The Great, the "Bitter" and the Tannic are three Italian iconic red wines needing no introduction to the world, perhaps just a bit more storytelling for the Filipino wine lovers’ sake.
The Great: Brunello di Montalcino
How much Brunello, the supreme expression of Sangiovese grape at its best, was in Clemente Santi’s mind when in 1842 he started developing a particular grapevine on a steep Montalcino slope called “Il Greppo”, today among Italy’s first grand crus?
Red wines were being produced in this area of Tuscany as far back as the 14th Century AC, and Montalcino wine valley, a 2004 UNESCO World Heritage, takes its name from the historic town sitting high on a hill with views on about 8,000 acres of vines.
Lying south of Siena and east of the Tyrrhenian Sea, not far from its Torrenieri village through which - in the Middle Ages - passed the pilgrimage route Via Francigena linking Canterbury to Rome, Montalcino enjoys a much warmer and drier climate than its neighbors Chianti to the north and Montepulciano to the east. This, together with its diverse rocky limestone, marl, clay and sand soil, make for such growing conditions which consistently ripen Sangiovese grapes before the arrival of the October rains.
Sangiovese, aka “Sanguis Jovis” (Jupiter’s Blood), Italy’s most planted single grape variety, is an ancient vine believed to have resulted from spontaneous crossing during the Etruscan period, 8th Century BC. Today there is significant diversity within this grape variety grown in other central Italian regions such as Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Marche: Sangiovese tends to be genetically highly adaptable thus, many clones do exist.
The name Brunello came from the description of Montalcino’s Sangiovese Grosso grape varietal at harvest time, with its dark colored and dusky brown berries. The Sangiovese grown in Montalcino has thick skin and excellent anthocyanins and both of these factors contribute to Brunello’s deep tannic structure and rich hue.
A young Brunello wine is packed with fruit, flower and spices flavors: cherries, cranberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, violets and licorice. When you taste it, exudes also earthy notes of espresso and tilled soil along with mouth-gripping tannins. It’s a bold wine, but because of the high acidity it ends on a tart, astringent note that will have you licking the insides of your mouth. This astringency, by the way, suggests a drink-by window of several years after its release date.
In fact, when aged ten, fifteen or more years, Brunello drops the fresh fruit flavors to reveal notes of dried figs, candied cherries, hazelnuts and leather. The tannins turn chocolatey and acidity succulent. The longer Brunello ages, the more complexity it acquires, enhanced by fragrances reminiscent of oak wood, spices, leather and tobacco leaves. When tasting different aged Brunello, one could recall sage, eucalyptus, black pepper, vanilla, licorice, coffee and dark chocolate in addition to floral scents such as violet, geranium, rose, ripe cherry and forest fruits notes.
By the end of the second World War, Brunello had already achieved widespread popularity: available official government documents give evidence to four exceptional vintages up to that point, 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. The last patriarch of Biondi-Santi house, Franco, considered the 1891 Riserva the vintage against which all future vintages had to be measured, although 1955, 1964 and 1975 vintages are also contemplated as exceptional. 21st Century outstanding vintages of Brunello di Montalcino are 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Today, Brunello producers follow two different wine-making methods: the “traditional” and the “modern”. Traditional method uses large, well-used Slavonian oak barrels called botti that impart very little oak compound into the wine encouraging tertiary flavors development through limited oxygen exposure thus allowing Brunello to evolve more dried fruit, leather and flower flavors.
Modern method producers use new, smaller French barriques instead, with the purpose to impart more oak compounds into the wine and promote the development of black fruit, chocolate, brown sugar, and vanilla flavors. Because oxygen exposure increases due to oak-to-wine surface area, modern method Montalcino wines are ready to drink sooner than traditional method wines. However, the Riserva always requires 6 years of aging after harvest with 2 years minimum in oak and 6 months in the bottle.
