The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Expert Picks: Chandon de Briailles and Talenti

Two expert selections from Garrett Kowalsky

Garrett_8.6.14_72dpiWhen I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living there are inevitably a series of questions that always get asked. What’s my favorite wine? How do you know how long to age a wine? What’s a really good year? While my answers can vary from time to time, the most difficult of that trio to answer is the one regarding a “good year.” Rare is the occasion when one year was especially kind to all growing regions around the globe. Each area has its own specific climate and its own unique weather conditions within a given vintage. However, if pressed, I would make the argument that 2010 was one of the finest all-around vintages in recent memory. California, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Italy (everywhere)–all of these places produced world class wines that year. Here are two incredible examples that we have in stock right now.

Chandon de Briailles Corton Les Maréchaudes Grand Cru 2010 $109.99

Everyone remembers ’09 as being a bumper crop in Burgundy with rich and decadent wines. What true Burgundy lovers know is that 2010 was the more typical and interesting vintage, one that yielded wines of exceptional elegance and near-endless aging potential. It’s not often that you get to experience a Grand Cru for around $100, especially one as fine as this silky beauty from Chandon de Briailles. This is all about the detail, from the bouquet to the palate. Drink 2017-2025

Talenti Brunello di Montalcino Pian di Conte Riserva 2010 $119.00

By now you may be tired of hearing about 2010 Brunello and the exquisite wines produced, but you shouldn’t be. This is an exceptional bottle that is going to knock your socks off for the next 10-20 years, and each time you open one you just might regret not buying more when it was released. Talenti is an IWM favorite and their 2010 Brunello Pian di Conte Riserva is brimming with structure and class. While it’s not yet ready to be fully enjoyed, it will offer up that rustic “only in Italy” experience for decades to come. Drink 2018-2033.

All About Brunello DOCG

Getting the skinny on Italy’s most beloved wines

Biondi-Santi Brunellos at the estate

Biondi-Santi Brunellos at the estate

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 winemaking family of Biondi-Santi.  Were any of these factors different or missing, Brunello as we know it would likely not have happened, 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 a clone of Sangiovese that he called Brunello, or “little brown one.” (This clone later was isolated and named 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 ageing, 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.

Brunello maker Gianfranco Soldera in his cellar

Brunello maker Gianfranco Soldera in 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, 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”. 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.

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, a 2008 scandal wherein the DOC has investigated several producers for reportedly adding unapproved grapes to soften the often formidable Brunello for early drinking.

A view of Montalcino vineyards in spring

A view of Montalcino vineyards in spring

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 4 years (this involves a combination of minimum 2 years in barrel and at least four months in bottle). Even though the total minimum aging 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. The 2010 vintage of Brunello has been lauded as a benchmark, but even well-wrought wines from “off” vintages can be excellent.

Go here to take a look at the range of IWM’s Brunello di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva bottlings; and don’t forget Rosso di Montalcino, the easy-drinking sibling to these serious wines.

Inside IWM, March14-17, 2016: Under the Tuscan Sun

A look back at the week that was

IMG_2452We have been living under Under the Tuscan Sun for twenty years! It’s true; Frances Mayes book was published this month in 1996, and we kicked off our week with a literary consideration of Tuscany. There’s no question that Mayes’ book, and the resulting movie, colored America’s consciousness, and in some ways, IWM itself is a result of America’s love affair with Italy. For these reasons, it’s only right that this week was mostly centered in Tusconay. On Tuesday, Sean Collins wrote about a beautiful $27 Super Tuscan from Antinori’s Maremma Estate, Le Mortelle, and on Wednesday, we discussed wines to pair with our favorite thistle, the artichoke, in honor of National Artichoke Hearts Day.

Two of our Experts stuck with the Tuscan theme. Garrett Kowalsky picked a pair of wines from Valdicava, one of IWM’s favorite makers of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. And John Camacho Vidal explored what’s so super about the Super Tuscan, and then he chose two that he loves, Sammarco from Castello dei Rampolla and Flaccianello from Fontodi. Only Crystal Edgar strayed outside of Toscana, but given that she calls Jean-Philippe Fichet’s Meursault wines “love at first sip,” we can understand why.

Cheers to you and your love of Tuscany, a love we share with you–and most of the world.

Expert Picks: Valdicava and…Valdicava!

Two expert selections from Garrett Kowalsky

Garrett_8.6.14_72dpiValdicava is one of the most revered names in all of Montalcino. Though the estate dates back several generations, contemporary owner-winemaker Vincenzo Abbruzzese unlocked the property’s potential and took it to new levels in 1987, when his grandparents turned the estate over to him. Over the past decade, the estate has grown even better, producing some of its finest wines. Today I wanted to give you two looks at this property, the first being Vincenzo’s scrumptious Rosso and the second being a 13-year-old example of Valdicava Brunello. Both of these wines are sure to put an ever-widening smile on your face.

Valdicava 2013 Rosso di Montalcino $44.99

All Montalcino winemakers will tell you that their Rosso is like their business card—the least expense and most easily accessible wine, it’s your first introduction to the estate and as such should give you a glimpse into the house style. Valdicava’s Rosso is large scale and possesses a tremendous about of depth and complexity, truly earning the nickname “Baby Brunello.” Drink to 2020.

Valdicava 2003 Brunello di Montalcino $139.00

Some will tell you that ’03 was a warm vintage and that you should avoid it. I am here to tell you that in the case of Valdicava’s wine, those naysayers are way off base. I had the opportunity to taste this with the winemaker a few weeks ago, and I found it to be opulent and generous, with loads of fruit from front to back on the palate. Drinking it was an immensely enjoyable experience. Drink to 2022.

Inside IWM, February 22-26, 2016: Whaddaya Know?

A look back at the week that was

IMG_1647What do you know? Or, more accurately, what do you think you know? This week the blog challenged expectations. First, IWM’s writer tells about landing in Italy only to find that what she’d expected was even, somehow, better. Janice Cable on visiting Italy and drinking Italian wines with their makers. It’s no surprise to our blog’s readers that Stephane Menard is a wiz in the kitchen–his recipes are legend–but Stephane was pleasantly surprised by a delicious $23 Vermentino, which he paired with a simple Turbot recipe. You can read a wine’s label, but do you understand it? John Camacho Vidal shows you how to get the most from what’s on your bottle. And what do you really know about wines from the Veneto? From Amarone to Prosecco, we offer a quick tour.

Our experts relied on what they know to choose wines they’re sure you’ll love. Garrett Kowalsky spotlighted a delicious Super-Tuscan pair from an under-the-radar Antinori estate, Le Mortelle. Looking forward to the exceptional 2014 Burgundies, Crystal Edgar reflected on two wines she’s loved this year, both from Arnoux-Lachaux. And Michael Adler knows that everyone doesn’t have the patience to let their 2010 Brunellos age, so he picked two Sangiovese Grosso bottles you can enjoy right now.

Here’s to what you know, what you don’t, and enjoying delicious wine with people.

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