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The Brunellos of Tuscany

November 13, 2010

I first tasted a Brunello di Montalcino in 1996, visiting with a friend in Boston when he took me to a local trattoria for a drink. The wine, a 1985 Poggio Antico Reserva, overpowered me and left me with a sense that I had just discovered Italian Sangiovese for the first time. Of course we’ve all being drinking Sangiovese since college (it’s the principal grape found in Chianti, a staple of the college dating scene for as long as we all remember). Who can forget taking that special someone to a small Italian restaurant with the red checkered table-clothes and basket-covered wine bottles with the glowing candles on the table providing the romantic cover that set the evening in the right direction. For me, that restaurant was Dino’s on Plantation Street in Worcester, where I attended college.

Shortly after my first taste, I laid down my first case of Brunello; a mix of 89 and 90 Poggio Antico that I found at my favorite wine merchant in Shirley, Ma. Brunello quickly became our favorite wine to have when Pam gets adventurous in the kitchen with pasta and tomatoes. Over the years we’ve put down and gone through cases of Castello Banfi, La Poderina, Poggio Antico and several others. The wine has been uniformly full-bodied with lots of intense fruit, silky tannins (after a few years of aging) and interesting hints of leather, smoke and tobacco. Of course, I’ve paid attention to the vintages and selected wines with appropriate structure but I’ve been lucky. All of the Brunello we’ve laid down has been wonderful.

Anyway, last night I got home early from work and Pam offered to make pasta with some locally produced hot sausage she’d found along with fresh pasta and locally grown tomatoes. I headed down to the cellar and found what turned out to be our last bottle of 1999 La Poderina, a wonderful Brunello that once got 96 points from Wine Spectator. Now, if you follow the link, you’ll find a lot opinions about this wine but it likely comes down to how well the wine has been stored. This bottle was close to perfect. As Brunellos go, this one is on the light side – not quite full-bodied but still lots of intense fruit flavor, hints of leather (due to it’s age) and tannins that would keep this wine aging nicely for at least another 5 years, if not a decade.

The only problem with Brunello is the price. Typically, you’ll spend $50 or more per bottle for the good stuff (Brunello is typically aged on the lees for 3 years before release) and the reserve wines (released a year after the regular bottling) can go to $100 or more. In order to afford these wines, I pull out all the stops. I buy by the case to get the 20% case discount, I look for sales, and whenever possible, I’ll share a case with someone. If memory serves me, I shared the case of La Poderina with my niece’s husband, Vince. I hope he and Erica have enjoyed their share of the case as much as we have.

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