Getting the skinny on Italy’s most beloved wines
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.
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.
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.
Two expert selections from Garrett Kowalsky
Valdicava 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.
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.
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.
A look back at the week that was
What 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.
Two expert selections from Michael Adler
The past year has been a whirlwind of phenomenal 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, but we Brunello lovers clamor for wines that we can enjoy while our 2010s mature in the cellar. IWM has what you need: wines to drink in the near to mid-term that will keep you from opening your ’10 Brunellos too early. I’d like to direct your attention towards a pair of outstanding wines that are in stock now and ready to drink, the 2013 Collemattoni Rosso di Montalcino and the 2011 Brunello di Montalcino from Canalicchio di Sopra. These terrific wines embody the very best of what Montalcino has to offer, while requiring none of the patience demanded by the long-aging 2010s. These wines will reward savvy palates early and often; I recommend mixing up a case before they both fly out of our cellar!
This ‘13 Rosso offers beguiling aromas of ripe red fruits, potpourri, black pepper and brambly undertones, all held together by fine, silky tannins. Medium-bodied on the palate, it is perfect complement for your winter pasta Bolognese, risotto or grilled meats. Located on a hill in the southern zone of Montalcino, the Collemattoni estate is run by Marcello Bucci, whose family has cultivating the land in Montalcino since the late 1700s. Protocol in the vineyards remains quite traditional, though the Bucci family has opted to employ some more modern technology in their vinification such as temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for fermentation.
A couple weeks ago we had the pleasure of tasting this outstanding 2011 Brunello with its maker, and the entire IWM sales team was very impressed. After the amazing 2010 vintage, we didn’t know what to expect from the 2011s. This phenomenal 2011 Brunello from Canalicchio di Sopra put our concerns to rest immediately. From our first whiff, we knew this ’11 Canalicchio Brunello is clearly a world-class wine that deserves every bit as much attention as its predecessor. Gorgeous and expressive right out of the gate, this ’11 Brunello explodes with concentrated aromas of red and black fruits, dried herbs, and flowers, and it coats the palate with rich, sappy extract as it builds to a lingering finish that’s balanced by mouth-watering acidity. It’s an impressive effort that will thrill Brunello-lovers while we wait for our 2010s to come around. Don’t miss out here!
The sixth post in our series looking at the grapes that comprise Italy’s best loved red wines!
Last summer, we took a look at Italian white grape varietals (here’s the last installment of the white grape series with links to each part), so it feels right to take a wander through red grapes this winter. This winter, we’re detailing the red wine grapes of Italy. From the well-known to the obscure, this alphabetical list offers insight into the grapes that make your favorite Italian red wines. Here is the first installment, Abbuoto to Brachetto, the second, Cabernet Franc to Croatina, the third, Dolcetto to Grignolino, the fourth, Lagrein to Moscato Rosa, and the fifth, Nebbiolo to Primitivo, in case you missed them!
The ancient Refosco may be indigenous to Friuli or it may be descended from a Slovenian grape. In either case, it has been cultivated in Italy long enough to have appeared in the writings of Pliny the Elder and to have spawned several clones and at least one major newer varietal, Marzemino. Its full name is Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, or “Refosco with the red stem,” and in addition to its shortened name, it also goes by Terrano in the Veneto and Caniga in Emilia-Romagna (Refosco is also cultivated in Sardegna and Puglia). Highly acidic, though relatively low in tannin, this varietal takes its sweet time ripening; however, it is fortuitously impervious to rot. Wines made from Refosco are a rich garnet in color and possess both a nose and a palate of dark fruits, which is underlain by nuts and herbs.
Like a horribly shy pre-teen, Rondinella never makes an appearance on its own. Grown in the Veneto as a blending grape, this hardy, high-yielding varietal is a fragrant, sweet grape that when vinified makes a wine low in acid and sugar. Rondinella is often blended to make the Veneto’s Valpolicella and Bardolino (the primary grape for both wines is the Corvina), and when dried on straw mats, its Amarone.
Umbria’s Sagrantino has the distinction of being the world’s most tannic grape. Most likely brought to Umbria during the twelfth century, Sagrantino was until fairly recently solely vinified Sagrantino in the passito method to make a desert wine. In the past few decades, however, winemakers have realized that they can also use the grape to make a superlatively balanced, ruby-colored, long-aging wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco, which became a DOCG wine in 1992. Sagrantino’s intense tannins are balanced with a full-bodied, silky mouth and a bouquet of blackberries, tar and earth.
Sangiovese is Italy’s most cultivated grape, and it’s best known for Chianti Classico, as well as mono-varietal Super Tuscans like Montevertine Le Pergole Torte and Fontodi Flaccianello. Like a spy, this grape goes by many names: Montalcino, Brunello or Sangiovese Grosso, Montepulciano, Prugnolo Gentile, Chianti Classico, Sangioveto, Scansano, and Morelliono, to name a few. Due to its many clones, Sangiovese is a phenomenally amenable grape, and it grows everywhere in Italy but Sicilia, though its finest expression is in Toscana. Sangiovese requires a very long season to ripen with warm, sunny days that extend into mid-to-late October, so hills with southern exposure do it well; it also prefers soil with generous limestone.
