Small Batches of Brunello
By Jordan Carrier
This is another chapter of the Summer Reading series, in longer form. You do not want to miss this selection of Brunellos, however, so if you’re time constrained, scroll down to the bold type to get to the wines.
The seminar was already bizarre. The kind, older Tuscan winemaker was full of wisdom but not of English, so his comments had to be filtered through the agent who’d organized the afternoon event, in the dusty upstairs of a downtown Italian restaurant. It was evident from the beginning that this agent was an hobbyist translator at best: we would ask a question, the agent would slowly translate it to the winemaker, who eagerly responded with several flowing paragraphs using gregarious hand gestures and at least 2 octaves of vocal tones, only to be nervously refracted back to the attendees with one word translations like “yes”, or “five”.
We adaptively began to simplify our questions, and someone asked what percentage of Italian vineyards were growing Sangiovese. We watched that question ping between the agent and the winemaker until the answer came: “ten percent”. What? Italy’s most famous grape accounts for only ten percent of plantings? It’s, like, planted everywhere! My hand shot up.
“Is the gentleman saying that only 10% of Italian vineyards are planted to Sangiovese? That seems low”
Ping, ping, back comes the answer: “I’m sorry, poor translation. The gentleman is saying that 10% of Italy is planted to Sangiovese”
Yes, he said ten percent of the Italian landmass grows this legendary grape, a progeny of Ciliegiolo, an ancient Tuscan grape, and Calabrese Montenuevo, an immigrant from Calabria that is now effectively extinct. Sangiovese took hold in Chianti 500 years ago, big time: the grape was the boldest, most tannic variety with the most longevity that the region had ever seen, and the wines became the toast of Renaissance Florence, championed by its ruling family, the Medici.
The Medici expanded Florentine influence all over Tuscany, eventually incorporating southern Sienna and its holdings, notably a small, nearby hilltop town with an impressive fortress: Montalcino. With the Medici came the Florentine grapes, and the meager vineyards around the fortress were replanted to Sangiovese, mostly for Sacrament, and then everything carried on pretty much as normal. The Medici faded into memory. The Renaissance became the Enlightenment, which became the Romantic era, which became Modernity. Since the town wasn’t a commercial producing region like Chianti, centuries went by without anyone realizing what was happening to the Sangiovese around Montalcino.
It was changing. It evolved. Likely because of the altitude and increased solar influence, Montalcino’s Sangiovese mutated into its own clone; one that was thicker-skinned, darker and deeper than the Sangiovese Piccolo that Chianti grew. Botanists called the clone Sangiovese Grosso (means “bigger” but the berries are, in fact, the same size), but the residents of Montalcino have always used their own distinctive term: Brunello.
Here are some Brunellos that I’ve been collecting in (mostly) small batches for a while, now. My girlfriend, 2010, is included here (the Riservas are trickling in), along with some great older vintages. I’ve hoarded some of this for a while, just until I had enough for an offering, but the quantities are low and we won’t see these vintages again, so don’t hesitate to call me if you want any of these (and you do). We start with the Riservas:
Renieri Riserva 2010
Almost Burgundian, with mineral, cherry and blackberry notes ricocheting inside a spice cabinet of cinnamon and licorice. The acid is lower and the body is elevated, but the finish – oh, the finish – lasts longer than this email. A true classic. Nobody will be imprisoned for opening this tomorrow, but speaking honestly the Window Of Awesomeness doesn’t truly open for a couple more years. Great reviews across the spectrum, even noted point-fountain James Suckling gave this a perfect score. Be an amazing Younger-Self to your Future-Self and take this while it’s here. 100 points James Suckling (96 Parker, 96 Wine Spectator), 3 wooden 6-packs available, $169.99 +tax
La Fiorita Riserva 2006
Like drinking serendipity, with cherries. Grown in mostly-forested western Montalcino, these guys do the modern thing on the normale/annata releases, but go super-Amish* on the Riservas, using only large Slavonian Botti (huge barrels), and waiting a decade before releasing them. The age heightens the plum notes, but the ripe cherry and flowers are still running the table, and the young aggressiveness has become wiser and richer. Needs no food. Ok, maybe cheese.
* I don’t want to offend any Amish readers with my metaphors. If you’re Amish and offended, please send your complaint email to everythingwine.internet.computer
95 points Wine Spectator, 2 6-packs available, $119.99 +tax
San Polo Riserva 2010
Proudly rich and fat, this wine won’t win any awards for traditionalism, but it is a great example of Sangiovese Grosso untethered, a big red wine that burns hot on the finish and threatens to race in the Cabernet lane, which would be surprising if it weren’t produced by an Amarone house. The Allegrini family (from Verona) bought vineyards on the lower, southern slopes of Montalcino, where Sangiovese puts on several dress sizes, and have become the model of sustainable organic viticulture, keeping the majority of their estate feral and using minimal energy. The Brunellarone© (my term – cha-Ching!) that is the San Polo Riserva is an exercise in tasteful extraction, showing currant and tobacco notes among the more expected cherry/licorice bits. Drinking amazingly and immediately, this is a soft pillow for those premium wine drinkers falling to here from Napa. 95+ points Robert Parker, 94 points Wine Spectator, 4 6-packs available, $140.99
Costanti Riserva 2006
Opposite-day to the previous wine. Cool, collected and beautiful, showing Bordeaux-like minerality and grace, but with timelessly Tuscan aromatics and a bulletproof structure. That this house should make an ultra-traditional Brunello is unsurprising, as the Costanti family has been making wine in Montalcino since the 1500s, and has long been notorious for producing backwards, angry wines that will only give a short warning growl before biting your face. A decade of aging is a necessity, not a perk, and this 2006 Riserva has just entered its drinking window this year, but what a gorgeous window it is. Drinks like royalty now, and will do so for a whole other decade. 94+ points Robert Parker, 3 6-packs available, $158.99 +tax
Villa i Cipressi “Zebras” 2010
We are the only store in BC to carry this, and because Massimo poured it at a Vintage Room tasting, I’ve already sold out of most of it. I do not know why it’s called Zebra. I do not know why there are lots of multi-coloured Zebras on the label, every other Zebra that I’ve seen (sober) has been black and white. What I do know is that this austere, classically styled Brunello is one of the best-priced cellaring wines that I’ve tried this year, perfectly structured to take a long journey; it’s pretty closed right now – a few years of patience will reward you spectacularly. Almost as famous locally for its honey as its wine, Villa i Cipressi are beekeepers, pasta-makers, and olive oil producers, and the operation is organic and sustainable to an almost “Noah’s Ark” level. 96 points Wine Spectator, 2 cases remaining, $68.99 +tax
Il Poggione 2009
Before the 2010 vintage scored 98 points and placed #4 on the Wine Spectator Top 100, Il Poggione was known as a super-drinkable, great-value Brunello house that made rich wines that trended to the modern side and were delicious. Now that they’re Big Time the price shot up, and they forgot about us little guys. Can’t we go back to the good old days? Yes we can. We sourced some Poggione from the ripe, lush (if lesser-rated) 2009 vintage that’s drinking like the best idea you’ve had all day. And, most notably, we found it for the old price. Packed full of red fruit and licorice and ready to party, stop by the Vintage Room this Saturday at 3pm and I’ll pour you some! 93 points Decanter, 10 6-packs available, Previous Price $87.99, New Price $60.99 +tax