What makes the stately Sangiovese reds of Italy's Brunello di Montalcino special? A roomful of Wine Experience attendees attempted to divine this during a tasting of four distinctive wines from the appellation, made in different styles from disparate terroirs, but united in the blessing of what Altesino owner Elisabetta Gnudi Angelini summed up as "the miracle of Montalcino."
In the 2010 vintage, the miracle spread across the Montalcino area, where the success of different subzones usually varies from year to year; all four wines presented by senior editor Bruce Sanderson received classic ratings of 95 points or higher.
Starting in the north of the appellation, Donatella Cinelli Colombini presented her harmonious riserva. Despite being born into a winemaking family, Colombini encountered skepticism and dismissiveness when, in 1998, she created her own winery from family holdings. She hired the only enology students she could find who were available on less than a year's notice—not coincidentally, women. "It was a shock because this discrimination was so large that I decided to do something to change the situation: a winery with a female staff—the first in Italy," Colombini declared to applause. Her wine is fermented with native yeasts and undergoes the requisite years-long aging in traditional large oak casks or barrels, a practice the other three wineries also follow rather than using the smaller barriques that some producers have adopted.
Once a filmmaker, Angelini bought four wineries, including Altesino, from 1997 to 2002. "I changed so many jobs in my life that finally, when I was 39, I said, 'I should decide what I am going to do when I am a grown-up!'" While Altesino is best known for its single-vineyard Montosoli, Angelini decided to present her powerful riserva, which blends the strengths of sites across the appellation that she has acquired in recent years.
Riccardo Illy, pouring third, chose the opposite tack. The coffee baron's family purchased Mastrojanni in 2008, and he showcased the single Schiena d'Asino vineyard, in the southeastern pocket of the DOCG zone. The vineyard got its name because it is shaped like the "back of a donkey," rising up to more than 1,300 feet in elevation. While the climate in southern Montalcino produces wines of "a little bit more density, a little bit more weight and power," according to Sanderson, the elevation has a tempering effect on the firmly structured yet fresh Schiena d'Asino.
From the zone's southwestern side, at a lower elevation, came San Felice's dense Campogiovanni, with a juicy finish. Estate manager Leonardo Bellaccini explained how advances in viticultural technology have improved San Felice's wines. The vines are monitored with sensors that help the team make decisions about canopy management, fertilization and spray regimens, and harvest timing; each vineyard parcel gets its own special treatment so that "at the end, we try to find the balance of the vineyard in the balance of the glass."
All four Brunellos wowed the crowd with their elegance, structure and intensity of flavor, just as 2010 had once surprised the winemakers themselves, as they watched rain dominate much of the growing season before conditions took a welcome turn. "Nobody was betting in 2010 that that harvest was going to be a good harvest," said Angelini. "But that's Montalcino. It's something really that you cannot explain. We love these vineyards; Sangiovese is our faithful knight in shining armor."
Learn more about the 2010 Brunello vintage in Bruce Sanderson's tasting report.