Posts Tagged ‘Brunello’
Tim Atkin MW’s theme at Vini Italiani’s Sangiovese evening was ‘embrace the diversity, even the difficulty of Italian wine’. The list of indigenous varieties might seem endless, the DOCs may be ever expanding, the rules complex and seeming designed to provoke rebellion in a naturally individualistic people, but it’s worth it. Rather like the temperamental Sangiovese grape itself, which demands the right site (especially good drainage) and endless attention in the vineyard, the results can be remarkable – pale in colour, challenging in its acidity and tannins but refreshing, excellent with food, ageable if of a certain quality, expressive of place (‘somewhereness’, Matt Kramer’s definition of terroir). The selection of wines on the evening gave an excellent introduction to the various styles in Tuscany and, as it happens, was nicely complementary to the recent blind tasting at Overton where we were treated to old vintages. Here Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano and one of the rebellious superstars of Chianti got their proper share of the limelight.
Tim sets out the economic importance of this variety: of the supposed 80,000 hectares of vineyard in Italy (including some phantom vineyards which are registered for the purpose of getting EU distillation money), Sangiovese is planted on a huge 70,000 ha. Toscana alone accounts for 40,000 of this, though the variety is present in 17 of Italy’s 20 regions. There are also plantings in Australia (Mudgee, Mclaren Vale, probably both too hot, and the Limestone Coast), Argentina (planted by Italian immigrants for cheap wine), South Africa (a tiny amount) and California (Antinori tried and gave up at Atlas Peak but cool Santa Barbara has good Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, both fully paid up members of Italy’s awkward squad, being determined non-travellers.
If Sangiovese is a rather queasy traveller, what the tasting rightly showed was the diversity of styles within its Tuscan stronghold. Warm, extracted and fuller bodied in the Maremma, light and refreshing in Chianti Classico, sterner in Montepulciano, taut and ethereal at a star estate near Radda in Chianti.
Bellamarsilia, Morellino di Scansano DOCG, 2010 – organically grown, innocent of any oak, ruby in colour with the pink tinge of youth; simple cherry fruit, medium-plus acidity, medium ripe tannins: simple, well made, drinking pleasure
Le Cinciole, Chianti Classico DOCG, 2008 – from Panzano, one of the very best sub zones, pale ruby, modest cherry nose but then very attractive cherry and sour-cherry fruit, savoury, light in the mouth, very good acidic and tannic attack
Dei, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, 2008 – richer fruit than the preceding Classico, quite austere even if by Montepulciano standards this is modern and approachable in style. Balanced and classy.
Il Mandrione, La Corsa, Maremma Toscana IGT, 2008 – from fruit grown at coastal Orbetello and vinified in next door Lazio, this showed prune, oak and leather notes with a soft palate if with balancing acidity. Unusual and atypical attempt at a 100% Sangiovese wine from the coast which came out somewhat like the Syrah which is increasingly grown all over the region.
Montevertine, Toscano Rosso IGT, Montevertine, 2009 – the youngest and by some margin the best wine of the evening: brilliant medium-minus crystal-clear ruby in the glass, superb refreshing red fruits and subtle oak ageing affects on nose and especially palate; subtle, richness without effort … a great wine to, well, drink for its poise and well hidden intensity. See my post on the levels of obsessive commitment which goes into making of these paradoxically simple but great wines.
Il Sasso, Mauro Vanucci, Carmignano DOCG, 2006 – a very good example of this tiny 110 ha region of many aristocratic estates 15 km west of Florence. The distinguishing mark is the minimum 20% Cabernet, established here the best part of a century before it made a splash in Bolgheri. Deep ruby, aromas of ripe red and some black fruit, French oak and a well covered 14.5% of alcohol. Still Tuscan it its fine acidity and tannins but only just.
San Fillipo, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, 2007 – a slightly reductive nose (I prefer my onion and garlic aromas from the plate rather than the glass!), but then classic savoury fruit, quite intense, a relatively soft palate from the attractive, early drinking, 2007 vintage. Classy, even if it didn’t quite provide the climax to the evening that everyone was hoping for.
