A small, dark and handsome stranger! Brunello di Montalcino tasting at Mystere Wine Club

Many who know me may mistake this title for something on my profile page, although with some slight tweaks to make it more relevant – “Short, palid, no oil painting and wish he was a stranger” perhaps (well one out of four ain’t bad), but it actually links to the literal translation of Brunello (in this case the wine) which is “little brown one”.

I added on “handsome” and “stranger” as Brunello di Montalcino (I shall herein after shorten it to just Brunello, because I am inherently lazy and, more pertinently, it is likely to lessen the typo count) is a much loved wine with some pedigree and one I have had less experience of drinking than I should like (mainly because it ain’t cheap and I am). As such, I am somewhat of a novice when it comes to sampling this wine’s supposed vinious delights.

A tasting at Mystere Wine Club in Cardiff, of which I am a member, offered up the perfect opportunity to properly introduce myself to some top quality Brunello wines for the princely sum of £45. With 8 wines to taste and at least one of the wines retailing at £100+ this seemed a very good price to me.

Brunello is one of the stars of Italian wine, which had rather a lot of stars in its wine firmament.

Located in Tuscany around the ancient town of Montalcino, Brunello was one of the first Italian wines to be granted DOCG status.

The wines are make from 100% of the local Tuscan variety of sangiovese, although in wines made prior to 2008 there are potential question marks as to whether there could be other illict stuff in the mix (cabernet sauvignon and merlot) on the basis of a scandal known in the Italian press as Brunellopolis.

Post 2008 the 100% sangiovese rule has been rigourously applied and whilst we had as part of the tasting a few wines in the pre 2008 “danger zone” we were assured by the club member who organised the tasting and chose the wines that the ones we were tasting were beyond reproach.

The tasting had a range of vintages starting in 2011 and going down to 2004. Brunello, a bit like Rioja, never seems to have anything other than good, very good or excellent vintages. Notwithstanding the seemingly always good or better certification and the pinch of salt that come with it, the spread of vintages included some supposed corkers.

None of the wines were riserva, so looking at all “normale” wines. This requires a minimum aging in oak of 2 years then a minimum aging in bottles of 4 months.

It is only then ready to be sold 5 years after the year of the harvest (calculated from 1 January of the year following the grape harvest).

So it takes a while before you can get hold of it and when you do the consensus is to keep it for a while. Not for the impatient, Brunello.

Typical characteristics of young Brunello are cherry, dried cranberry, strawberry and licorice. Youthful Brunello tends to come with high tannins and a certain level of astringency. This astringent is why the drinking window for Brunello is often recommended to be a fair few years after release.

As it ages, you get more candied fruit, together with leather and chocolate notes. Tannins are more refined and it loses its youthful tartness. You can see the attraction of age here (as an oldie myself I am all for appreciation of a bit of age – Mrs SF says my hard “tannins”, unlike the hair on my head, have yet to drop out mind).

Much of course depends on the wine maker and the vintage. Most 2013 Brunello it seems are already in their drinking window, whereas 2010s are generally way off their window (if one of the 2010s at the tasting is anything to go by way, way, way off I would say )

So how did the wines at the tasting shape up.

The wines

As somewhat of a Brunello novice a few of these wines, prior to the tasting, were pretty new to me. I do, however, like to bone up on wines prior to a tastings so had a delve into my various wine tomes as well as looking up stuff about them on the internet. The result was it looked, at least on paper, a damn fine set of wines.

Expectations were thus high.

Ucelleria 2011

A whopping 15°, this wine had a dark brooding look to it.

On the nose there was dark cherry and air dried meat, with perhaps just a touch of bitter orange. A tasting note I read of this wine (prior to the tasting) referred to aromas of fecal matter, which thankfully I did not pick up. One of the members on the night suggested there was a bit of Venezuelan dark chocolate in the mix. With the state of the Venezuelan economy those two observation could actually align, as who can say what goes into their chocolate these days.

On the palate, there were bucket loads of tannins but it was not as heavy as I expected and it bore its 15° rather elegantly. There was an abundance of forest fruit, both red and black, but this wine needed a fair bit more bottle time.

Good, with plenty of promise for the future.

Priced at around £40.

Casanova di Nero 2010

Quite a (actually very) closed nose to this wine. Some fruit, but it felt unripe and harsh.

On the palate, whilst there was a touch of tobacco, it was very tightly wound. There were tonnes of harsh tannins in there that really dried out the mouth. It also tasted “hot” to me. This was odd as it had a lower ABV than the Ucelleria, which (I thought) bore its 15° far more elegantly.

The wine critics rate this very highly, but I was not a fan on the basis of this bottle. May well mature (needs a lot more bottle time and I mean “I may be pushing up daisies by the time it is ready” more bottle time) into something nice, but at first blush I found it rather disappointing. It got the lowest scoring of the night for me, with this Casanova certainly failing to woo me.

Priced at around £65 -£70.

Fossacolle 2010

Now this was more like it.

Gorgeous nose with game, leather, tobacco and a nice hit of spice.

On the palate it was lovely and smooth, with fragrant fruit (lighter cherry and raspberry), licorice and a very pleasing touch of white pepper at the end. Nice length to this wine, with the flavours really lingering and evolving in the mouth.

Still quite a lot of chewy tannins and a fair bit of acidity, which suggests it will age gracefully.

Whilst it definately needs more bottle time, it was a much more enjoyable drinking experiance than the very taut, pent up, “f’off, I’m not ready” Casanova.

In my top three wines of the night and one I would definately consider buying. Price doesn’t look too shabby, either at around £40, making it the best value wine for me of the night.

Talenti 2006

From a winery located in the south of Monticiano

the nose on this wine was really meaty. I would say it was verging on bovril. My scrawled tasting notes said meat, meat and meat, with a side of meat. Nose, perhaps, a bit one dimensional!?

