Brunello is the name given to Tuscany’s dominant grape Sangiovese when grown around the hilltop town of Montalcino south east of Siena. Brunello di Montalcino as a communal activity really only jerked into life in the 1950s when there were fewer than a dozen bottlers of it. Today there are more than 200, almost three times as many as there were in 1990 – and the total vineyard area has grown to 1,700 hectares (just over 4,000 acres). Brunello has attracted considerable outside investment.
Two main phenomena, apart from sheer capital and the wherewithal to upgrade casks and other winery equipment, have been responsible for the dramatic improvement in quality here. Firstly vineyards today tend to be planted much more densely than they were, so that each individual vine is required to bear much less but more flavourful fruit. Secondly there has been a revolution in winemaking knowledge and skills.
On the whole this second development has been positive, although there are Brunellos, just as there seem to some wines in every region nowadays, which are just too ripe and overblown to be refreshing. With the invasion of oenologists has come the inevitable invasion of small French oak barrels to replace or supplement the traditional large Slavonian oak casks so charmingly known as botti. With a minimum of two and a maximum of four years’ oak ageing, the wines have plenty of opportunity to experience a wide range of wooden lodging. One or two seemed to me to be so excessively influenced by French oak as to have lost their local character.
So what is this local character? Well, imagine Chianti. Then forget it, because although there is a relationship between Chianti’s main grape and Brunello, the vineyards of Montalcino are so, so much warmer and drier than those of Chiantishire that the wines tend to be very much more concentrated and fuller. Yet the more open terrain of the Montalcino zone means that there is good ventilation, so healthy fruity, and relatively cool summer nights, so good acidity. I would suggest that a good Brunello is to semi-dried plums as the good red bordeaux so beloved of my stockbroker friend is to freshly picked blackcurrants. And on top of that fruit is a strong suggestion of autumn in the form of what Italians call sottobosco, the French call sousbois and we, rather less tunefully, might call mulch.
To learn more: www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it