A beautiful Tuscan hilltop town, Montalcino is considered the birthplace of Tuscany’s fullest, richest wine: the long-aging Brunello di Montalcino. This dense, robust red is among the most prestigious and sought-after wines in the world, earning its vineyards one of the very first DOCG distinctions ever awarded in Italy. The area has another claim to fame as well; since the eponymous variety wasn’t named or bottled as a distinctive wine until 1888, when the now-famous Ferruccio Biondi-Santi isolated this superior Sangiovese clone, Brunello di Montalcino is also Italy’s newest prestigious wine. Its relatively recent identification adds a special appeal to this already exclusive variety.
Visiting this land of hillside vineyards, ancient villages and intense wines is a must for any true wine connoisseur. The terraces scoring the hillsides are among the most distinctive features of this beautiful rural area, providing the perfect backdrop to tour the wineries interspersed among villages like Torrenieri and Castelnuovo dell’Abate.
Although the DOCG lies just beyond Chianti Classico and is only 70 miles south of Florence, Brunello di Montalcino is warmer and drier than Chianti, with breezy nights that ensure ventilation. These gentle Mediterranean conditions allow the Sangiovese Grosso variety (aka Brunello) to ripen to perfection, often yielding an alcohol content of 14 percent or more even though this region is generally the first to begin harvesting in September. Wines made here are considered more full-bodied and darker than their cousins in Chianti – the name means “nice dark one” in a local dialect – and they pair well with the hearty, rich dishes of the Tuscan countryside, like wild rabbit ragù over pasta, or a thick cinghale (wild boar).
A brief history
From its earliest days, Brunello di Montalcino was elaborated as a long-lasting wine, undergoing a drawn-out fermentation and spending many years in oak barrels with the intention of turning it into an intense wine with biting tannins that soothe with age. Even today, wines age a minimum of 48 months before leaving the cellars, meaning that they can continue to grow old gracefully for decades. Even century-old wines from here can be stunning. Wines are aged in either large old Slovenian oak casts, which transfer only a little oak flavor, or in smaller new-oak French barrels, which leave a lingering vanilla note. Another distinctive characteristic is the utter lack of blending allowed in DOCG wines. The variety is presented alone, without any other Sangiovese strands to interfere with its powerful aromas. The combination of a stellar variety and the careful, labor-intensive and expensive elaboration of the wine has made Brunello di Montalcino one of Italy’s most exclusive and most expensive wines throughout the twentieth century; it habitually commands outrageous prices and is a favorite of collectors.
Although geographically and culturally similar to Chianti, Montalcino has sandier soils and more limestone than those further north. In the northernmost reaches of the DOCG, soils are more calcareous and enjoy a cooler microclimate. Throughout the region, vineyards are planted at 300 to 500 meters elevation; due to the steep terraces here, much of the harvesting is done manually. The very best vineyards are found on the southern-facing slopes that look toward the Monte Amiata mountain range, a ridge of rocky peaks that acts as a barrier to rain and hailstorms.
Rosso di Montalcino
In the 1990s, the DOC called Rosso di Montalcino was introduced to allow vintners to release a wine after only one year of aging, instead of Brunello’s four. These lighter Montalcinos are easier to drink than their more established counterparts and generally represent an excellent value. They also give consumers the opportunity to enjoy wines without waiting half a decade while they mature in the barrel.
The number of producers here has skyrocketed since the 1950s, when only the Biondi-Santi family made Brunello di Montalcino. These days, 120-plus producers make some 3.5 million bottles a year across the region’s 3,000 acres, producing many stellar wines. Major players like Antinori and Angelo Gaja also have wineries here. Great vintages of Brunello di Montalcino are characterized by lavish, fleshy wines that exude notes of blackberry, black cherry, chocolate and leather.