Small Batches of Brunello
By Jordan Carrier
This is another chapter of the Summer Reading series, in longer form. You do not want to miss this selection of Brunellos, however, so if you’re time constrained, scroll down to the bold type to get to the wines.
The seminar was already bizarre. The kind, older Tuscan winemaker was full of wisdom but not of English, so his comments had to be filtered through the agent who’d organized the afternoon event, in the dusty upstairs of a downtown Italian restaurant. It was evident from the beginning that this agent was an hobbyist translator at best: we would ask a question, the agent would slowly translate it to the winemaker, who eagerly responded with several flowing paragraphs using gregarious hand gestures and at least 2 octaves of vocal tones, only to be nervously refracted back to the attendees with one word translations like “yes”, or “five”.
We adaptively began to simplify our questions, and someone asked what percentage of Italian vineyards were growing Sangiovese. We watched that question ping between the agent and the winemaker until the answer came: “ten percent”. What? Italy’s most famous grape accounts for only ten percent of plantings? It’s, like, planted everywhere! My hand shot up.
“Is the gentleman saying that only 10% of Italian vineyards are planted to Sangiovese? That seems low”
Ping, ping, back comes the answer: “I’m sorry, poor translation. The gentleman is saying that 10% of Italy is planted to Sangiovese”
Yes, he said ten percent of the Italian landmass grows this legendary grape, a progeny of Ciliegiolo, an ancient Tuscan grape, and Calabrese Montenuevo, an immigrant from Calabria that is now effectively extinct. Sangiovese took hold in Chianti 500 years ago, big time: the grape was the boldest, most tannic variety with the most longevity that the region had ever seen, and the wines became the toast of Renaissance Florence, championed by its ruling family, the Medici.
The Medici expanded Florentine influence all over Tuscany, eventually incorporating southern Sienna and its holdings, notably a small, nearby hilltop town with an impressive fortress: Montalcino. With the Medici came the Florentine grapes, and the meager vineyards around the fortress were replanted to Sangiovese, mostly for Sacrament, and then everything carried on pretty much as normal. The Medici faded into memory. The Renaissance became the Enlightenment, which became the Romantic era, which became Modernity. Since the town wasn’t a commercial producing region like Chianti, centuries went by without anyone realizing what was happening to the Sangiovese around Montalcino.
It was changing. It evolved. Likely because of the altitude and increased solar influence, Montalcino’s Sangiovese mutated into its own clone; one that was thicker-skinned, darker and deeper than the Sangiovese Piccolo that Chianti grew. Botanists called the clone Sangiovese Grosso (means “bigger” but the berries are, in fact, the same size), but the residents of Montalcino have always used their own distinctive term: Brunello.
Here are some Brunellos that I’ve been collecting in (mostly) small batches for a while, now. My girlfriend, 2010, is included here (the Riservas are trickling in), along with some great older vintages. I’ve hoarded some of this for a while, just until I had enough for an offering, but the quantities are low and we won’t see these vintages again, so don’t hesitate to call me if you want any of these (and you do). We start with the Riservas: