Italy is famous for wine. And a day of Brunello wine tasting is definitely a highlight in Tuscany. We spent 2 nights in the picturesque town of Montalcino in the Val d’Orcia. The Val d’Orcia is a UNESCO-listed region of Italy, acknowledged for its historically shaped cultural landscape. It is famous for its typical Tuscan scenery of rolling hills, lovely cypress alleys and cute villages and towns. One of these extremely charming places is the town of Montalcino. Moreover, Montalcino is the birthplace of the famous Brunello wine, one of Italy’s three top wines. The other two of those well-known and quite expensive wines are Amarone from Venetia and Barolo from Piemont.
Obstacles on our path to a Brunello wine tasting
So, Tuscany is famous for its rural landscape. And the wine-growing Montalcino region is, of course, in the middle of that very rural countryside. As efficient travellers, we were planning to move to Montalcino from the fantastic mediaeval town of San Gimignano, another great tourist highlight of Italy. And we were moving by public transport, for the sake of the environment and also in anticipation of the wine tasting.
However, public transport in the Tuscan countryside is not particularly well developed. There were three connections a day, all of them with several connecting busses and trains. As they are not always punctual, we took one with buffers of more than half an hour at each stop. In the village of Buonconvento that was just enough to procure a ticket by downloading a local bus ticketing app. It had turned out that you couldn’t buy the bus ticket on the bus or anywhere in the village. Nevertheless, after a few hours in transit the bus worked its way up the steep mountain to Montalcino. In the cobbled streets of this tiny town, every other house is a wine bar or a wine shop, and we could see for ourselves whether it was worth the complicated approach.
What is special about a Brunello di Montalcino wine?
The Brunello di Montalcino is a bold red wine produced according to very strict rules. It must be made of 100% Sangiovese grapes. Only wines produced in the Montalcino area may be called Brunello. In addition, it must be stored in an oak or chestnut barrel for 24 months, followed by 26 months in the bottle. This will guarantee its rich body with strong tannins. For the better Riserva quality, the bottle storage even has to be 48 months. The Brunello di Montalcino always comes in classic Bordeaux bottles, a quite straight bottle type with a concave bottom. All these rules mean that from picking the grapes to buying a bottle of Brunello wine it takes at least five years, for the Riserva a minimum of six years. And you can even store it for some more years before drinking.
And of course, such a complex, time-consuming vinification process comes with a price. A bottle of Brunello di Montalcino starts at around 20 €, with the average being more in the 30-40 € range. The higher-quality Riserva starts at around 50 €. Bottles of more than 200 € are not uncommon.
The Brunello di Montalcino has also a very tasty and more affordable sibling, the Rosso di Montalcino.
The birth of the Brunello di Montalcino wine
The beginning of the famous Brunello di Montalcino wine dates to the mid-19th century to the vineyards of the Ferrucio-Biondi-Santi family. They were the first to recognize the potential of the thick-skinned Sangiovese grape. When they presented it in Siena in an elegant glass bottle in 1880 it was an instant success. Not only did it look refined (until then it was common to sell wine in barrels) but the full-bodied taste was also something new and unusual.
Later the Brunello di Montalcino was also the first wine to be exported to the United States. The US-merchants began to market it as a “Top wine of Italy”.
The Brunello di Montalcino wine today
The strict rules for the Brunello di Montalcino wine are guaranteed by the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) standard. Today more than 200 wineries produce Brunello di Montalcino wine on almost 500 acres of land. The small production area and the quality are one reason for the high prizes, to be sure. However, there is also an additional factor: Over the years, a veritable cult has developed around the Brunello di Montalcino.
The town has taken to marking every vintage with a special tile, created by different artists. Moreover an additional rating system points out a very good year: The harvest years of 2010, 2015, and 2016 got five stars, the highest possible rating.
Where to go for a Brunello wine tasting in Montalcino?
There is no shortage of wine shops and tasting opportunities in the small town of Montalcino. Literally dozens of wine dealers advertise tastings and free shipping. We decided to start at the Enoteca la Fortezza within the walls of the picturesque fortress of Montalcino. As a warm-up, we have two different wines. The owner recommends a 2017 Cupano – which is quite nice although at 96 € per bottle quite out of our price range.
To delve further into the mysteries of the Brunello di Montalcino we continue our wine tasting experience at the biggest wine shop in the village. At the Enoteca di Piazza it is possible to taste 100 different wines by the glass. You buy a prepaid card for an automated tasting system and can draw sample-sized glasses yourself.
In the somewhat lacklustre shop atmosphere, we taste five different Brunello wines. All of them are dark red and quite heavy, almost a bit musty. Maybe it is due to our lack of experience, but we find it difficult to taste the subtle differences. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our tasting there.
A visit to a Brunello cellar
No visit to Montalcino would be complete without a cellar visit. As we are travelling Tuscany by public transport and would not want to drive after a wine tasting anyway, we are looking for a winery that is reachable by walking. We decide on a day hike to the nearby abbey of San Antimo. The Fattoria dei Barbi winery is situated on the route and offers tours through their cellars. Although we show up without a reservation it is not a problem to organize a tour on the spot. The winery belongs to the Columbini family and is one of the oldest in the area.
Our guide Jorania likes German heavy metal music and has even started learning German. In one of the darker corners of the cellar she reverently points out the oldest bottles of the winery. We also walk around the wooden barrels for the famous Brunello di Montalcino which we find surprisingly large! In addition, we learn that these large barrels are made of Slavonian oak instead of French oak like most wine barrels.
And of course we do some wine tasting after the winery tour. We try their Brunello (31 € per bottle) as well as the Riserva (75 € a bottle). The Fattoria dei Barbi also produces a special Brunello aimed at female consumers, the Vigna del Fiore. It is smoother in taste, but to us it lacks the Brunello feeling.
Tips for a Brunello wine tasting
Tasting various vintages of Brunello Montalcino we found it not easy to value the heaviness of this wine. We realized that this is really a wine to drink with some intense food when we had a bottle for dinner with some truffle pasta. So, our tip would be to get some food together with the wine.
Overall, we found our Brunello wine tasting a great experience for a day in Tuscany. However, even in Montalcino the bottles are quite expensive to buy. We had expected them to be cheaper in the producer region because of short distribution channels. On the contrary, some brands may be available for the same price or less in Germany. That is due to the distribution system that fixes the prices for the whole of Europe, a shop keeper confides.
Before we left we had a glass of Brunello in one of the oldest cafes in Italy, the Fiaschetteria Montalcino.
How to organize a Brunello wine tasting individually and by public transport
Montalcino is about 40 km south of Siena in Tuscany. Busses run from Buonconvento and sometimes from Siena. However, check the timetable before you set out! At weekends and during the day buses are rare. Montalcino itself is walkable with abundant tasting opportunities. After visiting Montalcino we took another bus to the lovely Renaisance town of Pienza.
The walk from Montalcino to the 12th century Benedictine abbey of San Antimo is about 20 km return and is easy to do self-guided. On the way you will pass the winery Fattoria dei Barbi.
Did you like reading about our wine tasting in Tuscany? Then also read about the devil in the cellar – another wine tasting we did in Chile.
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