Finding Value in Brunello

As we do each vintage, we recently tasted dozens of examples of Brunello's 2012 vintage. I have always been passionate about Tuscan wines, and we always strive to discover great wines that over-deliver at their price. But this category prompted us to ask the question: Can you still find value in Brunello?

While the best examples of Brunello are some of the greatest wines in the world, perhaps no other category can claim so much hype over the past decade. While it remains an important and top-selling category, its critics seem to grow in number each year.

Montalcino boasts the warmest and driest climate in Tuscany and it is fair to say that Brunello is still the highest expression of Sangiovese. However, Chianti Classico has made huge strides in recent years and there are many Riserva and Gran Selezione wines that offer similar quality and far better value than top Brunello. Montalcino legends such as Biondi-Santi, Valdicava, Soldera, Cerbaiona and Casanova di Neri (particularly with respect to its Cerretalto) are undeniably great. But greatness comes at very high prices in these cases.

So, why does Brunello di Montalcino have so many detractors? The answer to that question, I believe, requires a look back at the recent history of wine production in this famous town.

A Brief History of Brunello

Among the world's fine wine regions, Montalcino is a baby. The history of farming Brunello, a local strain of Sangiovese, dates only to the mid-19th century when a local farmer named Clemente Santi isolated certain plantings of Sangiovese vines to produce a 100% varietal wine. In 1888, his grandson Ferruccio Biondi-Santi released the first "modern version" of Brunello that was aged for over a decade in large wood casks. It would take another six decades for Montalcino to be considered a viable commercial wine region.

By the end of World War II, Brunello di Montalcino had developed a reputation as one of Italy's rarest wines. The only commercial producer recorded in government documents was Biondi-Santi, which had declared only four vintages up to that point -- 1888, 1891, 1925, and 1945. The high price and prestige of these wines soon encouraged other producers to try to emulate Biondi-Santi's success. By the 1960s there were 11 producers making Brunello, and in 1968 the region was granted Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status. By 1970 the number of producers had more than doubled to 25, and by 1980 there were 53 producers.

In 1980, Montalcino also became the first Italian wine region to be awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status. In the 90s vineyards planted in the 1960s were partially replanted, increasing the density per hectare from 3,000 to 4,500 - 5,000 vines.

Montalcino, a hilltop town, has vineyards that range from about 150m to 500m.

Montalcino, a hilltop town, has vineyards that range from about 150m to 500m.

The Brunello Boom

This brings us to the current state of Montalcino, and perhaps the cause for so much concern. Once one of the rarest, Brunello di Montalcino is now the best-selling high-quality wine in Italy. By the turn of the 21st century, there were nearly 200 producers of Brunello di Montalcino, mostly small farmers and family estates. Today, there are over 300 producers of Brunello. Quality, consistency and style range from producer to producer and prices continue to rise with each vintage.

Common critiques of Brunello are that the wines are too big, don't express terroir, and are too often made in an international style that is over-oaked and over-extracted. So, how does one navigate this crowded landscape to find balanced, expressive wines and good value?

Tips for Finding Value in Brunello

My tastings of the much-anticipated 2012 vintage reveal that you can, in fact, still find value in Brunello. But, it does require some work. Here are a few tips to finding both value and wines that suit your palate.

  • Know the landscape, literally. The style of Brunello largely depends on the altitude where the grapes grow. Montalcino, a hilltop town, has vineyards that range from about 150m to 500m. Generally speaking, grapes grown in the clay-rich soil in the valley along the river Orcia (Val d'Orcia) produce bolder and darker wines. Vineyards at higher elevation areas have shallower rocky shale (called galestro) and produce lighter-bodied wines with more red fruit and floral aromas.
  • Avoid the largest producers. Nothing against the big guys, but you will find more expressive wines and lower prices among Montalcino's small family estates. These producers include Mocali, Uccelliera and Ciacci Piccolomini.
  • Buy approachable wines. Top Brunello has a well-deserved reputation for being cellar-worthy. Wines built to age 20+ years tend to command higher prices. If you plan on consuming within a few years from release, look for lower-priced wines made to be approachable when young. Mocali and La Colombina are producers making well-priced, structured and elegant, yet approachable Brunello.
  • Discover Rosso di Montalcino. The rules of Brunello require a minimum of five years of aging (with at least 2 years in oak), resulting in wines that are more expensive to produce. The best Rosso di Montalcino can deliver the essence of Brunello at far lower prices. This designation is also 100% Sangiovese and still highly-regulated, but requires only one year of aging. Rossos from Le Potazzine, Siro Pacenti and Gianni Brunelli are pedigreed and structured, and should always be available for under-$30.
  • Find a trusted retailer. Working with a retailer that hand-selects wines by tasting will help you avoid anxiety. Because much of the work has already been done to find value and separate the good from the bad, you can spend time focusing on what's most important -- finding wines that suit your tastes. Everyone's palate is different, so there's no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to any wine category. Rely less on scores from critics, and talk to a trusted merchant about what you like and don't like.