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Education Reviews

A Vinophile’s Guide to Brunello di Montalcino Wines

In the 1970s, the Tuscan municipality of Montalcino was home to some 30 wineries producing DOC-level red wines sold primarily within Italy. Now, the region boasts well over 200 producers and bottlers. Elevated to the coveted DOCG status in 1980, Brunello di Montalcino wines are among the most sought after Italian wines today.

Side note: This Brunello di Montalcino wines article was also produced as a sponsored video (in partnership with the Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino).  To watch, just scroll down to the bottom and click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing (click here) to my YouTube wine education channel so you never miss an episode. 

Montalcino lies forty kilometres south of Siena and roughly 50 kilometres inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea. This fortified, medieval town is perched atop a lone hill that rises from the gentle pasture lands of the Unesco World Heritage Val d’Orcia region. It is from the vineyards that surround Montalcino that the fabled Brunello di Montalcino wines are produced.

Among the rolling pasture lands of the Val d’Orcia, rises a lone hill. Perched near the top is the medieval village of Montalcino. 

Montalcino enjoys a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The region is sheltered from rain and hail by Mount Amiata to its south east. Conditions are cooler at higher elevations. From mid-slope to the higher reaches, a significant difference in day to nighttime temperatures slows down vine ripening. This results in ripe, concentrated, tannic wines ably balanced by fresh acidity.

Many millions of years ago most of Italy was underwater. Tuscany lay under a shallow sea with the top of Montalcino emerging like a small island in its midst. Over the span of numerous geological eras, the oceans receded and returned in the area around Montalcino, causing massive landslides pulling soils from the summit toward the middle of the hill.

These influences, coupled with volcanic activity from the now extinct Mount Amiata, created an incredible diversity of soils in the region. Lower lying vineyards have lighter, more fertile, alluvial soils for the most part, whereas higher vineyard sites tend to be rockier, with limestone and marl-rich soils.

Many millions of years ago Tuscany lay under a shallow sea, with the top of Montalcino emerging like a small island in its midst.

The commune of Montalcino spans over 31 000 hectares, with a mere 15% devoted to grape vines. Forests, olive groves, and seeded crop lands cover much of the territory. While international demand is high, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (the grower and winery consortium for Brunello di Montalcino wines) only permits a 3% annual increase in total vineyard acreage so as to protect the region’s rich biodiversity.

Whereas many Tuscan Sangiovese strongholds allow blending in of secondary grape varieties, Brunello di Montalcino wines are made exclusively from Sangiovese. Historically, one specific group of Sangiovese clones (referred to locally as ‘Brunello’, or more specifically ‘Sangiovese Grosso’) was planted. This is no longer the case.

Sangiovese Grosso grapes have a high pulp-to-skin ratio. Given that the highest concentration of phenolic (colour, tannins) and flavour compounds are found in the skin, a higher skin-to-pulp ratio is favourable for truly concentrated, complex wines. Nowadays, a large variety of clonal selections exist in Montalcino; a boon to both quality and stylistic diversity.

Whereas many Tuscan Sangiovese strongholds allow blending, Brunello di Montalcino wines are made exclusively from Sangiovese.

Brunello di Montalcino wines are aged for 5 years before release (with a minimum of 2 years in oak casks). Even more premium, are the Brunello ‘Riserva’ wines which see a full 6 years’ maturation. Traditionally, large Slavonian oak botti (one to ten thousand litre casks) were used for ageing. Nowadays, Brunello producers use both Slavonian botti and French oak barrels of varying sizes.

Brunello di Montalcino wines offer red and dark fruit aromas, underscored by dried herbs, and balsamic notes. They are fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with concentrated, ripe fruit flavours, and muscular tannins. Due to their complexity and structure, Brunellos have excellent ageing potential, softening and developing attractive dried floral, fig and leather flavours over time.

Due to their complexity and structure, Brunello di Montalcino wines have excellent ageing potential, softening and developing attractive tertiary flavours over time.

While waiting for Brunello di Montalcino wines to mature, enthusiasts can sip on the region’s “second wines”; namely Rosso di Montalcino DOC. Made from younger plantings of Sangiovese, or from less favourable vineyard sites, Rosso di Montalcino wines are aged for just one year before release.

Dubbed “baby Brunello” by many producers, these early-drinking reds are a great foreshadowing of the potential of a Brunello vintage. They have similar aromas and flavours, but are lighter in body and structure, with softer tannins.

Rosso di Montalcino wines

In preparation for a series of masterclasses on the region, I had the great pleasure of chatting with a number of Montalcino winemakers and winery owners. The impression I got was of a dynamic region, with a firm focus on sustainable viticulture and winemaking practices, and a growing contingent of women in leadership positions.

