Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Benvenuto Brunello

Montalcino seen through the trees on the hill path to the south

Here is the final installment of Bill Marsano's articles on the recent anteprime tastings held recently in Tuscany. Look for more articles from Bill soon! - Tom Hyland

Anteprime Part III:
Benvenuto Brunello
© 2009 By Bill Marsano
Photos by Bill Marsano

Come we now to Montalcino, belfry of Southern Tuscany, land of surprises.

Full many a first-timer in Italy heads straight for Chianti: Limitless media coverage has led him to believe that Italy is Tuscany and Tuscany is Chianti. Never mind: He benefits greatly from Italy's civilizing IV-drip of culture--landscapes that are the backgrounds of Renaissance portraits; vineyards in which, Ruskin said, "the vines with their young leaves hang as if they were of thin beaten gold"; meals that are emotional experiences.

Back home, his tuscanized soul goes into mourning. By winter, if his winter is not a season but a curse, he leans toward suicide. Rallying, he nips off to Barnes & Noble to buy the coffee-table likes of "The Tuscany I Love," "Hidden Tuscany," "Secret Tuscany" and "Enchanted Tuscany," plus two cookbooks and a calendar for lagniappe. These he lays by the fire, where soon thereafter he lays himself and a bottle of wine.

Begone, gray melancholy! Away dull care! By turning pages and sipping wine he is returned to Eden. Then something clicks and he asks himself "What Tuscany is this?" Vast horizons; gentle hills rolling like ocean swells; the hillock with its single lonely cypress are all so magnificent--but utterly unfamiliar.

Here's the surprise: Chianti is too hill-hedged for panoramas; it's southern Tuscany that gives grandeur and poetry to coffee-table books, and Montalcino is its portal. Go there soon as you can.

Low clouds cloak the barren vineyards below the town

I went for the anteprima, which is called Benvenuto [welcome] Brunello, and the wine returns the favor. There were 146 '04s to taste in a mere two days, plus a batch of '03 riserve, '07 Rosso di Montalcino by the long ton and '07 Sant'Antimos both red and white. More wines came from producers who hunted down journalist-victims (very willing ones, I might add) for lunches and dinners.

So many wines--so little time! So here I plead with the Consorzio: Add another day to this event, please!

How good is the ’04 vintage? Some Ilcinesi grumbled about Gambero Rosso's snub: Biondi-Santi got Brunello’s sole Tre Bicchieri gonfalon this year, and it was for an '03. Producers hereabouts have been used to collecting almost a dozen a year. Not to worry: '04 is good, very good and damned good. And after the disappointments of '02 and '03, a little hype (aggressive enthusiasm, maybe?) was inevitable and is excusable. Really, there was an awful lot to like at the Benvenuto.

Three bottles that took me especially are all from women producers--Giovanna Neri, Bruna Baroncini and Candace Máté.

Giovanna Neri, who is sister to Giacomo of Casanova di Neri, produces Col di Lamo, the newest of this trio (or is it triumvirate?). Brunello is in her blood, obviously, so her fine '04 Brunello should be no surprise. Still, it's only her second vintage. Surely that bodes well? Bruna Baroncini of Poggio il Castellare bids fair to become one of the leading women of Italian wine. She also owns Montepulciano's Il Faggeto, Quercia Rossa in the Maremma and Chianti Classico's Caruccio Barlettani--even an outpost in Georgia, where she blends Cabernet and the indigenous Saperavi grape. Candace Máté came to Tuscany in the late '80s wanting only to restore a farmhouse. She ended up making wine and, perhaps more important, learning, she says, to pretty much ignore what enologists tell her to do. Now she rests content without one, and her '04 says she's on the right track, as does her '03. (She even did pretty well in ’02.)

Donatella Cinelli Colombini, Argiano and Banfi also came up trumps. In a stroke of luck, so did several producers whose confusible names keep many of us guessing. For '04, at least, it's not critical to distinguish among Palazzone, Palazzo and La Palazzetta, or Ferrero from Ferro. Same goes for La Campana, Capanna, Capanne Ricci, Caparzo and Caprili; Col d'Orcia, Coldisole, Collelceto, Collemattoni and Il Colle; Siro Pacenti and Pacenti Franco-Canalicchio and Canalicchio di Sopra; and Le Chiuse and Gianni Brunelli-Le Chiuse di Sotto.