Brunello food pairings are furred, or feathered game served with rich sauces and condiments such as wild boar or venison with blueberry preserve, turkey stuffed with prunes or white truffle, guinea fowl flavored with sage or hare with juniper. A princely Chianina rib-steak, rich in umami, is a perfect match as well as a simpler filet mignon. As for the cheeses: mature Provolone, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino or Ragusano.
Biondi-Santi implements the “Ricolmatura”, a topping-up system for Riserva wines started back in 1927. Using devices and tools designed by the House, ullage levels are examined, corks removed, wines topped up with the same vintage and new corks inserted. It’s an operation carried out to ensure the longevity of the wines, as corks naturally shrink, and levels drop during decades of cellaring.
The Great Brunello di Montalcino continues to seduce us with its wealth of aromas, elegance and remarkable balance: it is one of the most celebrated wines in the world, one of the legends and symbols of the Italian wine-growing tradition worldwide.
The "Bitter": Amarone
The very first bottle with the name Amarone on the label dated 1936 and it was produced by the Cantina Sociale Negrar di Valpolicella, in the province of Verona, Veneto.
Story goes that in the same year the Cantina Negrar’s cellar supervisor Adelino Lucchese after tasting a supposedly sweet Recioto – the popular local wine dating back to the 2nd Century B.C. - exclaimed: «This is not only amaro (bitter), is amarone (greatly bitter)!». What happened was that accidentally left fermenting longer, Recioto’s sugars turned all into alcohol and the wine became dry and bitter, it turned into an Amarone.
However, similar “accidents” may also have happened before if in the 1700’s Scipione Maffei, a venetian writer and critic, used the adjective amaro in a letter while referring to a dry wine «of particular grace and strength, produced in Valpolicella» he had the chance to taste.
Valpolicella is a hilly wine region north of the city of Verona. Only the wine produced within the five boundaries specifically established for the Valpolicella wine region in compliance with the Italian production regulations can be labeled as Amarone, a rich, dry, ruby red wine made from the partially dried grapes of the Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella, the very same grapes still used to produce the sweet Recioto.
Amarone is a result of a wine making technique in which grapes, after harvesting, are left for a period of time to dry and dehydrate on racks in order to concentrate the sugar level. Drying take around three months depending on the autumn weather: e.g., if it is very hot and dry, the withering period is shortened in order to avoid grapes to get totally moisture less.
Traditionally this process was done on straw mats, but today grapes are laid on mats or hung from the ceiling with plenty ventilation in order to prevent mold. Afterwards, wine is matured in oak barrels from two to five years, depending on the winemaker.
On the nose Amarone has an intense, warm and spicy bouquet: raisins, cherry, vanilla, tobacco and chocolate. On the palate is bold with concentrated fruity flavors ranging from dark cherries, chocolate, burnt sugar and dried fig. Despite the wine undergoing the process of concentrating flavor and sugars, it is not sweet and generally it has about only 12 grams of residual sugar.
Very well-structured, complex, elegant and velvety, Amarone has a distinctive flavor because of its unique production method which delivers a distinct set of characteristics: high acidity and high alcohol levels. The wine’s alcohol may range from 15% to 16.5% binding acidity and tannin together to build its full body and complex structure.
Amarone della Valpolicella is a DOC since 1968 and a DOCG since 2010, the latter Italy’s highest agricultural production regulation. The 1998 and 1997 vintages are almost mythological, very difficult to find. Further back there are the memorable 1995, 1990, 1988 and 1983 vintages. In recent times the best vintages considered for Amarone are 2006, 2008, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2019 even though many wineries consider the wine still young and thus have not bottled it yet. The 2015 is contemplated as one of the most extraordinary Amarone vintages of the last decades. Going further back in time there are the 2011, 2010, 2007, 2005, 2003, a very hot vintage with very full-bodied Amarone with almost caramelized notes, and a perfectly balanced 2001.