The other gem of the evening was Tim Atkins relaying the Tuscan consultant Alberto Antonini’s approach to making a Sangiovese based wine: bleed the vats of 20-30% of the juice to increase concentration (and make some rosé as a bonus); high fermentation temperatures of 30-32 degrees for colour extraction; maximise contact with the skins (punch down regularly, 10 days maceration time), barrel ferment for better integration of oak; age for 18-24 months in barrels, bottle after 3-5 years – an expensive, demanding approach to Tuscany’s signature grape. It would be interesting to conjecture which of the above wines comes closest to this approach.
September’s BBC2 was a postponed celebration of a birthday – and the custom is that the birthday girl gets to choose the theme which in this case was Sangiovese. The likelihood, therefore, was there would be quite a lot of Tuscan, or at least, central Italian wines. The questions for a blind tasting might be:
- would be able to spot any non-Italian wines?
- would there be clear stylistic differences between the Tuscan zones: Chianti Classico, Montalcino, others?
- how does Sangiovese age in the bottle?
- how does Sangiovese compare in quality to other fine wines?
The wines were sorted by one of our members and served in two main flights, with two outriders. What did we learn from a blind tasting of 11 bottles?
As a joker, I brought a Sangiovese di Romagna, Palastri, 2010. This wine cost £4.65 (on special offer but a real price in Sainsburys) and was probably the cheapest wine ever brought to the BBC. It showed simple, sour cherry and red plum fruit, moderate if present tannins and acidity but was perfectly drinkable and showed some regional character. The trick is to have ripe enough fruit to give some real fruit character, moderate acidity and ripe tannins and then to keep it on its skins for just long enough to extract a good colour but not those powerful tannins for which this variety is famous. This wine is a a tribute to the versatility of the Sangiovese grape and to clean, accurate, modern winemaking. It is also an important representative of the inexpensive wines which make Sangiovese the most planted of all Italian grape varieties, 10% of all area under vine in Italy is Sangiovese, from the Veneto down to Puglia.
After this start, six wines were presented which were deemed to have something in common – not least that they were made with Sangiovese as the major grape variety. Blends were allowed as after all most Tuscan DOCs are blends.
Lesson 2. It is surprisingly difficult to spot the non-Italians (especially if they are 10+ years old)
There was a pretty wide consensus that the first of these six was not from central Italy – and we were right. Secondly, we thought that wine number 4 was not like the others – but we were wrong to think it was non-Tuscan. Nor did we spot that wine 2 was the other non-Tuscan. Wine 1 was in fact Hannibal, Bouchard Finlayson, Walker Bay, South Africa, 2002. It just about qualifies for this field as there is more of the nominated
Lesson 3. It is also challenging to spot the classic Tuscan regions from other well made wines!
The remaining four of the six were all Tuscan and as it turned out two were Chianti Classico and two were not. As least we noticed that wine number 4 was different, though we had it in the new world rather than in southerly Tuscan Scansano. This is right as the Maremma is Tuscany’s new world – warmer and less constrained by rules. L’Arcille, Poggio Trevvalle, Morellino di Scansano Riserva, 2007 was a high quality wine already developing attractive forest floor notes on the nose, while the palate was dense with modern clean fruit and lower acidity than some – warmer climate than Chianti if with some altitude. The other non-Chianti was from northern Tuscany. Tenuta di Valgiano, Palistorti, Colline Lucchese, 2007 had lively acidity and tannin, and was quite rich on the nose and palate (tasted after the older Washingtonian), with old oak notes. This flight finished with two more mainstream wines – La Prima, Castello Vicchiomaggio, Chianti Classico Riserva, 2001 and Rancia, Félsina Berardenga, Chianti Classico Riserva, 1999. Although there was a step up in intensity to La Prima, it was surprisingly light in body, even sleek, but not with the impact that you might expect from a big name. The Berardenga was all that you might expect in terms of tertiary iodine and savoury, meaty notes with surprisingly high tannins which on this showing may never soften!
