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How long and how well can Brunello di Montalcino age?

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Filippo Bartolotta

How long and how well can Brunello di Montalcino age?

La rocca di Montalcicno

With this question in mind, I spent many hot days discovering Brunello producers, tasting their wines young and old, and setting foot on the diverse soils of this magical territory in southern Tuscany at 50 km from the sea, 30 km south of Siena, and 100 km south of Florence.

Montalcino is a small fortified village on a hilltop at 567 meters above sea level, with just 5000 inhabitants. Until not too long ago, it was one of the poorest areas of Italy, but in recent years luck has turned in its favor, thanks to a wine that can only be produced here: Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello (literally, the “little brown one”) is the name of the Sangiovese clone selected by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi at his Tenuta Il Greppo estate at the end of the 1800’s, when he decided to produce a wine using the best winemaking techniques of the time.


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Today when we speak of Brunello di Montalcino, we are referring to more than 200 producers, on about 2.000 hectares of vineyards, valued at least €250,000 per hectare. But we must put these figures in historical context.  In 1967 when the territory founded its Consortium, there were 12 producers working only 64 hectares, valued at over 2000% less than it is today! Since the beginning, the Consortium of Brunello di Montalcino has worked to create worth and value throughout the territory for all producers. This is a particularly interesting case in the Italian Wine Industry, because today to walk among Montalcino’s vineyards is to walk in a jewelbox beneath the open sky.

It stands to reason that in the face of these figures, investment has multiplied, and today it has reached its peak. “We’ve closed the planting rights in Montalcino. In 2004 we will reach potential production, of about 11.5 million bottles,” says Stefano Campatelli, the Consortium’s Director. Just think that of the 6.5 million bottles on the market today, little more than 150,000 arrive in the UK every year. And if the rest of the world continues to drink even more Brunello di Montalcino, Great Britain will consume a steady 2.5%.

Brunello di Montalcino must be made with 100% Sangiovese, and aged for at least 2 years in wood casks, and another three years in the cellar. By law, it is the Italian wine that stays in cellar longest before going on the market, and the Riserva must wait a total of six years.

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But is it true what they say about Brunello’s extraordinary aging capability?

If you ask Franco Biondi-Santi, the inventor’s nephew and estate’s current proprietor, there is no doubt. “I proved a few years ago that it’s a wine that can easily reach 100 years of age!”  Sitting in a room over the cellar with a view of vineyards, olive trees and cypresses right out of a Renaissance painting, we taste across more than forty years of production. The wines of Tenuta Il Greppo are born at 450 above sea level, in one of the highest areas of Montalcino, which gives rise to fresh and austere wines. The average acidity is almost always more than 6 grams per liter, decidedly high for a red wine. But this seems to be just the secret.

I have no doubt that the 1964 is Biondi-Santi’s champion. It is the most ready to drink, with the sweetest tannins. In thirty years, the 1997 Riserva, which is still quite closed, could become the ’64 of today.

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Biondi-Santi still carries out maceration in large wooden vats, using grapes from vines that are at least 10 years old for Brunello, and 25 years old for the Riserva. To understand Franco Biondi-Santi’s regal yet simple gait, which is mirrored in his wines, think of reading Melville’s Moby Dick: time is necessary for us to enter into the story completely. “I uncorked them last night before dinner, let’s hope they’ve opened up a little!” , he says. His is a wine for celebrations, harsh and hard when just opened but capable of offering an unique depth and sweetness after a few years of aging.

“Sangiovese is a variety with only six cellular coatings, poor in terpenes and therefore in very short supply of primary aromas, and difficult compared to Merlot or Cabernet,” says Paolo Vagaggini, one of the foremost experts of Sangiovese, seated in his high-tech winelab. “The same vine can produce clusters from 180 grams to 400 grams, which does not happen with easier to manage international vines.”

There is no doubt for oenologist Niccolò d’Afflitto, long-time technical chief of Frescobaldi. “Sangiovese is very difficult to work with. Just think that if it rains, a Cabernet grape can grow by a maximum of 4%, while Sangiovese can grow by more than 40% in just a few hours, and a whole year’s work can go to waste!”

