If you stopped an American on the street and asked them to name a specific region of Italy, chances are the answer would be Tuscany, the land of bucolic rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves, and wine. Lots and lots of wine. Almost 90% of that wine is red, with most being made from the Sangiovese grape. With 58 different DOPs (protected designations of origin) plus the entire category of Super Tuscans, comprehending Tuscan wine can be overwhelming, to say the least. Instead, learn what wines you really need to know. One of those is Brunello di Montalcino.
The medieval Tuscan city of Montalcino sits above the valleys of three rivers and was most likely settled by the Etruscans (the people who lived in central Italy before the Romans). It’s on Montalcino’s surrounding hillsides where you’ll find vineyards full of Sangiovese grapes. Being in southern Tuscany, Montalcino is typically warm and dry, making the grapes ripen slightly earlier than the Chiantis and other reds to the north. The first modern version of Brunello di Montalcino was created back in the late 1800s, and, by the end of World War II, the wine had become one of the rarest in the country. Less than a dozen producers were making it in 1968 when it first started to get “protection” status, with that number rising to about 200, many coming on after it became the first wine to receive the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) designation. DOCG is the highest protected status available in Italy and is reserved for only the best wines.
Like Pinot Noir, Brunello di Montalcino is a good gateway wine. Protected status means that almost every aspect of a wine’s production is regulated, allowing for consistency, but also a great opportunity to taste differences in terroir. To be Brunello di Montalcino, a wine must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes and aged for at least two years in oak barrels before a finishing four months in the bottle. This results in a wine with balanced tannins and acidity, as well as displaying traditional red wine flavors, but there are definitely differences depending on the producer. Traditional Brunello will have the sophisticated flavors of wild berries and subtle purple flowers, with slight caramelly notes of aged wine. Pian delle Querci (Moonlight Wine Co.) produces a good example of this; their 2012 vintage is about to be on the market. More modern producers go for fuller wine with fruity black cherry notes—very similar to New World Pinot Noir. Castelgiocondo (Folio Fine Wine Partners) and Loacker Corte Pavone are both producers who make great wine in this younger style.
So, if Brunello di Montalcino is so great, why don’t us younger people buy it by the case? Well, a typical bottle will run you at least $50, and many over $100. Those who still love the taste of Sangiovese, but possibly can’t drop $50+ at the wine shop will want to look for Rosso di Montalcinos or “Baby Brunellos.” They only require a year of aging so are lighter and fresher than their older brothers, but they’re also cheaper. A typical bottle will run you $20-$30, with the 2015 vintage being the latest on the market. Just like with the Brunello, Pian Delle Querci makes an excellent Rosso di Montalcino. Look for their latest vintage, the 2015. Another producer is Altesino (The Winebow Group), who currently have their 2014 out.