Vinnie and I were around the Tuscan town of Montalcino where the Sangiovese grape – used to make the famous local wine, Brunello – is cultivated. The name is a contraction of Sangue di Giove, the blood of Jupiter. Sitting atop a hill, the town is dominated by the Fortezza or castle.
The current castle dates from the 14th century when the town was part of Sienese territory. Everything changed after the battle of Marciano in 1554 when the Florentines defeated the armies of Siena but it seems that nobody told the citizens of Montalcino that they had lost because they held out for another five years. A plaque on the inside wall of the castle commemorates this extraordinary act of stubborness. Four euro buys you a ticket to ascend the tower from where an amazing view of the Tuscan countryside awaits you. At the bottom of the tower is a large enoteca with a selection of wines from around Italy but this is Brunello country and to see the vineyards and how this wonderful wine is produced you must head out of town.
We drove north east of Montalcino to see Gianni and Patrizia at Innocenti Wines. This is a small winery with seven hectares of vines and an annual production of around 40,000 bottles. Before going in we took a couple of minutes to breathe in the marvellous views from the hilltop location, I am tempted to suggest it is worth the trip just for that but Vinnie would not forgive me.
Patrizia had a huge smile on her face, not just because she was pleased to see us but, more importantly, because they were celebrating the new wine. The 2015 Brunello was released, according to the rules, on the first of January this year and it is a stunner. Made from 100% Sangiovese, the grape of Tuscany, it is a beautifully-structured wine with a wonderful nose, a long finish with well-balanced tannins and acidity.
Okay, is that a surprise after three long years spent maturing in oak? Well, in some ways it is because this is a wine that is only at the beginning of its life and it will continue to mature and develop complexity over the next twenty five to thirty years so truly a collectors’ item. But if you want this, do not wait – Gianni only produces around fifteen thousand bottles of Brunello a year and not even every year. In 2014 it rained and it rained. The results were fat grapes with thin skins. Now, the skins provide the colour and essential tannins for the wine and so bad was the harvest that Gianni just said the quality was not good enough so no Brunello that year! The good news is that Patrizia tells me the 2016 will be as good when it is released next year.
As well as a Brunello, they also produce a Brunello Riserva that has to spend six years maturing before it can be released and, again, this is a wine that Gianni will only produce if he thinks the harvest is good enough so look out for the 2015 Riserva next year. Alongside the Brunello, they also produce the Rosso di Montalcino which many say is its younger brother but, make no mistake, this is a fabulous wine in itself. Released from the first of September of the year following the harvest, this does not pack the punch of its elder brother and is more refreshing and fruity. It accompanies pasta and white meat such as pork beautifully and is a wine that I will choose above Brunello when the menu and my mood demand it.
Last, but definitely not least, amongst this cornucopia of oenological delights is the speciality of the house. Vignalsole is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon matured for twelve months in barriques of French oak and then a further twelve months in the bottle. This is what is known as a Super Tuscan which is a term used for a wine made outside of the traditional rules. This wine has the deeper red colour and pepperiness that come from Cabernet Sauvignon and appeals to a more international taste with its vanilla notes from French oak.
After a memorable wine-tasting session, we returned to the Osteria di Porta al Cassero in the centre of Montalcino for a plate of homemade pici – the local pasta resembling overweight spaghetti – which we savoured with a glass of Rosso di Montalcino, all the while contemplating just how good life can be here in Italy.