Brunello is back!

This is a slightly longer version of an article published by the Financial Times. See also Walter’s January 2015 tasting notes and those of Alex and me from our June 2015 Brunello Night

Partly thanks to the exceptional quality of the 2010 vintage, Brunello is back. 

For Americans of course, it never went away. The Consorzio of Brunello di Montalcino, the generic organisation designed to promote Tuscany’s grandest wine, has been holding two US tastings a year since 2002. Every January the Consorzio presents the latest vintage to be released at trade tastings in both New York and in one other American city.

But the Consorzio has only ever held three such tastings in the UK, presenting the 1998, 1999 and 2001 vintages of Brunello di Montalcino to the trade and press in London, so that the last such event took place nine years ago.

Britain is not one of Brunello’s most important markets, but which is chicken and which egg is debatable. There has long been much more rapturous demand for fine Italian wines in the US, with its substantial and often well-heeled Italian population, than in the French-obsessed British wine market. And German speakers, able easily to collect Brunello and Barolo from their favourite producers in their own Mercedes and BMWs, have a great advantage over those of us who have to ship virtually all our wine over the Channel and through the fiscal hoops set by HM Customs & Excise.

We British wine professionals are always boasting about how in London we have possibly the world’s most abundant wine tasting opportunities, but the only major tasting of Brunello di Montalcino to have taken place on our shores in the last nine years was last February. Chiefly thanks to the personal enthusiasm of Joss Fowler, the man who was then Fine + Rare’s director of fine wine (and particularly literate blogger at vinolent.net), 63 Brunello 2010s were opened at the Bermondsey offices of this fine wine broker.

Last month we at JancisRobinson.com followed this up by organising for wine lovers rather than professionals an evening tasting of 43 Brunello 2010s at Caravan, Kings Cross. We had previously devoted evenings there to the 2009 and 2010 vintages of Barolo but this Brunello Night went down just as well, perhaps because UK-based winos are curious about this wine. (Although our participants came from as far away as San Diego and Zurich.) 

New Yorkers may like to know that on Wednesday 14 October Walter and I will be hosting a similar tasting on the roof of Eataly, the amazing all-Italian food and drink emporium, at which many of our chosen producers will also be present. There will also be a chance for attendees to get their hands on a signed copy of the brand new, fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine. How can you resist?  More details, including how to book tickets, here.

Brunello is just emerging from a period in the twilight. The hilltop town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany was embroiled in a five-star imbroglio known as Brunellogate in 2008 when several producers, some of them very high-profile, were accused of blending international grape varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot into their Brunello di Montalcino, a wine that is supposed to be composed entirely of Brunello, the local version of Sangiovese. This led to much soul-searching and acrimony in Montalcino but, to judge from my tastings of Brunello over the years, bringing the issue out into the open seems to have resulted in markedly purer and more authentic wines.

The Montalcino zone is one of the warmest in inland Tuscany and inevitably the wines reflect that. Although made from the same grape, they are nothing like pale, skinny, tart, basic Chianti. Instead they are rich, polished, magnificently concentrated renditions of Sangiovese. But I remember from those London tastings of late 1990s vintages that the wines made then tasted almost Californian, so obvious was the influence of new, small oak barrels and, in some cases, that of French grape varieties.

Admittedly the 43 Brunello 2010s I tasted recently had been hand-picked by our Italian specialist Walter Speller from the 140 samples he tasted in Montalcino when the vintage was released in January. But I was thrilled to find that hardly any showed overt oak; most tasted as though they had been aged in the traditional large old oak casks rather than in imported new French barriques. They all smelt of sun-ripened Sangiovese rather than of anything non-indigenous. But, best of all, they had real lift and zest – like the most opulent Sangiovese you could imagine but without heaviness.

There is no getting away from the fact that young Brunello is a tannic wine that dries out the insides of the mouth. I had to keep repairing to the water stations for palate rehydration. But the range of aromas was already entrancing and, in Walter’s examples anyway, there was always enough fruit on the mid palate to convince me that these wines have a graceful future.

There was a range of styles, from Padelletti’s transparent purity and Maté’s almost burgundian fruitiness to Mastrojanni’s dense, chunky version. Many of them were almost ready to enjoy, even if the likes of Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo will clearly continue to mature for another 20 years at least.

These are serious wines for those who enjoy buying wines young and watching them develop, and at generally lower prices than top Barolo. They may not have quite the geographical singularity of Barolo, many of which are, like great burgundy, effectively expressions of a single, well-documented and mapped vineyard. Most Brunello is sold, like Bordeaux châteaux, on the basis of the producer’s name.

But the total area of, say, Pauillac is about 12 square miles whereas the Montalcino zone is closer to 75 square miles and, unless they happen to live there or have intimate knowledge of local geography, wine consumers can find it difficult to work out exactly where each wine comes from. There is an argument, in this geographically-obsessed era, for identifying subregions within the notably varied Montalcino zone.

It used to be the case that it was Montalcino’s hottest vintages such as 1997 and 2009 that were the most admired, but the quality of the 2010s has shown how vital it is to hang on to natural freshness. Some growers thought that 2010 would never come right. Spring was wet, flowering irregular and August rather too cool for comfort. But the grapes, still high in acidity, played catch-up in a warm September and it seems as though the result has been wines with both richness and tension. Bravo!

Welcome back to Britain, Brunello. And even in the US there is newfound enthusiasm for the wine. As New York restaurateur and Italian specialist Joe Bastianich puts it, ‘The aftermath of Brunellogate certainly resulted in significant setbacks, but Montalcino has been steadily making a comeback in re-establishing Brunello as one of the world’s premier wines. Americans have always had a love affair with Tuscany and everything that comes out of it. We really love our Tuscan wines here in the States and Brunello is a big part of that.’

SOME STUNNING BRUNELLO 2010S

I have so far tasted only 43 of the 200+ wines but these were some of my favourites. Those in search of bargains should head for the earlier-maturing Rosso di Montalcino 2010

Barbi £34 Great Western Wine

Biondi-Santi, Il Greppo £660 for 12 bottles in bond Bordeaux Index

Canalicchio di Sopra

Caparzo £31.95 Ten-Acre Wines

Celestini Pecci

Conti Costanti £39 Eclectic Tastes

Crocedimezzo

Fornacina

Fuligni

Lazzeretti

Il Marroneto

Padelletti

Il Paradiso di Frassina

San Polino

San Polo £36.95 Four Walls Wine

Sesti £195 for 6 bottles in bond Cru World Wine

Terralsole £201 for 6 bottles in bond Fine + Rare

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