4. Brunello di Montalcino shows its class
The final flight was three wines, a Rosso and two Brunello from the Montalcino appellation. We did not taste these in the same flight as the preceding six but there was a marked step up in complexity and in class. The Rosso (less ageing requirement) stood up well in this company: San Polo, Rosso di Montalcino, 2007 had a slightly medicinal nose with fine Sangiovese fruit to follow, in a classic austere style. The second of these three was hailed as the wine of the evening: La Fuga, Brunello di Montalcino, 2001 with some restraint on the nose and then a fabulously long and succulent palate – those famous tannins have been softened and elongated by a decade of ageing, some of it in large, neutral oak barrels. A rich quite modern style but a wonderful wine. As a good contrast, the final dry wine was from one of the stars of this appellation which has so many fine, small estates alongside the big boys: Podere Salicutti, Brunello di Montalcino, 1998. This again was in the classic austere style with classy sour red cherry and dried fruit prominent and that big tannic/acidic structure now well rounded out. On a personal note I was delighted that this was good, not least as I had taken the chance to buy a whole 12-bottle case of this mature Brunello (with a couple of others at this tasting) and this was the first bottle broached by me – or them! No pressure then. For a full profile of Francesco Leanza’s commitment to producing great Brunello, see my piece here.
5. Vin Santo made from Sangiovese is a rare treat
The final wine of this splendid evening was by courtesy of Laura Perini whose very specialised estate Janet and I visited in the summer on a day of visits near the picturesque tourist resort and port of Castiglione della Pescaia. Laura kindly sent us a bottle for this tasting. Vin Santo is normally white, a good use for the acidity-retaining Trebbiano grape, but occasionally red versions are made by the same method of semi-drying the grapes before pressing and then ageing in wood. The class of wine is given the name Occhio di Pernice, pheasant’s eye, which no doubt helps when selling it as normally it is expensive (as all quality Vin Santo should be given the production difficulties). Sestosenso, DOC Vin Santo Montereggio di Massa Marittima, is a simple, delicious example. Moderately aromatic, in the glass it developed chocolate and coffee notes (presumably oak derived) to go with the red fruit of Sangiovese.
While I need no persuading of the merits of Sangiovese as a grape variety and Janet is a self-styled Sangiovista, this was an excellent introduction to the quality and ageing potential of central Italy’s most important grape variety. Most important areas were present, even if we missed Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the wines of the Marche and the Sangiovese-based Super Tuscans, eg Tignanello. The wines here were of a very high quality, earthy, savoury and structured. The non-Italian examples were surprisingly good given Sangiovese’s reputation for not being much of a traveller. Given Italian love of sparkling wine somebody will be make a sparkling version … no shortage of acidity, not overly fruity, controlling the tannins will be the thing, so perhaps a blanc de noir is the next big thing!
And on the subject of sparkling wines, as an aperitif we also had a superb complex Cava, reputedly among the best: Kripta, Cavas Agustí Torelló, Cava Brut Nature, Gran Reserva, 2002, with powerful autolytic notes that would give many top Champagnes a run for their money. Great bottle shape too – obviously you will have a sommelier on hand to hold the bottle for you. Thanks to all who contributed the wines to make this such a special tasting.
With the whole world of wine to choose from, which three grape varieties would you group together for a focused red wine tasting where there is noticeable relationship between the varieties? The two Cabs and Merlot would be one obvious choice – but the range of styles around the world might lead to a loss of focus and what would you do about blends? Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre typically make a better blend than a comparison based on single varietal wines. Lea & Sandeman made an excellent choice with Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. This worked really well for two reasons. First, all three varieties make relatively pale wines which rely more on perfume, elegance and balance than just sheer power. Second, they are (probably!) my three favourite varieties of all – think sublime red Burgundy, evolving, long-lived, tannic Barolo and Barbaresco and finally, complex, herby, acidic Chianti and Brunello. How could it go wrong? With this quality of wines, it couldn’t.
