One of the “three Bs” (along with Barolo and Barbaresco), Brunello di Montalcino stands at the pinnacle of the Italian red wine hierarchy. It is powerful, concentrated and capable of long-term aging, yet supple and elegant at the same time.
Brunello is made from grapes grown in a cluster of vineyards near the town of Montalcino, south of Florence. Like its cousin, Chianti, it is a recently invented wine. Brunello was created in the middle of the nineteenth century by the Biondi-Santi family, which was the only recorded producer in the region until after World War II. Unlike Chianti, Brunello is a single varietal wine rather than a blend, made from a clone of Sangiovese called Sangiovese Grosso.
Aroma & Flavor
Brunello typically offers an array of enticing scents on the nose: vanilla, leather, violets, chocolate and a profusion of berry aromas. On the palate, the wine is harmonious and well balanced, with good acidity and flavors of blackberry, black raspberry and black cherry.
The Brunello pecking order is simple. Most estates produce a normale bottling (usually released 50 months after harvest) and a riserva (available to the public one year later). Currently, the minimum aging requirements stipulate at least two years in oak and four months in bottle before release, although top estates customarily age the wine much longer.
Expect to pay $60 and up for a normale and at least $150 for a good riserva. Why so pricey? The laws of supply and demand are the culprits. Land is scarce in the region, and total production in a good vintage seldom exceeds 25,000 cases. Demand is global, and U.S. consumers are competing with collectors across Europe and Asia. Even though as much as one-third of the Brunello produced comes to America, the majority of that wine is sold to restaurants rather than retail stores.
In 2008, the region was reeling with a fraud scandal. Italian authorities began investigating allegations that some producers violated purity regulations by secretly adulterating their wine with grapes from outside the region and using unauthorized varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In 2010, 17 people were indicted, including representatives from Castelgiocondo and Banfi, as well as the president and director of the Brunello Consortium. All but six of these worked out plea bargains. In the end, no fraud was proven, but more than 1 million liters (about 264,000 gallons) of Brunello were declassified.
The fig leaf goes to Natalie Oliveros, a.k.a. porn star Savanna Samson, winner of several AVN Awards (the adult film industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards). After leaving the world of pornographic films, she came out with a line of wines in collaboration with Brunello winemaker Roberto Cipresso. Oliveros is a partner with Cipresso in Fattoria La Fiorita, and many of their wines have won widespread critical acclaim.
Match up a Brunello with grilled steak, lamb, duck, wild boar or other wild game; veal or other meats with wild mushrooms; earthy stews; and strong cheeses.
The Next Best Thing
Many Brunello estates make a declassified wine called Rosso di Montalcino. Rosso is also made from 100 percent Sangiovese, but the aging requirements are shorter—at least six months in oak and a total of one year before release. Expect to pay $25-$30 for a good Rosso, which will provide an introduction to the category. Another option is Sant’Antimo, produced from vineyards just outside the Brunello region from foreign grape varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir.