The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

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.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday: Le Mortelle 2012 Botrosecco Maremma Toscana

Rich, full and smooth $27 Super Tuscan from Antinori

RD8979-2What good is a nice bottle of wine without company to share it with? Visiting family this weekend, I was looking to impress with an Italian classic. After attending IWM’s North vs. South tasting last Saturday at IWM NYC, I was still in the mood for some northern hospitality, so I went with the sleek, spicy, and superb Le Mortelle 2012 Botrosecco Maremma Toscana. Being primarily from Ireland, my family typically doesn’t abide by the Mediterranean diet, but I figured a good wine could spark their interest in the region.

Hailing from the Maremma coastline near Grosseto, Le Mortelle, owned by the famed Antinori family, was once part of the larger La Badiola estate, and it gets its name from mortella, which is a type of wild myrrh that covers much of coastal Tuscany. Its characteristic fragrance and connection to old-world Italy made the shrub the perfect mascot for a traditional producer making aromatic wines. Antinori saw potential in the area and dedicated the estate to international grape varieties like Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, while maintaining eco-friendly methods of production through organically growing its grapes. Keeping to Antinori’s diverse vision of this estate, Le Mortelle’s Botrosecco Maremma Toscana is a smooth blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc aged for a year in oak barrels before release.

It is almost an understatement to say that my family and I were impressed by the 2012 Le Mortelle. It’s strikingly aromatic, rich, full, and smooth, and all seated around our dinner table exclaimed over this Antinori bottle. My family began the evening thinking that “Super Tuscan” was the title of the next Avengers film, but after trying the Le Mortelle, they were completely sold. Juicy, herby, dry, and above all spicy, this $27 go-to wine does what wine does best–it brings people together.

Expert Picks: Nicolis and Dal Forno Romano

Two expert selections from John Vidal Camacho

CamachoThe first day of spring is soon approaching and I already have a list of wines I want to explore for the coming season. But in the meantime, I wanted to take advantage and pour some Amarone before the weather changes. Amarone and Valpolicciela come from the Veneto in the northeastern corner of Italy. Although sweet Recioto wine has been made in the area since Roman times, Amarone did not become popular until the 1950s, but in this short time it has become one of Italy’s great wines. Under the larger umbrella category of Amarone, there are five DOC classifications: Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. All must contain indigenous grapes Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella, but because of grape harvest time and production style, you get something different from each of the classifications.

Makers of Valpolicella almost always harvests the grapes, crushes and ferments them immediately. When producers make Amarone, on the other hand, they use the appassimento method, which means that the grapes are harvested late, usually mid-October. Then they are spread out on straw mats and left to dry. When at least 40% of the grapes moisture has evaporated, then they are crushed and fermented. The ageing requirement for Amarone is two years in wood but some producers go as far as five years. Appassimento provides an intense concentrated wine with opulent aromas on the nose and full on the palate.

This weekend I poured both an Amarone and a Valpolicella Superiore. I encourage you to open a few Amarone or Valpolicella before the weather starts asking for crisp whites and refreshing rosé wines.

Nicolis 2007 Amarone della Valpolicella Ambrosan $89.70
This Amarone is rich and elegant with a nose full black fruit. Cherry, plum, black licorice and hints of cinnamon give way to some herbal notes, cigar wrapper and earthy cedar. The palate is dense, soft, and silky with that deceptively dry Amarone raisened fruits; this wine has chewy, round tannins and it finishes with chocolate and spice. Nicolis is a small family operation that only makes approximately 600 cases of this cru Amarone a year. Drink now to 2022.

Dal Forno Romano 2009 Valpolicella Superiore $109.99
This Valpolicella is produced by Dal Foro Romano, who worked under Guiseppi Quintarelli for about twelve years, and I consider this wine to be a true baby Amarone as Dal Forno uses Amarone protocol in making it. It’s dark, dense and concentrated with a nose full of black cherry, plum and licorice, followed minerality and notes of olives and herbs; as the wine opens in the glass, aromas of chocolate and coffee emerge. The palate is equally as dense because Dal Forno dried the grapes for 45 days in the appassimento method for this Valpolicella, allowing for a concentrated, almost Amarone-like palate. This wine has a velvety texture and a finish studded with tannins that are spicy and sweet at the same time. Drink now to 2025.

