Tom Hyland Tasting & Trends
When the Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino was established in 1967, one year after the wine received DOC status (it became one of the initial DOCG wines in 1980), there were only twenty-five members. Today, there are more than two hundred Brunello producers; given the reputation of this wine for its ability to age for twenty-plus years in the finest vintages, this is hardly surprising.
Such rapid growth can certainly result in growing pains, while it can also yield some outstanding wines; wine zones around the world share a similar phenomenon. Accounting for all the new Brunello estates over the past few decades, it becomes more and more important today to focus on the very best producers, the ones that have crafted and continue to release outstanding wines that not only offer impressive aging potential, but also capture the soul of Montalcino. The most successful wines from these estates are the true icons of Brunello di Montalcino.
While there are a few dozen examples I could single out as iconic Brunello, let’s focus on six spectacular wines, as well as two more that I predict will be icons in the near future.
Without question, Biondi-Santi has been the most important name in Brunello di Montalcino, ever since Clemente Sandi produced a Sangiovese-based wine from the 1869 vintage that he labeled as “Brunello.” The firm’s 1888 riserva was the first wine identified with the words Brunello di Montalcino, and in the decades since, this wine has been one of the reference points for the territory, and in reality, all of Italy.
Biondi-Santi was sold to EPI, a French investment company in 2016, and today, the firm has honored the philosophy of the founders, while making small changes in the vineyards and in the cellar. Slavonian oak casks, starting from 20 hectoliters and up are used for aging, which is three years in wood. The lots are kept separate, and stay in the same barrel for three years; the decision to make the wine a riserva comes after the lots are blended together.
Fruit is sourced from five different vineyard locations; most are on top of a hill; the oldest vines at the Tenuta Greppo estate where the cellars are located, date back to 1930. Perhaps the most prized site is Scarnacuoia, west of Montalcino, at 450 meters (1475 feet) altitude. Head of Marketing Lene Bucelli notes that fruit from this vineyard always goes into the riserva, “because it’s such a beautiful vineyard.”
The current release is the 2015; the 2016 will be released in 2023, one year later than most other Brunello producers; production of the riserva varies with each release; 15,000 bottles were produced of the 2015, while that number drops to 10,000 for the upcoming 2016 (note that there will not be a 2017 riserva).
Il Poggione Riserva Vigna Paganelli
Located in Sant’Angelo in Colle, six miles south of the town if Montalcino, Il Poggione first produced their Vigna Paganelli Riserva in 2003; the current 2016 is the ninth release of this wine.
The vineyard is at an elevation of 180 meters (590 feet) above sea level, and covers an area of 12 hectares; planted in 1964, the soils are of alluvial terrace. Proprietor and co-winemaker Alessandro Bindocci notes that even before the winery included the term Vigna Paganelli, fruit from this site was used for the Brunello riserva. Currently when a particular year is not considered of optimal quality and this wine is not produced, the fruit from this site is included in the classic Brunello.
Winemaking is traditional, as the wine undergoes 30 days of maceration and is matured in grandi botti, although Bindocci and his father Fabrizio changed to French oak several years ago, instead of the usual Slavonian.
Bindocci remarks that the Vigna Paganelli Riserva is “generally tighter upon release than the classic Brunello, and the structure is slightly different due to the longer oak aging.” Approximately 40,000 bottles of the Vigna Paganelli Riserva were produced of the 2016; Bindocci estimates that this wine can age for “40-plus years. We believe that based on the structure, acidity and other analytical parameters, its life will be very long.”
Stunning vistas near Il Poggione
Poggio di Sotto Classico and Riserva
From the first release in 1989, Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino has been recognized for its remarkable harmony, varietal purity and typicity; the classic Brunello and the Brunello riserva produced here are true collectors’ items.
The estate is located in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, in the southern reaches of the Montalcino zone. There are 20 hectares planted at the estate, which ranges from 200 to 450 meters above sea level (650 to 1475 feet). Enologist Luca Marrone believes the elevation of the vines is an important feature in the character of these wines. “Thanks to these different altitudes, we can manage also the differentiation that we have in the various vintages, because sometime when the vintage is quite cold, we have the best from the bottom, the hottest area.
