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Brunello di Montalcino
Montalcino, one of Italy's premier wine towns, produces one of Italy's most expensive wines: Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello is famous for its austerity and extraordinary aging potential, but in recent years vinification techniques have lightened up and today's Brunellos are more notable for their rich, ripe, and generally attractive qualities. The Biondi Santi family originally put the region on the map with their consistent efforts dating from 1842, when Brunello was first noted as a distinct clone of Sangiovese in the family vineyards in Greppo, southeast of Montalcino. Much of the reputation of these powerful wines is built upon the extraordinary cellaring ability demonstrated by Biondi Santi's wines over the ages.

Vineyards are typically located on reasonably steep slopes ranging up to 1500 feet, giving Brunello the slow ripening conditions essential for its sturdy character. Extended wood aging is an essential part of the wines' character, with three and a half years being obligatory until recently. Some critics have asserted that in weaker vintages the time spent in wood dries out the wine prematurely, reducing its ability to age. This lead to a loosening of barrel aging requirements and producers now have a free hand to tailor winemaking both to specific vintage characteristics and house style. The best producers of Brunello consistently produce some of Italy's finest wines, and Brunello is widely recognized as one of the world's greats.

Montalcino is on a bit of a roll these days. Every year new wineries pop up like mushrooms after the rain. In many ways, Montalcino is the Italian equivalent of California’s Napa Valley. It is a newly glamorous appellation that seems to attract a wide array of Milanese industrialists, businessmen, and corporations bent on buying or building a showpiece winery. Even the established Italian wine royalty—figures such as Gaja and Antinori—have invested in the region.

Many of Italy’s most prominent “hired gun” enologists are to be found working in the area, while land prices have gone through the roof, making this a long-term proposition for newcomers. This situation makes for a dynamic region, with new, state of the art wineries and an influx of winemaking and viticultural talent.

While Brunello has a reputation of being a big, intense, tannic wine that seems to be indestructible in the cellar, the reality is that there is great diversity in Brunello these days. The once restrictive regulations mandating extended wood aging regardless of vintage character have been relaxed and growers are now given more latitude in their winemaking decisions. This has had the positive result of allowing vintners to tailor winemaking practices to the vintage.

The terrain also lends itself to diversity. While people tend to think of Montalcino as a concise, homogeneous region, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The vineyards of Montalcino spill down the steep hillsides from the charming mountaintop town of the same name in a 360-degree radius, providing a wide range of exposures to the sun and a wealth of microclimates. Additionally, soil types vary dramatically from one end of the region to the other.

As far as cellaring goes, a run of solid vintages has produced wines of classic proportions. This means that they will really begin to blossom in six to ten years, while the best will keep for 20-plus years. More modern examples, which have been barrique aged, will be accessible earlier. Nonetheless, the true glories of many of these wines are revealed only with bottle age. If you are unwilling to cellar them, you may be disappointed.

The best Brunellos are highly coveted wines with strong followings in Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy itself. While the United States is an important market for the region’s wines, demand in other parts of the world can make the wines scarce, particularly when fine vintages are released. Because of the limited quantities and high demand, the resale market can be shockingly expensive down the road. Auction prices for great vintages can be stratospheric and availability is spotty at best. Unlike Bordeaux, Brunello seems to be less of a commodity than a wine that is actually bought to cellar and drink. The realities of the market suggest that those shopping for the very best wines will have to act fast. (Wine/Appellations)