Brunello di Montalcino: Where Sangiovese Achieves Perfection


Our visit to Brunello di Montalcino is the day I’ve been waiting for. As good as the wines have been in Chianti and Montepulciano, it is Brunello where Sangiovese aspires to perfection. And our first stop is the iconic Silvio Nardi Winery.

Unlike most Italian wine regions, Brunello di Montalcino has a relatively short history as a recognized wine region. Although there are records of a wine called “Brunello” made in the 14th Century, after WW2 there was still only one commercial winery in the region—Biondi Santi which had produced only 4 vintages since the late 19th Century. In 1950 Silvio Nardi, a large producer of agricultural equipment, bought an estate here to pursue his winemaking hobby. Today, Nardi is the largest producer in the region and enjoys an excellent reputation for consistent quality. It wasn’t until 1968 that Brunello di Montalcino was officially recognized as a quality wine region with DOC status.

Nardi’s reputation for excellence is earned through attention to detail in the vineyards and winery. There are 25 different soil types in their 2 vineyard locations which are home to (they claim) approximately 109 different  Sangiovese clones. This is many more clones of Sangiovese than I knew existed but given Sangiovese’s inherent genetic instability and Nardi’s intensive study of their vineyards, clonal diversity might well be that extensive. At any rate, these many clones have been carefully matched to soil types in the vineyards. The vines used for Brunello are between 15 and 30 yrs. old. There is no irrigation allowed in Brunello di Montalcino and  their 54 parcels differ with regard to how much water they get,  so viticulture will differ from parcel to parcel depending on the needs of vines. All work in the vineyard is done by hand. In the winery, the grapes are carefully hand selected and their  Brunello undergoes a long fermentation and maceration—25-30 days—initiated by commercial yeast.

brunello-nardi-1The key to Brunello’s quality is the aging process. By law Brunello must spend 2 years in wood of any type and 4 months in the bottle. Nardi’s spends 12-18 months in French barrique (a mix of old and new) followed by 12 to 18 months in large Slavonian casks and from 6-24 months in the bottle. Their Brunello bottlings are typically released in the 5th year after vintage. They produce about 20,000 cases per year, half of which is Brunello, the rest Rosso di Montalcino, the table wine of the region sometimes called “Baby Brunello”.

Their Rosso was pleasant with herbaceous notes supplementing simple cherry. The Brunello di Montalcino 2012 was very typical of quality Brunello with olive and balsamic notes, medium weight with a delicate finish. Of the 2005 and 2006 Brunello we sampled, the 2006 was simply gorgeous—rich and complex with earth, fig, and dried autumn leaves and supremely elegant on the palate. They prepared a trio of savory cheesecake, lasagna,  and cinghiale meat balls to pair with their wines.

These are among the more affordable Brunello in the states selling for $50-$60 and they represent well what Brunello has to offer.

As delicious as Nardi’s wines were, they didn’t quite compare to our next stop  Ciacci Piccolomini Winery. This winery has a fascinating history. It was a palace in the 17th Century belonging to the Bishop of Montalcino. Upon the Bishop’s death, the property was auctioned off and eventually sold to the Ciacci family which,  through marriage, became part of the estate of the count Alberto Piccolomini d’Aragona, a direct descendent of Pope Pius II. In 1985 the countess Elda Ciacci, without an heir, bequeathed the entire property to Giuseppe Bianchini, who for many years had been the farmer on the estate and made wine only for personal and local consumption. Fulfilling a long-held dream of making exceptional Brunello, he built up the winery and dramatically increased the quality and quantity of their production, eventually leaving the estate  to his son and daughter who now run the operation and continue to make exceptional wine. It pays to be lucky and good.

ciacci-olive-treesTheir Brunello is aged for 2 1/2 years in oak and 1 year in the bottle but their Riserva sees an additional year in oak. Possessing a unique terroir of rocky soil, protected from bad weather by a mountain range and with proximity to the Orcia River to moderate temperatures, they farm organically, favor low yields and use only manual labor in the vineyard. The result is wines of remarkable power and finesse. The 2013 Brunello is broad, deep and expressive with floral and spice notes accenting the exuberant black cherry and long, luxurious finish. They were the first producer to make Syrah in the region. The 2014 Syrah is very French in style with exuberant red berry melding with pepper and assertive acidity to make an elegant, refreshing wine that paired wonderfully with the boar sausage we were served. The 2015 Rosso di Montalcino “baby Brunello” was the best of this style we tasted, richer and more expressive than competitors.

The property also features olive trees that are over 400 years old.

We leave behind Montalcino and head directly west for the final stop of the day, an up-and-coming region called Montecucco. ColleMassari Winery was founded in 1998 by Swiss telecommunications magnate Claudio Tipo and is the largest producer in Montecucco producing over 40,000 cases per year. It has a resort-like hotel and restaurant just a few minutes from the winery which is part of the reason we are here. But the winery is impressive. In addition to a top-of-the-line gravity flow winery, they have a completely enclosed, automated, punch down system that reduces oxidation of the wine while it is macerating, and a CO2 recovery system that evacuates the the gas from the tanks.

Collemassari also features 100% organic vineyards, in which they plant fava beans between the rows which are turned into the soil and allowed to ferment thus conditioning the soil. They use wild yeast to induce fermentation so they call their product natural wine.  The Sangiovese Grosso clone, the same general type that is grown in Montalcino, is also the main grape here. They claim to have a terroir similar to Montalcino although weather extremes cause the berries to develop a thicker skin.

So with all their similarities why aren’t they as well known as Montalcino? The Medicis were connected to Montalcino attracting all the money and attention, according to the locals.brunello-castle-view

The views from the Castello Collemassari where we had a lovely reception were spectacular and the accommodations in a new hotel just opened to the public were  luxurious. The hotel consists of several buildings constructed out of the original stone buildings that were in place for centuries but were disassembled and then rebuilt so that the exteriors look original but the interiors have the modern amenities of a 5 star hotel. The wine flowed freely at dinner. And they were fine, especially the Vermentino with its crisp minerality. The reds were flavorful but simple and rustic. Brunello di Montalcino this is not despite what their spokespersons would have you believe. But they are priced under $20 in the states and another wine region in Tuscany is something to be celebrated.

brunello-hotelTomorrow we say goodbye to Sangiovese-land and make our way northwest to the realm of Super Tuscans.

This tour was researched and executed by Chris Gluck, owner of the Wine Vault and Bistro, a San Diego restaurant.

Cross-posted on Edible Arts on July 30, 2018.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s