Benvenuto Brunello and All That

8th March 2012

Just returned from a week in Tuscany – not our usual patch, but as we have customers berating us for not listing enough Italian wines, we plan a selection of Tuscan wines to be listed in late June.
Best place to start on my Sangiovese hunt (I thought) was the annual Benvenuto Brunello tasting in Montalcino, where some 135 producers of Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino were gathered.  The event was delightfully Italian. First one has to find somewhere in or near a medieval hill-town to park your car: in such circumstances Italians display a remarkable, and surely innate, sense of geometry – they really do arrange their cars in interesting niches with Tetris-like skill. (Lacking such talent and imagination, of course I ended up parking miles away). Second, one has to battle through the crowd of smokers hanging around outside the tasting. Third, although the tasting is, in theory, for professionals only, it was clear on Sunday afternoon that anyone who was a cousin/friend/lover of anyone who had ever bought a bottle of wine (or grappa, or olive oil for that matter) from anyone near Montalcino was there and determined to party.  But inside, O Joy, a friendly bunch of Italians were pouring their wines in a medieval church cloister, with 15th century frescoes on the walls behind them.  On show were the latest releases: 2009 and 2010 Rosso di Montalcino, 2007 Brunello, 2006 Brunello Riserva, plus wines labelled St. Antimo (after a Romanesque church of perfect serenity to the south) which may include Cabernet, Merlot etc.  On Sunday afternoon and Monday morning I worked my way around some forty growers, and encountered some lovely wines. The only thing which puzzled me was the range of styles, and in particular that some 2007 Brunellos were already bricky in colour, and smelled and tasted fully mature: for a wine reputed to be one of Italy’s most long-lived this is disconcerting.  

Then it was on for an afternoon in Montepulciano, that other prestigious DOC to the east, which arguably offers better value than Montalcino - followed by two days in Chianti Classico territory between Siena and Florence.  I have a new understanding of and enthusiasm for Chianti Classico. Most of the estates I visited - with the hired Fiat Punto coping superbly with some exciting dirt roads - were surrounded by hillside vineyards amongst the steep wooded peaks of the region, and the terroir really does come through in the better wines. A day and a half on the coast in Bolgheri and just north followed.  This area offers a beachhead of Bordeaux varieties: there’s a strip of vineyards running south from Bolgheri where the vines of Sassicaia and Ornellaia are followed by a pile of wannabes.  Land prices have soared, and I really wonder if most of these wines are worth the money. (Frankly, I tasted such delicious 2009s in Bordeaux in late January, that many Italian Merlots seemed clumsy and over-priced by comparison).

...which brings me to pricing. Each time I was presented with a price list all over Tuscany (not that often, as Italians don’t seem to bother with them), my eyes started watering, my palms began sweating, and I began to feel SVS was being expected to provide a comfortable pension for the population of Tuscany. Locals who noticed my discomfort tended to assure me that “the price list was just a starting point”. Clearly I am going to need some Levantine haggling skills if we are going to present our customers with some of the region’s finest!  And, in true SVS fashion, we have found some goodies to list in the summer – for example just north of Bolgheri there’s an emerging little area called Montescudaio, where some lovely wines from Cabernet and Merlot are being crafted, without the Bolgheri hype and price-tag. Watch this space.

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