The most prestigious red wines grown in the southern Tuscan vineyards surrounding the village of Montalcino are based exclusively on Sangiovese Grosso, a distinct clone of the Sangiovese grape also known as “Brunello.” As a wine prized for power, elegant structure, and longevity, Brunello di Montalcino is the ultimate expression of this grape and region, yet its popularity remains a relatively recent phenomenon when compared to other classic Italian wines. Read on to learn more about why Brunello di Montalcino is so special.
The Origins of Brunello
Winemaker Ferruccio Biondi-Santi was responsible for producing the first Brunello di Montalcino in 1865 – an archetype for the styles we know today. Ferruccio’s offspring maintained a monopoly on Brunello production until after World War II. The esteemed reputation of their wines, along with successful plantings by the Banfi company during the 1960s, motivated others to follow suit. Today, there are over 200 estates that make Brunello di Montalcino, many of which are among the most fashionable and collectible wines in the world.
The Terroir of Montalcino
Situated about 25 miles south of Siena and 30 miles from the Mediterranean sea, vineyards planted along the Montalcino hillsides enjoy warm, dry summers cooled by maritime breezes – ideal conditions for viticulture. Vines to the north rest on “galestro” marl soil and are typically at a higher elevation than those to the south, where clay is more prevalent. Standing at more than 5,000 feet high, Mount Amiata plays an important role in shielding the area from inclement weather.
By law, Brunello di Montalcino must be matured in oak for at least two years and aged in bottle for an additional four months. However, finished wines cannot be sold until the fifth year following the harvest year. Many producers use oak barrels called “barriques” to age their wines, but some prefer traditional large oak casks, or “botti,” that tend to emphasize varietal characteristics over wood. Riserva bottlings are rarer, require a minimum of six months bottle aging, and cannot be released until the sixth year following the harvest year.
Brunello di Montalcino comes in two main styles. The modern type is aged in barrique, which imparts stronger aromas and flavors of wood into the wines, while also providing them with additional structure. The traditional version, aged in botti, usually has less wood influence and more emphasis on fruit. Both wines are full-bodied and intensely perfumed, with vibrant acidity and fine-grained tannins. Common tasting descriptors include berries, plums, herbs, roses, vanilla, spices, leather, tobacco, and earth, and many wines will develop further complexity with age. Brunello typically benefits from aeration, and older bottles may need to be decanted. When pairing with food, consider dishes that feature red meat, game birds, mushrooms, truffles, tomato-based sauces, hard cheeses, and other antipasti.