The tasting offered a superb example to compare the styles of the three varieties, mostly in their classic regions. The Pinot from Burgundy, which travels the best of the three, was joined by a few choice examples from New Zealand and Argentina (yes). The Nebbiolo came from the Langhe in Piemonte, that is from its unsurpassed home territory. The Sangiovese came in its Brunello form only from Montalcino, one of its classic Tuscan expressions. The bulk of the tasting – in fact the two sides of the table you can see – was Pinot and Nebbiolo, with the Brunello an interesting side show with the producers present.
While these varieties all show marked, if subtle, variation from one vineyard to the next (thereby keeping wine writers in business), there are generalisations to be made. The Pinot at these levels (from generic red Burgundy up to some premier cru) were pale in colour, with fresh and attractive raspberry and strawberry fruit, moderate oak notes, relatively light in the mouth, around 13% of alcohol, present if unobtrusive tannins; in short, elegant and refreshing. They compliment food with their moderate flavours, refreshing acidity and poise. Of the many excellent examples, I would pick Domaine Theulot Juillot, Mercurey Premier Cru Les Combins 2009 for its perfume and elegance, the combination of lightness in the mouth and depth of fruit, and its length (£15.60 plus VAT). Great quality and value from a less exalted area.
Having worked up the rue de Pinot Noir, you take a 180 degree turn and head down the strada di Nebbiolo. It would be far to simple to state that you head down ‘tannin street’, but obviously this is the most marked change. These wines made from Nebbiolo have an noticeable structure which comes from a combination of higher alcohol levels, typically 14% though right up to 15%, and that wonderful tannic rasp which, if the fruit is ripe and it is well handled, makes for great, long lived wines. To be fair to these examples, the alcohol was not at all obtrusive but was balanced by fruit and acidity. The flavour and textural profile is rather different too: the red fruit is there (sour cherry) but is held together with the effects of ageing in, mainly, older and larger barrels. The wine has a steely tautness. This time two choices: an entry level wine of great quality: Nebbiolo, Langhe, Andrea Oberto, 2010 (£11.50 plus VAT) and a fine expression, Barbaresco from the Fausoni vineyard, Andrea Sottimano, 2008 (£29 plus VAT).
And finally ‘the brown one’, ie the type of Sangiovese grown on the Montalcino plateau, at 450m above sea level which increases the day/night temperature difference and gives a longer growing season, concentrating flavours. Most Sangiovese is not as pale as either of the other grape varieties in this line up and Brunello, with its long ageing in large oak barrels, is certainly the darkest of these three wines. Unfortunately there was no Rosso di Montalcino on show as that would have made a better comparison with the basic Pinot and Nebbiolo; but fortunately there were seven Brunello to be tasted! These wines (apart from the very best) do not jump out of the glass at you like some of those above – but they have a solidity, a lasting structure in the mouth which makes up for that. Interestingly, they were refined, not bold and rustic, with subtle sour cherry and sharp black plum fruit, restrained old oak, a full palate, with weight in the mouth with refined tannins and real length. The one that showed most promise for the future was Collemattoni, Brunello di Montalcino, 2007 (£22.25 plus VAT) with splendid refreshing sharpness; the current star, Fuligni, 2004 riserva with fabulous depth of fruit and complexity, the aromas now coming out of the glass … simultaneously rounded and demanding (£46.75 plus VAT).
Congratulations to Lea & Sandeman for this study in pale (mostly), red and elegant.
The launch of the 2006 vintage of Brunello has been mildly controversial. This special wine is made from the particular type of Sangiovese grape variety grown on the Montalcino plateau in southern Tuscany; the resulting wine is released for sale after five years, at least two of which have to be in oak. The launch has not been controversial with a big C – the big row which erupted in 2008 continues over whether some growers have in recent years been ‘improving’ their Brunello by adding small amounts of Merlot or Cabernet to improve the colour and roundedness of their wines, which, while harmless to health, would be fraud.
Rather, with regard to the 2006 vintage, the issue has been over the quality level. Understandably the growers’ consortium was hoping for some unadulterated (sorry) good news to put recent events behind them and it has have been quick to hail 2006 as a five star vintage. And influential American commentators have been wildly adulatory about the quality. By contrast the word from the Brunello anteprima, the trade tasting of the new wines in Tuscany itself, was much more mixed. Wine journalists reported some very good wines and some ordinary ones. This matters to the wine lover as Brunello is the biggest name in Italian fine wines (as shown in recent market research). The wines are not cheap so we really need to know how good they are.
