Although it is not as famous as the cities of Florence and Siena in Tuscany, the fortified hillside town of Montalcino has the distinction of being the last independent municipality in what would later become the country of Italy, until keys to the stone-walled town were handed over to the Medici family in 1559.
At roughly 25 miles from the sea, the first wines were made in the region by Etruscans more than 2,000 years ago. But the real birth of the famous Brunello di Montalcino style of red wine didn’t start until the mid 19th century when Clemente Santi and other farmers in the area began mastering the techniques of crafting complex wines with the native Sangiovese grape grown in the region. For his work, in 1869 Santi was awarded a distinguished medal for the signature wine he made with fruit from the 1865 vintage. The wine would later go on to be preferred by judges over famous French wines and eventually open up the floodgates that would attract a new wave of winemakers to the region over the next century.
In modern times, the interest in the region continued to grow as well. For instance, when the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino was established in 1967 to promote the region and its wines, the 41 associate members only owned 71 hectares of planted vineyards. But when the size of the association expanded between 1973 and 1980, the planted vineyards increased from 261 to 600 hectares. Today, there are 235 members and over 2,100 hectares planted in the Brunello of Montalcino DOCG.
The borders of the Montalcino appellation are naturally defined by high elevation mountains and the three main rivers which run through the region, the Asso, Ombrone and Orcia. While many of the best vineyards are located at various angles on the sloping hillsides below the city, other plantings can be found around the smaller rustic communities of Sant’Angelo, Castelnuovo dell’Abate and Torrenieri.
With warm days and windy afternoons, the climate in the region is typically Mediterranean. In contrast to the more fertile soils in the flatter areas; the further you move up the hill, the denser and rockier soils become with large deposits of calcium-rich Marl, limestone, and Galestro mixed with fossils and stones.
By law, a wine labeled as Brunello di Montalcino DOCG must be produced from a vineyard limited to less than 8 tons/hectare. Once fermented, the wine must be aged for a minimum of two years in wooden barrels and four months in bottle, or six months in bottle for reserve wines. The objective is to create expressive wines that reflect the flavor of the Sangiovese grapes grown on the special sites in the Montalcino and layers of complexity that will smooth out over time. Like Brunello, the Rosso di Montalcino Wine DOC are also made with Sangiovese grapes, but require less time of aging in barrel in order to be approachable and drinkable when young. www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it.
Whites: White Moscato/Muscat. This grape is mainly used to make the sparkling, still and sweet wines labeled as Moscadello di Montalcino DOC. Small amounts of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc are also used for blending in the Sant’Antimo DOC, a small sub-appellation of Montalcino.
Reds: Sangiovese, the illustrious indigenous grape in the region, is used to make the classic Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Rosso di Montalcino DOC wines. Smaller portion of Sangiovese is for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Nero in the Sant’Antimo DOC as well.
White Wines: There are three styles of white wine that fall under the heading of Moscadello di Montalcino DOC. The first are elegant sparkling wines, which typically feature fresh, lively flavors of ripe fruits, pear, roasted almond, delicate texture, and a long, refreshing finish. The second style are still wines highlighted by naturally sweet flavors of ripe melon, grapefruit, pear nectar, bright acidity, and a dry or off-dry finish. The final style is sweet, elegant and complex late harvest wines highlighted by fragrant floral aromas and deep flavors of fresh cut mango, papaya, peach, grapefruit, white tea and chamomile.
Red Wines: In general, Rosso di Montalcino is very flavorful and ready to drink when young. Common flavors include ripe red berries, earth, bright acidity, and silky tannins. In contrast, a Brunello is more elegant and complex with concentrated flavors of ripe cherry, plum, black olive, sarsaparilla, chocolate, roasted nuts, mineral, and fresh herbs. The heavier wines have deeper flavors, firm tannins and high acidity, which makes them very age worthy in the bottle.
With fine cuisine, the Moscadello di Montalcino DOC wines pair nicely with fine cheeses, appetizers, salads, light entrees, and deserts. The Rosso di Montalcino wines are fantastic to try with antipasti, olives, gourmet sandwiches, pizza, pasta and white meats. With Brunello di Montalcino, think big: fresh pasta with rich sauces, raviolis with wild mushrooms, roasted game, grilled red meats, and Osso Bucco.