Brunello Wine, blessed by the gods

21 Déc 2017

Brunello wine, blessed by the gods

Born in Tuscany but invented by American traders, this red wine and this phenomenon are celebrated in the world for their explosiveness.

It is a corner of Tuscany with a supernatural beauty, set on a hill overlooking a magnificent landscape. A medieval village of 5,000 inhabitants surmounted by a fortress of the fourteenth century, a municipal building and a small square, some austere churches, stone houses and beyond, the Val d'Orcia, which, when the morning mists dissipates, appears like a dream ... In Montalcino, everything seems in its place and, if there were not this concentration of souvenir shops and real estate agencies, where we speak more English than Italian, we would feel almost out of time.

Limited production

Where does this feeling of strangeness come from? From those who came to taste Brunello on the spot, this wine acclaimed by critics and celebrated all over the world for its explosiveness and its aromatic power. Certainly, there is no lack of wine cellars and tasting areas, so there is no risk of dying of thirst. On the other hand, despite this impregnable point of view, we do not see the vines. Lorella Carresi, responsible for the communication at Banfi, one of the most prestigious company in the area, is amused by our astonishment: "It is true that we see nothing here, the vines represent only 15% of the cultivable land and we pay attention to the landscape." For this reason, forests and the languid lands of this place will not be covered by vineyards, such as the areas of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy, where, for decades, the monoculture of the grapes has invaded the houses gardens.

Faced with an overproduction of Prosecco, Brunello di Montalcino is rare and expensive, and intends to remain such.

No reason, here, it is good to get caught up in success and plant massively, as happens in other regions of Italy, such as the area of Prosecco, sparkling and popular, which is currently on the verge of overproduction. Brunello is rare (9 million bottles a year, four times less than the most famous Chianti, the Classic Chianti) and expensive. It intends to remain that way, and the inhabitants are all more cautious today than in the past.

The fact is that, despite these old stones and this impression of opulence, the luck of Brunello is quite recent. It all started from the experience of a brilliant wine producer, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, who, in 1870, chose to re-plant vineyards of a particular variety of Sangiovese (the dominant grape in Tuscany), called "Sangiovese Grosso", given its particularity to be more resistant to the ravages of phylloxera. This variety shows extraordinary aging capabilities quickly, but until the second half of the twentieth century, the horizon of Montalcino wines remains local. In Florence only Chianti was known, enjoyable from a young age. The Brunello remains a wine for connoisseurs, without any real diffusion and the town of Montalcino was one of the poorest in Tuscany, just electrified and served by dirt roads.

The real revolution happens later and comes from America. In 1978, indeed, two brothers with Italian origins, John and Harry Mariani, importers of Italian wines in the United States, bought and restored a castle located in the south of Montalcino. Their project is crystal clear: it is about making a high quality, powerful and pleasant wine. Where local winemakers produce little, due to lack of business opportunities, the Marianis do not share these concerns: they already have customers. Just produce. And, on these lands, blessed by the gods, work is much easier than elsewhere.

With the help of one of the greatest Italian winemakers, Ezio Rivella, the Marianis soon won the favor of the critics. Ironically, their wines became famous in the United States even before being recognized in Rome or Florence. The local producers understand the profit deriving from the doors opened by Banfi quickly: the decades 1980-1990 are those of the global explosion of Brunello. In a few years, Montalcino passes from discomfort to opulence. Today the Brunello is rarely found in Italy at less than 30 euros (50 in France) and 85% of production is directed abroad.

A great wine without centuries-old tradition, "invented" by American merchants? The story lacks romance and has something that can annoy the purists. The phenomenon is anything but exceptional: after all, without the British and Dutch ships, which opened the way to the great markets of northern Europe, Bordeaux would never have acquired its letters of nobility. Likewise, it is the outlet of the court of the kings of France that has Champagne taked off. As noted by geographer Roger Dion, author of a wonderful history of the vine and wine of France (CNRS report 2010), "the terroir is a social and not geological fact". In short, the Marianis have not invented anything; it has always been the customer to "make" the wine.

This does not prevent, however, that oenologists are necessary. During the years, and with the growing success of the wines, the consortium that manages the name Brunello di Montalcino (born in 1980, is the oldest italian DOCG) 250 producers, who commit themselves to strictly respect the rules and vinify within the naming limits. This population is a strange mix between great capitalist dynasties (in recent years, the Descours family, owner of the Piper-Heidsieck champagne, has acquired the venerable Biondi-Santi camp, and the Illy family has acquired the Mastrojanni area) and local families who they live here from a more or less long period of time.

Incredible homogeneity

Next to giants such as Banfi (2,800 hectares, a third of which are cultivated with vines), there are also dozens of very small estates, some critically acclaimed, such as Sesta di Sopra. Its owner, Ettore Spina, produces only 4,000 bottles of Brunello, of which only 15% remain in Italy... Here money does not buy everything. The price of vines has exploded in recent years (at least € 500,000 per hectare, much more for the best plots), but the consortium is doing everything to maintain the country character of the farms, despite the temptations. "To settle here, the biggest mistake would be to be in a hurry and believe that the money is enough, it takes five years to make wine, ten years to build an estate and it takes at least this time to make a friend. ", says the Italian journalist Dario Pettinelli, a Brunello specialist, who tirelessly watch over the city and the surrounding environment for ten years.

In the midst of these considerations, we almost forget the essential: the wine. Composed exclusively of Sangiovese and cultivated in a fairly large area (24,000 hectares) with very limited yields (less than 40 hectoliters per hectare), the Brunello ages for at least two years in barrels, most of the French type, before being bottled and "forgotten" for a period of up to five years. Therefore, the scant harvest of autumn 2017 will not be marketed before 2022. With such radical winemaking standards, one might be afraid of being confronted with artificial wines, "culturized". But the Brunello has his shoulders wide enough to bear the treatment: he passes the test with an impressive width and vigor, worthy of a young man.


We had the opportunity to taste a wide range of 2012: although the differences between the areas are evident - in the north, the vines planted in height, give wines slightly more balanced and elegant than in the south, where they are more solar and explosive - the most striking aspect is the homogeneity of production. Very nice ruby red ​​color that can turn on the garnet, the wines give off very intense aromas of ripe fruit, especially cherry and blackberry. In the mouth, the tannins are surprisingly elastic and despite the long aging in barrique, the wood is not overwhelming. After five years, the Brunello are still in full youth. Better than that: they seem to have eternity in front of them.


Article published by Jérôme Gautheret in Le Monde