In the end, there was an embarrassment of riches: Pian delle Querci, Greppone Mazzi, Oliveto, Terre Nere, Tiezzi, Uccelliera, Ventolaio, Belpoggio, Bolsignano, Campogiovanni, Cantina di Montalcino, Casanuova delle Cerbaie, Casisano Colombaio, Castello Romitorio, La Serena, Castello Tricerchi, Castiglion del Bosco, Fattoi, Le Ragnaie, Fuligni, Il Marroneto, Il Poggione, Innocenti, L'Aietta, La Fortuna, Mastrojanni, La Gerla, La Lecciaia, La Magia, La Manella, La Velona-Monade 90, Lambardi, Le Gode, Le Ragnaie, Lisini, Marchesato degli Aleramici, Mocali, Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona, La Serena and Scopone.

Surely there are more: Colleagues applauded Niccolai-Podere Bellarina, Poggio Salvi, Abbadia Ardenga, Altesino, Castelgiocondo, Pianrosso, Donna Olga, La Fiorita and La Togata, and I really couldn't argue. This vintage is easy to like, and I include the above because I'd rather err on the side of caution. After all, we're judging infants, and under extreme conditions: again, so many wines, so little time. Then consider externals and mundanities: gossip and rumor; last night's too-long/too-wet dinner; the tanti expressi needed to restore life next morning. Is judgment affected by online peeks at the plummeting Dow? By a tasting tent so cold you could hang meat in it? A call from your divorce lawyer? Your wife's divorce lawyer?

Still, many writers manage to arrive at precise numerical ratings (even very precise: I saw one fellow using half-points!). That's an achievement, I’m sure, but I am nagged by the belief that a man who would rate wine would rate women and deserves neither.

The fortezza, with rainbow

As for visiting Montalcino, by all means, do. Its encircling walls and looming 14-Century fortezza are largely intact, there are several good restaurants and, about every 50 feet, a Brunello-packed enoteca. All in all, rather impressive for a town of only 5000 or so population.

Montalcino has dozed through most of its history, jolted awake only twice by events of moment. In 1260 a Florentine host of 35,000 swooped down toward Siena bent on conquest. Although greatly outnumbered, the Senesi and their allies triumphed at the battle of Montaperti. Montalcino, as one of those allies, was numbered among the victors, if only technically. The battle lasted all day but the Ilcinesi managed to arrive when it was over. Troops retiring from the field scoffed, shouting at them "Becca morti!"

That means "pick up the dead" or, freely, "undertakers." Even today Ilcinesi are sometimes called Beccamorti by those who are looking for trouble.

Then back to bed for nearly three centuries until, in 1255, "the Medici thief" led another Florentine attack on Siena. The government upped stumps and fled to Montalcino, where the Republic of Siena in Montalcino was declared. Besieged, the Ilcinesi held out until nearly starved out in 1259.

The fortezza, at the south end of town, gives glorious views from it ramparts and glorious glasses in its well-stocked tasting room; a few yards beyond is Sant'Egidio, a frescoed church containing remnants of the Republic's glory. Opposite is the town hall. One look at the distinct design of its slender tower tells you that Montalcino was--once--part of Siena.

There are hotels plain and fancy as well as affitta camere (one of them in a converted cantina) and, in the countryside, farms offering agriturismo. _There are two hotels just south of the town, the Bellaria and the (to me) unacceptable Al Brunello. For max luxe, keep going south to see the elegant rooms offered at Castello Banfi, which is just a few miles farther on a panoramic road (castellobanfi.com).

Nearby: the splendid abbeys of Sant'Antimo and Monte Oliveto Maggiore; Sant'Angelo in Colle, a jewel of a hilltown; Buonconvento (see its small but beautifully preserved northen end and you'll be one up on those—i.e., almost everyone else--who dismiss Buonconvento as entirely modern, ugly and commercial); and Paganico, a tiny walled town, hardly bigger than a castle, that still sits bravely astride the road to deter any enemy troops advancing from the west.

You might take a bottle Brunello and a picnic lunch to one of these sites. Or any of a hundred other.

Brunello—and the year 2009—are welcomed with a plea for peace

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