Wine 101: Italy Region Deep Dives: Brunello di Montalcino

This episode of “Wine 101” features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner, Argiano, a winery estate castle located in Tuscany that is five centuries old. The vineyards sit atop a plateau just under 1,000 feet in altitude, but you don’t have to climb a mountain to experience the finesse of centuries-old winemaking. Argiano makes a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Sangiovese called Argiano Non Confunditur. Just follow the link in the episode description to

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores Brunello di Montalcino, one of the newest and most age-worthy wines from Italy, which began with one man who, along with his family, created a wine with more structure than those of any of its neighboring zones and won over the American palate, becoming one of the first DOCGs. Tune in to learn more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, I should have listened to you back in 2019. Pamplemousse is the best LaCroix. What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings instructor of VinePair and what’s up? What’s up? What’s up? Okay, today we’re going to get nice with a Johnny-come-lately, prestigious wine region called Brunello di Montalcino. What does all that mean? We’ll get into it.

Ah, here we are still in Tuscany, under the Tuscan sun. Yep, I just said that, and nope, I am not editing it out, and yep, that was cheesy but I’m just very, very happy to be still in Italy talking about Italian wine. And today we are going to talk about a wine that, I don’t know, if you don’t know about Brunello di Montalcino, just know it’s a big deal.

Yeah. This wine is considered one of the most prestigious wines of Italy. It’s up there with Barolo, Barbaresco. It’s up there with Chianti. And among these prestigious wine regions of Italy… Now, prestigious is a word used to describe wines that have some age-worthiness to them, that have some popularity to them, that have been proven on the international markets to be very popular. Prestige comes from that. There’s a lot of great wine happening in Italy all the time that is not considered, is not considered “prestigious.” But because of its place in history, in Italian wine history, it’s considered one of the prestigious wine regions. And what’s interesting about that is that not only is it one of the youngest prestigious regions in Italy but it is one of the first regions, if not the first region, to be awarded a DOCG, which we’ll get into. If you are familiar with Brunello di Montalcino, you know that it is a big, bold, full-bodied, structured, deep, big red wine.

And the cool thing about that is it’s the biggest of these wines from the Sangiovese grape and it can age for a long time. And there’s a reason why it can age for a long time, because Brunello di Montalcino or Brunello the wine, Brunello the grape, Brunello di Montalcino the wine, was — I’m going to say it — was basically created by one man. Whereas you have Chianti and Piedmont and you have figures in wine history and other regions that eventually call in their enological friends from France and other parts of Italy. This was one guy in the mid-19th century doing work on his El Grippo estate. Clemente Santi was a graduate of the University of Piza and he was a scientist and he was a writer. And being a scientist in Italy means, basically, vines is what you’re into. And on his El Grippo estate, he saw the potential of vini and viticulture in the vineyards surrounding his estate.

Clemente Santi’s El Grippo estate was located in a town called Montalcino. Montalcino is about 70 miles south of Florence. We’re going all the way through the Chianti Hills south and we get to Montalcino, which is about an hour south of Sienna, which is considered the southern tip of the Chianti region. And it was here in the hills of Montalcino that Clemente saw the potential. Now at the time, this area was not really a Sangiovese-centered place. It was a region that mostly made wine from a white wine grape called Moscatello and the wines are pretty sweet because this is one of the most arid and dry areas of Tuscany. It would make sense that a slightly sweet grape that produces a significant amount of sugar would be ideal for this area, but that wasn’t the fate of Montalcino according to Clemente. In his mind, the Sangiovese grape, which is prevalent all over Tuscany, was ideal for the hills of Montalcino.

He started planting Sangiovese. And all this was happening in about the mid-1800s and his 1865 vintage won an award or best in show or something like that at an 1867 fair. I can’t remember where, it may have been Paris, it may have been Italy. There were actually conflicting reports of which fair it was. It was either in Paris or somewhere in Italy but he won an award. It was a big deal and the small town of Montalcino saw that. And the thing is Clemente did something very interesting. On the bottle that won the award, he called the bottle Brunello. Now the Sangiovese grape in Montalcino is what the Italians called Sangiovese Grosso and the word Brunello, which means the dark one, the little dark one or something like that, brown one, something on that level. This word had been around in this area since the 14th century so the fact that he had used it was cool. It was calling back to back in the day because he wanted this to be 100 percent Sangiovese.

