Monday, January 21, 2013

Visiting Montalcino – Hilltop City and Bastion of Brunello

Jan. 7, 2013 – As we left Florence to drive the 1.5 hours to Montalcino, the fog was just lifting from the city, and as we crested the hilltop with the bronze statue of David, we could look back and see all of the red-tiled roofs and domes of Florence gleaming in the sunlight. However the blue sky was short-lived as we headed south into Chianti Classico and the fog shrouded the bus again. It was only as we climbed the last twisting turns of the road into the small hilltop town of Montalcino that we burst out of the fog and into the clear sun that was bathing the village.

As we climbed down from the bus we could look down into the valleys and see a lake of white fog, and it felt like Montalcino was a floating island. We entered the Consorzio di Montalcino and were ushered into a conference room where we received an excellent presentation from Stefano regarding the wines of Montalcino.

Montalcino Wine Regulations

The Montalcino wine region is 600 meters above sea level and 240 square kilometers, with around 260 wineries producing around 9 million bottles of Brunello per year. The term “brunello” is their local word for sangiovese.

Regulations require that they use 100% sangiovese in their Brunellos and Rosso di Montalcinos, and that all the grapes must come from the Montalcino region. They use a specific clone of sangiovese called “grosso,” which has thicker skin and produces more tannic, highly structured wines. It is for this reason that their aging requirements are 4 years for regular Brunello and 5 years for riserva. Of this, at least 2 years must be in wood and a minimum of 4 months in bottle.

Wines can be released to the market on Jan. 1st four/five years after the harvest. As we arrived in Montalcino on Jan. 7, 2013, they had just released the 2008 regular Brunello and 2007 Riserva. Rosso di Montalcino’s, affectionaltely known as “Baby Brunellos” only need to age 1 year, and usually see 4 to 6 months in wood.

In addition to Brunello and Rosso, Montalcino also produces Moscadello, sweet dessert wines from the Moscato grape, as well as Sant’ Antimo and IGT Tuscany wines. Altogether they have 3500 hectares of vineyards with an average production rate of 8 tons per hectare.

Viticulture and Winemaking Practices in Montalcino for Brunello & Rosso

In terms of viticulture, Stefano explained that most of the sangiovese vines are on VSP trellis with spur-pruned cordon. All harvest is done by hand, and most grapes go through a sorting process. Brunello fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks for 15 to 25 days, whereas Rossos are 10-12 days. Temperatures usually range from 30 to 32 C and they conduct pump-overs 2 – 3 times per day. Aging takes place in small barrels as well as large casks, with 300 to 500 liters most common.

One hundred percent of the producers are members of the Consorzio which provides annual marketing tours to the US, Canada, Russia and Brazil. The Consorzio also acts as a public and trade relations agency, and while we were there professional tasters from Wine Enthusiastic magazine and Jancis Robinson were evaluating the newly released vintage.

Lunch at Taverna Grappolo Blu

After the presentation, we wandered through the charming village of Montalcino and found a restaurant called Taverna Grappolo Blu. The owner waited upon us and assisted in our food and wine selection. Their wine list is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with an amazing list of Brunellos.

We started with a local white from Banfi, which I had with an arugula salad with dates stuffed with goat cheese and then wrapped in pig ear bacon. For the main course, we ordered a half bottle of the 2007 Brunello Col D'orcia to pair with Rabbit in Brunello Sauce. Though the rabbit had a lot of bones, the savory sauce went beautifully with the Brunello.

After lunch we climbed up to the castle and took pictures of the breath-taking view. The fog had cleared from the valleys, so we could see the hills, vineyards, houses and tall green cypress trees that separated estates. I also stopped in a local wine shop and purchased a couple bottles of wine.

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