BENVENUTO BRUNELLO 2014

Mount Amiata, at 1,740 meters high, stands to the south of the Brunello region in Tuscany like a climatic guardian, shielding the territory from weather conditions such as cloudbursts and hailstorms – and thus yielding the mild, sunny, typically Mediterranean climate ideal for producing the light, appealing wines the area is known for. One would hardly suspect, then, that the region was the setting of fierce military battles throughout the 12th to 16th centuries, when the municipality of Montalcino first fought Siena, and then with Siena against Florence, to maintain control of its territory. Despite the city walls and great fortress protecting Montalcino as a man-made Amiata, when in 1559 the inhabitants handed over the keys of the city to representatives of Cosmo de’ Medici, it became the last town to survive as an independent municipality in Italy.

Since World War II most struggles in Western Europe have involved trade and economics rather than warfare, and thus when a people live in an area with a rich heritage it behooves them to protect and develop the products of their inheritance with regards to conservation, promotion and self-determination – hence in 1967 the Consortium of the Brunello of Montalcino Wine [www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it] was founded. A free association of winemakers determined to safeguarding their wines and accentuating its qualities, the Consortium involves firms large and small, old and new, and organizes events in Italy and abroad while managing public relations and creating publications which fulfill the mission of bringing the unique viticultural traditions of Montalcino to the wider world.

Four wines have the right to be produced in Montalcino with the Protected Designation of Origin: the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, the Rosso di Montalcino DOC, the Moscadello di Montalcino DOC and the Sant’Antimo DOC. The regulations governing these vary, with the greatest stringency applying to Brunello di Montalcino DOCG wines; these must age for 2 years in oak casks, and 4 months (6 months for the Riserva) in bottles, and, like the Rosso di Montalcino DOC wines, are made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes (named “Brunello” in Montalcino) and must be packaged in Bordeaux type bottles. The Moscadello di Montalcino DOC wines are made from Moscato Bianco grapes, and the grapes comprising Sant’Antimo DOC may be all those that are recommended and authorized in the province of Siena, with specific limitations for the types with a variety name and for the Vin Santo.

Recent tastings were held in New York and Los Angeles, with the New York event on January 27th at Gotham Hall. An event space originally built for a bank, conceived in the style of turn-of-the-century institutional architecture designed to simultaneously convey opulence and stolidity as a place where business is done and civic virtues are embodied (whereas banks now just focus on profits, their physical outlets proliferating in the manner of nondescript chain stores), Gotham Hall has a grand interior which is nonetheless problematic for the sort of event held on January 27th. The issue is that the main interior space, ringed by semicircular barriers, is ovoid in circumference, and since the tasting tables were arranged for the most part within these barriers and facing into the center of that space, access to the front of the tables was pinched somewhat by tables being set at slight angles converging towards the center. This problem was exacerbated by what seemed like one of the larger crowds I’ve encountered at any wine tasting in recent memory – though perhaps it was a case of the spatial arrangement making the crowd seem larger than it was, huddled as many people were into the center area.

It proved difficult enough to get to the front of so many tables arranged according to the oval that after a while I simply focused on tables that were off to the side, either on the pathways leading from the center area to the sides, or those arranged in more orderly rows along the exterior walls of the space and outside of the center oval. Accordingly, the extent of what I sampled was hardly exhaustive – unlike the recent tasting of Wines of Portugal, where I was able to taste everything – but I nevertheless essayed a representative range of wines, and enjoyed most of those that I tried.

The one wine which singularly stood out among those I sampled was the Castelli Martinozzi [www.castellimartinozzi.com] Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2012, which had a pungent aspect suggesting it would pair well with strong cheeses; nonetheless, as characteristic of wines of this region, it was not a heavy wine, its strength defined more by flavor than body. Castelli Martinozzi had no importer listed on their page in the directory, so if you’re interested in trying this wine you may have to attend the 2015 event, or travel to Tuscany beforehand. A mellower Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2012, by La Togata [www.brunellolatogata.com], had a nice balance between cherry and citrus notes.

