BY DUNCAN CHAISANGUANTHUM
When one thinks of Italian wine, Chianti and Pinot Grigio come to mind. But when one thinks of fine Italian wine, Brunello di Montalcino should come to mind first. Like Chianti, Brunello is a red wine. Both are based predominantly upon the Sangiovese grape and both are Tuscans — the town of Montalcino lays about twenty-five miles south of the Chianti zone. To grossly oversimplify, one can think of Brunello as nothing more than a very fancy Chianti Classico. Your wallet certainly will. While Chianti does not regularly exceed the $30 price point, Brunello often starts there. Most bottles, like the Banfi we sample today, will be at least $50.
Some of the difference can be explained in the winemaking process. Brunello is aged for a minimum of two years in oak or chestnut casts followed by at least two years of bottle aging. The result is a wine that is typically bigger — more full-bodied and very tannic than Chianti which ranges from light to full-bodied. Brunellos are also typically more complex and age better.
1997 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino ($50):
Not being graced like Duncan with a Roman numeral after my name and a WASP upbringing, I have had few occasions to sample $50 Italian wines. When I’ve had Brunello, I’ve found it to be especially dry both with respect to a lack of sweetness and with respect to the tannins giving the mouth an astringent feeling. This one somewhat bucked that trend.
Initially, the Brunello was full-bodied, very dry and possessing an unpleasantly bitter finish. As it opened up, it became quite pleasant with a musty nose of citrus and tannins which softened into a subtly sweet wine with hints of cherry and chocolate. Overall, it was very good.
This wine retails for approximately $50 in the U.S. (but was purchased in Italy by a friend for approximately $40 per bottle). For the price-conscious, Rosso di Montalcino is a sibling wine to Brunello that typically retails for around $25 and is known for consistent quality. While Brunello is aged for a total of four years, Rosso need only be aged for one.
I vouch for everything Mike says this week (although I suspect that everything, and I do mean everything, Mike writes was stolen from a oenology textbook). I will add only this: The Brunello we sampled this week tasted like drain cleaner straight out of the bottle. All Chianti, and I don’t care what fancy name they give it, needs decanting. For the uninformed, a decanter is a wide-bottomed glass vessel into which a bottle of wine is poured to maximize the wine’s exposure to air. We decanted the Brunello for about two hours, which mellowed it tremendously and left it sweet and enjoyable. So, if you buy Chianti, for the love of all that is good and holy: Decant, people, decant!
Our tasting session was particularly enjoyable this week. We were fortunate to be joined by fellow wine connoisseurs Jen Palm and Jim Elworth, who offered this about the Brunello: “Seriously, you guys watch Joe Millionaire?” Well, what they lacked in valuable wine commentary was made up in gracious praise of my hosting acumen (Jen: “My glass was never empty!”). They also brought candy, which sealed the deal for a future invite.
[Ed Note: As the last paragraph of this column had nothing to do in any way, shape or form with wine, we deleted it. Incidentally, it also implored our readers to bombard us with complaints about only paying these columnists $25 per column to drink wine. If you feel sorry for these guys, we implore you to contact our business manager, Peter Massumi (pmassumi) about purchasing advertising space in our newspaper in order to bolster our budget.]