Donatella Cinelli Colombini shared her story of hiring an oenologist back in the days where male winemakers were in high demand while their female counterparts were decidedly not! That realization led her to create an all women winery team; an initiative that has inspired women throughout the region.

Il Paradiso di Frassina winemaker, Federico Ricci, spoke of their Mozart in the vineyards project (see more here). Castello di Banfi general manager, Enrico Viglierchio, detailed the important clonal research the winery has undertaken to isolate top quality Sangiovese clones. 

Many more fascinating tales were told, and at the heart of each discussion, were the themes of increasingly organic vineyard practices and measures undertaken to reduce vineyard and winery carbon footprint.

Brunello di Montalcino wines line up

The best way to experience Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino wines is glass in hand, wandering through the vineyards on a sunny day in Tuscany. Unfortunately, for now we must use our imagination and travel through our tastings.

The Montalcino region has been blessed with a number of excellent to outstanding vintages in recent years. Our masterclass wines included the highly varied 2012, 2014, and 2015 vintages of Brunello di Montalcino wines, as well as the 2018 and 2019 Rosso di Montalcino vintages.

2012: 5-star vintage. Rich, concentrated wines that show a fine balance between ripe fruit flavours and vibrant acidity. Exceptional cellaring potential. Hold.

2014: 3-star vintage. Cool, rainy growing season that produced a smaller than average crop. Light, finely chiselled wines with bright fruit and tangy acidity. Drink now.

2015: 5-star vintage. Warm summer with cool overnight temperatures resulting in ripe, rich wines with balanced freshness, and powerful tannic structure. Hold.

2018: 4-star vintage. Summer heatwaves followed by cooler, rainier weather near harvest. The wines are shaping up to be elegant and silky, with a charming, upfront fruit profile. Rosso: drink now. Brunello: not yet released.

2019: 5-star vintage. A warm season with slow, even ripening. The wines look to be very fruit-forward, with ripe tannins, and lots of finesse. Rosso: drink now/hold 1 year. Brunello: not yet released.

Check out these excellent Brunello producers: Altesino, Caparzo, Il Paradiso di Frassina, Carpineto, La Poderina, Castello Romitorio, Campogiovanni (San Felice), Col d’Orcia, Castello BanfiDonatella Cinelli ColombiniFornacina, Fattoria dei Barbi

Photo credit: Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino

Life Producers Reviews

REQUIM FOR A VINE: Classical Music and Wine

Classical music & wine
Photo credit: Il Paradiso de Frassina

I am not a sceptic. When people tell me things, my first instinct is to believe them. I like magic tricks, and fairy tales. And I plan to use all of my wiles to keep my kids believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as long as I possibly can (likely until some annoying child at school whose parents ‘didn’t want to lie’ ruin it for them).

Call me naive, or gullable, I don’t really care. In my experience, you enjoy life a lot more if you suspend your disbelief from time to time. After all, if you look back over the course of history, you would be hard pressed to find a cynic behind the important advancements our society has known. Rather, it is those that dare to ‘have a dream’, and potentially fail, that bring about change.

That is why I am always intrigued when I happen across a wine producer that has a unique story to tell about their vineyard or cellar practices. At a recent Brunello di Montalcino tasting in Montréal, I happened on such a tale.

At the foot of the Montosoli hill, in the Montalcino vineyards of Italy, lies a beautifully renovated 1000 year-old farmstead and a small holding of 4 hectares of vines. A walk through the vineyards reveals a most unusual site. Installed at regular intervals throughout the rows are Bose loudspeakers, playing Mozart to the grapes.

The estate is called Il Paradiso di Frassina, and is the brainchild of Montalcino maverick Giancarlo Cignozzi, renowned for his founding role in the acclaimed Tenuta Carpazo. In 2000, Cignozzi decided to leave Carpazo, yearning for a smaller operation, where he could craft artisan wines.

The vineyard, abandoned for some 50 years, was planted from scratch, and the tender, young vines were nurtured…with music. Originally, this consisted of a few acoustic speakers and a wide variety of classical and barroque styles. Within a short period, Cignozzi and his team discovered that the vines exposed to music were hardier, more disease resistant and ripened more consistently.

This discovery drew interest from the scientific community, with two universties, those of Florence and of Pisa, deciding to actively study the phenomenon. In Florence, the research is focused on the biophysical changes in the vines. In 2008, they asked Cignozzi to play only Mozart, to ‘give a single, geometric, and subtle textural tone to the musical harmonies’ to better determine how the sound waves benefit the vines. In Pisa, the study is focused on the insect population of the vineyards, and how it has changed under the musical influence.

