Americans are in love with Brunello di Montalcino, the red Tuscan wine that has captured the world’s palate and heart for over 20 years. If there is any doubt, 25% of Brunello di Montalcino bottlings are imported and drunk by Americans. Bold and beautiful, it can be opulent in good years or austere yet sophisticated in not so good years. What sets Brunello apart is that even in youth, it has a ruby garnet color, and mature bouquet, more like bitter cherries soaked in port. It’s transparent color belies a deep, dusky character that once you experience it, the sense memory will have you yearning for more. In fact, Brunello di Montalcino was my epiphany wine, served with a white truffle pasta in Florence, Italy, a lightning bolt of flavor and aroma that set me on the wine path.
Brunello di Montalcino is a quality Italian wine, designated DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), subject to strict rules of production, permitted grape varieties, yields, winemaking, and barrel/bottle aging. Brunello is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, specifically the Sangiovese Grosso clone. It’s classic aromas and flavors of sour cherry, prune, cassis, spice, bitter chocolate, tobacco, leather, vanilla, and a hint of earthiness, swirled in a brilliant garnet robe, makes for a full bodied wine, concentrated in flavor, more savory than fruity, lively with high acidity, firm tannins, a mineral streak in some of the best producers, and a long persistent finish. Tannic in youth, oak aging tames and refines its structure, best drunk after time, preferably 10 years after the harvest. It’s best with food, such as grilled meats, game, aged cheeses, and mushrooms or truffles.
Recently, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino came to Los Angeles to promote the soon to released 2009 vintage. This association consists of winemakers, united in protecting and promoting the brand of Brunello, keeping its prestige intact. The Consorzio rates Brunello vintages from one to five stars, with 2009 being a “Four Star” or excellent vintage. Trade seminars and tastings were held in New York and Los Angeles to entice consumers to buy the 2009 Brunelli (plural for Brunello), despite early bad press about the character and ageability of these wines. These wines shook off the controversy known as “Brunellopoli” or “Brunellogate”, the 2008 scandal that claimed that several major Brunello producers were mixing in other grape varieties with Sangiovese. This violation of the purity rules of the DOCG and the specter of commercial fraud charges threw a shadow over Brunello wines in general, prompting the US Government to block Brunello imports that lacked the necessary paperwork (proof of 100% Sangiovese) for a couple of years.
Many of the 2009 Brunelli that I tasted reflected the less than perfect weather in Montalcino, with searing summer temperatures and drought impacting the grapes. These wines are more alcoholic, with lower acidity, milder tannins, and cooked fruit flavors, not what Brunello is known for, which is usually racy acidity and firm tannins that need time to mellow. In the glass, many Brunelli are light garnet in color, and show an evolved brick colored rim beyond their years. Overall, many 2009 Brunelli are more accessible, at the cost of being ageworthy, but some wines, especially the older riservas, are beautiful, with finesse and elegance, and will continue to improve.
continued in Part 2