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D’Afflitto doesn’t seem discouraged by this challenge however, despite the 153 hectares he transforms into Brunello di Montalcino with Frescobaldi. An oenologist for large estates who works only with native yeasts, he is in constant, close contact with university researchers.

D’Afflitto and I passed four out of the six hours of our meeting in the vineyard. “It’s all a question of soil and exposure. The Tuscan galestro serves at about 350 meters above sea level. What remains of compacted and broken clay, of very hard shale schist which require the plant to go deeper in search of water, and in doing so it offers the best of itself. This is certainly the case of Castelgiocondo –Frescobaldi’s 1990 Brunello Riserva, which emerged as one of the best of more than 200 old Brunellos tasted for this quest.

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Not far from Frescobaldi’s vineyards, in the southern part of Montalcino’s highest subregion, we find another producer who collaborates with the University of Florence’s microbiology studies, but who would never allow a barrique in his cellar. After exploring the modern methods that make Brunello ever more ready to drink, we once again return to the rhythms of Melville.

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We are with Gianfranco Soldera, a producer of strong and secure character who doesn’t seem to have many doubts about how to make his wine, or about Sangiovese’s superiority compared to other renowned varieties. “When Sangiovese from Montalcino is interpreted at its best, it is capable of giving a subtlety, depth, sweetness and intensity that you can’t find even in the great Barolos or Burgundys but here every harvest comes out well: of thirty-five harvests, I have bottled thirty-three great wines”, he declares looking far into the horizon from S. Angelo in Colle facing the majestic Monte Amiata.

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From here we have the best view of the southern part of the region: before us the mountain protects it from the eastern winds, the hill of Montalcino that protects from the northern winds, and the Orcia river that channels the winds coming from the sea, making this area one of the most arid areas in Tuscany.

In his winemaker’s beret and suspenders, Soldera watches with his penetrating eyes as he tells you this, then he invites you to pair his 2000 Brunello Case Basse Riserva with one of the most dangerous foods: artichokes. “The natural tannins of my wine (which passes about four years in large Slavonian oak casks in order avoid any wood possibly masking the Sangiovese’s aromas) are so balanced that they face up to the artichoke’s! Indeed the great drinkability of this wine won against all foes and its aging potential is extraordinary.

Giulio Gambelli, one of the most admired oenologists for his refined results with Sangiovese, has told me that he considers Soldera’s ’83 the best Brunello ever made!

There is no doubt that ’83 was a very important year. You can see it in the ruby colour, even more intense than that of the others. On the palate its tannic structure is more important and the fruit extraction is denser and cleaner. But the’81 and ’84 (considerd very small vintages!) seem to dominate this vertical tasting for the first two hours. They both have suprisingly sweet tannins, with the latter’s similar to the elegance of a Burgundy Grand Crù. The former has tannins that are velvety like a good night caress. The ’85 is very austere and the most closed of them all, and still not ready to drink!?

However, things don’t always go so well. And moving forward in the tasting, some problems emerge. On the one hand I’ve confirmed that Brunello di Montalcino seems to have all the right properties in order to not only age, but improve as years pass. However, it is also true that not all Brunellos live up to this expectation. Furthermore, it seems more reliable to trust the best producers with vineyards in the best areas instead of going by what have been defined as the “best years.”

Therefore out of about forty champions tasted at the Brunello Consortium’s forty year anniversary celebration, in my book only about 25% stood out for their indisputable class. The rest wavered between medium level and acceptable wines, to those which weren’t up to standards. This means that it is necessary to use a bit of caution for wines on the shelf at prices between £25 and £50 for the current vintage. The right choice however, will please your palate as well as your wallet.