The extraordinary developments at Il Paradiso di Frassina so impressed American technology company Bose, that they donated custom, all-weather speakers for the entire vineyard.

The results? According to Il Paradiso di Frassina’s patent, the size and thickness of the leaf has been found to be increased, along with the level of chlorophyll (essential to plant photosynthesis).  The need for copper and sulphur sprays (to ward off fungal infections) has decreased by 50%. Leaf respiration is improved, making them less resistant to climatic stress. The grapes have higher levels of anthocyanins and polyphenols (resulting in deeper colour and more robust tannins). And finally, the grapes are ripening more consistently and efficiently, allowing for earlier harvest dates, before the risk of autumn rains sets in.

And the wines?

Il Paradiso di Frassina Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – 88pts. PW

Very fresh and lively, with vibrant red currant, spice and earthy aromatics. Medium bodied, firm and moderately concentrated on the palate, with fleshy tannins and a clean finish.

Where to buy: Inquire with agent: Les Importations Olea Inc. www.olea.ca 

Il Paradiso di Frassina Brunello di Montalcino 2011 – 92pts LW

Complex aromas of ripe red cherry, talc and fresh, forest floor nuances are underscored by attractive minerality and subtle animal notes. Bright acidity gives way to a firm, dense mid-palate, with pretty floral and cherry flavours. The tannins are robust, but fine grained, and the oak imprint is subtle. The finish is persistent and savoury. Needs time.

Where to buy: 55.50$ (SAQ)

Flauto Magico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011 – 93pts LW

Wonderfully suave, harmonious red. Intense aromas of red currant, red cherry and balsamic feature on the nose. Upon aeration, a lovely earthiness develops, with sweet talc notes and stony mineral nuances. Full-bodied and firm, yet velvetty in texture with a rich profile of fresh fruit flavours and a long finish, framed by robust, grainy tannins and woody tones from long ageing in cask.

Where to buy: Inquire with agent: Les Importations Olea Inc. www.olea.ca 

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Education Reviews Wines

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO & THE 2012 VINTAGE

Brunello di Montalcino 2012 vintage
Photo credit: Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino

A villa in Tuscany…this notion conjures up romantic images of rolling hills dotted with vineyards and olive trees, warm sunshine, delicious, market-fresh food and, of course, incredible wine. For if there is one Italian region that even the least wine savvy among us has heard of, it is generally Tuscany.

Tuscany is the heart land and historic home of Italy’s most widely planted wine grape: Sangiovese. Said to be named after the latin term sanguis Jovis (blood of Jupiter), the Sangiovese grape produces wines that range stylistically from crisp, herbal, red fruited quaffers to complex, full-bodied, firmly tannic beauties, depending on where the grapes are planted.

Sangiovese is named after the latin term sanguis Jovis (blood of Jupiter).

Forty kilometres south of Siena (and its well-known, northern neighbour of Chianti), lies a series of sleepy hamlets and one lone hill rising to 564 metres in altitude. This is the municipality of Montalcino, where the storied Brunello di Montalcino red wine is crafted.

Montalcino spans over 24 000 hectares, with a mere 15% devoted to grape vines. The region is incredibly biodiverse, with a high proportion of forests, olive groves and seeded crop lands interspersed between the vineyards.

Sheltered from rain and hail by Mount Amiata to the south, Montalcino boasts a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The lower lying vineyards tend to produce fuller, heartier, more deeply coloured wines. The plantings at higher elevations, where denser, limestone/ marl soils abound, are generally fresher, more firmly structured and tannic.

Montalcino is incredibly biodiverse, with a high proportion of forests, olive groves and seeded crop lands interspersed between the vineyards.

Whereas Chianti can blend in up to 30% of other, authorized red grapes, Montalcino reds are made solely of Sangiovese. Historically, one specific set of Sangiovese clones (informally called ‘Brunello’, or more specifically ‘Sangiovese Grosso’) was planted. This is no longer the case. Sangiovese Grosso grapes have a high pulp-to-skin ratio. Given that the highest concentration of phenolic (colour, tannins) and flavour compounds are found in the skin, a higher skin-to-pulp ratio is favourable for truly concentrated, complex wines. Nowadays, a large variety of clonal selections exist in Montalcino; a boon to both quality and stylistic diversity.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG wines are aged for 5 years before release (with a minimum of 2 years in oak casks). Even more premium, are the Brunello ‘Riserva’ wines which see a full 6 years’ maturation. In their youth, they feature ripe, dark fruit aromatics, underscored by notes of violets, spice and bright, red fruits. They tend to be fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with lovely depth of ripe, fruit flavours and firm tannins. Due to their complexity and structure, Brunello wines have great ageing potential, softening and developing attractive dried floral, fig and leather flavours over time.

