Friday, February 7, 2014

Brunello di Montalcino: Reflecting Place, Philosophy, Vintage



Hills and vineyards around Montalcino, Italy

I usually write about wines that are on my budget – no more than $25, and most often considerably less. But there are some wines that will never be had for less than $50+ but which are considered by most experts to be worth every penny. For me, these are special occasion wines. Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino is such a wine. 

Once considered rare, Brunello has enjoyed a growing worldwide popularity in the last few decades, thanks in large part to the Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino, which hosted a tasting I attended last week in Beverly Hills, and to sommeliers like Taylor Parsons, Beverage Director at Republique in Los Angeles (formerly wine director at restaurants Mozza, Spago and Campanile) and speaker at the event. Parsons, who advises consumers on food pairings, believes that there is a move on the wine consumer's part to understand the details of wine, and he has a passion for Brunello that he’s eager to share.

Brunello di Montalcino is one of the gems of Italian red wines, and ironically is also considered one of the youngest. It was only in the mid-19th century that wine producers around the foothills between Siena and Florence (which battled over Montalcino frequently), and strategically located overlooking three rivers, decided to break with Tuscan tradition of blending varietals and began to exclusively base their wines on Sangiovese. A series of experiments lead to the Brunello wine of Montalcino.

The Sangiovese grape is highly valued mainly because it can be aged long, allowing red wines of nuance and quality to be produced. It’s high acid and tannins also make it a good food-pairing wine. Brunello di Montalcino requires that the wine be aged a minimum of 24 months in oak casks, 4 additional months in bottles (6 months for “Riserva”), and cannot be sold until January of the fifth year following the harvest (sixth year for Riserva). A minimum of 5 years aging, when combined with precise winemaking methods and the fact that Brunello di Montalcino is now extremely fashionable, all support its hefty price tag.

But there’s more to the story. The municipality of Montalcino is a pristine landscape, and boasts just 3,000 acres of vineyards (compared to nearby Chianti with 41,000 acres) with ancient stone structures dotting the landscape. The vineyards are 1800 feet above sea level and bounded by rivers and protected by a forested mountain, creating a “territory made for wine,” per the Consorzio’s literature. Its soils are rich and varied, but different aspects (directions) of the vineyards create variety among crops. The climate is Mediterranean, tending toward dry. Irrigation is not permitted in the vineyards, so Mother Nature plays a big role year to year.

And the 2009 vintage, which we sampled last week, while a warm one, was not so warm that it affected the wines negatively. In fact, the wines —while not all full-blown yet – were highly drinkable and elegant.

Parsons says Sangiovese “is not just a tannic, earthy red.”  While it’s reflective of a place, a philosophy, and a vintage, he says, it is also susceptible to a heavy hand in the wine cellar. But Italians have “figured out the best place to grow it to be reflective of its terroir.” Because of its acidity, Sangiovese pairs well with rich, fatty meats – typical Tuscan foods – as the acid cuts through the fat. But, says Parsons, “the very thing that makes Brunello good with meat means your average drinker will not drink it as an aperitif."
  
Brunello di Montalcino achieved DOC classification in 1966, which, like France’s Appellation Contrôlée, specifies the geographic area, permitted grape varietals, and minimum alcohol level. It achieved the higher-status DOCG (the “G” meaning Garantita, or Guarantee), which means that in addition to all DOC requirements, the wines must be bottled in the region of production and are subject to tasting by the Ministry of Agriculture. All DOCG wines carry a numbered seal of approval on the bottle.

Three wines that I liked:

Belpoggio ($49-$59, www.belpoggio.it) displayed the sour cherry notes typical of Sangiovese, with powerful yet balanced tannins and acid.

Banfi ($90, www.banfi.com) had an iodine character, “like walking on the beach,” according to the tasting panel. I found this wine quite elegant and complex, with good acid but not too much tannin.

Le Chiuse ($60, www.lechiuse.com) was balanced and elegant with a nice minerality and smooth tannins.

You can find these wines at www.wine2u.com or check with your local retailer. And for a list of Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino producers visit www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it.

Until next time, Ciao!

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