Impressions of Brunello

Great wines are grown, not made. The job of the winemaker is to translate what nature gives them and not screw it up. Our visit to the vineyards of Brunello was far too short (and this piece may be far too long). But my understanding of the wines made in this very special spot was greatly enhanced. Just spending two days here showed me so much and yet, Andrea Costanti is still learning after spending 22 years making wine in Montalcino. Our visit reinforced that Brunello is, for me, one of the greatest red wines there is. Along with mountain grown cabs from Napa, Santa Cruz and Sonoma county, the Brunelli from the mountainous portions of Montalcino are my favorites.

The wines of Brunello di Montalcino are at once simple to understand and very complex. The DOC Brunello di Montalcino allows for the making of three wines: Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. All three must be made completely of the Brunello clones of the Sangiovese grape. Brunello must spend three years in wood and are released January 5 years after the harvest year (1998 is just being released in January 2003). Brunello Riserva must spend an extra year in wood and is released 6 years after harvest (the 1997 Riservas will begin to be released in January 2003. Rosso has no specific aging requirements. The complications have two sources: the geological complexity of the region and the emergence of “Super Tuscan” vini di Tavola and IGT. These latter are the myriad wines being made by Montalcino producers with assorted grapes (mostly combining Sangiovese with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet) and more modern techniques resulting in wines of a more international style. It is the complexity added by the vast variations in soils, weather, exposures and the experience of families who have been part of the wine making traditions for hundreds of years that will be addressed, however briefly, here.

Modern Brunello is a recent phenomenon. Biondi Santi produced the first famous Brunello just over 100 years ago. These are huge, strikingly tannic wines that take decades to age out. They are fabulously expensive as well. In the 1960’s, many traditional Montalcino families led by the Costanti’s began to modernize the style of winemaking, converting their families’ private winemaking into commercial ventures. Today there are over 150 wineries in the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino, the organization that regulates and defines what Brunello is. There has been one major revision of the DOC law in the recent past and another is being discussed. The movement is towards less wood aging and earlier releases of the wines. I hope this process is not taken too far so we don’t lose what makes Brunello so special.

Our visit began on a foggy Monday leaving from the Tuscan Maremma. We drove north from Manciano through Saturnia, Arcidosso, around Monte Amiata and entered Montalcino from the south. The valley formed between Monte Amiata and the hill of Montalcino itself is the Val d’Orcia. The Orcia river is a conduit to the cool and moist sea air of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The two hills make for a funnel, or venturi, which speeds up the air flow coming along the Orcia. Once past the town of Montalcino the region opens up to a sloping hillside, adding another variant to the equation of Brunello. It is this unique combination of geological features which give the precise balance of heat and coolness, of moderating sea influences and of a combination of soils that make Brunello what it is. There are at least 4 major sub regions in Brunello: the Val d’Orcia itself, the hills around Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the shoulder of the hill of Montalcino and the slopes to the north. Each has a characteristic soil and weather pattern which accounts for much variation in Brunello. Then within each area there are variations. The Consorzio di Vini di Brunello di Montalcino writes of 24 distinct micro climates in the area.

The southwestern end of the Val d’Orcia is dominated by Banfi. The Banfi estate is thousands of hectares, much of it originally owned by Argiano. You drive northeast for over 1/2 a hour with Banfi signs your constant companion. I think the Banfi estate has its own area code. This is where Brunello di Montalcino is a mono culture, nothing but grapes. It is only when you pass Banfi that you return to the mixture of farms, vineyards, olive groves and woods that is so common to Toscana.

The southern portion of Brunello is all rolling hillsides. The estates tend to be larger. As we moved north towards Argiano and Sant’Angelo in Colle the land got much wilder and more hilly, the estates smaller. Argiano is on a little bluff. It is 200 hectares with a villa overlooking Castello di Argiano (privately owned and not possible to visit). Argiano is a modern winery with loads of stainless steel and tile in the cantina (fermentation and bottling facility). The cellar however, is a different story altogether. It is dirt floored and filled with small oak barrels and the botti where the wine spends its final resting time after blending and before bottling.