The Camigliano [www.camigliano.it] Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009 was well balanced, and the slightly spicy character of this wine was redolent of tobacco; by contrast their Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2012 had a lighter quality, emblematic of its newer vintage. Perhaps the most full-bodied of the wines I tasted, though not something I would describe as ‘heavy’, was the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009 by Canalicchio di Sopra [www.canalicchiodisopra.com]; likewise their Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2012 had a nice citrusy quality yielding to a lightly spicy aftertaste.

A light citrusy wine with a nutty aftertaste was the Palazzo [www.aziendapalazzo.it] Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009, while the Palazzo Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2011 had a slightly more tannic quality than most of what I tasted, while still featuring the fundamentally light and flavorful quality of Brunello of Montalcino wines. Tastes of citrus also were to be found in two fine wines by Tenuta San Girogio [www.tenutesangirogio.it] – their Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Ugolforte 2009 also featuring an offsetting aspect of cherry (while also having a more tannic character than most wines I had on the day), and their Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2012 being a typically light wine.

The two wines presented by Santa Giulia [www.santagiuliamontalcino.it] were quite good, with distinctive flavors apart and in addition to the element of citrus fruit common to many wines of the region. Their Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2008 had a dry character with notes of tobacco, and moreover had less sweetness than their Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2011 – a wine richer than most I sampled, very fruity with notes of chocolate and an aftertaste hinting of tobacco.

Given the mob which made it a real struggle to get to the front of many tables, I regretted that work I had to complete on the morning delayed my arrival, forcing me to miss the seminars I’d registered for, which took place before the general tasting. When I got to the tasting, it was after the event that most likely was the draw for the swell of attendees – lunch. There’s a short Italian fellow who regularly appears at wine tastings – though he’s written about jazz, I’ve never seen or read any wine or food-related writing he may have done (and I’ve searched for it on the net) – and he accounted for me a pitched battle, such as that endured by Montalcino denizens throughout the Middle Ages, which materialized over the food table once it was set up.

With the ease of entry to altogether too many wine events – a professionally-appearing business card is often the only requirement, whether or not it refers to an entity existent anyplace outside the imagination of its bearer – once one schnorer (like the Madison Square Garden ticket-taker/usher who was at this event, probably on his way to work a few blocks away) gets in and sees the set-up, they’re often on the cell phone to their street team, and soon enough the situation can seem like pigeons in a park, a horde flapping and clucking as they feast. And should they loiter afterwards for post-prandial tippling, people there to actually taste the wines and write about them can have a hard time trying to do so.

Just above this pack are the wine bloggers, some whose prodigious output – extending to hourly tweeting in addition to the endless ‘commentary’ they post on one anothers’ blogs – clearly reflects a strenuous overcompensation for the addictive personalities at root; some no doubt fueled by an unacknowledged alcoholism, they strain to assert a ‘legitimacy’ that no true wine professional would need to. Whether any of them may actually be able to earn a living from their passion – aside from the cash equivalent in free meals, free travel, free lodging and of course gratis bottles, bottles and bottles they are able to leverage out of their bloggery – they tend to lack the fundamental characteristic to be found not only in a life lived with wine as an enhancement, but also in those who are genuine wine connoisseurs (and come to think of it, also found in the most refined wines): namely, balance.

I don’t claim ‘expertise’ for myself, as I am engaged in too many other creative pursuits (mostly making things of my own design, in addition to writing about what other people are making) to focus obsessively on wine minutiae, but enjoy going to these events to get a chance to broaden my palate, always hoping to discover something distinguished by qualities that separate it from the rest. (I like wine, I’m just not pathological about it.) The Benvenuto Brunello tasting provided an example of a class of wines which are remarkable for their overall evenness and quality and, as far as pairing is concerned, versatility. I do hope the next time I am able to sample a good number of them in one setting that it’s at least a little easier.