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Brunello - Magic from Montalcino...

South of Siena, between Montalcino and Montepulciano, home of Brunello, lie the valleys of the Orcia and Chiana. More commonly known as the Val d’Orcia and the Val di Chiana, this small area encapsulates everything that people think of when Tuscany is mentioned. Rolling hills, cypress trees and romantic farmhouses make up a landscape that seems to have remained unchanged for centuries with property prices that reflect the ageless desirability of this countryside. Then, as I explained to Vinnie, fragile perception collides with the brick wall of history.

After the Second World War, Italy underwent an economic transformation driven by industrialisation. The peasants who had been working the land were what is termed sharecroppers. This means that they did not own the land but had to give the owners a percentage of the harvest. When the opportunity arrived to leave barely-maintained properties for relatively well-paid factory work and brand new flats with inside toilets, they grabbed it with both hands and the land was left to fall even further into neglect.

Brunello cellars

Into this economic maelstrom stepped Giuseppe Cencioni, a worker on one of the large local estates, who managed to buy a plot of unpromising land on the hillside underneath Montalcino. The only building on the land was a woodcutter’s shack, a capanna, which gave the farm its name. Still run today by his descendents, Patrizio and Amedeo, La Capanna is a place where tradition takes pride of place, albeit with a modern twist, in the production of one of Italy’s greatest wines, the majestic Brunello. 

Vinnie and I were shown round by the very knowledgeable and personable Daniele who took us to the cellars where we saw just how deeply tradition is engrained here. Most modern wineries ferment their wines in large stainless steel vats which are easy to maintain and allow the temperature to be accurately controlled, essential for quality, but what we saw just blew us away, namely massive wooden oak vats holding up to 10,000 bottles of wine. However, these are not relics of a bygone age but modern equipment with timed electric pumps that circulate the wine over the floating skins twice a day during a maceration that can last up to 40 days, extracting all the essential goodness that makes a great wine.

Brunello cellars

From there the wine enters a period of no less than three years and eight months sleeping in traditional oak botti where the tannins gently soften and the subtle flavours of the traditional Slovenian oak are imparted before being bottled. The rules governing the production of Brunello decree that it must spend a minimum of two years in wood and four months in bottle before it can be released in the January following the fifth year after harvest - so January 2020 is the release date for the 2015 Brunello. This gives the winemakers a degree of flexibility but the Cencioni choose to use this to give their wine the maximum time in wood and this is reflected in the final result.

Daniele ushered Vinnie and myself into the tasting room where the fruits of the Cencionis’ labours awaited us. Before the main event, we tried a Rosso di Montalcino - think of it as the younger brother of Brunello. Like its more famous sibling, it is made from 100% Sangiovese, but released on the first of September of the year following the harvest. Obviously, this wine has very different characteristics. However, as I explained to Vinnie, it’s horses for courses and this is a much lighter, fruitier wine, one that is possibly more suited to lunchtime and pairing with lighter flavours like pasta with meat ragu, poultry, and risottos and main courses of pork or veal. A good Rosso, and this certainly was, is a great wine in its own right.

Next we moved to the Brunello. Nothing is like the nose of a Brunello; it is instantly recognisable, full of what the Italians term frutti di bosco, fruits of the forest, blackberries and cherries. The 2015 has just been released and it is destined to become a great wine. Full-bodied, and with great structure, this is a wine that is a great pleasure to drink now but will undoubtedly benefit from more ageing, with a potential life span of over twenty years. Lastly, Daniele allowed us a special treat, the 2013 Reserva. For Brunello, the Riserva rules mean that it can only be released after six years and it is only produced in the best of years. The nose is full of flavour including balsamic vinegar, but not the mass-produced balsamic of the supermarket but rather the sweet taste of the real vinegar made in the acetaie around Modena.

Brunello wines

Over the years the Cencioni have diversified and now also run a luxury agriturismo which will be the next stop for Vinnie and I as we leave the rows of Sangiovese vines soaking up the Tuscan sun as they have year in and rear out nurturing the grapes to produce these fabulous wines. More about this vineyard

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