Clemente’s grandson, Ferruccio Biondi, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and he took everything a little bit further. Well, the first thing he did — this guy had a lot of respect for his grandfather — so he went ahead and joined the two names for the company, calling it Biondi-Santi. And Ferruccio, the big thing that he did, was he isolated this Sangiovese Grosso specific to this area of Montalcino. He did what’s called mass selection, selecting the strongest, the best varieties within a vineyard, and then planting and propagating them and he ended up creating the BBS 11 clone. The clone of Sangiovese that would be the mother vine of Montalcino.

And this family’s love for Sangiovese holds no bounds. But the thing is, there was some experimentation before this with other varieties but it came to Ferruccio’s mind that this should be 100 percent Sangiovese. If we’re doing all this work, that’s what it needs to be. And this right here is the birth of Brunello di Montalcino. Now with all this work, there was a main, not a main, but there was a big focus here from Clemente to Ferruccio. It was that they were trying to create a wine from the Sangiovese grape that was age-worthy. They wanted this thing to age for 30-plus years. Remember in the Chianti episode, we talk about 10-15 years max for Classico. Well, they wanted to go further than that. And this dream of theirs was realized, unfortunately, after Ferruccio’s death. He died in 1917 and his son Tancredi Biondi-Santi continued the line.

And this generation here is where the proof of age-worthiness happens. There’s a story where Tancredi walls up a bunch of the family’s Brunello during World War II to keep them safe. And then when they unearth them they’re even better. And this showed the age-worthiness of this wine. It actually worked. Clemente’s work and Ferruccio’s work actually came to fruition. And in the 1960s when Italy was forming its DOC — denominazione di origine controllata appellation system — when it came to Montalcino, they asked Tancredi to assist in writing the rules for Brunello di Montalcino. Pretty cool. And with this age-worthiness now being proven in their hometown, Tancredi’s son, the next generation of the family, Franco Biondi-Santi, began to travel internationally and spread the word of this age-worthy wine. And when I say age-worthy, I mean this is real. The family’s going around promoting these wines, but for the first 57 years of production, only four vintages were produced: 1881, 1891, 1925, and 1945.

That’s a lot of age to go around and brag about. It’s kind of awesome. But in the 1960s, or by the end of the 1960s, there were only 11 producers of Brunello di Montalcino in Montalcino because in 1966 it becomes a DOC. And there’s only 11 producers producing from 157 acres of vines.

But then something crazy happens. An American company called Banfi, B-A-N-F-I, which was run by the Mariani brothers who had a big success in the Lambrusco wines of the ‘70s. And in the ‘70s they saw an opportunity in Montalcino but not for Brunello, for the other variety I was talking about, Moscatello. What they did is they came into Montalcino and they bought a bunch of land just below the hills of Montalcino and the warmer, flatter area.

And it failed miserably. They could not gain any traction with their Moscatello sparkling wine, I think it was sparkling. Maybe it wasn’t sparkling, but whatever, didn’t work. And they saw… Okay, wait a second, that’s not going to work. They went ahead and re-grafted all of the Moscatello vines with Sangiovese or “Brunello.” And because of their ability to scale, they made a lot of Brunello and it became really popular on the American market. And then a lot of investment started happening and people started coming to Montalcino and going, “Okay, something special here, we’re here to take part in it.” The popularity grew pretty rapidly and in 1980 when “Empire Strikes Back” came out — Oh, sorry, “Empire Strikes Back” did come out in 1980, the best movie ever made. In 1980 when the Italian government started creating their third tier or their third tier quality level, DOCG, it’s said that Brunello di Montalcino is the first to be assigned but it’s really just one of the first four.

You had Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco and the subject of the next episode, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Oh, that’s going to be fun. And with the DOCG, they solidified once again that Brunello di Montalcino, the wine must be 100 percent Sangiovese Grosso, named the clone BBS 11. It needs to be 100 percent Sangiovese, nothing else. And they kept Ferruccio’s ideal aging requirements, which is a whopping five to six years. That’s a lot of time to sit on a wine before it’s ready for the market. With the DOCG, another DOC was created called Rosso di Montalcino, which actually helped winemakers make money while they were aging their big Brunellos. These were wines they could legally release before the big ones were ready to go. And in 1996, in response to the 1994 creation of the IGT, which we talked about in the Super Tuscan episode, there were a lot of international varieties hanging around because of the popularity of Super Tuscans.

