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Ever since I tasted my first Brunello di Montalcino several years ago, my admiration and respect for this outstanding wine never diminished. When a region’s wine impresses so profoundly, any wine enthusiast resolves to visit it. The opportunity presented itself recently.

     Travelling from Firenze via Siena, the peaceful and charming landscape unfolds to the delight of the traveller. Small villages centuries old, and their contented inhabitants show how living in harmony with nature benefits both. In Montalcino the air seems fresh and pure. There is no industrial pollution and vine is everywhere. Growers pride themselves caring for their precisely laid out vineyards and obtain the best fruit. The narrow streets of the town wind up and down the mountainside.

     Montalciono was built by refugees from Roselle after their expulsion by hordes of Saracens, during the first decade of the tenth century A D The history of the town took a turbulent turn between the 12th and 16th centuries, dotted with several wars and political upheavals creating much hardship for the population.

     On August 4 1559, Montalcino  surrendered to the Medicis by the treaty of Chateau Cambresis between France and Spain. Life started to take a turn for the better, evolving peacefully and productively. Agriculture in Montalcino has always played an important role, especially vitivinicultre that can be traced back to the first settlers. Visitors enjoy the beauty of the landscape from the fortress before sampling in the enoteca (wine shop) on the premises (olive oil, cheese, sausages, ham, bread, honey, and a range of Brunello di Montalcino wines and others ). The simply laid out and furnished but well stocked enoteca offers many old vintages for sale.

     Visiting the fortress and contemplating the evolution of Montalcino is an experience for all with an interest in European history.

     Fattoria dei Barbi, a few kilometres outside of the town, was my ultimate destination. The estate belongs to the Colombini family since 1790, but the family had property in the region in 1352. The farm covers a little less than 400 hectares ,of which 100 hectares are devoted to vineyards and the remainder to wheat, rye, olive trees, pasture land for grazing, and areas for rearing  pigs . Production facilities are on the estate, as are employee housing.

     Recently, Donna Francesca Colombini turned over the day-to-day management to her son  Stefano Cinelli Colombini, who has also  acquired property in Maremma close to the Adriatic Sea. The region is already attracting the attention of wine connoisseurs and is poised to become world famous. The taverna of the fattoria offers fresh local fare, prepared and presented artfully. The service is friendly and the wine always outstanding.

     When I first met Donna Francesca, I could not help but think of a noble lady running a self-contained farm. Fattoria in Tuscany means just that. She is elegant, soave, refined, exuding gentleness only noble families can muster. She is genuinely concerned about the well being of her employees and provides accommodation to their families. Donna Francesca, as she is known to her many friends and importers in many countries, is tall, graceful and a hostess able to create an ambience and relaxed atmosphere, even during formal dinners. Her hospitality entertaining her family, friends and importers is legendary. The estate’s expansive balcony offers vistas of Mount Ariata and the hills of Siena. The rolling hills of the estate are studded with forests, vineyards, olive groves, a dairy and sausage factory. The winery and the taverna are in the main building. Before lunch Bianco del Beato was served as an aperitif, a dry, aromatic well balanced white wine with a pleasant and lingering taste

     Lunch consisted of courses culled entirely from the farm. The sommelier served Fattoria’s Brunello di Montalcino 1974, which had been decanted four hours prior and was at its peak. (Brunello’s legendary longevity is well documented).

     It had a crimson and brilliant colour. The bouquet was reminiscent of cherries, cigar box and smoke from barrel aging. In the mouth the mid-palate was rich, ample and smooth. The wine evolved in the mouth to display its full force and finished powerfully. The flavours were all in balance and harmonious. The next wine was a Brusco dei Barbi, invented by Giovanni Colombini.

     Donna Francesca’s father, avocato Colombini, was a gourmet, and connoisseur of wine. He had a great love for agriculture and gave up his law practice to manage the farm. His passion for food and wine led him to invent  a brand -Brusco dei Barbi launched in 1970. This is the world’s only patented wine.  Since its inception, Brusco dei Barbi’s popularity has been growing year after year. The 1990 vintage served from a decanter had an excellent and brilliant crimson colour, fruity aroma, full body, and long aftertaste. The texture was silky smooth and opened up in the mouth. After the main course, which consisted of various roasts, vegetables and roasted rosemary-flavoured potatoes, the fattoria’s creamy and luxurious pecorino  was served with a 1970 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, both of which complemented each other perfectly.  The wine tasted divine! Donna Francesca had decided to serve poached pear with Vin Santo, a specialty of Tuscan viticulture.