The Brunello and Riserva are a blend selected on a barrel by barrel basis. The lots of Rosso and Brunello are separated early on. The Rosso is blended and bottled at about a year of aging. The rest of the barrels are set aside for potential use in the Brunello or Riserva. The most concentrated barrels wind up getting more aging time and go into the Riserva. The rest are examined for use in the “regular” Brunello. Many a barrel originally intended for Brunello does not make the make the final blends, well after the rosso from that vintage has been bottled. I suspect that a lot of the Brunello that is not selected for the final blend will be sold to other wineries. Anywhere from about 30% to 70% of the vintage will be made into Brunello in any given year, depending on quality. In 1997, 70% of the wine harvested wound up as Brunello. In 2002 only about 30% will.

The district running east and south from Sant’Angelo in Colle and starting just to the north of that town produces some of the greatest wines in the region. This is a side valley with conditions very different than the surrounding area. The wind comes up from the ocean along the Orcia river valley. As this valley narrows considerably at Montalcino, the wind speeds up. This makes for slower ripening and higher acid levels in grapes grown in this area. In great vintages, where the grapes achieve full ripeness, this area really shines. Wines from this area may have a very different vintage character than the rest of Brunello. Many of my favorite wines come from this zone including Agostini Pieri, Lisini, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Uccelleira. These wines tend to be big and spicy.

The Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona wines are made in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, near Sant’Antimo. The grapes come from very hilly vineyards located a little to the south of there. The cantina, where the grapes are crushed fermented and bottled, is located in the vineyard, while the barrels and botti for cellar aging are in the Palazzo. The Bianchetti family inherited the property from the d’Aragona family when the last Count and Countess (or was it the last Duke and Duchess) died without children. It was a surprise that the family left the winery to their property manager, Signor Bianchetti, and not to the church, as they had so many a Pope in their background. Bianchetti maintained the winery name as Piccolomini d’Aragona and put his name in tiny type on the label. It was Bianchetti’s dream to enter commercial winemaking. In just 17 years, his wines are now amongst the most sought after wines of Brunello.

The wines are aged mostly in botti: large oak ovals of varying size, from a few hundred liters to maybe 4000 liters. By transferring the wines often from one type of botti to another (differing sizes and ages of oak), they are able to get a lot of complexity on the wines without a lot of oak flavor. We tried the 1998 and it was superb, especially considering the poor reputation of that vintage. We also tried the 2001 Rosso and it was incredible for a rosso. This bodes well for the vintage at Piccolomini. Their super Tuscan is Ateo and it was nice. Half sangiovese and half a cabernet merlot blend. We had a delightful time with Jena, who is the girlfriend of the Bianchetti son, and handles sales for the winery. I hope to see her in New York at a major Brunello tasting on November 18. We did not get to try their Syrah, named Fabius after the builder of the Palazzo.

After tasting at Piccolomini, Jena took us to visit her neighbor Andrea at Uccelleira. There was a small mishap involving our rented car, a wall, and seeing the sky from an interesting perspective. Well, I am not sure that the wall was actually involved because Tabby (the name our intrepid VW Golf got early on in the trip) came through without any rearrangement of her sheet metal. There was a loud noise and Tabby’s front end leapt up several feet off the ground… Leave it to say that some plastic parts fell off the car somewhere between Ciacci and Uccelleira (a drive of less than a mile) that did not seem to affect Tabby. I have always maintained that cars in Italy have too many parts and that losing a few is a good thing. Luckily we were renting from Europcar through Auto Europe. They didn’t say a thing when we said farewell to Tabby in Firenze.

Uccelleira is a tiny producer which makes 1100 cases a year. We met Andrea, the owner and his parents. Dad was on a ladder checking the olive trees. Mom was out checking into what Son and Dad were doing. Andrea, the son, was in a dirty pair of auto racing related blue and greasy black overalls. Jena has visited the winery before and tasted wines out of the barrel before. At Vinitaly she does the spiel for Uccelleira in English as Andrea can’t speak a word.

Andrea first took us to look at his vines. He only has two hectares at the winery (about five acres). He was telling us how each row differed and how there were upper and lower parts of each row that usually went to Brunello or Rosso. I think he names each vine. He farms about six hectares in total at various levels of elevation in the Castelnuove dell’Abate area. In Napa this sized holding would yield about 2500 to 5000 cases of wine, here it yields 1100. This is a reason Brunello is so expensive.

