Brunello sits like a grand old patriarch, calmly watching the swirl of history around him while he ages to perfection in the cellar.

Brunello di Montalcino ranks among Italy’s most sought-after, well known, and high quality wines. It straddles two “holy trinities” of Italian wine: the three B’s of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello (all high quality, expensive, and long-lived wines made in purezza—or 100% of a grape variety); and the sangiovese trio of Tuscany: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Classico, and Brunello.

What makes a wine famous? Such a wide question is hard to answer—high quality and longevity are obviously important; but a wine needs something else to boost it from “great” to “the king of wines,” a name given to both Barolo and Brunello (Barbaresco is a queen, thank you very much). This extra something is often a long history and timelessness, a quality proven through resilience over many years and through big changes. Brunello di Montalicno hits all these marks.

What makes Brunello di Montalcino so special?

Brunello di Montalcino, named after the small town of Montalcino twenty miles south of Siena, is made from 100% sangiovese grapes. It is the only one of the “Holy Three” Tuscan wines to require this; the other two may be blended with other grape varieties. This means the qualities of the grape and sense of place shine through in the wine.

Brunello is an old, old wine with centuries of history behind it. Since Ancient Roman times, one of the alleged roads to Rome began in northern England and passed directly through Montalcino. It was called the Via Francigena, and still exists today as a route trekked by hikers and backpackers. Many millions of people passed through over the centuries, including nobles, popes, and important political figures. The most important people drank the most important wines—such as the local red made from sangiovese grapes from the hillsides surrounding this town.

Altesino Winery

Altesino Winery. Photo © Altesino

Beginning in the 1870s, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi began making Brunello strictly with 100% sangiovese grapes, marking the beginning of Brunello’s identity as a wine in purezza. More than a century later in 1980, Brunello di Montalcino became Italy’s first DOCG wine alongside Barolo.

Taste this bold wine today, and you’ll understand how it earned its ancient pedigree. On the nose are notes of tobacco, leather, chocolate, and fruits like sour cherry and wild berries, with an herbaceous touch of oregano. In the mouth, it begins juicy and spicy, leading into balsamic, cherry, and leather flavors, with a good amount of tannins that soften with time. Like a good Barolo, it is best enjoyed ten or more years after release.

In uncertain times, great wine comes out on top

Considering Brunello’s long and sturdy history, the past sixty years have been a time of upheaval for Brunello; but it has proven its greatness for its ability to come out on top.

In 1964, the highway A1 was built from Milan to Rome, leaving Via Francigena in the dust for the very first time in its history. With travelers no longer stopping in town by way of the Francigena, business all but stopped. In the same period, Tuscany’s mezzadria sharecropping system was declared illegal, and the labor forces of all agricultural production—vineyards included—disbanded. Montalcino and the surrounding countryside emptied out as inhabitants left.

streets_of_montalcino

Street of Montalcino. Photo by Rebecca

Some of the remaining small producers and farmers united to form the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium: there is strength in community and shared effort. They began selling Brunello abroad instead of waiting for customers to come to them. Interest grew for this historic and great wine, drawing aspiring winemakers from other parts of Italy. Soon, Brunello was once again in everybody’s glass. It certainly helped matters that Wine Spectator included three Brunellos in their Top 100 Wines list in the 1980s.

But in the blink of an eye for Brunello’s timespan, this red wine that spans centuries and has seen the passing of kings and popes, its world was rocked with the scandal of Brunellopoli in 2008. Some producers were selling Brunello that was not 100% sangiovese. Brunellogate, as it is commonly called, may be traced back to the campaign for allowing Brunello di Montalcino to be blended with other grapes to cater to modern, international tastes. Ultimately the movement wasn’t successful, but it seems some producers were banking on that change before it happened. As they say, don’t count your eggs before they hatch (or maybe that’s don’t crush your grapes before the ruling has passed).

Altesino, traditional yet making waves

Brunello MontosoliBrunello sits like a grand old patriarch, calmly watching the swirl of politics around him while he ages to perfection in the cellar.

In the past two years, a new debate has come up: some producers want to divide the Brunello denomination into subzones, or cru, like Barolo’s Menzione Geografiche Aggiuntive. Brunello is very site-sensitive, which means that this wine can be totally different when made from one hill compared to the slope next door. This is because its territory is so diverse: Montalcino has significant differences in elevation, temperatures, and soils in its 5,187 acres.

One producer that straddles an interesting position between tradition and innovation is Altesino. Their wine style is known as a prime example of high quality, traditional Brunello. And yet, the company made waves when they introduced two brand new concepts to Tuscany: crus and futures. In 1975, Altesino was the first winery in Brunello to bottle and label wine purely from a specific vineyard, producing their Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli. And in 1985, when no one had thought of selling futures like in Bordeaux, Altesino introduced this concept for Brunello wines.

The winery’s outlook combines respect and trust in tradition with a forward-looking perspective. The style of their wines is absolutely traditional: none of that intense, chocolate-forward wine that sold easily and went mainstream in the past. Their wines retain the unique identity that is Brunello.

What makes a cru wine special

Altesino began bottling Montosoli separately when they noticed several key factors about the Montosoli hill: the development of the vines from budding to maturation to harvest is ideal, as is its specific exposure to the north; and the nose, mouth, and longevity are incredible. Their Montosoli is a complex and elegant wine with a bouquet of dark fruit, violet, licorice, vanilla, and pink peppercorn; it’s warm and velvety in the mouth. Elegant and austere, it is meant for aging (and only produced during the best years).

barrel cellar of Altesino

Barrel cellar at Altesino. Photo © Altesino

Lately, the furor over officiating crus in Brunello di Montalcino has calmed down. But this doesn’t mean the discussion has stopped entirely. Now, it revolves around the advantages and disadvantages for the producers. For example, if the crus are formed and journalists begin making sounds about a few in particular, the market responds and those crus are elevated above all others (a great advantage to a few), while others are left behind (a disadvantage for many producers). For Brunello producers, who banded together to form the Consortium when their future was looking its bleakest, perhaps part of their hesitation is that it feels self-serving.

As the debate continues, Brunello will remain its regal self, neck of the bottle above the battlefield, serving wine lovers who simply desire a nice glass of the top vino that Italy has to offer.

Cypress trees in Montalcino

Cypress trees in Montalcino. Photo by Carlo Tardani

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