Montalcino – the kingdom of Brunello

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Brunello di Montalcino needs little introduction on account of its fame as one of the great wines of Italy and indeed the world. The production zone of Montalcino is defined by a plateau of between 100 and 560m above sea level surrounded on two sides by the Orcia river.  The town itself is completely dominated by wine, plus summer tourism and honey production, and has splendid views over the surrounding countryside.

Featured wineries
Brief introduction
  • Montalcino is in southern Tuscany, south of Siena and so has a warmer, dryer climate than Chianti Classico; annual rainfall is around 700mm and the plateau is subject to cooling winds from the sea which both give good day-night temperature difference and ventilation.
  • Vintage variation used to be important in Montalcino but recently the only really poor vintage was 2002 (rain) followed by the difficult heat of 2003.  The last eight years have all been regarded as very good (4*) or excellent (5*).  What 2012 will bring is another matter. If the current heat wave with no rain for three months (1 August 2012) continues, we could end up with a harvest of very expensive raisins.
  • the soils are varied with some alluvial soils, marl and limestone. According to Edoardo Costantini’s research team, the distinctiveness of some of Montalcino’s soil types is due to the repeated receding and returning of oceans which mixed up ancient soils from higher areas with younger soils in the middle parts of Montalcino. Kerin O’Keefe reports that Costantini believes that as a result ‘Montalcino’s growing zone boasts many areas with high and very high vocation for Sangiovese’, though other parts of the denomination do not (K O’Keefe, Brunello di Montalcino, University of California Press, 2012, p. 13)
  • the local form of Sangiovese is called Brunello and, depending on which authority you read, is either a distinctive clone or at least a form of Sangiovese Grosso, ie one that has small berries and thick skins.
  • this in turn leads to potentially high alcohol wines (14.5% is becoming common), with plenty of tannins, acidity and extract, particularly given long maceration times sometimes up to a month or so. This results in wines which can be aged for years and decades.
  • unlike Chianti, since Feruccio Biondi-Santi’s practice in the late nineteenth century it became, at least in theory, a monovarietal wine, 100% Sangiovese, and this was enshrined in the DOC of 1960 and the DOCG of 1980.
  • however, as the 2006 edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine states, innocently, some growers have added some Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to the wines to give them appeal. This practice led to the great (or at least well publicised) Brunello scandal of 2008 when four prominent growers were named and their wines declassified on the grounds that they did not conform to the rules. The wines were perfectly harmless; the charge was that they were not what they said they were, but some temporary damage was done to the name of Brunello.  Ironically, the practice of blending with other grape varieties has been (and in other Tuscan zones is) the modern way of tackling the demanding Sangiovese grape, ‘improving’ its colour and fruit concentration, while toning down its acidity and tannins.    Needless to say, since the publicity broke, Brunello has returned to being a uniformly medium ruby and tannic wine.
  • apart from better practice in the vineyard and winery (which has been a noticeable feature of the last decade or so), the legitimate way of tackling the Sangiovese grape is long ageing in wood and bottle before release. The regulations for Brunello require four years plus a minimum of three months in the bottle.  They used to demand four years in wood, but now there is greater flexibility with a minimum of two years in wood, which can in turn be either traditional, fairly neutral, large casks or French barriques, or of course some combination of the two.
  • this means that Brunello should never be and rarely is a cheap wine as it demands that a great deal of stock has to be held by the producer with the provision of cool storage for four years or indeed five years for those classified as Riserva.
  • to tackle this cash flow and price problem, a second wine called Rosso di Montalcino was created, also 100% Sangiovese, but typically made with fruit of younger vines and shorter maceration times. It can be sold 12 months after the harvest.  Because of the fame of the name of Montalcino, these wines too are more expensive than, for example, some good quality Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
  • the massive success of Brunello has seen both a huge increase in production (from 60 hectares in 1960 to 2000 hectares in the mid 2000s) and the virtual elimination of the other traditional wine of the area, sweet Moscadello, made not surprisingly from Muscat.
  • But at its best, Brunello is one of the world’s great wines – complex, multi-layered, expressive of the particular sites on which it is grown, capable of many years development in the bottle.

Featured wineries listed at the top of the page

Page created 1 August 2012, Hotel dei Capitani, Montalcino

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4 Responses to “Montalcino”

  • winefriend:

    Ross – you are going to be surrounded by great vineyards and wineries on your Tuscan trip and so you will be spoiled for choice!

    Montalcino – is a town now completely dominated by the wine trade. In the town itself there are lots of places to try wines, eg Le Potazzine owns the very good café/restaurant called La Vineria and are great enthusiasts for their wine and others. They also do visits to their nearby winery. If you want a taste of old Montalcino, you have to visit the Cantina Padelletti (actually in the town) or eat at their restaurant Osteria d’altri tempi which does offer old wines by the glass at great prices – as well as a fine terrace and very good food at reasonable prices (Montalcino can be expensive).

    With regard to wineries, the first thing to say in general is that Italian wineries (with a few exceptions) are not set up for casual visitors. It is very hit and miss if you just turn up – Italians are very hospitable, but most wineries are very small scale, family businesses which gives them their charm. It is always better to contact them before hand by email or phone. Only the most popular or commercial have staff to welcome casual visitors. If you make arrangements in advance you will be very well looked after.

    For wineries any of the ones featured on my Montalcino pages would be well worth visiting. To take a contrasting pair which are both south of the town, Camigliano or Castelgiocondo are both examples of larger concerns, while La Colombina is a real family concern with outstanding wines – I am sure somebody will speak some English at the latter while the bigger two are very well equipped in that regard. You can Google these or find the websites at the top of my articles. Do mention that I recommended you.

    When you are in Siena you must of course eat at the famous Le Logge (very close to the Campo) which was founded by Gianni and Laura Brunelli and is still supervised by Laura who is sometimes in the restaurant. Laura is a very dear person and would certainly make you welcome.

    On your way to or from Volterra/Siena and Florence you could take a detour into Chianti Classico rather than taking the main road which goes through the bigger, much less interesting Chianti zone. If you do, check out my Chianti Classico pages for amazing places in Radda (eg Caparsa who have a shop and tasting in the town), Castellina, Gaiole etc.

    Romagna I know much less well but am planning a trip there this Easter to put that right. High quality wineries are much thinner on the ground as this is more inexpensive wine country – but there are exceptions. For example, it would be well worth going to Castellucio, between Faenza and Forlí, which is owned by the same family as the outstanding Podere Poggio Scalette near Greve (Chianti Classico). I met them recently at a London tasting and so can vouch for the quality of the wines.

    If I can be of more help do contact me. In the meantime, buon viaggio! You will have a great time.

  • we plan to be based in Sienna with destinations of interest including Parma, Montalcino, Volterra, and Florence.
    We have Parma and Florence figured out. Just need to identify places to taste great local wines

  • winefriend:

    Delighted to hear of the forthcoming trip. If you let me know where you are going to be based and if you have anywhere you know you want to visit, I could suggest a two day itinerary. Buon anno!
    David

  • Hello,

    I found your site to be a wonderful source of information. We are going to
    Emilia Romagna and Tuscany for 7 days. We want to do two days of wine tastings and love Super Tuscans and Brunello.
    We love high quality wineries and spend 2-3 a year in Napa and Sonoma. This will be our first wine tour abroad.
    Can you recommend the best wines/winery tasting to participate it? We prefer going at our own speed (not a formal tasting group.tour)?

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