The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

BBS11 and the History of Brunello

Posted on | October 14, 2015 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments

The driveway to Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo, birthplace of Brunello

In the great pantheon of Italian wine, perhaps only Barolo supersedes the importance of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. Celebrated for its ageability, structure, cult status and sophisticated palate, Brunello di Montalcino essentially owes its impressive reputation to three things: a clone known as Sangiovese Grosso, the extraordinary microclimate of the region, and the winemaker Clemente Santi. Were any of these factors different, or missing, Brunello most likely would be impossible, and it would be a very sad world indeed.

At 150 years old, Brunello di Montalcino is a relative upstart in the world of Italian wine. In the mid-1800’s, Clemente Santi realized that one strain of grape growing on his estate seemed to withstand both rot and phylloxera. He focused his attention on the grape he called Brunello, or “little brown one”; it would later become known as clone BBS11. His son, Feruccio Biondi-Santi, was the first person to bottle and release a single-varietal wine fermented from this grape; a handful of bottles remain from his 1881 inaugural bottling. Arguably, the Biondi-Santi family has had a greater impact on Brunello than any other family has had on any other Italian wine. While the idea that Feruccio “invented” Brunello is more myth than fact–historical evidence dates award-winning Montalcino wines to years well before 1881, there is no disputing that the family established guidelines for the Brunello di Montalcino, shaped those guidelines with an iron fist, and remained the only makers of the appellation until around W.W. II. Moreover, by intentionally keeping production low and pricing the wine high, by choosing to skip vintages they saw as inferior, and by mindfully creating a wine that requires intense aging, the Biondi-Santi family effectively created the Brunello mystique–a magical wine that you have to pay a lot to get and wait to enjoy.

Franco Biondi-Santi’s hat and candle sit in wait for him to visit his cellar

But the other important piece in the Brunello puzzle is the region itself. While it’s indisputable that the Biondi-Santi family recognized potential of the Sangiovese Grosso and that they developed the grape into its quintessential expression, neither of those achievements would mean a thing were it not for the extraordinary terroir of Montalcino. Brunello begins around the hilltop town of Montalcino located in the southern central reaches of Toscana, just south of Firenze. Its elevation that ranges between 820 and 2,170 feet means that Montalcino, perhaps more than any other important wine growing area in Toscana, benefits from the Mediterranean breezes that blow across the region.  Moreover, Montalcino has intense climactic diversity; in the region’s approximately 3,000 acres, there are two different major microclimates, five separate climactic zones and 24 unique sub-microclimates.

To understand the singularity of Montalcino, you need to consider that although the town is only 25 miles south of Siena, it is higher, dryer and cooler than the surrounding Tuscan regions–most of Toscana has a yearly rainfall of 35” a year; Montalcino receives about 28”; in 2012, it received none from April until September. The township of Montalcino essentially splits the DOCG area into two broad categories: those vineyards north of the town, and those to the south. Northern vineyards have calcareous clay soil, higher altitudes, a cooler microclimate and they create more aromatic, structured and elegant wines. The vineyards to the south possess a more Mediterranean climate, a lower altitude, and sandier soil; these factors cause grapes to ripen about a week earlier than those in the north and to create fuller, juicier, rounder, more approachable wines.

A view of Brunello di Montalcino’s hills and valleys from Il Palazzone

However, because of the extreme popularity of Brunello, the uniformly high price the wine garners, the multiple microclimates and the varying quality of the wine, some winemakers (including Franco Biondi-Santi) are arguing the need for the DOC to separate the DOCG zone into five smaller sub-zones. Statistics illustrate the argument for stronger regulation; in 1960 there were only eleven bottlers of Brunello and 157 acres planted, but by 2004 those numbers had exploded to 175 bottlers and almost 6,300 acres. This blow up has also led to Brunellopoli, or Brunellogate, a 2008 scandal wherein the DOC has investigated several producers for reportedly adding unapproved grapes to soften the often formidable Brunello for early drinking.

Minimum aging requirements in Brunello di Montalcino DOCG tend to run longer than other zones in Italy.  The Brunello normale is an annual production with a requisite aging period of four years (this involves a combination of minimum two years in barrel and at least four months in bottle). Even though the total minimum ageing requirement is less than four years, producers abiding by Brunello DOCG cannot release wines until 48 months after the vintage year. Riserva denotes a bottle that is crafted exclusively in vintages that are deemed of high quality, derived from the producer’s best grapes, and aged for a minimum of five years (a combination of minimum three years in barrel and at least six months in bottle); the same rule regarding release date applies to productions of both riserva and normale.

Brunello di Montalcino varies by producer and microclimate, but in general it is medium to full-bodied, with a heady aroma of black fruits that are echoed on the palate. Many people also note black spices like licorice, a whiff of bitter orange and a slight earthy quality. Alcohol percentages range between 12.5-13.5%. Brunello is made to be aged. In general, it is best starting at about ten years after vintage, but some recent vintages, have been amazingly approachable, and benchmark years like 2006, 2007 and 2010 have raised the wine’s profile ever higher.

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