It’s all Mario’s fault!
There was a time not long ago that I thought Italy only made one wine, Chianti, and that the really good ones came in a wicker basket. The first step is always admitting you have a problem, I was young and naive, and since then I’ve come a long way thanks in no small part to Mario’s tutelage!
It was at Mario’s wine shop that not only Italian wines, but the rest of the world’s wines were opened up to me, in some cases quite literally. I learned about Sangiovese, Barbera, Barolo, Nero d’Avola and of course, Brunello. It was down in the cellar of Mario’s shop that I got my first taste of Brunello di Montalcino. I remember it was a Biondi-Santi and it was the best thing I ever tasted. This is just one of many wine adventures with Mario. With his battle cry of “John, you had a heart attack, you don’t have time for cheap wine” ringing in my ears, I purchased the Casanovia di Neri, Burnello di Montalcino for my birthday.
I found a great deal, so far off book price had to be a mistake, but that’s a win for me. The vineyard Casanova di Neri is one of the best known in the world. It has three vineyards in prestigious subsumes; the lower Sesta zone on the southern slop; the onyx quarry at Castelnuovo dell’Abate’s northern side and the Cerretalto vineyard in the red earth badlands of the great eastern part of Montalcino.
I’d like to take a moment to mention the passing of Franco Biondi-Santi, who left the world on April 12th 2013. He was 91 and it was his grandfather who invented Burnello di Montalcino. The Biondi-Santi family has been making the wine since 1888.
Before we get to the wine we need to ask what makes a Brunello a Brunello? There’s only one place in the world you can get a Brunello di Montalcino and that is from Italy, in the Tuscany wine region about 80 miles south of Florence, in the town of Montalcino. Brunello is a diminutive of Bruno, a male given name that means “brown.” I’ll go into greater detail later, but you can see that in the color of the wine. It was thought that the Brunello grape was an individual grape verity grown in Montalcion, but DNA testing has proven that the grape is in fact Sangiovese.
The first records of “Burnello” were from the early 14th century. Burnello has been of interest to wine drinkers ever since. In the mid-19th century a revolution is wine making occurred, as wine makers in France, Spain, Germany and Italy were determined to take wine to a higher level of quality and taste. A local farmer named Clemente Santi isolated certain plantings of Sangiovese vines to produce a wine that could be aged for an extremely long time. In 1888 his grandson Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, a soilder who had fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Risorgimento, produced the first modern version of Brunello di Montalcino, a wine that could be aged for a decade in large wood barrels. The rest is, as they say, history!
By 1945 there had been only four vintages of Burnello: 1888, 1891, 1925, and 1945. The only guy making it was Biondi-Santi. By 1960 there we 11 producers, in 1970 there were 25, in 1980 it had blossomed to 53 producers, and by 2000 there were 200 producers of Brunello wines. Mostly they were small farmers and family estates, but they were producing about 330,000 cases a year. To get an idea of what that means in the wine business, Gallo alone makes 77 million cases of wine a year. Gallo is the second to Constellation Brands, in the very heart of wine making territory, Victor, NY, which is the largest.
Why did Casanova di Neri blend wine from three different vineyards to make this wine? Montalcino sits on a mountain about 1850 feet above sea level. The north side gets less sunlight and is cooler; the grapes ripen more slowly and therefor produce a racier, more aromatic wine. The south side gets more sun and more maritime winds, so these grapes produce a wine with a more powerful flavor and complexity. The top producers blend wines from both sides.
Brunello di Montalcino must be 100% Sangiovese. The wine goes through a long maceration period where the color and flavor is extracted from the skins. Following fermentation, the wine is aged in oak for 3 years. Then the wine is aged in bottles, 50 months for regular Brunello, 62 months for riserva. Break these rules and you could be sent to jail where you can age for up to six years.
Okay, now I’m thirsty, lets talk about the wine!
The color is brick red, almost rusty, and dark. Hence why we get the name “Bruno” or “Brown.” The nose is expressive, full of plums. The flavor…simply wow…now I know why people seek and pay big money for aged wines. The flavor of this wine is smooth, soft and so pleasing. I tasted tart cherries, plums and raspberries. The finish was long with flowers and spices. By Brunello standards this was still a “young wine” not expect to reach maturity until 2020. I wanted to replace this bottle, was told the 2005 has been sold out and was no longer available.
For me this was an experience. I would love to drink wine like this all the time but I simply can’t afford to. Nor can I wait 10 years for a wine to age to a point of perfection. See Mario, “I don’t have time to drink expensive wine!”
To the 1,000 of you who helped drive my passion thus far, and those I hope are still to come, I dedicate this post to you. Thank you again for your kindness and support.