Take 2015 Amarone Classico Dal Forno Romano, one of the greatest ever according to Robert Parker, the ultimate statement red wine from northern Italy. The Dal Forno estate vineyards and farm sit 1,000 feet above sea level. The loose, alluvial soils, the meticulous pruning and scrupulous viticultural techniques implemented by the Dal Forno Family ensure remarkable-quality grapes since 1983.
The 2015 is pitch black in the glass and there’s a light, tarry edge to the super-concentrated prune, date and currant fruits. Even more interesting are the complex notes of bitter-orange liqueur, aged balsamic, fresh roasting herbs, cinnamon, roasted chestnuts, black tea and licorice. The more you decant the wine in advance, the more nuances will emerge. Of course, it’s full-bodied with huge concentration and lots of chewy tannin that is managing to hold the fruit back for now. This wine needs plenty of time to develop in the bottle, best drinking it from 2025 through 2045.
The serving rules for great, structured and aged red wines apply for Amarone as well: 16 to 18°C and always decanting. Amarone being a very alcoholic wine, a high temperature can further enhance the perception of alcohol. In case the environment where you are is very hot, such as a Mediterranean restaurant in summertime or an al fresco table in a tropical country, it is advisable to lower the serving temperature by few degrees.
Amarone main characteristics - complexity, full body and high alcohol content - must be matched with equally structured, hearty, meaty dishes. Traditional matching foods are braised and roasted meats with gravies, furred game and aged cheeses. Oxtail or wild boar stew are classic pairings, along with pasta with duck ragù.
Mature Amarone tends to be softer and velvety, therefore more versatile in food matching. However, old vintages or special Riserva Amarone bottles make also perfect “vino da meditazione”. Coined by Luigi Veronelli, famous Italian gastronome, the expression meditation wine is used to describe few rare, important wines to be drunk even without food, just for the pleasure of appreciating all the nuances of their complexity. Amarone in particular commands quiet, respect and contemplation and should be therefore approached with a calm attitude, reflecting about its nature, opulence and intricacies.
The "bitter" Amarone della Valpolicella can be considered the finest wine from Veneto and one of the most influential Italian red wines, highly appreciated by the most discerning wine lovers all over the world. It is an extremely important wine in Italian viticulture and an exclusive signature of the Italian wine heritage.
The Tannic: Sagrantino di Montefalco
Only recently the intense and fierce Sagrantino has caught the world’s attention as another paramount Italian red wine icon originating in Montefalco, on the Umbrian hills in the province of Perugia. Mind you though: Sagrantino is beastly. This black ruby wine explodes in your palate with volume, tannin, acidity and wild waves of flavors. While it may mellow with long decanting, it still blasts its powerful tannic grip and heavyweight flavor profile: you will still feel it in your teeth hours after drinking it.
Sagrantino grape is quite ancient. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Historia Naturalis about a “wild” and “earthy” grape from Umbria called Hirtiola, certainly a Sagrantino’s ancestor. Even though there are recordings of vineyards in Montefalco going back to the 11th Century AC, the first complete documented mention of Sagrantino grape appeared only in 1549 written by Franciscan monks who might have also given Sagrantino its name, probably borrowing it from “sacramentino” (little holy), the wine’s use during Communion.
Always treated with respect, cutting down Sagrantino vines was regarded as a capital offence in 1622 in the province of Montefalco, as proven by municipality’s historical documents. However, over the following centuries, Sagrantino was consumed only locally during religious celebrations and farmers’ festivals, hence slowly falling into the oblivion. By the 1960s, the grape had virtually disappeared in Montefalco; only few farmers continued producing Sagrantino as a sweet wine, with the traditional passito method, for personal consumption.
In 1971, Arnaldo Caprai, a passionate Umbrian wine producer, decided to plant and grow the Sagrantino vines in his Montefalco vineyards and successfully started vinifying it in a dry style thus rapidly elevating it from an almost forgotten Umbrian grape to a leading Italian quintessential wine. Caprai’s winning combination of scientific research - with the partnership of University of Milan - meticulous care in the vineyards, accurate cellar work and painstaking lab trials resulted in a wine of magnificence. The top of the Caprai’s Sagrantino production is called 25 Anni, marking in 1996 the anniversary of its first release.