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To give some examples, at the refined trattoria Boccon di Vino in Montalcino you can find the great ’67 Costanti for £250. A fresh, dense and refined 1991 Tenuta Ugolaia Fuligni or a 1979 Col D’Orcia, with great mineral balance and traces of goudron and coffee on a perfect bed of tannins, can be found for roughly £80 at the Enoteca La Fortezza in Montalcino. The elegant 1979 Poggio Salvi, of which only 4.000 bottles have been recovered, is sold for about £50 directly at the estate, while the savoury and juicy Le Macioche 2001 or a more fruit driven Ferragamo’s Castiglion del Bosco can be found for around £25.

But we can better understand the place by coming in contact with its people, not just its wines. In the area’s northern part closest to Siena, one of the most modern and one of the most simple cellars in the entire region can be found just hundreds of meters apart. These are the Giancarlo Pacenti’s and Nello Baricci’s. In Pacenti’s case, we find ourselves with a young mathematician who seems to understand the mysteries of the difficult balance in managing the barrique and Sangiovese. “Very low temperatures (10°) and very high humidity (over 90%),” he states. “In this way the wood doesn’t have a big impact on the wine and manages to refine the Sangiovese in the best way.”

Indeed, he masterfully combines the grapes from the southern vineyards closest to the Orcia river, with their expressive mediterranean aromas, with those from the north side closer to the estate, which are more austere and tannic. Pacenti’s Brunello is rigorously modern, but also rich with a great personality, extraction, dense tannin bed and a velvety pleasure on the palate.

Baricci shares not just the same age and profession as “Doctor” Biondi-Santi, but also his mother’s milk, as Mrs. Baricci nursed them both. On this sunny afternoon, he is sitting waiting for me on the stone wall in front of his house in a straw hat, and invites me to come in. In the very small, humble kitchen four or five family members have gathered, along with four or five bottles. A still fruity and hot 1977 as well as a concentrated, rich and extracted 1983 stood out in the tasting. These are two great wines that should be crowned in gold. Don’t miss the Rosso di Montalcino from this small estate, it is often better than most Brunellos!

To discover more stridently contrasting styles, let’s stop even further south, close to the town of Montalcino at Giacomo Neri’s estate, Casanova dei Neri. His Riserva Cerretalto comes from a vineyard of red, alluvial, iron-rich soil which gives it a sense of place. It is concentrated and very decadent, with almost volcanic qualities as well as traces of elegant minerality. The Tenuta Nuova is more expansive, expressive and concentrated crù, produced in the southern area. “I just bought them in Germany, do you feel like tasting them?” Giacomo asks, corkscrew and two very old-looking bottles in hand. What stood out here were an appetizing and fresh 1981 and a dense, rich, expressive, never-ending 1986!

Not too far from the barriques of Neri’s supertechnical cellar lies a small family run estate where the proprietors are likely to offer you a piece of salame should you stop by, even if they don’t know you. This is La Fornace, belonging to native Fabio Giannetti, who produces a very clean and fruity Brunello from his three small hectares of Sangiovese. Making large leaps to the south, we then move south past Montalcino towards Castelnuovo dell’Abate, to one of the most suitable areas. Here you mustn’t miss a classic that satisfies modernists and traditionalists alike: Poggio di Sotto’s sweet, velvety, intense and deep Brunello. Be sure not to pass by the Rosso either, which is a truly a young Brunello. Among the highlights are the 2001 Decennale and a powerfully savoury and juicily refreshing IGT (with 6 years of ageing, don’t ask me why it’s not a Brunello…Italians!).

A few hundred meters in front of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, which was founded by Alexander the Great, lies Andrea Cortonesi’s small estate. After tasting a battery of Brunellos, all with great and noticeably different personalities marked by leather, liquorice, tabacco and ripe black cherries, you may find yourself still here close to lunchtime. If so you will not escape Andrea’s mother’s wild boar ragù, a true shot of endorphins in most sublime form. And if you like discovering further contrasting scenarios, just cross the valley towards the west to S. Angelo Scalo, and Montalcino’s most southernly estate, where a fossil of an entire whale was recently discovered. This is Banfi, the largest Brunello estate. With its 160 hectares, it is truly responsible for this wine’s worldwide success.

