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Brunello – Tuscany's Great Red... and its Baby Brother who deserves more limelight (May 9, 2002)

Chianti, Italy's best-known wine, is made from Sangiovese, usually blended with Canaiolo and sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. But Tuscany also boasts two other great reds made from Sangiovese – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (where the grape is locally known as Prugnolo Gentile) and Brunello di Montalcino (a synonym for Sangiovese). Its baby brother is simply called Rosso di Montalcino.

In trying to differentiate the three wines according to their taste, I can only describe the differences in terms of musical instruments: Chianti is a violin, Vino Nobile a viola, and Brunello a cello.

Brunello owes its power to its climate, being significantly warmer and drier than the Chianti regions and marginally more powerful than Vino Nobile. The higher temperatures allow the grapes to ripen fully and produce a wine that can in the best years achieve a natural alcohol of 14 per cent and more – years like 1985 and 1990 spring readily to mind.

The 1997 vintage in Tuscany was superb and nowhere better than in Montalcino where the producers proclaimed the year to be "the best of the 20th century"! "Bottles to go down in history, that will become objects of investment and collectors' items" trumpeted the press release at a Brunello tasting I attended in February. The event took place in the immaculately preserved 14th century fortress that dominates the hilltop town of Montalcino, forty kilometres south of Siena.

A huge tent had been erected within the castellated walls to accommodate tables for 107 Brunello producers along with a large seating area for the world's wine press. When I entered at 9:30 a.m., they handed me a list of participating wineries and I ticked off those Brunellos I wanted to taste. Trained sommeliers brought the glasses to the table, each sample numbered for identification.

Best Rosso di Montalcino 2000

Agostina Pieri
Il Poggiolo (Terra Rosa, Sassello)
La Poderina
La Serena
La Togata
Villa Poggio Salvi

I wish I could tell you I tasted the '97 Brunellos from all 107 producers, but I only managed 47, since I also had to taste a range of Rosso di Montalcino 2000 as well. What makes Rosso attractive is that it is table-ready and less than half the price of Brunello. By law, producers must age Brunello in wood for at least two years (three years for a "Riserva") plus two years in bottle, while Rosso requires a minimum of one year's ageing. The quality of Brunello is kept high because the lesser grapes go into the production of the Rosso. On average, the region produces some 5 million bottles of Brunello a year and a further 3 million bottles of Rosso di Montalcino. This wine is one of Tuscany's best-kept secrets and is something of a bargain, especially in years touted to be "the Vintage of the Century."

As in every region in Italy, there are the traditionalists who prefer to cling to the old ways (Brunello used to have to be aged in cask for at least three years) and the modernists who make wine in New World style and use French 225-litre barriques as opposed to the classic, large wooden casks called botti. In Montalcino, the distinction between the two schools is most evident on the palate. The traditionalists' wines are more austere, firmly structured and tannic – wines that take many years to soften up. The modernists' wines are fruit-driven, spiced with new oak and will mature more quickly.

The icon wine here is Biondi Santi, the legendary Brunello producer who was conspicuous by his absence from the tasting put on by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino. Biondi Santi Il Greppo Brunellos sell for four times the average price of other producers. One of the reasons is that Ferruccio Biondi Santi created the wine in 1888 by isolating the best clone of Sangiovese – the Sangiovese Grosso that he called Brunello. There is, however, some evidence that the red wine of the district was referred to as Brunello as early as the fourteenth century. Those early Biondi Santi wines were aged for as long as six years in cask, and during first 57 years of production the company only declared four vintages – 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945.

So how does the 1997 Brunello vintage stack up? The wines generally have a wonderfully rich extraction and good acidity that will repay cellaring. Whether they will be as good as the Castelgiocondo Brunello Riserva 1990 I had at the Frescobaldi winery the night after the tasting remains to be seen. This wine had a core of sweet red berry fruit with a touch of licorice; it was muscular and fleshy at the same time with an earthy note and still had years of life.

If you want to add some Brunello 1997s to your cellar when these wines are released on the market later this year (for Riservas you'll have to wait until next year)., here are the producers to look for:

  • Abbadia Ardenga
  • Agostina Pieri
  • Banfi
  • Capanna
  • Fanti
  • Il Poggiolo (Terra Rosa, Beato, Sassello)
  • La Poderina
  • Pacenti-Ripaccioli
  • Poggio di Sotto
  • Salicutti
  • Sesti Solaria
  • Tenuta La Fuga

My advice for the frugal wine collector/drinker is to bypass Brunello and go for Rosso di Montalcino, a wine that is table ready and has the same quality as the majestic Brunello, only writ smaller. Currently available across Canada you'll find the following Rosso wines:

New Brunswick: Tenimenti 1999 ($31.14)

Quebec: Castelgiocondo's Campo ai Sassi 1997 ($17.35), Biondi Santi Il Greppo1994 ($45), Argiano 1999 ($21.25), Caparzo 1999 ($24.55), Altesino 1998 ($20.14).

Ontario: (Classics Catalogue) Poggio Antico 1999 ($27)

British Columbia: Banfi 1999 ($28.75), Ciacci Piuccolomini 1999 ($32.35), Pertimali 1999 ($31.95)




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