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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I have to tell you that this post was of real interest to me. My hubby really does not like red wine. But Brunello is one he found that he does like. We even carry around a note saying which vintage years are the best and are a bit snobby about buying the best years. So we would definitely follow your path for Brunello wine tasting. We might opt for a tour so we did not need to worry about transportation or driving after drinking. I might worry however that we will find a great Brunello at a price that is not so great. It would be great to find a Brunello wine tasting with a food pairing as this is a wine that needs food for sure.
Dear Linda, there are numerous small bars and restaurants that offer wine by the glass and food. Some of the shops where you can do a tasting however do not offer food. At the winery they also had a very good restaurant. I would suggest to stay in the town of Montalcino – that way you do not have to worry about transport and can go for the wine tasting at your own pace.
This sounds like a wonderful experience, after all. Funny, I always found public transport in Italy very developed and even punctual – despite the bad reputation. This being said, I know the feeling with the logistics and buffers and what if’s – I’ve travelled the US by public transportation, after all. Doing that is one of the last true travel adventures.
Nevertheless, I’ll bookmark this post since I’m in Italy regularly and until now, my wine tasting took place in bars 😉
Dear Renata, we also found trains and busses quite on time – more than you would expect in Italy. Going on weekends by bus to the villages was hard sometimes – I guess it shows that the bus system is not geared towards tourists. It is for children and old people who cannot go by car. Same as in the countryside in Germany – and maybe everywhere in Europe. Wine tasting at the cellars is fun and the people who produce the wine are very knowledgeable, of course!
I’ve done this exact tour, and stayed just in a villa in the countryside of Montalcino. At first sip, I fell in love with Brunello wine. It’s worth the price here at home to enjoy that bottle and it transcends me every time back to Italy and that experience. Your article, with photos, did the same.
Dear Renee, how nice, that the post brought back good memories! We learned on the tours that Brunello was one of the first wines to be marketed as a quality wine in North America. However I am surprised how many Americans and Canadians know the Brunello wines! Is it more expensive in Canada? How much does a decent Brunello cost there?
Oh wow! I love that they had the first export. It’s so fun visiting wineries in different countries. It gives you a chance to relax and enjoy the scenery and enjoy a slower pace while sightseeing. This looks like a great one to visit!
This is a very informative post! I learned a lot. It is good to know that public transportation there isn’t very well developed. We like to drive our own rental cars when possible, but it’s nice to know about the public transportation obstacles that we could encounter. The 12th century Benedictine Abbey of San Antimo looks so beautiful! Thanks for the tip of getting food with the wine. That is good to know. I hope to make this trip soon. 🙂
Dear Leah, driving makes getting around a lot easier, for sure. However you might not want to drive if you go for a wine tasting!
Wow what a wonderful experience to tour this historic area and try some of these signature Italian wines. What a great learning experience and thanks for sharing about these unique wines of Montalcino, a region I’ve actually wanted to go to and passed through quickly but not enough time as usual, but some day I will take the effort to do so.
This Brunello de Montancino wine seems such a good option for tasting. I love red wine and this tour is very good suggestion for when visiting this region. The hike to Benedictine abbey of San Antimo seems really appealing as I love self guided hiking. Thanks for sharing these useful tips.
Dear Pilar, actually we did not do a tour. We wanted to explore our own pace. That is why we stayed in Montalcino and organized everything by ourselves.
We visited the Tuscany region and admired its rolling hills and cute villages many years ago but missed any wine tasting experience! I love red wines and so, am sure I will enjoy this bold red wine Brunello di Montalcino. Having some yummy truffle pasta with it sounds like a good idea. I think I need to do another trip to this beautiful Italian region! 🙂
Dear Jan, yes, you have to go back for some wine tasting in Italy!
I don;t think I have ever tried Brunello di Montalcino but your post made me want to go and buy it next time I’m looking for a red wine. In fact, red one is my favourite and it’s good to know that Brunello di Montalcino is bold, as that’s what I prefer as well. I would love to go to Tuscany and take part in a tasting in Montalcino. Fattoria dei Barbi winery looks like a perfect place to visit a cellar and try some of their aged wines. I would like to try that 75euros wine as well, it must be really special.
Dear Joanna, the cheaper bottles start at around 35 Euro. So it pays to look around for the cheaper ones.
The rural countryside is always fascinating as here in India we do not get much opportunity to experience except near the location we stay in. Hence this would be a perfect outing with the added incentive of tasting some great wine from Italy. Learning more about the unique wines of Montalcino was a nice experience and my wife being a wine lover would love to undertake this beautiful journey. Thanks for this informative post.
Dear Subhashish, Tuscany is a great place to combine a relaxing holiday with some easy sightseeing and very good wine tasting.
We haven’t tried the Brunello di Montalcino but would love to given the chance. Thank you for the heads up about the transportation and we look forward to visiting Enoteca di Piazza.
I love Italian Wines. Tuscan wines are indeed one of my favorites and I totally envy you that you managed to do the Brunello Winery. Hats off to you for pulling off the feat of reaching there by public transport in spite of the very poor connection of buses. Bottles of more than 200 € are not uncommon? Whoa! Awesome. It is indeed a bit weird that it is not cheaper there than rest of Europe. But I can understand what they say about the distribution cycle.