Getting lost in Montalcino: What to expect in a bottle of Brunello

Oxford’s rainy weather these past few months has me longing for rich heartwarming food paired with deep red wine. For me, few places do this comforting combination better than Tuscany. A steaming plate of fresh pappardelle with wild boar ragu? Or perhaps, a bowl of rich and beanie ribollita soup would do nicely and what better wine to pair than a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino.

The Brunello di Montalcino denomination lies south of Siena in South Central Tuscany. Incredible wines are produced here from the sangiovese grape. At their best, these wines have an unforgettable bouquet of cherry, leather, and dried spice which has garnered Brunello di Montalcino recognition as on the best wines in Italy, if not the world. However, for being a great wine region, one issue persists, consumer confusion on which style of Brunello they are buying. Wines can range from elegant Burgundian like wines around the town of Montalcino to the more inky and muscular wines of Camigliano’s low plains.

Why the confusion on what’s in the bottle? Unlike counterparts Burgundy with their Grand Crus and Premier Crus or Barolo with their growing zones and geographical areas that could lead to a cru system one day, Brunello di Montalcino remains entirely un-zoned within the denomination. As the fine wine world favours single vineyard wines and pinpoints regional typicity, the lack of zoning may hold Brunello back. Vines in Montalcino can be planted in less suitable locations with large differences in soil types, temperatures, and altitudes. This issue persists as more and more land comes under vine in Montalcino. Sangiovese, in this area, generally performs best at higher altitudes (300-500m) on limestone-clay soils.

In addition to the lack of geographical zoning, there are large stylistic differences taken by producers when it comes to oak ageing Sangiovese. The use of French barriques, smaller oak barrels, causes much controversy with traditionalist. These barriques grew in popularity in Montalcino in the 80s and 90s and still are used by many today. While barriques are used to age some of the finest wines on earth, they can weigh down and cover up the finer aromatics and textural aspects of sangiovese. The more traditional barrel ageing approach is the use of much larger French tonneaux barrels or Slovenian botti which impart less oak to the wines and let sangiovese’s character shine.

Let’s take a quick look at some widely accepted yet unofficial crus of Brunello di Montalcino. Learning these locations will make it easier to drink the style of Brunello you are interested in.

Montalcino: Around the town of Montalcino, these wines are often the most elegant and complex.

Bosco: Situated in the Northwest corner of the region, Bosco has cooler temperatures and a wide variety of soil types.

Torrenieri: To the Northwest, Torrenieri is a controversial area due to the high levels of compact clay area which can lead to denser wines. In nearby Chianti Classico, you are not allowed to have registered vineyards in similar soil types.

Tavernelle: South of the town of Montalcino, in Tavernelle we start to see warmer temperatures and ideal soils for Sangiovese.

Camigliano: To the Southwest, Camigliano has some of the lowest altitude vineyards in the denomination. The soil here is high in sand and clay; this coupled with warm weather means wines from this area are often more muscular with inky concentration.

Sant’Angelo: Nearly 40% of Brunello output comes from this area. There are two distinct areas within Sant’Angelo, Sant Angelo in Colle, where you can find higher altitude vineyards where sangiovese shows balanced finesse and rich concentration, and Sant’Angelo Scalo, where low altitude vineyards and hot temperatures lead to full muscular examples that can lack structure and acidity.

Castelnuovo dell’Abate: In the far Southeast corner, we find one of the most exciting areas in Montalcino, Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Naturally sheltered from the hotter temperatures, this area is turning out fantastic wines that balance earthy elegance and power.

So, will Brunello di Montalcino follow in the footsteps of Barolo’s growing zones or Burgundy with its Cru system? It is unlikely, largely because many of the largest producers in Brunello di Montalcino have high volumes of wine in less highly regarded areas. But rest assured, we are here to help! Here are two excellent Brunello di Montalcino’s to look for in our shops:

Gaja’s Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino. Angelo Gaja, an Italian wine legend best known for his work in Barbaresco, produces incredible Brunellos. This Brunello is from Gaja’s Rennina and Sugarille vineyards in Tavernelle and his Deserti vineyard in Torrenieri. This is a fantastic wine with a densely packed nose of red cherry and dried herbs. Gaja has been phasing out barriques in favour of tonneaux and botti.

Celestino Pecci Brunello di Montalcino. In 1968 the young Celestino Pecci acquired nearly 100 acres with two old farmhouses and devoted himself to growing grapes and making wine. Their vineyards are located between Montalcino and Torrenieri. Expect a well-structured wine with a spicy, intense, and persistent nose.