THE MYSTERIOUS BRUNELLO
IN THE MINDS of most wine drinkers with a casual interest in Italian reds, the ones that stand out are the classic barolos and barbarescos of Piedmont. Yet there is another great red wine produced in Italy with an unusual and somewhat controversial history, known well enough at home but still something of a mystery here. That is brunello di Montalcino -- brunello after the grape, Montalcino after the town in Tuscany where it is planted -- a complex, substantial, dark red with a taste and power all its own.
Until recently, brunello seemed likely to remain a mystery, for several reasons: price (high), production (low), availability (very spotty) and time required for brunello to mature (eternity). Few people buy wines with the prospect of leaving them 30 years in the cellar, no matter how great the speculator's optimism about international politics and human health. According to a producer or two in Montalcino, some wines don't really open up in less than half a century.
Well, for the determined enophile and Italomane, getting at least a taste of brunello is not quite so difficult or expensive as it used to be. One reason is the variation on the classic brunello known as "rosso," a label designation meaning that the wine is made from young vines. You would not know that by simply looking at rosso -- deep purple -- or by sampling the sometimes hot, concentrated aromas, and the tannins that require some time in bottle. Although rosso lacks the depth and special clout of classic aged brunello, it can be very good and economical.
The primary producer of brunello di Montalcino used to be the Biondi-Santi family. The wine's popularity and profitability naturally attracted more producers, who used the name brunello di Montalcino, over Biondi-Santi's objections, and jacked up their prices as well. Brunello became a universal extravagance even in its home town. When the producers formed a consortium in the mid-1960s in an attempt to stabilize prices and establish rosso as a lesser but related cousin to real brunello, Biondi-Santi stayed out.
Now production of brunello is up, and although older vintages are fantastically priced, more recent, earlier maturing brunello is merely expensive, and rosso relatively cheap. Biondi-Santi still makes good brunello, but so do Barbi, Il Poggione, Caparzo, Val di Suga and others.
Although most will last for quite a while, the classic brunellos that can be drunk now are the '77s. That was generally a disastrous year in northern Italy, but some good wines emerged. Barbi's '77, about $15, has good depth and a long finish, and will open up considerably if decanted well in advance of your meal. For about $17 you can get good brunello from Val di Suga. Il Poggione's '77 Riserva costs closer to $20.
For slightly less, Caparzo has a '78 brunello that is also drinkable, but less interesting. Those who want a reasonable brunello for keeping might try the Val di Suga '79, only $10 at Litteri in Northeast Washington.
Val di Suga also has an '83 rosso still tannic, for under $5, that will keep awhile. Other good rossos for about the same price include the '82s of Il Poggione and Caparzo.