Tag Archives: Brunello

Vinitaly 4: high altitude Sangiovese

Sangiovese, the most important red grape of Tuscany, is famously variable.  It produces both thin sour wine (though today there is really no excuse for this) and some of Italy’s most magnificent, structured and age-worthy reds.  The May 2010 edition of Decanter magazine gives the Brunello riserva of 2004 from Biondi-Santi an amazing 20/20 score – apparently the perfect wine, even if it is a breathtaking £200 a bottle.

A huge range of Sangiovese styles was available of course at the recent Vinitaly.  My tastings of the wines from the Maremma (eg the very traditional and wonderful Podere 414 or the warm climate Parmaletto wines of Montecucco) will be added to the Tuscan Maremma pages of this site.  Here I want to concentrate on a favourite Chianti zone, cool Rufina, and one classic wine from southerly Montalcino. 

The Rufina zone is easy to reach as it is basically just east of Florence on the steep hills which rise from the Sieve river.  It is the coolest of the Chianti zones and can produce the most wonderfully austere wines with long ageing potential.  Fortunately this style is not to everyone’s taste so the wines are good value too.  

The Rufina consortium’s stand at Vinitaly gave a wonderful opportunity to taste a number of wines side-by-side and to compare each growers normale with the riserva.  Mind you, there is nothing ‘normal’ about these normali. 

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Here are the two offerings from the large firm of Galliga e Vetrice.  A trick of the light makes the normale on the right look rather darker than in reality, while the ageing of the riserva can clearly be seen in the brown tinge on the right.  The latter is available at a great price from Berry Bros.  

It would be tedious to rehearse all the wines here.  The pair shown above illustrate the two main styles, with the normale (2008) having wonderful freshness, a real zing and some classy minerality. By contrast the riserva of 2007 is very young and still showing tobacco and leather notes from oak ageing and is very tannic, very distinctive and will no doubt be wonderful in 5-10 years time. 

We also tasted wines from the very cool sites of Marchesi Gondi (their 2005 riserva has lots of potential but is still a sleeping giant), while Castello di Trebbio riserva 2006 has more fruit and is already drinking well – but then it was a better year.  We also enjoyed Dreolino’s two offerings. 

By complete contrast, at the Castello di Argiano stand we managed to catch up with a modern cult classic.   Argiano is one of the big names of the world famous Montalcino area which is a relatively high plateau with a distinctive geology and a local form of Sangiovese known as Brunello, the ‘little dark one’.  From these special berries – and three to five or more years in large, neutral, oak barrels – emerge wines of great complexity, structure and longevity.  Our short tasting started with the Brunello di Montalcino of 2005. Such is the richness of the experience at Vinitaly that you can occasionally skip all the ‘lesser’ wines and start with Brunello.  2005 was a mixed year but this now has nicely browning edges to its medium ruby colour, an attractive nose of red fruit and violets, and good balance. 

But the bottle we really wanted to taste is simply called Suolo – soil.  When we visited Argiano four years ago, I tried to buy a bottle of this not knowing how much it cost (€70), but it was sold out.  It is not Brunello in its typical style at all but a wine made from the same 100% Sangiovese grapes from 50 year old vines.  The principal difference is that the wine is aged for 18 months in new and one year old barriques, not the traditional larger botti.    This treatment means that it is a rather more modern style, with more obvious vanilla and leather aromas from the new oak, luxurious rather than austere. But the real triumph in this 2007 vintage is the beautiful, ripe fruit which shines through.  There is plenty of room in my (sadly hypothetical) grand cellar for brilliant new wines of this quality alongside traditional Brunello which will go on developing for years or decades. 

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Castello Banfi – a modern Brunello

As you drive from the south towards the high plateau on which the hill town of Montalcino sits in Southern Tuscany, you can’t really miss the presence of Banfi.  In a mixed landscape of farming, woods, hunting land and of course vineyards, once you cross the River Orcia you see first an enormous factory of a winery – there is no other word – and then the romantic castle. 

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The winery, down on the plain, is a bit of a blot on the landscape.  But then, we can be too snooty about this – it provides employment, wealth and a serious commitment to lifting the standards of everyday wine, which is its mainstay.  So Banfi is a big, big player.   

The firm’s everyday wines are good, modern bottles. They show lots of innovation with an unusually wide range of wines for Tuscany – a full range of international grape varieties and even a Pinot Grigio, all carried forward by expertise in vineyard and winery, and the power of the brand.

But brands don’t really get prestige unless they have quality wines.  And Banfi has to succeed with its Brunello as, after all, we are not far from the walls of Montalcino.  This variety is part of the large Sangiovese family, capricious, given to variation, difficult to grow and vinify well, prone to excess acid and astringency.  In short, as capable of the bad and the ugly as the good and the great. 

Historically, Brunello was a bit of a beast to be tamed.  The word is simply the local name for the type of Sangiovese grown here.  As it hints (brunello – brunette!), the grape produces wine that is darker than it relatives, with high tannins and acidity.  Back in the nineteenth century the Biondi-Santi family created a style for it: put simply, make wine, put in large barrel and wait for five years for the beast to calm down.  Hopefully what emerged was a wine of complex, aged fruit, scents of liquorice and tobacco, long lived.  But that takes time and so is an expensive proposition.  A tasting in London of the Banfi’s top wines showed how they at least are tackling this challenge. 

The tasting at Decanter’s Fine Wine Encounter, IMG_4204November 2009, was led by Cristina Mariani-May, part of the owner’s family.  She gave us the family philosophy, emphasising raising quality through investment and research. The wines themselves spoke clearly of how Banfi want to re-position Brunello as a more immediately attractive wine. 

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Brunello Poggio alle Mura is only made in exceptional years. The 2004 is a complex wine, attractively ruby in colour, with fresh and dried fruit flavours and a luscious topping of French oak, vanilla especially.  In the mouth it is refined but with a great streak of acid. I had a double reaction to it. On taking the very first sniff, I wrote down ‘happiness’ for its excellent Sangiovese character and immediate appeal. And then I thought – but it’s very atypical for Brunello and, more importantly, what is going to happen when the veneer of French barrique wears off?  But we will only be able to tell that in another 5-10 years …

IMG_4197  You can clearly see the effect of even short-term ageing in the picture of the 2004 (on the left, with the brighter red) and the 2001 (on the right, developing some orange at the rim).  This second wine was more traditional, a nose of sour cherries, preserved fruit and plums, a wine that you have to go toward, rather than it leaping out of the glass at you.   That may answer the question in relation to the 2004 (and all may be well) but certainly, it is immediately appealing.  Banfi know about modern (American?) consumers and that they don’t want to wait to drink their wine. 

The older wines are more typical, all well-made, with no signs of oxidisation common in more average wines. 

Brunello 1999 – musky, beautiful fruit, much better balance now between overall weight in the mouth and acidity

Brunello 1997 – mulberries and plums, earthy or mushroom notes beginning to develop, balsam, still refreshing

Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1995 – a star wine, powerful notes of fruit, liquorice, velvety, still good acid and a drying finish

Brunello Riserva Poggio all’Oro 1990 – a wine which split opinion, some found the nose vegetal and earthy , with fading fruit, others something closer to eucalyptus or menthol, rounded in the mouth, acidity now a side show.  On the way down or over?

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Thanks to Decanter and to Banfi for this tasting – probably the best £10 we have spent for a long time!  Banfi’s Brunellos in their current style won’t please the traditionalists.  But they will keep Brunello, this great expression of Sangiovese, in the shop window of the world’s great red wines. 

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