lesser wine, the Rosso produced at the top estates is often incredibly good because it's wine of top quality that cannot be used in the Brunello because of the mandatory minimum 30% that must be bottled under another name. Rosso can excel in poor vintages where the reputation and price commanded by Brunello does not justify bottling more than a fraction of the normal production. In addition, there are wonderful vintages - 1995, 1997 and 1999 among them - where outstanding conditions ripened all of the grapes beautifully, despite the fact that some must be matured earlier and sold at a lower price. These wines seem particularly relevant in today's cost conscious market, and they also represent an opportunity for restaurants to pour a wine from Montalcino so that diners can gain an understanding of the style of the commune's wines without having to splurge on a bottle. At the other end of the spectrum, the Brunello Riserva and "cru" single vineyard designations are usually of extremely high quality and produced in minuscule amounts, commanding commensurately elevated prices. Some producers don't use the Riserva designation though, as their feeling is that all of their wines are of reserve level quality and the longer minimum wood aging only detracts from their quality.
The prospects for Montalcino in the immediate future are somewhat cloudy given the price structure and the increasing devaluation of the dollar versus the Euro, a situation which does not appear to be likely to reverse at any time in the near future. Although producers are cognizant of the American market, there are a string of very strong vintages in the pipeline, and with relatively small quantities to sell and an overheated press, there does not appear to be much incentive to cut prices. Perhaps this represents an opportunity for us to become more familiar with Rosso di Montalcino, and to understand that these wines can represent extraordinary value, which are actually quite flexible with a variety of dining choices.