As a stand-alone fine wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco earned a DOC distinction in the 1970s. Twenty-two years later, both the dry and the sweet passito Sagrantino styles were granted the DOCG status, the highest regulatory standing in Italy.
The wine must be produced from 100% Sagrantino grapes and undergo a minimum of 37 months aging before release, at least 12 of which in oak barrels and 4 in the bottle. However, given the large scaled tannic architecture of Sagrantino, many producers store their wines way beyond the required 37 months.
According to its DNA, Sagrantino has no relationship with any other Italian red grape variety. This thick-skinned and small-berried grape variety, containing more polyphenols than any other grape, is Italy’s most tannic grape and possibly the most tannic grape in the world, more than the already excessively tannic Tazzelenghe from Friuli and Tannat from Uruguay.
The original Sagrantino vineyards in Montefalco sit in a bowl surrounded by the Apennine Mountains. The soil is mostly clay with limestone and sand. The climate gets very hot in the summer and cold in winter, but the clay soils keep the roots cool as they search for water deep in the ground. The mountains breezes provide further cooling especially at night.
Cheerful and somehow light, Sagrantino is bewildering, something only exceptional wines usually are. Decanting it for many hours before drinking only makes a moderate difference: the aromas seem suppressed and incapable of release, as if those gorgeous black cherry, mushroom, earth, licorice, and leather notes you get on the palate were trapped under the thick layer of tannins. However, the bouquet is delicate, reminiscent of blackberries and plum, and blends perfectly with the vanilla scent given by wood barrels aging. Using wood during aging allows the slow ingress of oxygen through the barrel into the wine, softening the tannins. Some producers use sizeable inert oak casks, others small barriques which have a larger surface area to volume.
Neither is this a grape variety lacking in sugar, fruit or acidity, in fact it is rather fruity and spicy, with quite polished tannins. Sagrantino wines are massive, concentrated and powerful; they have this unmistakable deep color, they are aromatic and flavorsome with potential for great longevity. Once opened the bottle, the fruitiness gradually develops to its peak after 90 minutes and stays on its plateau for about the next 30 minutes before starting to drop.
The high quality of most Sagrantino di Montefalco is remarkably consistent since 1975, ranging from excellent to outstanding. This wine appears to be able to age effortlessly for decades, therefore you shouldn’t drink a bottle younger than 2012 while the best, five stars vintages are considered 1985, 1990, 1998, 2005, 2008, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Sagrantino’s forest aromas beg for mushrooms and truffles. Roasted meats, hearty sauces and dishes with porcini or truffle pair very well with this big, bold red. It matches wonderfully also with grilled ribeye steaks, roasted pork loin stuffed with sausage and cheese, braised short ribs and pork preparations relying on regional herbs and spices. Here in the Philippines, we have successfully paired it with Kare-Kare, a notoriously wine unfriendly food.In this unprecedented pairing exercise, the bitterness and astringency of Sagrantino’s tannins mirrored Bagoóng’s saltiness and sourness by contrast. The powerful softness of the Sagrantino matched Bagoóng’s flavor enhancing its funky, fishy umami flavor.
A superb red with integrated tannins that are polished and beautiful, full body, loads of licorice, berry characters and a long, long finish, Sagrantino’s spectacular architecture between acid, fruit, tertiary characteristics and tannins is so deftly orchestrated that nothing feels imbalanced: complexity and subtlety, power and grace. When you inhale the seductive, earthy aromas of the tannic Sagrantino di Montefalco, you know it can only be Italian.
Over the last centuries, the Italian wine culture has produced some of the most authentic, uncompromising, epochal red wines the world has ever seen, true to their territory of origin: Italy, the land of wine.