The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Serendipity of Brunello di Montalcino

From its sporadic start to today’s boom

Brunello di Montalcino has recently received a bevy of media attention, in addition to some unprecedented recognition from the wine world. In part, this media frenzy has circulated around the scandal known as “Brunellogate,” the use of unauthorized grapes by some unscrupulous producers. But it also stems from the reviews that the ’04, ’05 and ’06 Brunellos have received, which are stellar.

Given Brunello’s recent spate of press, I thought it might be a good time to look at this wine a little more closely. Sangiovese Grosso, a superior clone of Sangiovese, produces Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most lovely and prestigious red wines. The towns of Montalcino enjoy warmer, drier air than other regions of Chianti, and the open, surrounding countryside offers both ideal ventilation and cool nights. And these characteristics allow Brunello, or in English the “little dark one” because of the grape’s brown hue, to fully ripen and produce the wine’s fuller, richer taste.

Brunello has a serendipitous, even scattershot history. Though Ferruccio Biondi-Santi produced the first Brunello vintage in 1888, the wine really had a halting, sporadic start. There were only four vintages—1888, 1891, 1925, and 1945—declared in the first 57 years of production, and by 1960, there were only eleven total producers. So by the time the region had its boom of vineyard restoration in the 1970s and 1980s, the wine’s rarity had led to both higher prices and a veil of mystery and prestige.

But Brunello’s more recent history is what might spark slightly heated discussions around a wine lover’s table. As production has increased over the last few decades, Brunello’s traditional winemaking process has changed quite a bit. Traditionally, and as late as 1989, Brunello had a minimum cask ageing of 42 months, in addition to bottle ageing. But the cask ageing regulations have been almost halved in the last decade and now stand at 24 months. This lower ageing minimum mixed with Brunello’s popularity has fed an increase in the use of barriques (small oak barrels), which results in the more standardized, uniform taste that traditionalists frown upon.

So where does this leave all of us, in terms of selecting a bottle of Brunello? A wine, we should remember, can be modern in its ageing process and still retain its traditional sense of place, or the characteristics it draws from its particular soil and climate. You can take the wine out of Montalcino, but you can’t take the Montalcino out of the wine.

With over 230 Brunello producers today, the region requires that you need to know not only the region, but also the producer. Whatever your preferred style may be, without question you have options, and they’re worth exploring. However, I tend to the traditionalists, so some of my favorite producers still remain unchanged. I’ll try other Brunellos, but my heart will always belong to Biondi-Santi and Soldera.

Popping Corks

Ready to Drink Italian Classics

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been popping corks on some older wines—in spite of my desire to let them age.  My wine refrigerator has long been maxed to capacity, and professional wine storage in New York isn’t cheap.  Wine is made to enjoy, I’ve been reminding myself, and I’ve been wondering if some of my wines were ageing as well as I thought they might. Thus far there hasn’t been one that I’ve opened much before its time; it has been exciting to see that my palate and instincts served me well.  Unfortunately, I only bought one or two of most of them (I’ve aimed for breadth, not depth, of selections), so I’ll not have the chance to truly “follow” the wines as they age.  Interestingly, they’ve all been Italian wines that I purchased when I first worked at IWM.

The first I reached for was the 1999 Palari Faro, a Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio blend from Sicily.  Still deeply colored, the nose was fairly closed until it woke up after half an hour in the decanter and showed dried plums, dusty earth and spice rack deliciousness.  Then I popped the 1997 Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Riserva. The warmth and concentration of the red cherry fruit so typical of Sangiovese impressed me. This was the most fruit driven of the wines, something I’d expect from a warm and sunny year, and I was surprised how the usually sandy tannins of Sangiovese were so ripe and well-integrated.

Then there was the 1998 Fanti San Filippo Brunello di Montalcino that I took to Apiary last Monday (check out their corkage fee-free Monday nights!).  No brick notes had edged into the rim, and the aromas were just giving up the first whiffs of development with leather and dried leaf.  Comparing the 1997 to 1998 Tuscan wines, I still prefer the more reserved 1998s.

Finally, there was the stately 1998 Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Cappella Santo Stefano.  This is a wine I carried back from my visit to the winery in 2002, when I hauled the original wooden case right past the customs officials. This single-vineyard Barolo was probably the most promising of them all, yet it is still reticent to express all its aromatic nuances and its firm tannins have yet to fully meld into the structure. I think I’ll put the rest of these bottles at the back of the fridge and forget them for four or five years.

The reward of cellaring has paid off so far, though I admit it’s tough to resist the temptation to fill up the space I’ve freed up in my storage.  Still, I think I hear some 2005 Barbaresco clamoring. Nature abhors a vacuum—it’s only space, and I might as well fill it.

Via Montenapoleone on the Upper East Side

Valentino and his Chianti

After a late run through the Bauhaus exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art, I stopped with a couple of friends at Casa Lever (formerly the Lever House now taken over by the Milanese owners of Saint Ambroeus).  Although the decor hasn’t changed much, the menu, the wine list, and the vibe clearly have taken on an authentic Italian attitude. The lounge area is casual and a great area for watching the quintessentially New York scene unfold: entrenched Upper-East siders, errant lovers of all things Italian, and occasional art-lovers.  Knowing the meal would be a little pricey, I wanted to keep our wine choice more reasonable and chose the Hilberg ‘Vareij’ 2007.

Our sommelier was surprised and said that he loved the wine but he had to coax clients to try it and wanted to know how I knew it.  (Of course it is available at Italian Wine Merchants!).   As my friends and I were well into the bottle, a group of well-dressed clients who looked like they just walked off of Via Montenapoleone came into the restaurant. They were led by a tanned, good-looking, charismatic gentleman.  My friend Rick said, “Who is that? I recognize that face.”

“It’s Valentino,” I answered. I’d know that face anywhere; Valentino is one of my fashion idols.

As Valentino’s group grew, settled into their evening, and began emptying bottles, I said to our sommelier, “OK, I have to know what wine Valentino is drinking.”  He rolled his eyes and told me I would be unimpressed because Valentino asked him for a light Chianti.  The sommelier showed me Valentino’s choice: a bottle of Castello di Selvole Chianti Classico 2006.   But I knew something the sommelier didn’t. Rather than being scornful, I was impressed that Valentino chose what most Italians would drink at home—something from the territorio they know, something inexpensive, and something that goes well with a good meal they’re sharing with good friends.

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