Montalcino is a beautiful medieval hilltop village just 40 miles south of Siena, on the ancient roadway to Rome. It is dominated by a castle, called La Fortezza, which doubles as an enoteca and wine shop. La Fortezza offers most of the wines of the zone, plus older vintages, as well as honey, olive oil, jams and the like. It also offers a breathtaking panorama, with views of Siena and local vineyards, dotted with the gray-green glow of olive trees and forests. Viticulture in this area dates back to the Etruscan and Roman eras. Montalcino takes its name from “Mons-Ilex” – that is, the “mountain with holm oak trees. Wine lovers, if you haven’t been, put it on your bucket list!
Brunello di Montalcino Is Born
It is commonly held that Montalcino offers the loftiest, finest expression of the Sangiovese vine. This was not always the case. For ages, the town was known for a sweet white wine called Moscadello. In 1685 poet Francesco Redi praised it, referring to it as “Moscadaletto.” It is still made today.
The first reference to the “Brunello” grape was in 1842 in a letter written by Canon Vincenzo Chiarini of Montalcino. By the 1860’s, at his family’s Il Greppo estate, Clemente Santi was producing a wine which he called Brunello, due to the brownish hue of its berries and wine. In 1869 he received a medal for his Vino Rosso Scelto (Select Red Wine).
In the 1870’s Clemente’s grandson, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, added to its history. A veteran of Italy’s war for independence, Ferruccio isolated the clone of Sangiovese Grosso which his grandfather had used. He introduced a long vinification technique which stabilized his wine. His idea was to perfect Brunello di Montalcino as a red wine of power and structure, fit for long aging. In 1888 he bottled the first Brunello di Montalcino. There are still a few bottles of 1888 and 1891 at the cantina of Il Greppo. Please note that these and other older bottles of Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino are re-corked every 25 years or so at the winery in a process called the ricolmatura. Yes, great Brunello outlives its cork!
The Modern Era
In the 1960’s there were only 11 producers of Brunello di Montalcino. The wine was granted its Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1968. By the 1980’s there were around 50 producers. Many investors were lured into the zone by the prestige, quality, excellence and high prices fetched by Brunello. After all, in 1969 Italy’s president, Giuseppe Saragat, had selected Biondi-Santi Brunello Riserva 1955 to be poured at a state dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth of England. Internationally, Brunello di Montalcino had arrived.
Many people and factors have contributed to the chic, strong image of modern Barolo. We must point out that the investment by the American Mariani family in Montalcino in the 1970’s and 1980’s was very significant, since it introduced and popularized Brunello di Montalcino in the USA. Today there are approximately 280 producers and another 70 farmers who grow Sangiovese grapes that they then sell to bottlers.
Characteristics of Brunello di Montalcino
The DOCG zone is large and is usually spoken of as being divided into 3 zones. Position and location are important for top quality, but the general level of production is high, among the top two or three in Italy. There are no bad Brunellos.
DOCG Brunello di Montalcino is aged for 4 years, two of which must be in wood, usually large Slavonian oak. A Riserva must be aged at the winery for an additional year or more. Brunello di Montalcino must be 100% Sangiovese.
Brunello has a deep ruby – not purple – color that tends to turn garnet as it ages and becomes more velvety. There is an aroma of cherries with touches of wildflowers, spices, underbrush (sottobosco) and nut-like notes. It is well structured, tannic, rich and warm, dry, concentrated and extracted. The finish is lingering. We recommend waiting 7 to 10 years from the vintage before drinking Brunello, unless you decant it. Expect it to develop in the bottle for 10 to 20 years.
Setting Up the 2010 Vintage
We are always suspicious of “the vintage of the century,” which generally occurs two or three times each decade. Plus it also usually the vintage that the wineries have to sell and offer to the public. Brunello producers rate each vintage from 0 to 5 stars. 2010 was a 5-star year. Even for us skeptics, the 2010 is the real deal. It has yielded wines of extraordinary power and structure. They are the finest expression of Brunello in recent memory. Buy them and cellar them.
The spring of 2010 was wet. There were fears of fungal problems at first, but as the hot summer began, agronomists were pleased to have a buildup of groundwater reserves. The long, sunny growing season allowed the Sangiovese grapes to reach full maturation. From June through July there were only a few passing storms. August had cool nights and September was gorgeous. It was unprecedented.
