In the 1950s, Giuseppe Cencioni, a worker on one of the large local estates, managed to buy a plot of unpromising land on the slopes underneath the beautiful hilltop town of 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 sons, Benito and Franco, La Capanna (www.capannamontalcino.com) 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.
We were shown around 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, called tini, which are easy to maintain and allow the temperature to be accurately controlled, essential for quality, but here the tini are 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.
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 fourth 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 quality of the final result.
Daniele ushered us 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. Maceration for this wine is for a much shorter period i.e. only 18 to 20 days. Afterwards, it spends 6 to 10 months in botti of Slovenian oak before bottling. The result 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. This is achieved by a much longer maceration; the wine spends up to 30 days in contact with the skins before maturing for three years in botti. Traditionally, this is a wine with strong tannins which slowly break down in oak and this process continues in the bottle. The 2015 has just been released and it is destined to become a great wine. Full-bodied, and with good structure, this is a wine that is a real pleasure to drink now but will undoubtedly benefit from more ageing, with a potential life span of over 20 years. Lastly, Daniele allowed us a special treat, the 2013 Riserva. 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. Made from only the finest of the grape harvest, this wine spends up to 40 days in contact with the grape skins during the maceration process, followed by over 40 months in oak. The nose is full of flavour including balsamic vinegar – not the mass-produced balsamic of the supermarket but rather the sweet taste of the real vinegar made by the acetaie around Modena. This is a wine of such complexity that it can be paired with the strong flavours of roasted red meats, game, or very mature cheeses or, indeed, enjoyed just on its own in a moment of contemplation.
Over the years the Cencioni have diversified and now also run a luxury agriturismo just down the road from the cellars. The agriturismo is sited on top of a hill with breathtaking views over the Tuscan countryside the perfect accompaniment to a glass of their Brunello Riserva at the end of the day. (www.capannasuites.com/en/).
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