A tasting in London gave a chance to make one’s own mind up, at least about one large and prestigious producer. Best of all it gave the chance to compare this wine with two earlier good years, 2004 and 1997. It was a privilege to be at this event at which Marchese Leonardo Frescobaldi presented his wines with apparently tireless good humour and courtesy, and threw in an excellent lunch in the setting of the restaurant which bears his family’s name tucked into a smart corner of the large, new wine department at Harrods. We British are very susceptible to a touch of class, not to mention lunch, so I will be as objective as I can be! But, on the other hand, wine is supposed to be enjoyed with good food in excellent and, if possible, informed company, so in another way this was a perfect setting to try the wine.
In general 2006 was a good to excellent year in Tuscany. On the coast and in the Maremma it was very good – but then it nearly always is. A better indicator is Chianti Classico which, like Brunello, also comes from inland sites and some altitude. In Chianti the wines are excellently fresh and balanced: see Chianti Classico finds its soul. But all this matters not a jot – what matters is what the year was like on the CastelGiocondo estate where the grapes were grown and the answer here is ‘mixed’. Lamberto Frescobaldi, the winemaker, wrote in his diary in late August of his foreboding. The weather continued to be cloudy and cool and he was anxious about the forthcoming harvest. In his mind were the countless of hours of work which had been put in by his workers in wind, rain and the unforgiving sun, and whether this would all come to nothing if the poor weather continued. But the good news was that September brought the stable sunny weather which all were hoping for and a fine harvest followed. So what is the wine like? And how does Brunello from good years develop in the bottle?
You can see on the left that the 2006 is a typical mid to pale ruby red of oak aged Sangiovese – a good colour but not overly dense. It is a five year old wine aged in mainly used French barriques so it has lost the purple edge of youth. By contrast, the 1997, on the right, has developed that marvellous pale brick red associated with older wines. In another decade the orange notes would be even more marked.
The 2006 has an immediately attractive cherry nose with some balsam notes, of medium intensity. It is fresh and hits a good compromise between assertiveness and elegance. This is followed on palate by an impressive attack, the characteristic acidity of Sangiovese, with lots of sour cherry fruit, but there is also some softness (by the standards of Brunello) with modern oak effects, not vanilla but hints of smoke and chocolate, and quite fine and moderate tannins. In terms of modern versus traditional, it just creeps into the modern end of the spectrum of Brunello – attractively drinkable at a mere five years of age, but recognisably Tuscan and with the structure and assertiveness of Brunello. Is it a great vintage? – I am not sure; I would need to taste a lot more examples and we will all need to see how it develops over time. Is it a fine wine? Certainly it is.
The 2004 comes from an uncontestably good vintage, very even and reliable. It is now in young mid life and has developed a sort of sleek refinement to go with the sour cherry, mineral and maturation notes and powerful structure. It finishes with liquorish and cloves and is altogether complex and very polished. If you like your Brunello on the young side, this is wine to drink now and for the next five years – as the Marchese agreed over lunch.
1997 was a difficult and painful year for the growers affected by the hail storms in April which massively reduced the eventual crop. What survived was very good indeed, but not much survived. Now fourteen years old all the fresh fruit-related flavours have been transformed into layers of mushroom and undergrowth, rounded on the palate, earthly and mineral, with a spicy finish. Not really a wine for drinking (except perhaps with the lamb with mushroom dish it just about accompanied if you had saved some till this point), more for savouring with friends who will appreciate its subtlety and development.
Whatever the final view on the 2006s, this tasting showed the enduring appeal of wines from a great territory with genuine vintage variation. Brunello is never going to be an easy ride with its initial dose of acidity and tannin. But these are what give the wine its structure, power and durability. But the way that the wines develop over years and even decades and the variation from year to year are the factors which give Brunello its perennial fascination. In this way, 2006 takes its place with many other good to excellent years.
