Brunello di Montalcino:
The Great Red Wine Of Tuscany ~ Part II
CAPSULE REPORT: This is Part II of a two-part article. Part I provides an overview of Brunello’s history and style. Here in Part II, we cover tips on buying recent vintages.
According to the Brunello Consorzio’s 2003 Vintage Report, the weather from April to late August was consistently sunny, allowing the grapes to develop well. At harvest, they were exceptionally healthy and high in quality.
Harvest started early, around September 10th. While the heat reduced the quantity of grapes harvested by about 5% of the usual average, it increased the quality of the surviving crop, producing highly concentrated sugars and polyphenols, which contain the antioxidants red wine is so well regarded for. These qualities are early indicators that the wine will likely age well, as polyphenols (tannin is the most recognizable one) behave as preservatives. Just as antioxidants slow aging processes in humans, they do so in wine.
One can purchase 2005 and 2006 Rossos at retail for the affordable price of $18.00 to $25.00 per bottle. Some older vintages are still around, but before you think you’re getting a “bottle age bargain,” note that Rossos are meant to be consumed within three years of their vintage. But remember, while these wines are “di Montalcino,” the best grapes were reserved for the Brunello...and the accompanying sticker shock.
Thanks in part to the Biondi-Santis and in part to the Consorzio, which has carried the torch for more half a century, Brunello di Montalcino has a distinguished reputation that commands a high price. While there are a few stores that have 750ml bottles for around $25.00, that’s more often the price of a half bottle, with the full size starting closer to the $35.00 mark and heading skyward. A survey of shops in California, Massachusetts and New York show the 2001 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino for $110.00 to $130.00 per bottle (the Riserva is even more dear), making it one of the most expensive Brunellos at retail.
Five-Star Brunello Vintages
The most recent vintages that rated an outstanding five stars are 1997 and 1995. The Consorzio gave the 2004 vintage a pre-release rating of five stars, so consumers can look forward to the spring 2009 release. But that’s a year from now, and those wines will still benefit from bottle aging. What can you do today to feed the Brunello bug? Shop America! There are bargains to be had at stores nationwide (especially given the weakness of the dollar, those 2004s won’t come in cheap).
The prices we cite were found on Wine-Searcher.com, a good source for tracking down wines.
The 2001 wines were a four-star vintage. They had great structure and balance on release and weren’t always likeable on first go, but they are evolving magically.
Although 2003 was also a four-star vintage, the wines are decidedly more simple and precocious, drinking well now and not likely to hold up more than five to seven years after this year’s release. All the prices quoted are pre-arrival quotes. For more notes on the 2003 and 2001 vintages, read Kris Prasad’s selection of top Brunellos.
Moscadello di Montalcino
DOC since 1984, this white wine is made from Moscato Bianco, the same Muscat grape used to make Italian Asti and the Rhône classic, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. It can be vinified still or sparkling, dry or late harvest.
DOC since 1996, this is a wide denomination that covers both red and white wines that can be made from any or all of the grape varieties permitted in the province of Siena. Allowable grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero, Sangiovese Grosso and Sauvignon Blanc. Think of this as an appellation like Napa Valley. A broad variety of grapes are grown in this “controlled origin.”
Brunello producer La Fortuna poured its 2005 Sant’Antimo DOC at the Consorzio tasting. This wine, 60% Cabernet and 40% Sangiovese Grosso, has fresh currants on the nose with some leather and spice, and delivers lots of flavor with layers of baked berries, spice and smoke. One is most likely to find this Sant’Antimo on the wine list at a fine Italian restaurant for $75.00 to $90.00 a bottle—well worth it!
Vin Santo and Novello
Vin Santo is a sweet white wine made Tuscany-wide, from Canaiolo, Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes. The grapes are hung or laid out on mats to dry and concentrate their sugars; the wine is aged for long periods in oak or chestnut barrels. A typical dessert is biscotti with a glass of Vin Santo.
Novello is Italy’s answer to Nouveau, as in Beaujolais Nouveau. A simple wine that is released mere weeks after harvest, production and bottling, and originally meant for local consumption, it became an international phenomenon in the 1970s thanks to the marketing genius of Georges DuBoeuf, a French négociant.
In keeping with the Italian tradition of polyculture, honey, olives, and thus, extra virgin olive oil, are other significant products of Montalcino. Indeed, no piece of arable land was relegated to a sole crop The sight of grape vines trellising up the trunks of olive trees was once a common one. The forest and countryside surrounding Montalcino are abundant with wild game, including tasty boar, deer, hare and pheasant, plus fox, gray wolf and many more of nature’s creatures.
So what’s for dinner with all that Rosso and Brunello, Moscadello and Sant’Antimo?
Traditional Tuscan appetizers include marinated cannellini beans (also known as white kidney beans) and Pepperoni Arrotolati, rolled red or yellow bell peppers that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings, from a mix of raisins, pine nuts and anchovies to ground meat, mortadella, cooked ham, both adding breadcrumbs to the mix. Or, make a Tomato Bruschetta, with diced tomato, garlic and basil on small slices of olive oil-brushed, toasted bread. (The Sienese claim this latter dish as their own.) The little seasoned toasts can also be topped with paté.
In fact, Tuscans often start their traditional Christmas dinner with Crostini di Fegato, or chicken liver paté on crostini. (Ergo, chopped chicken liver on a cracker was not invented in New York City delicatessens—and perhaps you should be drinking a better wine with that chopped liver.) The Sienese version is Crostini Neri, a paté made with chicken livers and other organ meats (or beef), plus anchovies, capers and onion, cooked in white wine and broth. These appetizers all call for a fruity, easy drinking Rosso.
First & Main Courses
The closest city that has a culinary influence is Sienna—with Florence not far away. Italians enjoy pasta as a primo piatto, or first course, and pasta with game is very popular. Enjoy an aged Brunello, 2001 vintage or older, with an earthy Pappardelle con la Lepre (wide ribbons of pasta with rabbit—see our Pasta Glossary for the many types of pasta).
Continue pouring that same wine with your secondo piatto, or second course. Aristà di Maiale is a Sienese classic—pork loin roasted with rosemary, garlic and wild fennel seeds. A similar dish, Aristà di Maiale alla Fiorentina, seasons the tenderloin with thyme, rosemary, garlic, coriander and juniper berries.
For dessert, Siena’s answer to Milan’s panettone is panforte, a dense cake of almonds and candied fruit, sweetened with honey and flavored with spices. Panforte’s roots go back to 12th century Siena. Enjoy a slice with a glass of Vin Santo. A Woburn, Massachusetts shop has a 1985 Pertimali Montalcino Vin Santo, $56.65 for 750ml bottle. That’s enough wine to order a panforte from Sophia’s Sweets and invite friends over for dessert!
While wines ideally pair with their local cuisines (the cuisines were developed over time to match the wines), a Brunello or Riserva can be enjoyed with a good cut of steak, lamb or a fine pork roast. A Rosso will complement a roast chicken. Connoisseurs of fine wine are perfectly happy enjoying it with simple food, allowing the wine to be the highlight of the meal.
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