The name Sangiovese has traditionally been interpreted as “blood of Jove” (sangue de Giove), but this appears to be untrue, and other interpretations have been raised. Similarly, while people have long considered the varietal to be indigenous to Italy, recent ampelographers have suggested that it is itself a clone of an older Tuscan grape Ciliegiolo and a little-known southern Italian grape called Calabrese Montenuovo that probably came from Campania. Whatever it’s called and whatever its origins, Sangiovese is the basis for many stellar wines from Brunello di Montalcino to many of the so-called Super Tuscans. Ruby red in color, Sangiovese makes vibrant, often powerful wines that can have notes of ranging from ripe cherries and figs, to earth and truffles, to vanilla and cinnamon.
Sangiovese Grosso (san-joe-VAE-sae GROH-soh)
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 the “little brown one”; it would later become known as clone BBS11 or Sangiovese Grosso. His son, Feruccio Biondi-Santi, was the first person to bottle and release a single-varietal wine fermented from this grape. It was called Brunello, and a handful of bottles remain from his 1881 inaugural bottling. When compared to its parent vine, Sangiovese Grosso has thicker skins, lower yields, and smaller berries, and because of these characteristics makes a darker, more ageable wine. Grown only in the hills surrounding Montalcino in Toscana, Sangiovese Grosso is also the grape featured in the earlier drinking Rosso di Montalcino.
Schiava (skee-AH-vah, SKYAH-vah)
Also called Trollinger, Schiava is one varietal that illustrates how little regard grapes have for national borders. Although the grape is cultivated in Trentino and in one province of the Veneto, Schiava is grown primarily in Trentino-Alto Adige, where it is part of eight DOC(G) appellations. Schiava also grows in neighboring Germany, where it’s known as Vernatsch. Given the cultural permeability of this region, names for this grape, and indeed its wines, appear on labels in either Italian or German, and often both. There are several clones of Schiava, the most notable being Schiava Grosso, which is easier to grow but less delicious, and Schiava Grigio, which is finickier but tastier. Both varietals make wines that are deceptively light. Though this varietal’s wine are light ruby in color, fresh on the nose with a bouquet of strawberry, they also are surprisingly round and contain a savory, bacony quality reminiscent of the wines made from the most-grown grape in the region, Lagrein.
Schioppettino (skyawp-peht-TEE-noh) phylloxera
Although this Friuli indigenous varietal nearly died out in the outbreak in the nineteenth century, Schioppettino is staging a comeback. Also known as Ribolla Nera, Schioppettino’s name translates to “crackling” or “little shot,” and it comes from antiquated appellations that were effervescent. Dating from the thirteenth century, this varietal has been cultivated primarily in the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC zone, and it gained DOC status in 1992 in four dry red wines. Often prohibitively tannic, Schioppettino can produce an intense ruby hued, full-bodied wine that has a complex bouquet of roses and a palate of wild blackberries laced with pepper.
This varietal gets its name from its trademark high acidity and marked tannins. Translated, Tazzelenghe means “tongue shredder,” and while this grape produces wines that in their infancy show formidable tannins, these wines also age quite well. Indigenous to Friuli, Tazzelenghe has most often been vinified as a blending grape with other varietals, usually Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet. However, in recent years, winemakers have been experimenting with this grape to make a single-variety wine. Full-bodied, suitable for long aging, and possessing bouncy acidic and sturdy tannins, wine from Tazzelenghe shows a combination of wild berries and bitter cherries on the palate.
Teroldego gets its name either from the German for “gold of the Tirol,” the eighteenth-century German-Austrian nickname for wines from Trentino-Alto Adige, or from its traditional cultivation method of being hung on “tirelle,” or wire harnesses. This black grape is grown almost exclusively in the Rotaliano plain in Trentino-Alto Adige, though in recent years Toscana has evinced a good showing of Teroldego. With sprightly acidity and relatively low tannins, wines made from Teroldego have a palate heavy in black fruits. In good production years, these wines have exceptional ageability.
Uva di Troia (OO-vah dee TROH-yah)
In addition to Primitivo and Negroamaro, Uva di Troia completes the triumvirate that comprises Puglia’s three main reds. There are two main clones of Uva di Troia grown in Puglia; the more interesting is called Carnosina and possesses small grapes that grow in small bunches. Though currently little-known, the deeply colored and profoundly aromatic Uva di Troia has the potential for wider renown, and Puglian winemakers have been experimenting with vinification techniques to coax out this grape’s potential for a full-bodied, violet and licorice laden wine.
Uva Rara (OO-vah RAH-rah)
Cultivated almost exclusively in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Lombardia in northern Italy, Uva Rara is a synonym for the Bonarda Novarese. Used only as a blending grape, this varietal adds softness and aromatics to wines made from Spanna, the area’s name for Nebbiolo. Neither Uva Rara nor its synonym Bonarda Novarese should be confused with Croatina, which is also called Bonarda, and which is also cultivated in Lombardia.keep looking »