     Every winery seems to have its own unique technique, as ingenious as the next. Vin Santo in this region (practically all Italian wine producing regions produce vin santo) is producd from dried Trebbiano and Muscat grapes. It is long-lived and high in alcohol with a bouquet reminiscent of a variety of dried fruits. It is generally amber in colour, sweet, but never cloying. The farm’s grappa, in an elegant, specially designed glass was served along with an espresso to help digestion. This grappa distilled from the pomace of Brunello was perfumey and smooth. Most grappas on the market tend to be fiery , sharp, and burn the throat. Before her partial retirement, Donna Francesca used to make the wine with the help of a consulting oenologist, but now there is a full time employee who has taken over. The consultant still helps to fine tune the range of wines. Fattoira dei Barbi’s cellars are immaculately clean with casks of various sizes ranging from 5000 to 9000 litres. Small barrels are used for aging Vin Santo and keep red wines for topping up the big ones. Most of the work in the winery is still performed manually and lovingly. Great care is taken to ensure highest quality possible. Fattoria dei Barbi’s products are consiste
ntly reliable and purchasers can expect the same in the future.

     At this stage, a little background information on Brunello is appropriate. Medieval wine writers reported about the quality of red wines of Montalcino and stated that they were better than the rest in Tuscany.

     It was Ferrucio Biondi (the Santi came later) who observed the vigorous growth and fine structure of bunches and the grapes of one particular vine in his vineyard Il Greppo.  He correctly decided to propagate other plants from this vine and ultimately had enough fruit to produce a few bottles .He  inherited the vineyard at the age of 17. Even at that tender age he felt he could produce a better wine than others in the town. In 1870 after much research, he finally succeeded in producing a wine by using the fruit of one vine he had selected from thousands of Sangiovese vines. According to reports, his wine received high praise from consumers and other estate owners. By 1891 the fame of Brunello di Montalcino, the name Ferrucio Biondi had selected, was well known beyond Tuscany. After the turn of the century, Tancredi Biondi-Santi (now the family had acquired the Santi connection) devoted all his energy to marketing his wine. He succeeded in serving his Brunello di Montalcino in the Italian Embassy to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, and Giuseppe Saragat president of Italy in 1969 during on  official visit to London

     The following day, the telephones of Brunello producers (there were only a few then) were ringing off the hook. English importers were eager to get their hands on whatever quantity they could.

     Brunello di Montalcino was on its way to world fame. Its popularity continues today. In 1963, the Italian government promulgated wine laws to safeguard quality standards and to protect consumers from fraudulent shippers. Originally, the law consisted of three quality levels -  Denominazione Simplice, Denominazione di Origine Controlata, and Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita.

     First, authorities granted Brunello D O C status, and elevated the wine to D O C G status in 1980. D O C G regulations are very strict and control every stage of production from yield per hectare to length of barrel- and bottle aging before release. Presently there are 130 growers, and vineyards cover 1250 hectares. More than 95 wineries are registered with the authorities. The yield per hectare is limited to eight tonnes, and pressing restricted to 70 percent of weight. Brunello di Montalcino must be barrel aged for 36 months and 12 in the bottle. Riserva quality must be aged five or more years. The total production exceeded 45 thousand hectolitres in 2000, and almost an equal amount was sold as Rosso di Montalcino that is barrel aged only for one year.

     Many authorities believe Brunello di Montalcino to be the ultimate red wine of Italy. A 1988 riserva quality 1979 Brunello di Montalcino was sold for £ 3,500.- in London not long ago. Brunello di Montalcino should be served at 19C, and decanted at least four to six hours before service for the bouquet to develop pending on vintage.

To fully appreciate its incomparable bouquet, full body, power and flavour, serve it with beef or game roasts, or piquant cheeses (pecorino, Parmegiano Reggiano). Older vintages are best on their own.

     Words fail to adequately describe the peace, tranquillity and natural beauty of Montalcino. For a wine enthusiast, a trip to this enchanted region means enjoyment of finer things in life and an indelible impression of outstanding wine.

I will open my 1977 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva when the opportunity presents itself.

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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