The harvest of fresh, ripe and clean grapes took place from mid-September through the end of October. Those who waited were rewarded. Some of the wines reached 15% of alcohol. Giovanni Neri, the son of Giacomo Neri, told us, “It’s the best vintage that I have experienced, the best vintage that my father has experienced and, perhaps, the best vintage that my grandfather experienced.” Hayo and Franz Loacker, who produce organic and biodynamic Brunello, told us, “Nature was kind and generous. We waited to harvest and we’re happy that we did so.”
Vintages like this come along only once or twice in a lifetime. The 2010’s have become and will continue to be viewed as the new benchmark for Tuscany’s iconic red. The wines boast wonderful intensity, structure, layers of flavor and minerality. At this stage, all of the wines we tasted were underdeveloped but showing a glorious future. Collectors, get ready.
Rating the 2010’s
Some samples were flown in from Italy for our special tasting. They suffered a bit in passage, but not terribly. We tasted several times from March 6th through March 11th at Birravino in Red Bank, New Jersey. We sampled 12 wines in total, and liked everything we tasted. Our assessments are offered to you in the order of our tasting.
Mocali Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Typical color, berries and cherries in the nose with nuances of coffee and chocolate. Aromatic with a long finish. Try again many times in the next 5 to 7 years. Large Slavonian oak used. Excellent value.
Tiezzi “Poggio Cerrino” Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Ruby color is bright. Concentrated, balanced, elegant. Sweet berries in the nose. Complex, relatively soft, powerful with a lingering finish. Large Slavonian oak used. Will develop for 10 years or more. Extracted. Superb value.
La Colombina Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Owned by the Caselli family, neighbor to Ciacci and Uccelliera. Concentrated color, authentic, ripe, “barnyard” like, intense, a bit short on the finish. We saved the bottle and tasted two days later. The wine had opened beautifully. Enjoy for 15 years or more.
Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Leonardo Bellacini has produced a fruity, relatively soft and open, harmonious Brunello in 2010. Tannins in harmony with wood, fruit, and overall acidity. Large Slavonian oak for 36 months. Wonderful mouthfeel. Will develop for 15 to 20 years or more. A gem!
Casanova di Neri Etichetta Bianca “White Label” Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Brilliant ruby, chewy, complex, 42 months in oak, viscous, excellent body and ageability. Good value. Ageworthy for a decade or more.
Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Andreas Cortonesi is a master blender, using both large and small oak barrels to bring out the best that his estate can offer. Worth the search. Big, powerful, flawless with peppery and spicy nuances. Rich and enjoyable. Complex. Will develop for 15 to 20 years or more.
Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuovo Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Depth and brilliance of color, concentrated, rich, balanced, soft tannins, delicious and developed. No one gets more out of Sangiovese than Giacomo Neri! Persistent finish. Hints of cherries, violets in the nose. Finesse and elegance. A winner!
Fanti Brunello di Montalcino 2010: A family estate for over a century, Fanti utilizes French barriques and tonneaux as well as traditional Slavonian oak. Ripe, rich, good value, will benefit from aging. Will develop for 10 to 15 years or more. Lots of power and structure.
Molino di Sant’Antimo Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Ruby red, fruity, spicy nose, cherries. Large Slavonian oak, elegant with a persistent finish. Good structure. Will develop for a decade or more.
Pertimali di Sassetti Livio Brunello di Montalcino 2010: From a time-honored, family estate. Livio Sassetti was one of the pioneers of Brunello. 36 months in large Slavonian oak casks. Balanced, harmonious, complex with hints of berries and cherries. A bit tight, as to be expected; it opened up after 2 hours. A 20-year wine.
Pietranera Brunello di Montalcino 2010: Riccardo Cotarella consults for the Centolani family, who also own the superb Tenuta Friggiali estate. Intense ruby color, fruity, complex, spicy nose, hints of chocolate, cacao and coffee. Rich, full, warming. Large Slavonian oak. Elegant.
Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino 2010: One of Frescobaldi’s estates. A winner. Nut-like overtones, soft, surprisingly enjoyable at this early stage. A 20-year wine. Use of both French barrels and Slavonian casks of oak. Dense, tight, but rich with good minerality. Tannins are soft and in harmony.
