Wine Ark Friday Focus : Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany
Arguably the most famous quality wine producing region in Italy (come on Barolo and Barbaresco fans- dig into me!), the town of Montalcino is located on top of a hill in the amazingly picturesque rolling hills of Tuscany, West-Central Italy, about 110km south of Tuscany’s main city, Florence. Around this quaint little town (population approx. 5000 people) sit the vines responsible for this blockbuster of a wine. Brunello di Montalcino has a fairly recent wine growing history; after World War II, there was only one producer, the now-acclaimed Biondi-Santi family, producing wines from this area. You see, this tiny region to the South of the huge Chianti zone is actually the most arid of all Tuscan DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) receiving an average annual rainfall of around 700 mm, in contrast to the Chianti region which receives an average of 900 mm. In addition to this it is considerably warmer, with harvest taking place on average a week earlier than in Chianti to the North or Montepulciano to the East. With irrigation illegal in Tuscany, most winemakers thought of this area as a terrible one to grow grapes in, let alone ones of premium quality!
The Brunello grape variety, first mentioned in texts from the 14th Century, was discovered by ampelographers (botanists who study the history and genealogy of vine varieties- yes that is a job) to actually be a slight mutation of the Sangiovese grape, hence its other name Sangiovese Grosso. The first bottle to be labelled with the name Brunello was in 1865, on a wine from the Biondi-Santi vineyards that won the Montepulciano Agricultural fair. After this, the wine was incredibly hard to find- between 1888 and the end of WW2, only 4 vintages were made- talk about a tough place to make wine! Much study has been put into the quality of this mutation, which has now been classified into 6 to 8 different (depending on which winemaker you ask) sub-mutations, each specifically suited to a microclimate and soil type.
The Brunello region can be split roughly into two sections. In the north, the soils are rocky marl (locally called Galestro), creating lighter, intensely structured wines with dense, heavy tannins. In the south, there is much more clay in the soil and the resulting wines are more fruit-forward and plush, as well as more aromatic when young. Usually, winemakers blend from the two sub-zones to build complexity, as well as make a wine that can live a long time, buts still shows open, primary fruit when young. Winemaking styles differ greatly between producers, however each winemaker is striving to create a wine with balanced power, structure and elegance (in most winemaking you can only get1 or 2 of those 3), more possible in this region than surrounding regions. Breakthroughs in technology have helped Montalcino more than most regions- analysis of soil types, variety mutation and berry composition (tannin structure, acidity levels etc) have done in 20 years what took Burgundy 200.
In 1980 Brunello di Montalcino became Italy’s first ever DOCG (up from DOC), putting it on a quality level never before seen in Italy and confirming its place in history. In order to be called Brunello di Montalcino, the wine must be made from 100% Brunello clone Sangiovese, and aged for a minimum 24 months in oak, followed by a minimum 4 months in bottle before release. Different producers use different types of oak (French, American or Slavonian), different sizes barrels (225L Barriques or larger Botti) and different minimum time in oak, all to balance how heavy the wine will be, and how long it can age for. Some prefer the minimum 24 months in larger barrels to show more fruit, some a longer time in small barrels to accentuate tannins and increase longevity. Either way the resulting wine is a powerhouse; incredibly tannic- even after years of ageing, with complex flavours of blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry, chocolate, leather and violets, however it is the searing natural acid that keeps the wine elegant and lifted rather than blocky and heavy.
So, in a region that for centuries was seen as nowhere near good enough to grow grapes we find a region that has, in a relatively short period of time, shot to the top of the wine world. How? The variety is basically Sangiovese which can be found in the Chianti region, as can the Montalcino soil types. 100 years ago, this region had little understanding of varietal mutations and their implications, and even less of soil and sub-soil makeup, as well as no ability whatsoever to refrigerate a room to create an artificial cellar, meaning this region was basically ignored. Modern research and technology has allowed this wine to be grown carefully enough and live long enough to express its true class. Thank goodness for climate-controlled storage!