Someone in Montalcino recently remarked that the Brunello business exists thanks to the three “B’s”, Biondi Santi, Banfi and Barbi, three wineries that have made this medieval municipality into the oenophile destination it is today.
The statement is inarguably true. Biondi Santi is where Brunello began, with an 1869 certificate discreetly displayed in the brick-vaulted tasting room of Tenuta Greppo, the first documented mention of the word “Brunello”. Banfi is where Brunello began to be exported worldwide thanks to the entrepreneurship of the Italian-American Mariani brothers in the late 1970s and ‘80s, while Fattoria del Barbi was the first winery in Montalcino to up the quantity while maintaining the high-end price tag.
But Brunello is also very much defined by the little “B’s”, the boutique wineries whose production is minute compared to the big boys. Southeast of Montalcino, near Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the eccentric Stella di Campalto makes approximately 10,000 bottles every year of otherworldly Brunello (the price tag is equally “out there”, at 110 euro per cork). Overlooking Monte Amiata, Stella leads an isolated existence, playing Gregorian chants during fermentation, although the monks of nearby Sant’Antimo have actually left the medieval abbey. Not far away, Uccelliera (25,000 bottles) vaunts an edgy Brunello, whose youthful impulsiveness ages gracefully, while personal favourite Le Ragnaie, just south of Montalcino in the coldest and most blustery of spots, crafts irresistibly vivacious wines year after year in its humble and homey cellars.
The Brunello business speaks for itself, worth 160 million euro with an exceptional 2012 vintage just previewed and now up for grabs to the highest bidders. In 1975, 800,000 bottles of Brunello were produced by 25 estates; now, more than 250 estates produce in excess of 9 million bottles. Around 70 percent of Brunello is exported, which makes me wonder what Montalcino could be doing better as a wine lover destination.
This February, I ventured to Benvenuto Brunello for the first time, despite advice from colleagues to avoid the annual wine preview at all costs. “It gets so overcrowded and you can’t navigate the room.” “The space is cramped, chatting with the producers is impossible, but at least the buffet lunch is fantastic.” “I hear they’re changing things this year, so maybe it won’t be as mad as usual.”
Held in the scenic cloisters of the Montalcino Museum, the initial hurdle to overcome was gaining access to the building. After a long drive and ineffectual circling around a dusty car park, the last thing anyone wants to hear is, “Your name’s not on the list”. Thankfully, they let me in anyway, albeit without the ring-bound tasting notebook. A friendly chap handing out the 10-euro deposit glasses took pity and gave me his before the woman guarding the entrance to the toilets, via an attractive section of the museum bearing ecclesiastical artworks, shot me evils for somehow sneaking in there with a Bordeaux bowl (she hadn’t been there on my way in and as a debutante I didn’t know any better). Benvenuto in name and not by nature, it would seem.
Personal experience aside, it is a shame that Montalcino hibernates its way through Benvenuto Brunello when Italy’s top restaurateurs and reporters, as well as international buyers and the world’s press, flock to the small town of population 6,000. Via Cialdini, the town’s main artery, lined with wine bar after wine bar in the summer months, was derelict with the exception of organic grocery store Franci Bio, although the popular enoteca nestled within the walls of the fourteenth-century fortress welcomed weary wine lovers with a free tasting. Enoteca Osticcio, a cork pop from the Benvenuto Brunello headquarters, provided a similar alternative. A contemporary arts showcase (Jazz & Wine, Montalcino’s main cultural event, is held in July every year), a food festival or even a simple market of local fruit and vegetables, cheese and honey, pici and panforte would bring the postcard-pretty, innately sleepy town to life while the world is watching, already intoxicated by the lifeblood of Montalcino.
Then there’s the mystery of why Montalcino does not boast etti of outstanding restaurants. The Val d’Orcia is such a bountiful land that the dearth of decent eateries in the town centre defies belief. My colleague asked a local builder where we could get a plate of pasta. Scratching his sun-scarred head, the montalcinese eventually replied, “Well, you could try Re di Macchia. I eat there from time to time.” A Tuscan unexcited when faced with a food question is worrying at best. Reassuringly, many of the wineries have solved the restaurant issue themselves. Castello Banfi’s La Taverna vaunts well-prepared wine-paired set menus in a traditional white tablecloth setting, while Taverna dei Barbi serves classic Tuscan fare (bread-based soups, pasta with wild boar and so forth) around its impressive chimney place.
Brunello is the philosopher’s stone of Sangiovese, an elixir of immortality, but the hospitality offer in the town of Montalcino could benefit from a little light rejuvenation in my humble Tuscany- and wine-loving opinion.
Lisini Brunello di Montalcino 2012, ph. Tommaso Olivieri @webtommy on Instagram
-Corte Pavone: smells like a walk in the woods, tastes slightly citrusy but in a good way. An intriguing wine from the Loacker family, of the biscuits
-Castiglion del Bosco Campo del Drago: sour cherries and Parma Violets from Massimo Ferragamo’s single-cru high-lying vineyard, northwest of Montalcino
-Le Ragnaie Vecchie Vigne: alive and kicking, delicate and diligent, a tribute to the adage that old vines make the best wines
-Lisini: looks are deceptive, this lackluster Lisini is a potpourri of sexy scents and layered flavours
-Piancornello: a “drink-me” wine, glinting in the glass, direct, crispy and stylish in the mouth