Brunello - The impatient need not apply

by Craig Camp
Wednesday, December 17, 2003

IF YOU don't have patience stop reading now. If you make snap judgments this article is not for you. If you judge someone in ten seconds find something else to do.

If you don't take the time to look deeper you often miss hidden complexity. That goes for wine too. The fashion today is to make wines that put all their charms up-front. Grapes like merlot and shiraz have excelled in this environment, but some grapes just don't give up their personalities quite so easily. Brunello is one of those grapes.

On a hill 25 kilometers south of Siena in Tuscany sits a medieval town clinging to the edge of the cliffs. The surrounding hills and slopes are planted almost exclusively with the sangiovese grosso clone of sangiovese. In these vineyards the sangiovese produces a particularly hard wine to get to know. In fact, the sangiovese grosso here is so distinctive it has its own name: Brunello. The town of Montalcino is ancient, but the wine Brunello di Montalcino is not. While its name is now famous, Brunello di Montalcino did not start to gain its current status on the world market until the 1970's. The wine as we know it today owes its character to two families: one Italian and one American.

The creators of Brunello di Montalcino could not be more Italian. When the patriot, Ferruccio Biondi, returned to his family after fighting with Garibaldi for Italian unification, he and his grandfather, Clemente Santi, replanted their estate, Il Greppo. Santi, a noted agronomist and enologist, was the first to identify sangiovese grosso and it was this variety they chose to cultivate. Their goal was to make a classic wine for aging. Instead of following the recipe for Chianti used in those days, which included a second fermentation to increase fruity flavors, they used only sangiovese grosso. Then they gave the wine an extended maturation in oak barrels. In 1888 they released the first vintage of their new wine. Some bottles of the first Brunello di Montalcino still live in the old cellars at the Il Greppo estate

Unfortunately, the Biondi-Santi family was obviously so far ahead of the times that no one bothered to follow their lead in Montalcino for about 60 years when they were finally joined by Fattoria dei Barbi, Costanti and a few other adventurous souls in the 1950s. However this still didn't do the trick for Montalcino. In the 1970's you could still grab vineyards at bargain-basement prices.

In 1975 less than a million bottles of Brunello was produced by less than 30 estates. Now, not quite 30 years later, the figure is approaching four million bottles with more than 130 estates in production and more coming all the time.

What happened? The Americans invaded.

Brunello di Montalcino was famous in spite of itself. To knowledgeable drinkers of Italian wine with the patience to see what could happen to a bottle of Biondi-Santi if you waited 3 or 4 decades, this wine surrendered its secrets. However, it was the arrival of John and Harry Mariani in 1978 that changed not only the face of the ancient town, but also what being bottled there.

The Mariani brothers were sons of Italian immigrants who had made good -- and made good in a big way. Their company, Banfi Vintners, and its chief import, Riunite Lambrusco, made the family fortune. Today, Banfi Vintners is as powerful as ever representing three out of the top ten imported wine brands (Concha y Toro from Chile, Riunite from Italy, and Walnut Crest from Chile). It has ranked as the largest American wine importer for thirty years running. Yes, all you old hippies, Riunite is still the second largest Italian brand in the USA -- somebody is still drinking a lot -- although strangely enough we never seem to see anyone actually drinking it!

So in the late 70s, the Mariani family came to sleepy Montalcino and, with the quiet diplomacy we Americans are famous for, loudly threw almost everything out the window. Although this was a great shock to the local wine aristocracy, the arrival of these American tycoons was the second best thing that happened to Montalcino since Siena lost the war with Florence. The first thing was the genius of Biondi-Santi family in recognizing the potential of the sangiovese grosso and its affinity for the region, but it took the Mariani's drive and wealth to expand the whole range of possibilities in the vineyards of Montalcino.

