A small medieval village located 1,850 ft above sea level and enjoying one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany, the attractive hilltop town of Montalcino is considered the birthplace of Tuscany’s richest wine: Brunello, a diminutive of the word Bruno, meaning ‘brown’. This robust, long-aging red is among the most prestigious and sought-after wines in the world.
The first recordings of red wine from Montalcino date back to the early 14th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when a local farmer named Clemente Santi isolated certain plantings of Sangiovese vines in order to produce a 100% varietal wine, that the Brunello di Montalcino we know today first emerged.
Undoubtedly, it was the efforts of Clemente’s grandson Ferruccio Biondi-Santi that helped propel the distinctive wine into the mainstream. His novel winemaking techniques revolutionised wine styles not only in Montalcino but throughout much of Tuscany.
By the end of the Second World War Brunello di Montalcino had developed a reputation as one of Italy’s rarest wines, and at the time only Biondi-Santi was an official recorded producer, declaring only four vintages up to that point: 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. However, the high price and prestige of the wine encouraged other producers to try their hands at creating Brunello, and by the 1960s there were 11 official producers, resulting in the region gaining Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1968.
By 1970 the number of producers had more than doubled to 25, by 1980 there were 53 producers, and Montalcino was subsequently the first Italian wine region to be awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita(DOCG) status. By the turn of the 21st century, there were nearly 200 producers of Brunello di Montalcino producing nearly 330,000 cases a year.
The region’s famed wine is subject to rigorous legislation. Vineyards must be planted on hills with good exposures at altitudes no greater than 1968ft above sea level, only Sangiovese grapes may be used and wines must be aged for at least four years (five for riservas) with two of these years spent in oak followed by at least four months in bottle (or six for riservas).
It wasn’t until relatively recently that Brunello found widespread favour outside of Italy, where it had long been considered by Italians as a top wine along the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco. But the secret of this famed wine has since spread, and nowadays around 65% of it is exported – USA, Germany and Switzerland are among Brunello’s biggest export markets – with annual production rising from 6m bottles in 2007 to more than 9m in 2013.
The wine is, unsurprisingly, among Italy’s most expensive, occupying several spots on Wine Searcher’s top ten price list. The original – and, many would argue, the greatest – Biondi Santi consistently piques the interest of enthusiasts and collectors, with great vintages, particularly of the Tenuta il Greppo Riserva (named for the man who first bottled the wine), selling for extremely high prices.