Marrone matures his Brunello and Brunello riserva for longer periods than is required; in the best vintages, that time is at least four years for the Brunello and five years for the riserva. Only Slavonian oak casks of 35 and 38 hectoliters are used. Typically 40,000 bottles (Brunello and Brunello riserva) are produced each year.
Marrone believes that a significant factor in why Poggio di Sotto Brunellos are so distinctive is the fact that current proprietor Claudio Tipa inherited very old vineyards – the oldest were planted in the early 1970s - that have numerous biotypes; he notes that the University of Florence has identified more than 100 of these. “We are using these to plant new vineyards to not lose the kind of ecological nice that we have at Poggio di Sotto." Regarding the cellar potential of Poggio di Sotto Brunello, Marrone comments, “I guess at least 20 years, maybe 30 or 40. Why not? We’ll see.”
Claudio Tipa of Poggio di Sotto
Casanova di Neri Cerretalto
At their estate, Giacomo Neri and his son Gianlorenzo produce three different examples of Brunello di Montalcino: the white label (their classic offering), Tenuta Nuova and Cerretalto. This last has become a wine that can make a Brunello lover’s heart beat a little faster, even just hearing the name.
Cerretalto is a vineyard in the eastern sector of the Brunello production zone – a cooler area – that is a natural amphitheater. Gianlorenzo Neri explains that the soil here is very particular, which accounts for the wine’s striking character. “The type of soil you find in Cerretalto is called Plinthite, which is a very particular combination of quartz, clay and especially a very high combination of minerals, such as iron and magnesium.”
Giacomo Neri comments that when his father Giovanni bought this vineyard over forty years ago, the idea at the beginning was to make a blend with the white label. But when he tasted the barrels after fermentation, he understood that the wine made from Cerretalto was completely different than the other wines. “The aromatic profile is completely different; you find blood and fresh meat notes,” Neri remarks. “The tannins are different and there is much greater persistence with the Cerretalto. It’s a unique expression of Sangiovese.”
Neri currently matures the wine in 500-liter tonneaux, as he no longer uses barriques; the change took place in the late 1980s; previously the wine was aged in a combination of barrique and tonneaux.
When I tasted the 2016 Cerretalto from this celebrated vintage, I labeled this particular wine as “legendary.” As for Giacomo Neri, “the aging potential is very, very long.” He recently tasted the 1996, “a medium vintage,” in his opinion. “The wine showed great freshness … It was crazy how young it seemed. I thought it was 2012 or 2013. Great aging potential.”
The undulating hills of Montalcino
Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio all’Oro
When the Mariani family from America established Castello Banfi in 1978, they shook up the relatively quiet world of Montalcino. Today, almost 45 years later, Banfi is recognized as one of the area’s most prominent estates, and their Poggio all’Oro is acknowledged as an exemplary Brunello.
Banfi produces a classic Brunello as well as Poggio Alla Mura, crafted from a selection of estate vineyards, but it is their Poggio all’Oro that is their most distinguished wine. Proprietor Cristina Mariani-May remarks that “our original vision for this wine was to demonstrate a distinct sense of place, showcasing our ongoing work and exploration of the vineyards.”
The vineyard, planted in 1979, is situated at 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level in the southern sector of the Brunello zone. The wine is fermented in French oak and stainless steel, and matured in a combination of French tonneaux and barriques for three years and six months. Produced only from vintages that are considered optimal, the first offering was from the 1985 vintage; the current 2016 is the 15th release.
Mariani-May notes that the vineyard was replanted in 2014, in part due to vine disease; done in three stages, the work was completed in 2022, with a shift toward high density planting of 5200 plants per hectare. “Poggio all’Oro is truly the icon wine of the Banfi Brunello collection,” says Mariani-May, “mainly because it was the first single vineyard identified in our ongoing commitment to the estate. As such, it functions as a halo for the rest of our portfolio and has somewhat paved the way for what follows.”