Other 2006 vintage Brunello
For the sake of comparison, here are some further wines from Montalcino from the 2006 vintage. Both are from the Lea & Sandeman tasting in May 2011:
Collemattoni 2006, 14.5% – on first impression this did not seem that impressive but I think that was just me. On a second tasting, the perfumed nose was very evident (modest wood effects and underlying fruit), then fine textured fruit, extremely drinkable already.
Fuligni 2006, 14.5% – strikingly rich, with a fresh palate and layers of interest, substantial if fine tannins reassure that this is for long term development.
Sangiovese, the most important red grape of Tuscany, is famously variable. It produces both thin sour wine (though today there is really no excuse for this) and some of Italy’s most magnificent, structured and age-worthy reds. The May 2010 edition of Decanter magazine gives the Brunello riserva of 2004 from Biondi-Santi an amazing 20/20 score – apparently the perfect wine, even if it is a breathtaking £200 a bottle.
A huge range of Sangiovese styles was available of course at the recent Vinitaly. My tastings of the wines from the Maremma (eg the very traditional and wonderful Podere 414 or the warm climate Parmaletto wines of Montecucco) will be added to the Tuscan Maremma pages of this site. Here I want to concentrate on a favourite Chianti zone, cool Rufina, and one classic wine from southerly Montalcino.
The Rufina zone is easy to reach as it is basically just east of Florence on the steep hills which rise from the Sieve river. It is the coolest of the Chianti zones and can produce the most wonderfully austere wines with long ageing potential. Fortunately this style is not to everyone’s taste so the wines are good value too.
The Rufina consortium’s stand at Vinitaly gave a wonderful opportunity to taste a number of wines side-by-side and to compare each growers normale with the riserva. Mind you, there is nothing ‘normal’ about these normali.
Here are the two offerings from the large firm of Galliga e Vetrice. A trick of the light makes the normale on the right look rather darker than in reality, while the ageing of the riserva can clearly be seen in the brown tinge on the right. The latter is available at a great price from Berry Bros.
It would be tedious to rehearse all the wines here. The pair shown above illustrate the two main styles, with the normale (2008) having wonderful freshness, a real zing and some classy minerality. By contrast the riserva of 2007 is very young and still showing tobacco and leather notes from oak ageing and is very tannic, very distinctive and will no doubt be wonderful in 5-10 years time.
We also tasted wines from the very cool sites of Marchesi Gondi (their 2005 riserva has lots of potential but is still a sleeping giant), while Castello di Trebbio riserva 2006 has more fruit and is already drinking well – but then it was a better year. We also enjoyed Dreolino’s two offerings.
By complete contrast, at the Castello di Argiano stand we managed to catch up with a modern cult classic. Argiano is one of the big names of the world famous Montalcino area which is a relatively high plateau with a distinctive geology and a local form of Sangiovese known as Brunello, the ‘little dark one’. From these special berries – and three to five or more years in large, neutral, oak barrels – emerge wines of great complexity, structure and longevity. Our short tasting started with the Brunello di Montalcino of 2005. Such is the richness of the experience at Vinitaly that you can occasionally skip all the ‘lesser’ wines and start with Brunello. 2005 was a mixed year but this now has nicely browning edges to its medium ruby colour, an attractive nose of red fruit and violets, and good balance.
But the bottle we really wanted to taste is simply called Suolo – soil. When we visited Argiano four years ago, I tried to buy a bottle of this not knowing how much it cost (€70), but it was sold out. It is not Brunello in its typical style at all but a wine made from the same 100% Sangiovese grapes from 50 year old vines. The principal difference is that the wine is aged for 18 months in new and one year old barriques, not the traditional larger botti. This treatment means that it is a rather more modern style, with more obvious vanilla and leather aromas from the new oak, luxurious rather than austere. But the real triumph in this 2007 vintage is the beautiful, ripe fruit which shines through. There is plenty of room in my (sadly hypothetical) grand cellar for brilliant new wines of this quality alongside traditional Brunello which will go on developing for years or decades.