They had to create yet another DOC called Sant’antimo to deal with that. Now we have in one area, we have a DOCG: Brunello di Montalcino, 100 percent Brunello, which is Sangiovese Grosso. Then we have a DOC Rosso di Montalcino. These are 100 percent Sangiavese Grosso from Brunello — the Brunello vines, Brunello grapes — but they can be released sooner than Brunello di Montalcino. And then you have another DOC called Sant’antimo to deal with the production of international varieties in this area. And then they just sewed it all up. Oh, wait, nothing changed again. Actually, I’m not going to get into all the changes but what I want to say about the changes that came after this, were just ways to hone in the aging requirements to perfect what Brunello is. What it came down to is Brunello di Montalcino is required to have four years before release. There is some time in barrels, some time in bottles that are required there.

For a Reserva, it would be five years before release, with more strict bottle and barrel aging. The thing is, these things are huge wines. And even when they’re released onto the market — I’ve been to a Brunello tasting where I tasted a lot of Brunello that had just been released onto the market. And they were still what I call, like, sleeping giants. They were not ready yet but they were drinkable. These are beautiful, big, full-bodied wines. And the cool thing about Brunello di Montalcino is we talked about earlier the hills of Montalcino where Clemente was doing his thing. And then we talked about the Mariani brothers from Banfi who went ahead and bought all that lower-lying area. And then eventually they regafted to Brunello Montalcino.

Today, the way it looks is a lot of winemakers in Brunello own vineyards in the higher-elevation area and in the lower-elevation area. And the reason is, even though the entire area is an arid, very dry area — did I say area too much? — the hillier part, the Sangiovese Grosso Brunello that grows there, it has a little more aromatic to it. It’s a higher elevation, poorer soils. You’re going to get a little more aromatics. And down in the lower-lying areas, it’s warmer and the soil is not as beneficial to aromatics. You get these more big, full-bodied wines. And a lot of winemakers will blend both the northern hill vineyards with their lower vineyards to find that perfect balance of structure, body, and some elegance. And as far as aging, what’s really interesting is some winemakers will age in new French oak and some will age in what’s called botti,  which are these big oak barrels that don’t have as much influence in the resulting wine.

And with that being said, it’s really hard… It’s really wild to say this, but in a region that has one variety — that’s it, one variety, Brunello — every winemaker still has their own expression because of that difference between the south and the north area of Montalcino. They do whatever they want. Sometimes they’ll make a Brunello di Montalcino with just the south or just the north, there’s a little bit here. Every wine is a little bit different and the hard thing about Brunello di Montalcino is the price. These wines are expensive. Man, are they expensive but they start at like $40, $50. The real ones that are going to change your life start at like $40, $50, $60. And they go way, way, way up from there. But they’re worth it. If you are into spending a little bit of money on wine and you want to try something, a Sangiovese that is age-worthy and structured, this is your wine.

You don’t have to do that. You can get what they call baby Brunellos, which is the DOC Rosso di Montalcino, where the wines can be released one year after harvest. They’re young and punchy and fruity and awesome and fleshy and they are so cool as well. They just don’t have the big structure of the Brunello DOCGs. But like a lot of things in wine, that’s why this is so cool. Every producer makes a different kind of wine from one variety. Sometimes they blend from this and from that. There’s a Rosso di Montalcino, there’s Brunello di Montalcino, there’s Sant’antimo. You get to go and just try all this stuff. If you buy a Brunello, it’s going to be expensive and talk to your wine merchant, get one they recommend because you’re going to spend on it and it better be bad ass. But get a Rosso di Montalcino for a Tuesday night. They come in at like 20 bucks. They’re really awesome and it kind of gives you a sense of what that kind of Sangiovese will taste and feel like so when you level up to the Brunello di Montalcino, you have a little primer there. Okay. That’s Brunello di Montalcino, wine lovers. I’m not going to get into Brunello gate where people were blending Syrah to Sangiovese and getting arrested. That’s for another time.

But this is your crash course for Brunello. I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you next week for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing, wide range of favorites ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. Gallo also makes award-winning spirits but this is the wine podcast. Whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment and moments that matter. Cheers. Visit today to find your next favorite where shipping is available.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.