Editor’s note: This is the first of two reports about Tuscan wines.
Attitude can be the best bulwark against embattled opinion, even more so than facts.
My arguments always sound better when uttered at high volume with staccato delivery, finger jutting out with a little righteous indignation for seasoning. But for Italian wine, I generally lower my voice, get vague, maybe change the subject.
Italian wine is not for the boastful. The more you know, the less smart you feel. There’s just too much — too many grapes, too many names, too much history, too many variations, too many exceptions to what you just learned.
My most recent visit was focused on only two or three vineyard areas in the region of Tuscany, yet I came back with conflicting tales and just a bit of attitude. There is never one story about any wine or grape, and there are often more than two.
Florence, the central point of Tuscan life, has its dueling history. A battle with Siena a thousand years ago was settled by a challenge: Florence and Siena would each send out its best horse and rider at the first crow of the cock, and where they met would become the boundary between the two warring rivals.
Florentine rooster handlers gave their birds no evening meals, so they woke up a half-hour earlier than their Siennese rivals. Siena has been oversleeping ever since.
A similar bifurcation remains unsettled in Brunello di Montalcino, a very confused place (or DOC, a limited region defined by its grape, Brunello). They make two primary wines: Brunello di Montalcino and its baby brother, Rosso di Montalcino, but the baby brother is a lot more fun to drink than the eponymous DOC wine because the region is growing better grapes than ever before.
The grapes destined to become Brunello or Rosso are both clones of the Sangiovese grape; there is no difference between the two groups of grapes except that grapes that become Rosso di Montalcino are Sangiovese grapes from the younger vines and less favored sites, or they are wines from barrels of Brunello that didn’t quite justify themselves for bottling as the top wine.
What separates Brunello from Rosso happens in the winery. Brunello sits in barrels for two years or more. Rosso is in the bottle usually after less than a year, so its fruit character is vibrant if not lush (Sangiovese has a distinctly astringent side); it layers red fruits with black fruits and surrounds them with spicy and savory elements. It’s complex when properly grown and made.
When first put in the barrel, Brunello is even better. But then some remains in the barrel for too long and begins to lose its fruitiness and dry out. The winemakers are in love with the grittiness of these hollowed-out wines, and they see nothing amiss. Maybe you won’t either, but I do.
The delicious balance of most of the good-quality Rosso di Montalcino is proof that the grapes are excellent. Even by backing off a half-year or so, most Brunello di Montalcino would still combine the flesh of the fruit with the bones of the barrel. Instead, many (not all, I grant you, but too many) feel dead.
It’s a waste, and I think Brunello producers are starting to see it, too, though that may be just the Brunello drinkers and makers that I found myself talking to. All of us were on the same page, but perhaps we self-selected.
The region also produces Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, but because it’s aged in barrels for another year or two, you can probably guess that I am underwhelmed by it. And I am.
This bashing doesn’t extend to all, not even close. There are so many excellent Brunellos from innumerable stalwarts: Altesino, Antinori Pian delle Vigne, Argiano, Biondi Santi, Capanna, Caparzo, Ciacci Piccolomini, Gaja Santa Restituta, Lisini, La Poderina, Poggio Antico, Il Poggione, Sassetti, Talenti, Uccelliera and Soldera. (Don’t bother with that last one; you can’t find it, and no one can afford it.)
Many of the so-called “commercial” producers (Banfi, Col d’Orcia and Frescobaldi come to mind) make lovely Brunello, though it seems destined for drinking sooner than some of the top names. Their wines rarely exhibit this dried-out character, but then they are criticized for making wines that are too “accessible.”
No matter. The Rossos from these and many other producers are right now of embarrassingly high quality. Buy them and drink them.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star's Food section and the Chow Town blog.