Il Marroneto Brunello di Montalcino Madonna delle Grazie
While each of the wines featured in this article is constantly in demand, perhaps no other Brunello di Montalcino is more highly prized today than the Madonna delle Grazie bottling from Il Marroneto. Proprietor/winemaker Alessandro Mori who started working with his father at the age of 14, now has more than 35 vintages of Brunello to his credit; the 1980 vintage was the first Il Marroneto Brunello released to the market.
His estate, at an elevation of 420 meters (1375 feet) is planted to just over seven hectares of vineyards, and is located just outside the northern boundaries of the city of Montalcino; it is the first farm north of Montalcino, and provides a spectacular view of the Orcia Valley.
Winemaking is traditional, as he uses three original Slavonian casks from the late 1970s, along with botti made from Allier wood. He has clear ideas regarding the use of barrels in his winemaking. “The work of the barrel is only to let the wine have the contact with the outside elements, to let the wine make the seasoning inside, changing with the changing of the seasons, the temperatures. I don’t use the barrels to add tannins or give wood flavors to the wine. With the barrel, I can preserve the honest flavors and aromas of the wine.”
After a very successful vintage in 2015, Mori is even more delighted with the 2016 Madonna delle Grazie. “Brunello 2016 had to stay longer in the barrels; I left the wine in the barrels an extra eight months instead of four, because the wine was slowly evolving. I had to find the equilibrium in the wine. It’s an orchestra that finally found the perfect combination of instruments. Now it’s really perfect.”
Alessandro Mori of Il Marroneto
Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino La Casaccia
Since 1966, Canalicchio di Sopra, situated in the northern sector of the Montalcino production zone, has been one of the finest and most consistent – and underrated, I may add – Brunello estates. Their classic offering is routinely excellent and their riserva, produced only in outstanding years, is always memorable.
From the 2015 vintage, the winery released a single vineyard Brunello called Casaccia, named for the eponymous hill near the winery; this first release was several years in the making, according to co-proprietor Francesco Ripaccioli. “The idea was born in 2007,” he remarks. “My brother Marco and I discussed making something different than in the past. We decided to better understand the terroir of our estate.”
The brothers started to vinify the fruit from Casaccia as well as that from Montosoli, another nearby hill and discovered how distinct these wines were from each other. The decision was to produce a single vineyard Brunello from each site, and after a few years of trial bottlings, the Casaccia was first, while the initial release of Montosoli is from the 2018 vintage and will be released in 2023.
The 2015 was a marvelous success as Ripaccioli explains. “We underlined the opulence and the clay of Casaccia in an elegant way, as we made a wine with a good drinkability.” The 2016 was even more refined, and was among the finest of all Brunellos from this outstanding vintage.
A 2017 Casaccia was also produced. “The idea of single vineyards is not to make them only in great vintages, but to tell the vineyard,” as Ripaccioli explains. So far, his family has succeeded quite well in this regard, and it may not be too far in the future that the Canalicchio di Sopra Casaccia may be widely regarded as an iconic Brunello di Montalcino.
Tenuta di Buon Tempo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva P.56
Per Landin, a native of Sweden and a producer in Bordeaux, and his wife Janet, purchased the old Podere Oliveto estate in Castelnuovo dell’Abate (very near to Poggio di Sotto) in 2012; that year they produced their first single vineyard Brunello labeled as P. 56; meaning particella number 56, the name refers to the specific section on a local zoning map.
They have produced a single vineyard wine from this site every year since then, with the exception of 2017, and released their first riserva P. 56 from the 2015 vintage, followed by the 2016. So there have been only two offerings of this wine to date, but these offerings have displayed impressive structure, breeding and aging potential to lead me to believe this wine will one day be identified as a Brunello Icon.
The vines here date back to the 1990s; co-enologist Filippo Bellini, son of Janet, remarks on the distinctiveness of this site “Since the beginning, we really wanted to make something from this vineyard. In outstanding years, when we don’t think it’s ready, we will make it a riserva and keep it in bottle one extra year.”
The wine is matured 20 and 35 hectoliter Slavonian oak grandi botti; there is a lengthy maceration, sometimes as long as six weeks; production is around 8000 bottles.