Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Tuscany. What does this word bring to mind for you? Pizza? Pasta? A cheesy Diane Lane movie?
I had the pleasure of visiting Tuscany last year, what I consider one of the most beautiful places in the world. Adorable little hilltowns are packed with charm, and the rolling hills go on for miles. To most tourists, the Tuscan wine they are probably most familiar with is Chianti. You know, the one that Hannibal Lecter wanted to eat liver and fava beans with. The one that used to come in a jug covered with a straw wrapping. While it's had a bad rap (pun intended) in the past, there are some pretty great Chiantis being made these days, especially in a vintage like 2015, but I digress. If you visit Tuscany and don't visit Montalcino to sample the Brunellos, you're missing out.
Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino are both technically made of Sangiovese, but the drinking experience can be quite different. Records of red wine being made in Montalcino go back to the 14th century, but the beginnings of what we know as Brunello today started with the Biondi-Santi family in the 19th century. As Brunello gained in notoriety, it was awarded a DOC designation in 1970 and finally the most prestigious designation of DOCG in 1980. The Biondi-Santi family still makes wine, and its Brunellos are still held in high regard today. The name "Brunello," or "little brown one" was given to this particular clone of Sangiovese grown in Montalcino called Prugnolo Gentile, which produces brownish colored grapes.
To be called Brunello di Montalcino, the wine must be grown in the Montalcino region, consist of 100% Sangiovese, and be aged two years in oak. Normale Brunellos must undergo five years of total aging, while Riservas must undergo six. So are Chianti and Brunello different enough to justify the price difference of $25-$40 a bottle? In a great Chianti vintage like 2015, maybe not. But I'd argue in most vintages, absolutely. Sangiovese grown in the Montalcino region tends to taste different than Chianti for several reasons:
1. The climate is drier and hotter
2. The soil composure is made up of more limestone than the clay soils of Chianti
3. Brunello has to be 100% Sangiovese, while Chianti only requires 75% Sangiovese and can include Canaiolo, among other approved grape varieties.
4. The aging requirements are longer
5. A different clone of Sangiovese is used
I tend to find that the consistency of Brunello from producer to producer is far superior than Chianti, which can be a little more hit or miss. My theory was put to the test last night when I participated in a 2013 vintage Brunello tasting that pitted "modern" producers versus some of the "old-school" producers. So what was the verdict?
My thought is this. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If a region has been doing something successful for 150 years or more, is there a need to fundamentally change how it is made? I love Brunello di Montalcino for that cherry, dried cranberry, leather and balsamic quality that it's hard to find anywhere else. Admittedly, we live in an age where consumers are impatient. They don't want to wait 10 years to open the bottle of Brunello they bought. They like their Cabernet Sauvignons. They like their oak. They like their fruit bombs. To that end, the "modernists" have shifted from using huge Slavonian oak botte that don't impart much oak flavor and generate wines that are built for aging, to using smaller 225 liter
barriques that are used in other winemaking regions such as Bordeaux. They've tweaked their winemaking practices to yield fruitier wines. To this I say, FINE. Just don't do it in Montalcino. There is a place for this new style, not too far down the road in Bolgheri. Bolgheri is the home of the Super Tuscans, which is more like the Wild Wild West of winemaking than most other places in Italy. This is the home of the famous Sassicaia and Ornellaia. The wines can be made of Sangiovese. Or Merlot. Or Cabernet Sauvignon. Or Cabernet Franc. Or whatever. This seems like a perfect place for these "modernists" to make their wines.
Ok, so back to the tasting.
The tasting consisted of 9 wines; 6 from "old-school" producers and 3 from "modernist" producers. The contrast was stark. Were the "modernist" wines bad? Not necessarily. But I would be hard pressed to pick these out as Brunello in a blind tasting. It's as if you went to the fridge and popped open a can of Diet Coke only to take a swig and realize that there was beer inside. Now, I do love cold, frosty beer now and then; just not when I think I am going to be drinking a Diet Coke.
To me, the "old-school" producers were the clear winners, and the cream of the crop, confirmed by my fellow tasters were the following:
Described by our sommelier as "the Burgundy drinker's Brunello" this one was aromatic, balanced and breathtaking, with typical Brunello characteristics of cherry and leather but at $90, a definite splurge. The scary part is that this one probably hasn't even hit it's stride yet. Good luck not drinking it for another 5-10 years to see what it can become!
Wow, for almost half the price ($49), this one was impressive. It displayed a similar profile to the Salicutti, with perhaps a bit more of a balsamic character and more restrained aromatics.
So, to recap the lesson of the day, "modernists," please leave Brunello to the "traditionalists." Oh, and get off my lawn. :)