Expert Picks: Aldo Conterno and…Aldo Conterno!

Two expert selections from Michael Adler

Michael Adler 5.29.15Forget for just a moment that it feels like spring; picture snow-covered sidewalks and feel the frigid wind snapping at your cheeks, draw your scarf tighter around your neck to conserve every bit of warmth and heat. What you need in the dead of winter to brighten your spirits and thaw your soul is a bottle of rich, warming, tannic and powerful red wine. I can think of no better wine for frozen winter evenings than Barolo. The Nebbiolo grape offers wine-lovers the perfect winter red to warm you from the inside: dense, opulent, palate-coating wines with ample acid, muscle and alcohol. What more could we ask for on a freezing winter evening?

To celebrate the pure, hedonistic pleasure of sipping a great Barolo alongside a hearty, warming stew or pot roast, I picked a pair of knockout-gorgeous bottles from the iconic Aldo Conterno estate, its ripe, structured 2011 Barolo Bussia and its dark, brooding 2011 Barolo Colonnello.

Aldo Conterno 2011 Barolo Bussia $82.99

The estate’s classic bottling, the ’11 Barolo Bussia is a towering testament to the enduring greatness of the Aldo Conterno estate. Muscular, textured and gripping, this  Barolo Bussia thunders out of the glass with intense aromas of ripe red and black fruits, rose petals, underbrush and earth, with a hefty dose of that unmistakable Barolo terroir. On the finish, its chewy tannins give way to a refreshing, mouth-watering acidity that keeps this massive wine texturally balanced. Nebbiolo lovers who appreciate a modern, powerful and fruit-driven Barolo will want to revisit this Barolo Bussia again and again.

Aldo Conterno 2011 Barolo Colonnello $149.99

Ever since Aldo Conterno split from the illustrious Giacomo Conterno estate, the master Barolo producer has shows a penchant for doing things his own way. For instance, he followed the lead of Angelo Gaja and Valentino Migliorini of Rocche dei Manzoni and began bottling a superb lineup of single-vineyard expressions of Barolo, which have since become collector staples worldwide. Deriving from a warmer vintage, this ’11 Barolo Colonnello is somewhat more approachable than other vintages. It delivers a cornucopia of red and black fruits along with savory herbal and meaty notes and a polished core of minerality. While it shows well in its youth with some decanting, it will only get better over the next decade and will continue to drink well through 2025 and beyond.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday: Venturini Massimino 2010 Valpolicella Ripasso Semonte Alto

A big, powerful, velvety Valpolicella that’s under $25

RD7841-2Winter is almost over, but before it ended, I wanted to have a “big” wine from Veneto. I chose Venturini Massimino 2010 Valpolicella Ripasso Semonte Alto. Venturini is a family run and operated estate. Massimino works with his children Daniele, Mirco and Giuseppina, and all take their parts in growing the grapes and crafting their delicious wines. IWM loves family producers like Venturini, who take care of their vines, following the growth of every single berry day after day and make their authentic, regional wines with love.

The Venturini estate sits in the heart of the Valpolicella Classica region. The estate’s flagship is called the “Semonte Alto,” and it’s a full-bodied red wine, with a rich, concentrated flavor and an intense and distinctive bouquet. The Semonte Alto is a blend of three indigenous grapes from the region: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara. The estate uses the traditional ripasso technique to make this wine, where the first press wine is re-fermented by running it over the lees of the grapes that the estate used to make Amarone. This technique adds intensity, deep color and body to the Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore Ripasso, and makes it more suitable for maturing in Slovenian oak barrels.

Medium ruby in the glass, this Venturini Semonte Alto 2010 is not as dense as you might think it is, but don’t be fooled by its lighter color: this is definitely a big wine. You can feel the power and the strength bursting on your palate. Aromas of plum, dark cooked cherries, chocolate, and spice make it a really interesting and complex Valpolicella. With 14% of alcohol, it’s a also a wine that is as powerful as it feels. I really enjoyed this $25 bottle, and I would recommend decanting it for an hour or more before enjoying it with a hearty dish such as beef ribs, braised lamb or wild boar ragù.

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