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On our way to the town of Montalcino, riding in a Citroen Palace, my friend and restaurateur Livio and I were enjoying the serene scenery of Tuscan hills, the indescribably soft and diffuse light of the region.  Tuscan sunlight has inspired many world-famous painters. Often they would travel to the region and decide to settle down in Florence or its surrounding villages to establish their studios and live happily ever after. Florence always attracted art lovers and the city was a good market for both artists and art lovers.

Montalcino, located at an altitude of 567 metres and 20 Kms. south of Siena has a population close to 7000. The hill town is comprised of a fortress, and has been associated with agriculture, arts, and politics ever since the 13th century. Olive groves, vineyards, and fertile lands surround the town, making it an excellent destination for Italians and Northern Europeans alike. Agritourism in Tuscany, especially around Montalcino has been growing continuously, and the town enjoys a solid, slightly sombre air of medieval small hill towns of central Italy. In fact, Tuscans invented agritourism.

The cuisine is simple, and strongly rooted in centuries of agricultural tradition based on local, seasonal, and absolutely fresh ingredients culminating in rib-sticking soups, unsalted bread, dense green extra virgin olive oil, sausages, hams, tangy pecorino, and bitter-sweet honey.

Restaurants serve honest to goodness meals along with the extraordinary Brunello di Montalcino that put the town on the viticultural map of Italy and the world.

The wine takes its name from a clone of Sangiovese that  Clemente Biondi-Santi selected in his Montalcino vineyard. He named it in honour of the town as Brunello (the little brown one) di Montalcino.  Connoisseurs world over consider this wine with an aging potential of a century or even longer, one of the best, if not the best, red wine of Italy. Modern Young winemakers create wines that can be enjoyed after a few years of bottling, but there are many others who hold on to traditional techniques that require long bottle aging.

The climate of southern Tuscany produces ripe, full-bodied wines, with marked personality. All are well-extracted, fruity, high-in alcohol, and age worthy. Typical Brunello’s primary aromas of violet, chestnut flour, and smokiness eventually evolve into a bouquet, which no Italian wine can equal. The palate is warm and generous possessing peppery qualities seldom encountered in other red wines.

Brunello di Montalcino is vinted in regular or riserva qualities. Since it was one oft the first D O C G (Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita) wines of Italy, it must be barrel aged for a minimum of 36 months, and one year after bottling before release. Rosso di Montalcino appears on the labels of those wines that are marketed without the required length of aging. Microclimate and topographic differences contribute to nuances of colour, appearance, texture and taste, as does the expertise of the winemaker. Carmigliano, Santa Restituta and Argiano estates in the southwest produce softer, more alcoholic, well-extracted and early drinking wines than those immediately around the town, namely Il Greppo (Biodi-Santi), Constanti, and Fattoria dei Barbi e Casale.

Over 90 wineries produce Brunello di Montalcino and practically all can be tasted in the enoteca (wine shop) of the town located within the walls of the citadel. In addition to wine (Brunello di Montalcino, regular or riserva, rosso di Montalcino, Moscadello and Vin Santo), you can delight your palate with tasting of excellent local olive oil, pecorino cheese, sausages, and wild, bittersweet delicious honey.

Vintages are important in these parts as elsewhere in Tuscany. According to Donna Francesca Colombini-Cinelli, the owner of Fattoria dei Barbi e Casale, and her daughter Donatella, who owns and manages another winery nearby 1982, 1985, 1988, 1995 and 1988 vintages are outstanding and will age very well for a number of years to come.

Brunello should be enjoyed with flavourful steaks, game stews or roasts, local pecorino and other flavourful cheeses, or on its own, just to contemplate the beauty and serenity of the region.
Brunello di Montalcino production was miniscule up to 1960 (there were only 56 hectares in production), but now almost 1250 hectares are bearing.

A relatively recent and major addition to acreage was Castello Banfi. This modern winery planned by Ezio Rivella and scientifically laid out vineyards surrounding it is owned by the Mariani family, importers of Italian wines to the U S A. Even the 1250 hectares divided among 130 growers averages a little less than 10 hectares per grower, which by all standards is relatively small. Growers lavish a lot of attention to their vineyards to maximize fruit quality and concentration. “Wine is made in the vineyard” goes the saying, and paying special attention to growing quality grapes results in high quality wines.

Dry Moscadello (Muscat) and Vin Santo) were the great specialties of the area  up to the 19 the century before Brunello was discovered.  Both  dry Moscadello and Vin Santo wines are still made but only in small quantities.

Also famous is the grappa di Brunello distilled by a few wineries in the region.

Biondi-Santi still produces wines that require many years of cellaring before revealing their true flavour. During a recent tasting, a 50 year old Brunello di Montalcino Riserva was still in excellent condition, with a bouquet reminiscent of wild mushrooms, truffles, and cigar box. Its vibrant colour and firm texture was well balanced with a rich midpalate. It was smooth, satisfying, and possessed a long finish. A wine to remember!

On the other end of the scale, there are modern wineries headed by revolutionary winemakers, advocating the application of modern techniques designed to yield approachable wines in their youth.
E. Rivella, C. Basla, and D. Talenti are some of the winemakers who advocate reducing the minimum barrel aging requirements from four to two years. Regardless, the dispute will continue for a long time to come until authorities can be convinced to change the law.  More importantly, now there are those who plant proven and famous French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Some of the fruit is blended with Brunello, but they must be sold as Vino da Tavola.

Fattorie dei Barbi e Casale  is a 400-hectare property, 40 hectares of which are planted to vine, the remainder to wheat and a variety of cereals. The pecorino of the estate is excellent, sausages superb, and the trattoria (informal restaurant) known for the quality of food, wine, and friendly service. The wines of Fattoria dei Barbi are well crafted, fruity and worthy of cellaring. In addition to Brunello di Montalcino, a Riserva along with fine Brusco dei Barbi (proprietary brand), dry Muscadello and Vin Santo are produced. The grappas are delicious and well worth trying after an extended meal.

Red wine enthusiasts owe it to themselves to visit the region. Brunello di Montalcino provides an excellent opportunity to regal the triumph of Tuscan wine tradition and genius.

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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