In my life to date, there have been wines that I fell in love with on first sip. A Sparkling Vouvray , was one of them, during my studies in the Loire Valley during college, and Brunello (Brunelli Di Montalcino) was another one, during a bicycling trip, I took to Tuscany with Backroads. I am fortunate to live in Chicago that is a gateway city for midwest wine sales, so when the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino announced they were stopping in Chicago, I cleared out my schedule and signed up.
On the bike trip, many years ago, our day ended at the very medieval town of San Gimignano , which is in the northern end of the Chianti Classico wine area within the region of Tuscany. Chianti being one of the major red wines of Tuscany, along with Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, all made with the red grape, Sangiovese. San Gimignano, looks like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, it has many towers that “in the day” were used to throw barrels of boiling water, oil, rocks at the invaders trying to get into the city. That is how things were done in medieval time, live in a high place and throw things at the infadels. Hence, in Tuscany, many of the towns are set on the top of hills. Besides being crazy about wine, I love cycling, so when the gauntlet was thrown down to see who could make it to the top of the hill into town, I was all for it.
After making it up the hill, downing many bottles of water, I saw bikes and the friends in my group gathered outside a small establishment in the village. Everyone was sitting down, with glasses of wine and food right beside the door. I scoured the internet to find the place, because for some reason I threw away the pictures from this trip and I found the exact doorway and tables were we sat, at an enoteca (wine shop, eatery, wine bar), that I guess was called Enoteca Gustavo.
It was at that table to the left where my friends and I sat drinking wine and eating food, and the wine I was drinking was a brunello. The grapes for Chiantis were grown within the area that I was in, for Brunello the grapes are harvested in and near Montalcino and for Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano in Montepulciano( a town to the southeast). Brunellos according to the wine making requirements cannot be sold until 4 years after the grapes are harvested. I have no idea who the winemaker was of the Brunello I was drinking, but, I do remember the richness of the wine, the deep red fruit and the structure, the wine had body without being overly tannic. I don’t think at that point I had checked into the hotel we were staying in, but it was an old medieval building in the town called the Hotel L’Antico Pozzo.
I admit it, I swoon over medieval towns. Drinking the brunello that afternoon was one of those priceless experiences and whenever I drink a glass of brunello, the flavors of the wine bring back that day and the town.
If you look at the top of the map, you will see San Gimignano, which is included within the province of Siena. Siena is within the region of Tuscany (look at the inset to the bottom left). Tuscany is considered being in Central Italy but it is a bit slightly north. Then if you look at the inset, the region of Siena is in the southern part of Tuscany. The grapes for Brunello are grown in the area of Montalcino which is right above the insets of Italy. Montalcino is in the southern part of Tuscany and south of the Chianti Classico zone. The grapes for brunellos are grown in a slightly warmer climate. On my bike trip, I relished riding up and down all the hills to reach the towns. The land varies for each vineyard in much the same way that it does in Burgundy. One vineyard can have a slightly different climate, different aspect towards the sun, slightly different soil than another which is another differentiation of each brunello.
When it comes to Brunellos, the DOCG has specific requirements the producers must fulfill in order for it to be classified as a brunello. The grapes must be sangiovese which is called Brunello and grown in Montalcino. There is a maximum yield of 8 tons of grapes per hectare. It is required they be aged 2 years in oak wood barrels. Some of the producers used slovenian oak, some used french oak, some had their own barrels made, this added to the differentiation in the wines. The wine can only be bottled in the location where it is produced. The wine can be sold on January 1st of the 5th year after the grape harvest, January 1st of the 6th year for Reserve wines. The longer aging period adds to a higher initial price for the wine but it ,also, adds to immediate deliciousness of the wine out of the bottle because with all tannic red wines, aging does great things.
The sangiovese grape has many different personalities depending on where the grape was grown and how the wine was made. It is a high acid, medium to medium plus tannic grape which in the warmer vineyards of Montalcino really brings out the sour cherry and as Rachel Lowe, the sommelier of Spiaggia, leading the tasting class, characterized as red fruit preserves with hints of dried herbs like tarragon and tea leaves.
There were so many incredible wines to try here are just a few of note:
First-off, 2010 was a 5 star year for brunellos which means all the producers and the wine body recognized it as a stellar year. The grapes for the Il Poggione Riserva are hand-harvested and come from some of the oldest vines in Montalcino planted in 1964 and the riserva is only made in the best vintages. The wine had notes of cedar, cherry, savory notes of cured meat, spice. I only wish that I was ready to sit down to a hearty meal of lamb with friends to enjoy the bottle. This brunello, in particular, but all brunellos ask to be drank with food and friends. I was very happy to be able to taste this one and it is distributed by the great people at Terlato. If you ever are offered a glass or see this wine on a menu, say yes!
It is always such a surprise and pleasure to taste 10 year or older wines. When the folks at the Col D’Orcia table that had been on my list to try anyways were pouring a taste of the 1998, I said, yes please! 1998 was not a particularly exciting year for brunellos according to Jancis Robinson in her notes. But age on tannic wines does great things even in mediocre years. The tannins were so much more silky, the cherry, plum, and some rose notes came out more and again I could see this wine going so well with a nice meal of pasta and meat, it was a real pleasure to taste. Col D’Orcia hand harvests their grapes as well and really focuses on grape growing which I love.
As I go to these tastings, some of the tasting is a bit random. There always are far more producers than I have time to see. Since I am not a buyer directly, I don’t charge in if there are a lot of people surrounding a table, so sometimes for me wine tasting is serendipitous, but, sometimes so is traveling. The most intriguing encounters can be the ones that are not planned. Well, at this tasting, I walked up to a table because no one was there and I engaged with the pourer. The pourer happened to be one of the sons, Franz Josef, of the founder Rainer Loacker. After reading the literature on the table and speaking with Franz Josef, it turns out that the wines are made biodynamically and the tagline of the vineyard is “superb wines produced in harmony with nature.” By the way, they do not have a distributor in Chicago. But when I hear sustainable, biodynamic, and that they care about the environment they have won me over with their wines already. His wines tasted earthy, the sour red fruits, the leather, but the biggest thing for me was the very obvious passion that the family has for the environment.
Needless to say, I had a very good day. I am continuing to learn how to spit better but when it comes to wines that I know and love and don’t have the opportunity to drink very often it becomes hard. All I can say is, if you are at a restaurant, and deciding on a wine and if a brunello is within your price range, choose it and drink it. There are certain wines that just make me happy and brunello is one of them. I hope that as you read these blog posts you will find the wines you love, become more wine adventurous, and drink more brunellos!!!