Orienting in the wide world of Brunello might be a little bit difficult if you do not know some key factors that are fundamental when talking about an appellation with more than 200 different producers and a various range of prices.
Finally I have decided to come up with a very short but indicative selection of key elements which you should take in consideration when choosing your next bottle (or bottles) of Brunello and as I would really like to be even more helpful I will also give you some names that specifically express that “category”.
It means the wine list here is not a ranking, (please leave me a comment if you would like a list of my top 10 Brunello selection for this year) but a guide for you to let you discover better the wine world of Montalcino and its characteristics.
So let’s dive deep into the elements which you should take into account when choosing a bottle of Brunello:
- From which side of Montalcino hill the Brunello comes from
Montalcino appellation does not have any official sub-zone recognized but it is absolutely correct to say that a Brunello from the Northern side of the hill will grow in a completely different micro-climate and soil components than one from the Southern side.
Northern side is the one facing Siena, it usually presents a cooler climate and less sun exposition throughout the year. In particular the North-East slope is a prime zone for Brunello. The soil components of this particular side of Montalcino are very rich in mineral elements which will give more complexity to the wine. Vineyards are situated from mid to high altitudes (from 250 to 400 meters above the sea level) and the predominant components of their soils are limestone and clay. Wines from this area perform pretty well in the hotter vintages (like the last 2015). On the other side they would have to be careful with rain during the harvest period. The bouquet of wines from this area is generally larger, wines (especially the ones from 250 meters and above) are more fragrant, naturally lighter colored and more complex rather than powerful. Going further north from the village, altitude descends and raises again in the Montosoli smaller hill, which looks like a natural terrace overlooking the valley downwards. Brunello’s from this smaller sub-area usually combine the powerful and the muscular characteristics of wines from the Southern area, with the elegance of the original growing area.
Brunello from North Montalcino: Le Chiuse
Western side of Montalcino presents a consistent amount of woods areas, in the past this slope was more famous for the coal production than for the wines. That is why here you can find less producers than other parts of Montalcino. The geological composition of the soil is very uniform compared to other sub-areas and the components are mostly Galestro rocks. The northwestern area is the one covered mostly by woods (where Castiglion del Bosco is) and presents more rain throughout the year, cooler temperature and most subject to spring-frost. Usually here wines are lighter in color and structure, with a great acidity. Tavarnelle area is very particular sub-area in the Western slope. Altitude here plays a crucial role, we are between 250 and 350 meters a.s.l., a fresh natural breeze helps cooling down from the day heat during the growing season, generating larger bouquet of aromas. Elevation is sufficient to protect from the fog and frost, but also low at the right point to enjoy warmer temperatures, that guarantee a more consistent ripening. Generally producers and experts says that in Montalcino the perfect altitude is the middle one, not too low that is too humid, not too high that affects the ripening. Also the best soils are in the middle bend, mostly limestone clay and rocky draining soils.
Brunello from West Montalcino: Le Potazzine
Southern side of Montalcino is the one that goes down hill, towards Grosseto and the sea. It is generally a flatter area, with a lot of sun exposure and a warmer Mediterranean climate (it includes the small villages of Sant’Angelo in Colle and Sant’Angelo Scalo). Torrid sea-breezes blowing from the Maremma inland, drive summertime temperatures up to 3-4 degrees higher than the rest of Montalcino, rain fall are lower (500mm instead of 700mm), so all these elements create the conditions for a faster ripening of Sangiovese grapes. Normally harvest here happens even 2 weeks before other areas in the Northern side. Soils have generally more silty-clay and silty-sandy composition, that together with the climate characteristics contributes to give more bold and round wines with less acidity. You will find bigger producers and some more mechanization, (not for the winery here below) indeed in this area is produced the 35/40% of the whole output of Montalcino.