We tasted in order: Rosso 2002, Brunello 2002, Brunello 2002 Riserva (he separates Riserva portions from regular early on, but will not always bottle it separately. In 2002 he will not make Riserva), 2001 Brunello, 2001 Riserva from Botti, 2001 Riserva from Barriques blended with a bit of the botti batches, 2001 from Barriques only, 2000 Brunello, 2000 Brunello Riserva (which is destined to be blended back into the 2000), 1999 Brunello, 1999 Riserva (which will probably be bottled separately) and 1998 Brunello out of the bottle. Please note that this represented twelve different wines at Uccelleira (and eighteen total for the day!). I have done a lot of barrel tasting in my day but this was one of the most intense experiences of my wine life. I felt for Kay who was having sinus problems. Jena was amazed by the tasting. When we got to La Chiusa that night we had to brush our teeth; they were black.

Once you get to the northern slopes of Montalcino, the weather again changes. There is little fog, less rain and the wind, while strong is less strong than on the southern exposure. Costanti is in this area. His wines are superb. Andrea is the second of the “modern” Costanti’s to run the winery. The family dates back to the 1500 but the winemaking professionally only began in the 1960’s. This is Andrea’s 22nd vintage in charge. He is a quiet man, very elegant, subtle with a sly sense of humor, just like his wines. We hit it off with him immediately and have been invited back in July to spend a week or so at the Villa. The guest apartment has a huge fireplace in the kitchen with a grill in it, a stove, full cooking equipment. I am sure that there is a bathroom and bedroom as Kay assures me, but all I can remember is the kitchen.

We tasted 2002 Rosso, Brunello and Ardigno (cabernet merlot blend. Then we moved into the villa to taste 2001 Rosso, 1998 Brunello, 1997 Riserva and 2000 Ardigno. The Rosso was extremely good. I can’t wait for its release in February. His 2001 is a great vintage. His 1999 is a very good one. In other areas of Brunello, the 1999’s may be better than the 2001’s. All depends on the particular spot the grapes came from. The 1998 was okay, but not as good as those of Uccelleira and Ciacci. The 1997 Riserva was a true wine moment. Its hard to explain how a wine can be so good. Its like explaining sex to a virgin (or gelato to someone raised on Baskin and Robbins). You can describe it all you want, but experiencing it is the only way to fully grasp how good it actually is.

I commented to Andrea on how different his wine was to those of his near neighbor, Val di Cava. Less than a mile apart, the wines differ so much. Andrea explained that Montalcino used to be an island surrounded by sea. Eons ago it rose to form the modern hill of Montalcino. Andrea’s property is on a portion of the original island. The rock is volcanic. Val di Cava is on the original sea bed, a heavier sedimentary rock formation. Both formations have weathered into soil that supports their vineyards, but of a different texture and components. Costanti is rocky and gravel soils, Val di Cava is heavy with clay. One is not better or worse, just different. Also Val di Cava is at the top of the fog line. In normal times, in the middle of the day, Val di Cava can be fog shrouded while it is clear at Costanti. Costanti is on the shoulder of the ridge containing Montalcino and the winds are very strong there. Val di Cava is on a more open hillside and the wind is more diffuse. The result is wines that are a world apart. Val di Cava is huge, ripe and lush. Costanti is velvety and smooth. Another near neighbor to Costanti, Canalecchio di Sopra, which is in the direction of Val di Cava, is also very rich and lush. It is in the sedimentary soils, between Costanti and Val di Cava. The winery is closer to Costanti than to Val di Cava yet the soils and exposure more similar to Val di Cava. The grapes yielded are like those of Val di Cava.

We spent the rest of our day back in Montalcino buying up a few of the wines produced in the area. I highly recommend Enoteca Pierangioli, which participated in the tax free program. I received a 12% rebate on the VAT on the wines. Drogheria Franci, just across from the Enoteca has a great selection and offers superb wine advice. If you tell them the name of a few Brunellos you like they will steer you to others in a similar style. Prices are not as high as some but a little higher than Pierangioli. The Enoteca Fortezza is a fabulous place to shop as well.

A word on pricing in Montalcino. When the wines come out, they are all priced the same at all the shops and at the winery. But as the wine sells it gets marked up. Ciacci Piccolomini has basically sold out in Montalcino and is now going for 90 euro a bottle when you can find it. We managed to find some in Saturnia for “only” 52 euro. But Val di Cava was available for about 42 euro in Pitigliano, Saturnia and in Montalcino. Lisini ranged from 35 euro to about 42 euro. We bought it for 35 euro at Pierangioli. It was 37 euro in the fine wine shop Terre di Siena in Monteriggioni and 39 at the Enoteca Fortezza and Franci.