Buy the 2010’s. Cellar them. Decant them. We’ve always said of Brunello, “You can’t afford them and your grandchildren will drink them.” However, we Americans are getting help from an unlikely source – the currency! The recent surge of the US dollar versus the Euro has brought prices down from the stratosphere, accounting for 20% to 30% subsidy. Finally, we can afford Brunello di Montalcino! But we make no assurances that we’ll save the 2010’s for our grandchildren.
Our favorites: Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuovo followed ever so closely by Castelgiocondo, Uccelliera and Campogiovanni.
Best value: Tiezzi “Poggio Cerrino,” followed by Mocali.
Victor Rallo, Jr. is a successful, seasoned restaurateur, chef, wine critic and television personality. After graduating from Villanova University and earning his JD from Seton Hall University, Victor jumped directly from the world of law into the restaurant business. He now owns and operates Birravino in Red Bank, New Jersey and Undici Taverna Rustica in Rumson, New Jersey both of which have received numerous awards for excellence in cuisine, service, and their extensive Italian wine lists. Victor is also an Italian wine expert and critic recognized for his exceptional palate and distinct personality. He’s published two wine books, Napoleon Wasn’t Exiled and 21 Wines. Victor hosts his own television series called Eat! Drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo which completed its first season on public television in 2013, and recently aired its second season on Create TV in July of 2014. He has also aired on Rachael Ray, The Couch CBS, FOX News, and many other television and live events. He visits Italy six to eight times per year to find inspiration for his restaurants, to taste and write about the wines and food from every region of Italy and to film the TV show. Victor lives in Fair Haven, New Jersey with his wife Kari, three kids, three dogs, and a fully stocked wine cellar.
Anthony Verdoni’s career has combined scholarly interests and a passion for wine and food. He enrolled in a Doctorate program at Tulane University, having received an A.B. in Curso Classico from Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1964. When a Jesuit Classics professor suddenly became ill in 1967, Mr. Verdoni returned to St. Peter’s College to become his substitute. He stayed for 20 years, teaching Classical Languages and Literature. His knowledge of antiquity and familiarity with Italy helped establish him as an acknowledged expert in Italian wines. His background as an instructor and coach in college aided him as a wine lecturer and author. Friends in the wine trade call him “The Wine Professor.” His wine business debut was in 1971, as a part-time sommelier in a restaurant. Subsequently, he purchased a wine shop, and went on to become a wine buyer for two department store chains, a sales representative, and a sales manager. Highlights include: General Wine Manager for the Jaydor Corporation, one of the nation’s largest wine distributors; National Sales Manager of Southern Italian Wines for Heublein, under Philip DiBelardino; Vice President, National Sales Director for American BD Company; Vice President, Marketing Italian Wines for Winebow. He has also worked closely and directly with many prominent Italian wineries. Brands which he has helped to develop in America include San Felice, Ceretto, Mastroberardino, Casal Thaulero, Librandi, Carpineto, D’Angelo, Regaleali, Umberto Cesari, Due Torri, Franco Cesari, Biondi-Santi, Vietti, Monteschiavo, and Villa Girardi. Mr. Verdoni has enjoyed the challenge and satisfaction of launching new fine Italian wines in America. He has lectured and conducted tastings and seminars throughout the United States and Europe. He has written many articles and training manuals, and has co-authored The Sommelier Executive Council’s Vintage Wine Book, now in its third printing. He has been a member of the Sommelier Society of America, the Caterina de Medici Society, and the Society of Wine Educators, as well as a board member of the Sommelier Institute of New Jersey. Mr. Verdoni has received awards and commendations from the American Wine Society, the Culinary Institute of America, and Johnson and Wales. The Italian Trade Commission has awarded Mr. Verdoni a lifetime achievement award in recognition of his work in popularizing Italian wines in the United States. Mr. Verdoni consults for restaurants, importers, distributors, and wine shops throughout America and Europe. When not on the road, he conducts wine dinners, seminars, and restaurant training programs – and, as always, helps people discover the fine wines of Italy. He has co-authored a new book, 21, and appears in the TV series Eat! Drink! Italy! with Vic Rallo.