Brunello from South Montalcino: Sesti
Eastern side is probably the most popular slope of Montalcino. Going from the village to Castelnuovo dell’Abate hamlet and the Sant’Antimo Abbey, which are very famous touristy spots, is where it is possible to find some of the most ancient soils in the area. It presents thin and well draining layered limestone, rich in Galestro, a friable rock. In these 9km you can find some of the world-wide well known Brunello producers. The micro-climate here is considered perfectly vocate for Sangiovese, elevation plays a very important role in creating high temperature variation between day and night, especially during crucial ripening months, when the early morning sunshine on the south-east exposition warms up the cooler temperatures from the night. This particular temperature range slows down the ripening of the grape, which is essential for the development of the aromas and perfumes. It also provides the perfect conditions for a higher level of acidity, key element for the Brunello’s classic marathon aging. Also it’s position, which faces the Amiata mountain (a natural barrier from the sudden storms), is very windy which helps drying the grapes from the humidity of the night/early morning. On another side the crest of Passo del Lume Spento protects Castelnuovo from the warm winds coming from the sea. The micro-zone around the hamlet has an uncommon mix of ancient and more recent soils, most of the best vineyards are planted in calcareous marl-stones with shale. Very often wines from this area combine power and grace, deepness and balance.
Brunello from the East Montalcino: Poggio di Sotto
- Modern or Traditional wine making style
The traditional Sangiovese from Montalcino was aged for 4 years in big oak barrels and from Clemente Santi to nowadays many producers decide to kept this style, sometimes just reducing the period of time for the aging in wood, which for the disciplinary is now a minimum of 2 years. With the advent of new producers and especially in the 90s when the world wide taste was more into big bold wines, is when the barrique arrived in Montalcino too. Not many producers use the barrique or tonneaux for their Brunello but there are some modern style (that’s how they are called) producers and some which mix both big and small barrels. The disciplinary leaves the producers free to decide on the dimension of barrels, if they prefer big casks or small ones.
Modern style Brunello: Cupano
Traditional style Brunello: Salvioni
- Vintages, the recent best vintages in Montalcino
We should premise that in the last 20 years there were not super bad vintages in Montalcino and that the beauty of wine is that it reflects the characteristics of different vintages, in my opinion a good Brunello should always express diversity from one vintage to another. So I will not say that there are top vintages (you can check the ratings for that) but there are some vintages which you will find easier to appreciate. How old should we drink a Brunello? In my opinion and in my experience a great Brunello shows its best when just released, from 5 to 7 years from the harvest and after a longer period, from 15 years from the harvest to whenever you would like to open it. A very approachable vintages are (from the year 2000): 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010 (this one can disappoint some expectations), 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. I personally love the 2014 because it shows a very pleasant and lighter face of Sangiovese, pleasant drinking and it goes perfect paired with every kind of food. Producers who work with consistency in my opinion made a great Brunello also in a difficult vintage like the 2014. There is a beautiful article from Wine Spectator with all the vintages of Brunello and their characteristics, follow the link here: https://www.winespectator.com/vintage-charts/region/tuscany-brunello-di-montalcino
Must try Brunello 2014: Ridolfi
- Organic, biodynamic and natural wines
Sustainable vine growing and wine making in Montalcino, from organic to natural wines. Making a great wine in an area which is so well vocated such as Montalcino should not need any kind of chemical support neither in the vineyards nor in the cellar. There are still a few producers which are certified organic or biodynamic (or which consider themselves “vini naturali”), too little if you look at the numbers, 40 producers certified up to 200 wineries. In my personal opinion I hope that in the future Montalcino can become an organic district in Tuscany which will give a huge difference between this denomination and other great red wines competitors in Italy and also outside of Italy. At the same time, there are some of the biggest wineries which are now in conversion not only for organic farming but also biodynamic, like Col d’Orcia with its 150 hectares, which is a great message for other wineries and for the consumers.
- Family owned/smaller wineries and industrial/bigger wineries
The average size of the wineries in Montalcino is 12 hectares. The 3 biggest producers are Banfi, with 900 hectares of which 173 of Brunello, Castel Giocondo with 264 hectares of which 179 of Brunello and Col d’Orcia with 150 hectares of which 108 of Brunello. Most of the wineries are way smaller than these first three. Montalcino has always been a place of farmers, more than entrepreneurs. Many investors from outside Montalcino and outside Tuscany came here in the last 40 years following a dream, produce a great wine. Even when Brunello was still far to be the famous and successful wine that it is nowadays, there has been great personalities coming in Montalcino with this purpose. On the other side there are the families originally from Montalcino, which traditionally since generations have been producing wine in their farmhouses.
Brunello from a family owned smaller winery: Baricci
Brunello from a bigger producer: Col d’Orcia
Please let me know in the comments your thoughts about your Brunello choices, if this article has been useful for you and if you would like to have more info’s about Brunello di Montalcino. Thank you for your time !
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