Now for a short and personal list of favorites:

Costanti – My absolute favorite. It was the first great Brunello I was exposed to. Now that I have met Andrea, it is even more of a favorite. The wines are silky and elegant. They are big but not in a showy way at all. They need time in the glass to open up not because they are so tannic but because they are so multifaceted. Costanti’s riserva’s are so good it’s hard to explain. Its not that they are so much more tannic or big but just a more magnified example than the regular bottling.

Agostini Pieri – I have rarely seen this wine outside of Montalcino and never in the US. It is simply incredible. In a lesser year like 1995 it is very high quality. Their riserva is thick and tannic and loaded with spice. I wish I could have found a bottle of the ’95 riserva for less than 95 euro. I would have bought it (it was only 130 euro at La Chiusa where wine is well marked up, I expected it to be 50 or 60 at retail!).

Le Chiuse – A superb small winery that I just recently discovered. I would put it up there with Agostino Pieri as one of my most favorite wineries after Costanti. The wife/owner is a member of the Biondi Santi family and inherited about 18 acres of grapes from the family. She and her husband have been farming the land for almost 18 vintages. They have been planting new vines all along so their vineyard has a wide range of ages of vines. But actually by Brunello standards, 18 year old vines are quite old. These are serious wines, brash, full, spicy, made in a style that is suited for long aging. The older vines add such complexity and fruit to the wines that they are also delicious young. They are imported by Fredrick Wildman so they should be available widely (geographically speaking at least as the total production is fairly small) starting this spring.

Lisini – A huge and spicy wine in an older style. If you like late picked Zinfandel, Amarone or Sagrantino di Montefalco and are looking to get into Brunello, this may do the trick.

Ciacci Piccolomini – I have only had their wines in lesser vintages: 1998 and 1996. In both vintages the wines are concentrated, full, spicy and just plain yummy. I will sit on my 1997’s for a long while before opening them. I can’t wait for their 1999 and 2001 vintages, and for the ’97 riserva.

Uccellereia – I have only tried the ’98 out of bottle but I am sold on this tiny producer after spending the day with Andrea. What loving care goes into each bottle. His 1997 Riserva will be a “must have” bottle for me.

Val di Cava – A huge wine that stops just short of being over the top. High in alcohol, ripe, lush, huge in every way. This is a Wagner opera in a bottle. In fact its Die Walkure in liquid form.

Silvio Nardi – A wine I discovered on this trip. I had never heard of it before. It was super cheap, only 27 euro or so a bottle and it was superb! Not as spicy as Lisini, not as big as Val di Cava, it was a great value and a fun wine. I wound up with 4 bottles each of Costanti ’97, Val di Cava and Nardi. The Nardi was not as good as either of the two others, but it was 30-40% cheaper.

Il Poggione – A lovely wine: spicy big, a little old fashioned, not unlike Lisini but a lot cheaper over there, again about 27 euro. I used to drink this wine in the old days and did not like it but it was recommended by the owner of Terre di Siena which is the wine shop in Monteriggioni. I have trusted him in the past and this was no different. I wish I had bought some more to take home but we did not drink this till our last day in Firenze. We could not find a bottle of the ’97 in Firenze while every shop had it in the Montalcino and Pitigliano areas.

Argiano – This is the biggest producer of the wineries I really love. They make about 10,000 cases of wine in a year, maybe a little more in good years and less in lesser years. Not as huge in style as Val di Cava, not as elegant as Costanti and not as spicy as Lisini, it combines all those features in a superbly pleasant style. Easy to find and usually well priced. I have 3 bottles of the ’97 in my cellar (as well as 3 of the ’95). For some reason, it is very cheap in the US. Argiano is available for 40 to 50 a bottle here and was 39 euro in Italy.

Pertimali – Superb in a very rich and lush style. Almost over the top. Their 1998, an off vintage, is as good as most wineries’ 1997’s. They make absolutely outstanding Rosso. I have never had one of their great vintage Brunello and I can’t wait to try one. Very expensive, even harder to find.

Castelgioncondo – Frescobaldi’s Brunello. Good but not as good as some of the little guys mentioned here and often more expensive. I would not hesitate to buy it on a wine list where it might be the only Brunello available. Much more to my liking than Banfi or other widely found Brunelli.

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