The painstaking labour that goes into crafting each bottle comes at a certain price tag. Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to start at 40$ and rise steadily into the 100$ + category. Luckily for the more cash strapped among us, there is a more affordable alternative, namely Rosso di Montalcino DOC. These wines are matured in cellars for just one year, with oak ageing optional. They may not have quite the complexity, concentration or longevityy of their illustrious big brother, but are often pleasant, good value wines.

In their youth, Brunello di Montalcino wines tend to be fresh and full-bodied on the palate, with lovely depth of ripe, fruit flavours and firm tannins.

A month ago, I had the good fortune to attend a seminar and tasting presented by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino to showcase the much heralded 2012 vintage. Deemed ‘a return to finesse’ by the Wine Enthusiast and a ‘rockstar vintage’ by James Suckling, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

Cool, wet weather marked the 2012 winter season, followed by a very dry, warm summer. Rains late in the ripening period brought necessary water for the vines, without diluting flavours unduly. On the contrary, many growers reported yields down from 14% to as much as 30% on the abundant 2011 harvest.

My overall feeling, after tasting through a wide sampling of the vintage, was that quality is indeed exceptional from many producers, but on the whole uneven. Beautifully ripe fruit was a common theme. However tannins were sometimes green and astringent, suggesting that the intense summer heat caused a gap between sugar and phenolic ripening in certain vineyards.

Here are a selection of my favourites (Rosso and Brunello). Note that the majority of the 2012 Brunellos have yet to be released at the LCBO or SAQ (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2014 – 89pts. PW

Always good value for money, the Altesino Rosso di Montalcino features pretty red cherry, earthy, balsamic notes on the nose. The palate is lively and pleasantly fruity, with moderate concentration and fine-grained tannins.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25,85$)

Argiano Di Rosso Montalcino DOC 2015 – 90pts PW

Ripe and fresh, with vibrant red fruit, earthy notes and savoury undertones. The palate is dense and firmly structured, yet pleasingly smooth in texture. This moderately concentrated red offers great balance, and finishes on ripe, chewy tannins. Fantastic value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO & SAQ (circa 25$, 2015 not yet released)

Altesino Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 92pts. LW

Vibrant red currant and cherry notes are underscored by leafy nuances, subtle spice and leather. Crisp acidity gives way to a very firm, tightly knit structure and highly concentrated fruit on the mid-palate. 2 years’ ageing in traditional Slavonian oak casks give a rounded, earthy tone to the finish and a fine grained tannin profile. This cuvée offers a lot of finesse. It is worth hanging on to this lovely red for 5 – 7 years’ to let it soften and broaden out.

Argiano Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 94pts. PW

A very fine balance of elegance, power, structure and finesse. The nose is moderately intense and highly complex, with earthy, spiced, red cherry, ripe tomato and hints of balsamic. Fresh and lively on the palate, providing a perfect counterweight to the weighty, firmly structured yet fleshy style. Lovely depth of flavour defines the mid palate, with fruity and savoury notes lingering on the finish.

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – 94pts. LW

This is a fantastic example of the ageworthiness of the better 2012 Brunellos. Beautifully fresh red cherry, currant, spice, balsamic and talc notes feature on the nose. The palate is incredibly vibrant, full bodied, dense and tightly wound. The impressive depth of flavour and ripeness of the big, chewy tannins suggest superior ageability. Lay this down for at least 3 more years, or decant long before serving and pair with red meat.

Antinori Pian Delle Vigne Brunello Di Montalcino 2012 – 90pts. LW

Incredibly elegant, complex nose, featuring floral tones, tangy balsamic aromas, red cherry and blackberry. Upon aeration, deeper notes of leather and spice emmerge. Fresh and bright on the attack, with lovely, layered fruit that is somewhat marred by a drying sensation and a touch of phenolic bitterness that brought an otherwise very high score down a few pegs.

Pecci Celestino Brunello Di Montalcino DOCG 2012 – 92pts. LW

Very pretty nose, redolent with just ripe red cherries, potpourri, mixed spice and earthy notes. Upon aeration, intriguing leather notes develop. Very fresh and vibrant on the palate, with a firm, weighty structure and multiple layers of tangy fruit. The finish is long and lifted, marred only by the slightly drying nature of the firm, grainy tannins. Needs time.

Villa I Cipressi Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – 91pts. LW

Medium ruby, faded at rim. Vibrant and fruity on the nose, with fresh red cherry and currant notes, underscored by hints of violets, earthy tones and subtle spice. Crisp and firmly structured on the palate, with layers of tart red fruits and balsamic flavours. The tannins are firm, yet ripe. While already quite harmonious, this red would definitely benefit from additional cellaring.