The estate that the Mariani's created they called Castello Banfi and everything they did was loaded with American business aggressiveness and scale. They purchased a large estate, took an old castle and created a consumer-friendly winery that would make the Mondavis feel right at home. They even opened a restaurant that was good enough to recently earn a Michelin star. While they pushed all the right marketing buttons and installed all the bell-and-whistles, they also spared no expense in researching what it takes to make great wine in Montalcino. At first regarded with suspicion by the local growers, the Castello Banfi estate is now respected throughout Italy and has been awarded every Italian winemaking award that you can possibly think of -- and some you can't.

What Castello Banfi did was to push the envelope not only to expand the concept of what was good wine in Montalcino, but what was possible if you pushed beyond the probable. Today every producer from Biondi-Santi to the newest estate owes Castello Banfi a nod of respect. The success of Banfi has also brought a new round of heavy-weight wine producers to Montalcino and the likes of Gaja (Pieve di Santa Restituta), Antinori (Pian delle Vigne), Frescobaldi (Castel Giocondo) and Ruffino (Greppone Mazzi) are now selling some very expensive modern style Brunello di Montalcino wines. Even the legendary Biondi-Santi estate has entered the new-wave market with the decidedly modern Sassoalloro. But don't worry-- the Biondi-Santi wines remain a bastion of classic Brunello di Montalcino. Montalcino is also home to the Mondavi and Frescobaldi Luce project.

The goal at Castello Banfi was to make a modern, internationally styled, type of Brunello. They pulled out all the stops and used all the tricks, but they have, in fact, proved only one thing -- you can't make Brunello di Montalcino into Australian Shiraz. While the Banfi wines from international varietals, like ExcelsuS, can take on the best of the internationally styled wines (and has the scores and price to prove it) their Brunello di Montalcino remains a wine that needs age to be fully appreciated.

In a recent tasting of their 1998 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, I could not deny that their wine had more initial appeal than some, but more interesting is what happened to the wine over several days. At first the wine was all fruit and oak, but after one day the wine changed and the Brunello characteristics started to show. By the second day there was no doubt that, with time, this wine would reveal much more than the simple flavor profiles of oak and ripe fruit found when you first pull the cork. The longer you age the ultra-modern Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino the more it tastes like classic Brunello.

Sometimes terroir and varietal character win over technique.

Contrary to what most wine books suggest, Brunello di Montalcino is not a dramatic, obvious wine. It is a big wine; but not ponderous. It is powerful wine; but it is layered with delicate complexity. It is a concentrated wine; but it is lean and angular. It manages to walk the tightrope between all these characteristics to claim its rightful place as a great wine.

As in all of the world's great wine regions, most of the wines from here are not great and just go along for the ride with a famous name on the label. However, there are many outstanding producers and, as most of the production is exported, Brunello di Montalcino is easy to track down. Unfortunately, along with fame comes high prices and good Brunello di Montalcino is expensive.

So you have a wine that is hard to appreciate, requires aging and is expensive: hardly attractive for dinner tonight. However, the growers in Montalcino have a solution for you in Rosso di Montalcino. Both wines must be produced from 100% Brunello (sangiovese grosso) grapes, but Brunello di Montalcino requires four years of aging before release while Rosso di Montalcino requires only one year of aging. Producers use wines from younger vines or from casks that are more forward to make their Rosso wines more ready to drink in their youth. The Rosso di Montalcino wines from the best producers often reflect the style of their Brunello di Montalcino wines and offer a good starting point for learning the character of the area's wines and the styles of the various producers.

Drinking young Brunello is like playing hide-and-seek with greatness: patience pays off.

Some personal favorites:

-Andrea Costanti: classic wines needing aging to show their greatness.

-Eredi Fuligni: elegant and graceful.

-Fattoria dei Barbi: classic, powerful terroir driven wines.

-Lisini: powerful yet refined.

-Biondi-Santi: only when it's old and someone else is buying.

-Castello Banfi: very modern and approachable.

-La Rasina: great value

-Poggio Antico: graceful and restrained with lovely fruit.