Andrea Cortonesi says that Brunello was born from three “B’s”: “Biondi-Santi, the inventor of Brunello and producer of one of the most famous wines for aging; Barbi, the cellar that brought multifunctionality to Montalcino through wine tourism and Banfi, who introduced Brunello to the world.”

At Banfi, we enter a medieval castle renovated as a modern and welcoming cellar where tastings with friendly and well-prepared staff are possible at all hours of the day. The wines are typical of the Montalcino’s low altitude sandstone: very expressive while young, with tannic structures that are not too thick (keep in mind that we are talking about Sangiovese, so we will taste the tannins no matter what), and generous fruit.

To understand the difference of a wine from the more tannic North, try tasting Livio Sassetti’s monumental Brunello di Pertimali, produced out of the difficult clay soils. This wine is very austere when young, with thick, closed, impenetrable tannins which melt thanks to the generous sapidity and roundness of this Sangiovese, which is born in a soil “that must be ploughed to avoid the plants being broken by the clay when it compacts.” Lorenzo Sassetti keeps me in front of the vineyard for 45 minutes in order to explain the hard work to be done here behind the Montosoli hill. His wine is born here, and in certain vintages it is without a doubt one of the most enduring and intense wines of Montalcino.

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This land’s split could go on into another second chapter, with another handful of names and places, but I believe we have enough proof of this wine’s aging potential. It’s light is still shining. “This mountain is magic,” says yet another great Italian oenologist, Roberto Cipresso, as he opens a refined, intense and balanced 2000 La Fiorita. “It still has not been sufficiently studied or understood. In other areas of the world there are studies on terroir and the symbiosis with some varieties established over more than 500 years of history, while here our potential is still unexplored!”

This is the beauty of Montalcino. It is a land of contrast, where everything is still possible. If you are looking for bottles to put away and open in a few decades, seek out Brunellos from the highest areas of Montalcino and perhaps those from rather hard soils. If your Brunello must be more ready to drink and less long lasting, look to the lower areas where the soil is looser. If you are on the hunt for a balanced, pleasant and relatively young wine, but with great potential, the best land is the classic Tuscan galestro at medium altitude, as in the highest part of the region’s central area leading from Montalcino towards Tavernelle.

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BOX

Top Ten

Biondi-Santi 1964 *****

A clean and bright red garnet colour for a still very refreshing wine. Honestly: no sign of ageing! The wine is a restrained and yet elegantly perfumed example of classy Sangiovese showing hints of tobacco, coffee and dried fruit. Some decades to go!

Costanti 1967*****

Perfumes of dry roses and mint with a basil and bergamot touch. An intense leathery, sea salt lingering finish.

Silvio Nardi 1967****

Eucalyptus and aromatic herbs with some cumin and cardamom-like spieces.

On the palate the wine comes out with some white pepper, gun powder and a zesty finish.

Baricci 1977****

A densely perfumed wine still rich in red dried fruit integrated with a leathery complexity.

A smooth and rich toffee-like taste with a very lingering broad finish.

Pertimali 1983*****

A very austere wine built with a perfect architecture. Still very youthful, it is concentrated with black cherries, tar, and leather but with an elegant, never ending floral finish. Still a baby!

Soldera 1983*****

Another “young” Brunello with a lovely ruby red garnet colour, a black cherry fruit concentration blended with a combination of dry roses and an earl grey suiff. The palate is savoury, well structured with a very long finish of coffee and tobacco.

Salvioni 1985****

A dark ruby garnet wine packed with black berries and tobacco which develops a coffee and goudron taste in its very greatly structured Mediterannean palate.

Casanova dei Neri 1986****

A leathery, mineral, intense Sangiovese still built around mature red and black fruit, with a truffle touch. Concentration, power and intensity with a lingering finish.

Castel Giocondo Riserva 1990*****

A very clean strawberry jam like nose with some floral hints and a good tannic grip substained by well-extracted pulpy fruit. Another 20+

Siro Pacenti 1996*****

A slick earthy and densely extracted black driven fruit still plenty to support the still tight but very finely extracted tannins. A leathery, earthy, licorice long-lasting finish.

from Decanter Magazine 2007

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