OR, TONGUE-PLEASER? 

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO 2011. Banfi. (£22.00 when you buy 2 at Majestic).

When it comes to Italy’s most famous reds, ask any wine lover on the wine aisle and the “Big Three” are always mentioned; Barolo, Chianti and Valpolicello. Brunello di Montalcino rarely gets a look in … perhaps because it’s difficult to say? Or is it the price tag that frightens us off? Either way, at its best it’s a wine worth getting to know.

The attractive Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino is 100 kilometres south of Florence and 540 metres above sea level. My illusion that these illustrious vineyards rolled down the town’s spectacular hillside slopes and then spilled over in a limited sweep across the adjacent hills was destroyed when, during a recent visit, I discovered that the region stretched over an area of 40 kilometres by 40 kilometres! So much for my small, classic Italian region!

This extensive, Mediterranean-influenced area is divided into four sub regions that are known simply as ‘north-east’, ‘south-east’, ‘north-west’ and ‘south-west’. Not very romantic but hellish effective. Not surprisingly, each producer extols the virtues of their particular compass-located vineyard zone which, again not surprisingly, leads to contradictions. Add altitude, varying soil types and vineyard slope and aspect into the equation and an interesting discussion was never too far away.

By Italian wine law the grape variety must be hand picked 100% Sangiovese, or Brunello as the locals call it, hence the wine’s name. So far so good. That law’s fine but when it comes to insisting that Brunello di Montalcino must, yes must, spend a minimum of 2 years in oak casks, I start to ask questions. What happens if the fruit harvested in a poor year is weak and not up to it? Then you’re left with a lifeless, low fruit, woody, and don’t forget expensive, wine that can only disappoint. I think they should consider changing the law to give the winemaker more freedom but hey, they won’t listen to me!  On top of the oak regime, ‘Brunello’ must also be aged in the bottle for a minimum of 4 months; even more pressure on the fruit in poorer vintages!

The Banfi Brunello 2011 has handled the oak ageing relatively well so its crisp (that’s the mouthwatering acidity bit) black fruit and tannic edge (that’s the stuff that dries your mouth) will match your Sunday lunch really well, be it beef, lamb or pork. That’s not surprising as the Italians are the one nation of winemakers that make their wine specifically to get the very best out of their fantastic food.

So, next time your looking to ‘go Italian’ and you’re feeling flush, give this little known Italian classic a go; you may even start talking about Italy’s “Big Four”.