As you drive from the south towards the high plateau on which the hill town of Montalcino sits in Southern Tuscany, you can’t really miss the presence of Banfi. In a mixed landscape of farming, woods, hunting land and of course vineyards, once you cross the River Orcia you see first an enormous factory of a winery – there is no other word – and then the romantic castle.
The winery, down on the plain, is a bit of a blot on the landscape. But then, we can be too snooty about this – it provides employment, wealth and a serious commitment to lifting the standards of everyday wine, which is its mainstay. So Banfi is a big, big player.
The firm’s everyday wines are good, modern bottles. They show lots of innovation with an unusually wide range of wines for Tuscany – a full range of international grape varieties and even a Pinot Grigio, all carried forward by expertise in vineyard and winery, and the power of the brand.
But brands don’t really get prestige unless they have quality wines. And Banfi has to succeed with its Brunello as, after all, we are not far from the walls of Montalcino. This variety is part of the large Sangiovese family, capricious, given to variation, difficult to grow and vinify well, prone to excess acid and astringency. In short, as capable of the bad and the ugly as the good and the great.
Historically, Brunello was a bit of a beast to be tamed. The word is simply the local name for the type of Sangiovese grown here. As it hints (brunello – brunette!), the grape produces wine that is darker than it relatives, with high tannins and acidity. Back in the nineteenth century the Biondi-Santi family created a style for it: put simply, make wine, put in large barrel and wait for five years for the beast to calm down. Hopefully what emerged was a wine of complex, aged fruit, scents of liquorice and tobacco*, long lived. But that takes time and so is an expensive proposition. A tasting in London of the Banfi’s top wines showed how they at least are tackling this challenge.
The tasting at Decanter’s Fine Wine Encounter, November 2009, was led by Cristina Mariani-May, part of the owner’s family. She gave us the family philosophy, emphasising raising quality through investment and research. The wines themselves spoke clearly of how Banfi want to re-position Brunello as a more immediately attractive wine.
Brunello Poggio alle Mura is only made in exceptional years. The 2004 is a complex wine, attractively ruby in colour, with fresh and dried fruit flavours and a luscious topping of French oak, vanilla especially. In the mouth it is refined but with a great streak of acid. I had a double reaction to it. On taking the very first sniff, I wrote down ‘happiness’ for its excellent Sangiovese character and immediate appeal. And then I thought – but it’s very atypical for Brunello and, more importantly, what is going to happen when the veneer of French barrique wears off? But we will only be able to tell that in another 5-10 years …
You can clearly see the effect of even short-term ageing in the picture of the 2004 (on the left, with the brighter red) and the 2001 (on the right, developing some orange at the rim). This second wine was more traditional, a nose of sour cherries, preserved fruit and plums, a wine that you have to go toward, rather than it leaping out of the glass at you. That may answer the question in relation to the 2004 (and all may be well) but certainly, it is immediately appealing. Banfi know about modern (American?) consumers and that they don’t want to wait to drink their wine.
The older wines are more typical, all well-made, with no signs of oxidisation common in more average wines.
Brunello 1999 – musky, beautiful fruit, much better balance now between overall weight in the mouth and acidity
Brunello 1997 – mulberries and plums, earthy or mushroom notes beginning to develop, balsam, still refreshing
Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1995 – a star wine, powerful notes of fruit, liquorice, velvety, still good acid and a drying finish
Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1990 – a wine which split opinion, some found the nose vegetal and earthy, with fading fruit, others something closer to eucalyptus or menthol, rounded in the mouth, acidity now a side show. On the way down or over?
Thanks to Decanter and to Banfi for this tasting – probably the best £10 we have spent for a long time! Banfi’s Brunellos in their current style won’t please the traditionalists. But they will keep Brunello, this great expression of Sangiovese, in the shop window of the world’s great red wines.
* Looking back on this post in summer 2012, having returned from Montalcino, I am struck by the this description: nothing about sour cherries or pale colour; too much about wood effects from new barrels. I was clearly under the (Banfi) influence at the time of writing. But it is a style some people like.