Montalcino and Brunello go Hand-in-Hand 🍷
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
I'm starting this blog by sharing a gorgeous watercolor of Via Cialdini, in Montalcino, Italy painted by a superstar artist, named Mark D. Bird, from my current home city of Louisville, Kentucky. He is an AMAZING talent and you can check out his many other works at MarkDBird.com. But, this blog is not about him. It is about Montalcino, Italy located in the heart of Tuscany and host to the deliciously earthy Brunello di Montalcino red wines. I've been to Montalcino a couple of times, always in autumn during harvest time. It is a beautiful time of the year then, as the sun casts an orange glow over the rustic medieval town and its many estates, whose vines transform into a rich palette of greens, yellows, oranges, and browns.
Montalcino has all the charm one would expect from a medieval Tuscan town. It sits atop a hill overlooking vast estates, productive vineyards, silvery olive orchards, and countless cypress trees all standing at attention. It is encircled by a fortified defense wall, touts a prominent fortress, and a castle, named Castello Banfi il Borgo. Narrow cobbled streets are lined with restaurants and numerous enotecas. The earthy smell of Sangiovese wines scents the air throughout the town.
Early on, during about 750 BC, the Montalcino hilltop was very likely settled by the Etruscans, as it sits in the immediate vicinity of several well established Etruscan settlements. During Roman times, Montalcino lay along a strategic road that lead to Rome. In the 9th c. AD, Montalcino was documented in the historic record by monks who lived in the nearby Abbey of Sant'Antimo. During the Middle Ages of the 12th c., Montalcino was an independent commune and its economy prospered from its tanneries and quality leather products. After 1260, Montalcino became a satellite of Siena, thereby becoming embroiled in many conflicts that involved Siena, particularly those opposing Florence. It was during that era, in the 14th century that the city's fortress was built to defend its southern border. Ultimately in 1555, Siena, and thereby Montalcino too, fell under the rule of the famous Medici family of Florence. Montalcino remained under Florentine control until the unification of Italy in 1861. Over the years its economy slipped into a gradual decline. More recently, however, its fortunes have reversed, as its economy has been bolstered by the rising popularity of the fine Italian red wine named Brunello di Montalcino, made specifically from the Sangiovese Grosso grapes, grown in that commune.
In the mid-1800s a farmer named Clement Santi isolated saplings of Sangiovese vines in the region in efforts to produce a wine that could be aged for longer periods of time. In 1888 his viticulturist grandson, named Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, ultimately produced the first 'modern version' of Brunello di Montalcino which he aged in oak barrels. By 1960 eleven estates existed dedicated to the production of Brunellos. Interest in the industry continued to expand and by 1980 there were 53 producers. It was then, in 1980, that Brunello di Montalcino became one of the first wines to be awarded the authentic Italian designation status, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or DOCG, for short. This status guarantees that all wines labeled as Brunello di Montalcino are made within the historical borders of the Municipality of Montalcino from grapes that have been grown in Montalcino AND approved by the consortium of vignerons who aim to safeguard the quality and authenticity of the product. Brunello di Montalcino wines MUST BE made of 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes and MUST BE aged for 5 years before they can be released. Other red wines made in the region, also from 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes, but aged for only one year are called Rosso di Montalcino and have DOC status. Today there are about 200 producers of Brunello di Montalcino. The Biondi-Santi estate, as well as most all of the estates, can be visited on a trip to Montalcino.
Brunello wines are rather pricey, so it is challenging to taste-test and compare wines from different vintages and different estates if having to purchase whole bottles. Even high-end restaurants may carry less than a handful of various Brunellos and will sell them only by the bottle, not by the glass. A visit to Montalcino, however, can easily and affordably aid your palate in differentiating which estate's Brunello best suits YOUR taste, for the flavors subtly vary with each producer. Enotecas throughout the town offer tastings of almost all of the Brunellos from the various estates in the region. There, for a few euros each, you can sample small tastes of as MANY selections as you desire to help you determine which estate's Brunello YOU prefer. It is hence how we came upon and fell in love with the Brunello di Montalcino from the Altesino Estate which is shown in the photo below. We subsequently visited their estate and purchased a few cases to send home. To this day we keep in touch with them and order shipments intermittently.
While tasting the various Brunellos is a large part of what one does in Montalcino, there IS more to see and do, than 'just' drink. Historical sites to visit are the medieval fortress built in the mid 14th c. along some pre-existing city walls. You can walk the ramparts around the perimeter of the fortress and enjoy beautiful panoramic views of Montalcino and its surrounding valleys. When we visited, the fortress was a venue for wine tasting and host to a concert in its courtyard. Near the fortress is the 13th-century Romanesque church, called Chiesa di Sant'Agostino. The Montalcino Cathedral, or Duomo, also built in the 14th c., but with a neoclassical 19th-century façade is also beautiful to visit. The imposing castle at the top of the hill, Castello Banfi il Borgo currently functions as a luxury hotel. Take a relaxing drive to the nearby Abbey of Sant'Antimo surrounded by the gorgeous Tuscan countryside.
Or, simply roam the narrow cobbled streets of Montalcino, peek into the little shops, stop for a snack of charcuterie with an aperitif, and let time SLOWLY pass. People-watch and enjoy the simplicity of your day. When we visited, we stayed at a lovely B&B called Albergo Il Giglio. They offer splendid rooms with beautiful views and host a charming restaurant serving local cuisine. Another delightful restaurant which we frequented several times, called Il Grifo Ristorante, offered traditional Tuscan cuisine including wild boar, fresh pasta, and the classic Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the famous Tuscan porterhouse steak!
So the next time you find yourself "roaming around" Tuscany, be sure to calculate a visit to Montalcino into your plans! While Montalcino certainly competes with MANY OTHER Tuscan towns in the categories of rustic charm and sheer beauty, what really sets it apart from the others are the numerous enotecas offering Brunello wines. Montalcino enables the tasting of this exclusive, fine wine at a price point within everybody's reach. If you are a vinophile, I encourage you to visit Montalcino and fully experience the delicious and elegant Brunello di Montalcino. You deserve it!!