Go to the mountain

September 2021

Of Italy’s many great red wines, Brunello di Montalcino from the heart of Tuscany is one that vies for the title Greatest of them All. This point is always arguable, of course, especially when considered in the abstract, but pull a cork from a good Brunello and it will get my vote, every time!

Brunello di Montalcino the wine is made from a single grape variety, called Brunello, grown nowhere else in the world but the vineyards around the tiny Tuscan town of Montalcino. Its name, Brunello, literally means ‘little brown one’; this is a specific clone of the Sangiovese grape, developed here in Montalcino and jealously guarded.

Brunello is a huge wine by any standard: high in tannin, high in acid, high in extract, high in flavour. It needs time – time in your cellar, time in the decanter, time in your glass – to unleash its full potential. Without adequate time, it can seem overwhelming, overpowering your palate with its intensity. But given ten or more years, more subtle, complex facets begin to emerge from that dark, brooding, giant soul. Harsh tannins give way to intense secondary aromas of leather and tobacco, while the acidity keeps the wine energetic and lively on the palate. Evolved fruit flavours evoke reminiscences from blackberries to black coffee. The overall impression remains that of a huge and forceful – but balanced and fascinating – wine, the centrepiece of the table, commanding attention and respect.

The good news is that high-quality Brunello is prominent in our market; there are a few relatively large wineries – Banfi, Barbi, Biondi Santi…and many smaller, artisanal producers, so there is always a good selection available. The somewhat less good news is that it is always expensive: this is a premium wine targeted at knowledgeable consumers willing to pay the price for a luxury product. Brunello di Montalcino was the first wine in Italy to be recognized as DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the government seal of quality and authenticity. Your local LCBO usually has two or more in stock, regularly refreshed by the bi-weekly Vintages releases. If you really want to appreciate this wine at its best, start buying now on a systematic basis, building a collection, vintage by vintage, over the next decade. There is nothing finer than a mature Brunello with a great cut of prime beef – or bison – straight from the grill.

You could scarcely imagine a more romantic source than the central Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino. Earliest settlements here pre-date the founding of Rome – this is Etruscan homeland. After the fall of Rome, the middle ages were fraught with peril of all kinds, from plague to pillage. For mutual protection, villagers built their fortified towns on secluded mountain tops. Farming, including viticulture, took place on the surrounding slopes, where the route to safety was a hasty retreat into the fortified town; the very stones seem to speak their turbulent history. Today the economy, based on wine, is supplemented by the many tourists who come, as on pilgrimage, to experience this marvellous wine at its source. The main street – if such a crowded, narrow, cobblestone walkway can be so called – is lined with restaurants, wine shops (enotica) and tasting rooms. There are more sights and experiences to seek: the great forbidding Fortezza built in the twelfth century where today you can dine as you savour your Brunello; the amazing views over the surrounding countryside; the nearby Abby of Sant’ Antimo where Gregorian chant can still be heard sung live by resident monks...Breathe deeply – we are at the very heart of western civilization here.

© Paul Inksetter 2021

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