This week finds me on my annual pilgrimage to Montalcino (in the province of Siena, Tuscany), land of one of the world's most famous and highly prized wines, Brunello di Montalcino.
That's the ancient and now extinct volcano Mount Amiata in the photo (taken on Saturday morning at daybreak in the village of Castelnuovo dell'Abate, facing south, toward the north slope of the mountain, in the southeastern subzone of the appellation). This sleeping giant shelters the appellation from inclement weather coming from the south: When storm clouds begin to head north from the Mediterranean basin, they are dispersed by the mountain, sparing the vineyards in the crucial final weeks of ripening.
The appellation's proximity to the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west provides ventilation through a series of valleys that act as corridors for the sea breeze. Despite scattered clouds yesterday, you could see the water from the village (note the shimmering surface just to the left of the photo's center). Ventilation helps to cool the fruit during the late summer and it also helps to prevent rot and mildew.
Altitudes reaching 500 meters above sea level, gentle weather, and ventilation: The confluence of these elements creates nearly ideal conditions for the cultivation of the Sangiovese grape, a thin-skinned tannic variety, the quintessential and most widely planted red grape in Italy.
Whereas nearby appellations Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano allow winemakers to blend international grape varieties with Sangiovese in historically sanctioned appellations, Brunello di Montalcino must be made with 100 percent Sangiovese grapes. In Montalcino, the Sangiovese Grosso clone, otherwise known as Brunello, is used exclusively. Despite its name (grosso means large in Italian), the clone's berries are smaller than most, thus creating a higher ratio of skin to pulp. The higher tannic content (tannins are imparted primarily by the grape's skin) makes for wines with greater structure, body, and aging potential than other historic expressions of Sangiovese.
When vinified in a traditional style, Sangiovese's natural acidity and its bright plum and red fruit flavors make for superbly food-friendly wines.
Yesterday I met my friends Laura and Marco (of Il Palazzone, Dick Parsons's estate) for lunch in Sant'Angelo in Colle (in the southwestern subzone of the appellation) where we had a classic meal of crostini topped with porcini mushrooms and liver, pici tossed in wild boar ragù, and bistecca fiorentina, Florentine steak, aged porterhouse charred upright before being quickly grilled over extremely high heat and served blood rare (al sangue) with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and accompanied by Swiss chard sautéed with garlic.
While Brunello di Montalcino can command prohibitively high prices, you can find wonderful Rosso di Montalcino -- made from younger vines, vinified in a lighter style, and intended to be drunk in its youth -- for less than $40.
The following are some of my favorite producers available in the Houston market: Il Poggione, Canalicchio di Sopra, Conti Costanti, Caparzo, La Gerla, Lisini. At our house, Rosso di Montalcino is a "Saturday night" wine and Brunello di Montalcino is a special occasion wine. I can't think of a better wine to pair with a smoked rib-eye, where the acidity and tannin cut through the fattiness of the beef like a Bowie knife through butter.
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Tomorrow I head north to visit other appellations before making my way to the European Wine Bloggers Conference next weekend in Franciacorta, Lombardy, where excellent sparkling wines are produced.
But I'll leave a little piece of my heart in Montalcino until I come back next year...