Montalcino, Italy, is a little medieval town with a big, dramatic wine. Here, in southern Tuscany, both the Sangiovese grape and the wine made from it are called Brunello. Although it is less well-known than Chianti, its neighbor to the north, Brunello di Montalcino is the leader in quality. It is, in fact, one of Italy’s finest red wines.
While wine has been produced from Sangiovese for hundreds of years, it was just over a century ago that Ferruccio Biondi Santi created Brunello solely from that grape (at the time, Chianti was made from a blend of grapes) and aged it in oak. Brunello became nobility in Italy, but it was only occasionally exported until about 35 years ago, when Italy’s wine laws went into effect and Brunello di Montalcino became one of the first to get official recognition.
Intense, complex and powerful, Brunello di Montalcino must be aged four years (five years for those labeled “Riserva”) before being released. It goes on to live at least 15 to 30 years, and in the best vintages, far longer. A hearty wine, Brunello is the perfect companion to hearty foods-stews, roasts and game-and to forthright cheeses such as Parmesan, Pecorino and the blue-veined Gorgonzola.
The very good 1999 vintage is now in wine shops, along with the equally good 1998 and a few of the exceptional 1997s. The consumer looking for an introduction to Brunello would do well to begin with Castello Banfi, a winery that blends modernity with tradition; its wine reflects the best of both worlds. Generally, you can expect a Banfi Brunello to be deeply flavored, rich and elegant. Castello di Argiano Brunello usually displays vibrant taste and strong character, while Val di Suga Brunello tends to be big and concentrated. Biondi Santi still makes its wine traditionally-sturdy, stern and commanding; but the current generation, Jacopo Biondi Santi, produces Villa Poggio Salvi Brunello with a lighter hand. Other fine Brunello producers include Fattoria dei Barbi and Tenute Silvio Nardi.
Brunello di Montalcino is priced from about $45 to $100. Biondi Santi costs much more. Are they worth it? One taste will tell you. They are.
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