The charms of Brunello


The charms of Brunello

A short walk from Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the largest medieval squares in Venice, there is a narrow stone alleyway along which sits Enoiteca Mascareta, a cosy wine bar run by the jovial Mauro Lorenzon. For the wine lover this is one of the best pit stops in Venice.

Here, over a plate of cold meats, cheeses or a bowl of homemade soup one can try all manner of different wines mainly sourced from Friuli, the region famous for its dry whites in the north east of Italy. When we visited, on a chilly March evening, we were offered ‘red or white, meat or cheese.’ We opted for the red, a joyous, fruity wine which smelt of violets and thyme and slipped down with an ease which soon led to a second bottle. I can’t remember exactly what it was we drank, probably a Chianti, but it didn’t matter, because there and then, in the warm fug of Enoiteca Mascareta, we were drinking wine how it should be: with food, in great company in possibly the finest city on earth. I have visited on a number of occasions since but nothing beats the first time, that moment of discovery which always seems to find a place in ones’ memory, more vivid than any other.

I enjoyed a similar discovery a few weeks ago, not in Venice, but in London when I opened three bottles, unknown to me, of rich, red Italian wine. They came from an estate in Montalcino owned by Francesco Illy, the scion of the Italian espresso company. I didn’t know any of this at the time and when I tasted them I was completely taken aback with their flavor. These were red wines of immense concentration, with an intense smell which reminded me, like so many Italian red wines do, of cherry, violets and herbs. They were quite simply sensational and as a lover of red Bordeaux I could see their immediate appeal to the wizened claret lover. The estate is called Podere Le Ripi and they are imported into the U.K. by Amelia Jukes of Hallowed Ground who can rightly be very proud of her latest discovery. For my own part, I have no doubt these wines will establish themselves as modern Italian classics in the mold of Soldera, another Italian wine that has grown a huge international following.

Montalcino is one of Tuscany’s most beautiful villages. Sitting atop a hill, south of Siena, it enjoys panoramic views across the lush countryside and is famous for its medieval castle, slender clock tower and of course its red wine: Brunello di Montalcino. Here, amidst its medieval streets, largely unchanged for hundreds of years, exists something we can only dream of in the northern hemisphere, a deep wine culture. As Patrick McGovern says in “Ancient Wine, the search for the origins of viniculture” (2007): ‘Vineyards cover the hillsides; the main meals of the day would not be complete without a bottle of wine; and special events of all kinds, both religious and secular, are celebrated by toasting and ceremonially presenting wine.’

But the commercial success of the wine the village is now famous for is relatively recent. Brunello di Montalcino was created by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi in 1865, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when the Banfi family planted Sangiovese and began bottling it, that the wine found a following. For those unfamiliar with its charms, it’s popular in the East Coast of the States, it has a juicy, spicy character with a smell of dried herbs, cherry, red berries and leather. They are made from the Sangiovese grape variety which gives them a purity of fruit and a medium bodied, ethereal character. Like Tuscany’s other great red wines Barolo and Chianti, acidity is high and there is a dry structure. I can understand why some would say Brunello is thin and doesn’t have the immediate appeal of say a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blend. But this misses the point with these wines, these are made to be drunk with food. With age in the bottle, like red Bordeaux, they develop fascinating tertiary aromas of tobacco and coffee. Although the comparison is often made with the wines of Burgundy, I think they stand up well against Bordeaux. Given the relatively high prices now asked for half decent claret these days, these wines are a welcome alternative. As Master of Wine Greg Sherwood of Hanford Wines in London, said: “They are premium wines, made in a masculine style, they are age worthy, great with food, and importantly, from a region that trades on its traditions and classical splendour. It’s the perfect fit.” As Sherwood explains the American market has known this for years, which is why most top Brunello ends up being sold in the USA. But in recent years a number of European collectors have developed a taste for their charms and will continue buying these wines.

Francesco Illy bought the estate in 1998 and started producing wine in 2003, along with other producers such as Fornacina, Le Chiuse, Casanova di Neri, Salvioni, Poggio di Sotto and Podere Salicutti I urge you to seek them out. These are by no means the cheapest wines out there but they are quite exceptional. But please, do enjoy them with food, they go very well with game and at this time of a year a warming, hearty roast like lamb.

Three to buy

2008 Amore e Follia Rosso, Podere le Ripi, Italy
A blend of Sangiovese and Syrah, this sits in the glass with an opaque, dark colour. One sniff reveals lots of black fruits with some perfumed, floral smells. In the mouth it has a bright, uplifting sensation with plenty of acidity and a dry finish. With food this will reveal its true colours, pair with game meat, hard cheese or a simple bowl of pasta.

2010 Rosso di Montalcino, Podere le Ripi, Italy
The key word in describing this wine is vibrancy. It explodes from the glass with a smell of red fruit flavours, herbs and tobacco – most inviting. Sipped it has a very dry grip which leaves you with the sensation of either wanting a second glass or a mouthful of food. A very serious wine.

2010 Bonsai, Podere le Ripi, Italy
This is wine produced from the world’s most densely planted vineyard with the vines just 40cm apart! The smell has an attractive meaty character with cherries and balsamic vinegar.

Will Lyons is an award-winning wine writer, journalist and broadcaster.
Article by Will Lyons | @Will_Lyons