On the palate, I found it quite sweet with the predominate flavour being candied cherries. I didn’t really get much of the elegance and finese that the tasting notes for the wine (I had seen) suggested (shortcomings in my palate rather than the wine perhaps as other found it far more nuanced than me). Nice enough, without the wow factor I thought (third lowest scoring wine for me of the night).

Priced at around £45.

Costanti 2006

This winery has some history, with it being one of the earliest recorded producers of Brunello

This wine has pleasing notes of cocoa, rick dark fruits and licorice on the nose.

This morphed into almost Christmas cake on the palate, with rich booze infused fruit and a touch of allspice. It really coated the mouth.

Very nice heady sort of wine, a real winter warmer.

Priced at around £60.

Cupano 2005

Wine of the night for me, with a fantastic nose and flavour to match.

Aromas of tobacco, cedar and the heady richness of a humidor, well stocked with Montecristos, wafted up seductively from the glass.

The nose promised thrills on the tastebuds and it did not disappoint on the palate.

Velvety smooth, it positively tarmac’d the tongue with rich fruity flavours. The initial hit was a bag load of sweet black fruit (cherries), with this being followed by more complex flavours. Dark, cocoa rich, chocolate (but without the bitterness), melded with delicious spice. In a word, opulent.

Pricey stuff (well over £100 a bottle retail), but the clear winner for the club as a whole in terms of the wine of the night. Stunning stuff, I absolutely loved it.

Interestingly 2005 was a tricky vintage for Brunello (only marked as 89 in Wine Spectator).

If I saw this wine, on hols in Italy, I would be very tempted to buy it (even though it might mean dropping a ton plus and probably being killed by Mrs. SF, who has just got a new pickaxe so I am treading very carefully).

Gianni Brunelli 2004

Another impressive wine this, from the well regarded 2004 vintage .

It had quite a flamboyant nose, with black cherries and a touch of leathery meatiness.

On the palate, it was sweet, with the first hit being that of sweet, ripe, black cherries. As it lingered in the mouth notes of spice came though. My barely legible tasting notes, by this stage of the night, had a reference to “rumtopf“, a rum soaked fruit concoction, which my mother use to make. Possibly a disservice to this wine, but what I think I meant was it had that mix of sweet fruit and spiciness (rather than the alcoholic punch that the rum gives to a rumtopf). I scored (not taking into account price) this wine second highest on the night – which was in stark contrast to how some others viewed it.

I rated it much higher than most of the group.

Priced at around £60.

Lisini 2004

Last wine of the night and one (based on the tasting notes I had looked at prior to the tasting) which, in theory, held much promise. Such notes made reference to “redcurrant, cherries, rose petals, minerals and leather”.

Unfortunately what I got on the nose was a distinct whiff of burnt rubber. Whilst this did mostly dissipate, quite quickly, hints of it remained in the background (at least for me).

On the palate it did fare a bit better, with some floral notes and spice. I, however, found it a touch harsh.

With that initial blast of acrid, smoking rubber, my brain had fixed this in the “I am not keen” column and I couldn’t really get past that as I tasted it.

Other (with undoubtedly more experience of Brunello and better palates than mine) scored it much higher and it came in overall third in terms of votes. As with many things in life, once I have formed an initial opinion it is hard to shift me from it and this was very much the case here. I scored it second bottom.

Price at around £70 (which seemed an awful lot for a wine that did very little for me).

The verdict

I always enjoy the tastings at the Mystere Wine Club. Opinions are often divided, but all opinions are gratefully received and there is no snobbery.

This was a typical Mystere Wine Club event. Lots of interaction and interesting comments and lots of differing opinions as to the merits of the wines on offer. New members are always welcome and if you are looking to expand yor wine horizons joining the Mystere Wine Club is a pretty good way of doing it

I thought it was a cracking selection, which showed how good Brunello can be and demonstrated that it isn’t in any way (despite its name) a little wine.

My top three of the night (without taking price into account) were:

  1. Cupano 2005;
  2. Brunelli 2004;
  3. Fossacolle 2010.

If I apply the relative prices of these wines to the equation, the Cupano (to my mind) slips to second and the Fassacolle would replace it at the top (being a third of the price of the albeit lovely Cupano) pushing the Brunelli into third.

Based on a show of hands (three fingers for top wine, two for second and one for third) from all the club members at the tasting, the top three scoring wines were:

  1. Cupano 2005 (my wine of the night);
  2. Talenti 2006 (my third lowest scoring wine of the night); and
  3. Lisini 2004 (my second lowest scoring wine of the night)..

My tasting notes, as against others, suggest I preferred the Brunello wines that were, perhaps, a bit atypical of Brunello as a whole, but this was one of those rare tastings where every wine scored. The Cupano scored very heavily and was the winner of wine of the night by some margin, whereas the room was certainly split on most of the rest.

It is fair to say these wines do not come cheap, but as with most good things you pays you money and takes your choice. The beauty of the Mystere Wine Club and the other wine club I am a member of, Bristol’s Jeroboam Club, is I get to try wines that I wouldn’t otherwise. Expands my horizons, which is never a bad thing, and the members of these two fine wine clubs get the dubious benefit of my pearls of ignorance (see how I come out ahead in the deal).

If you are looking for a “reasonable value” introduction to Brunello, Costco in Cardiff (and I suspect elsewhere) do one from Banfi (a 2012 – which is a pretty good vintage). Banfi are somewhat of a marmite producer (as in people seem to either love them or loath them), but their Brunello wines are generally viewed as a safe bet on the quality front.

and the Costco price of £21.58 (inc VAT) is a very good price for a wine of undoubted quality.

A final thought as to what food would I pair with these wines. Really need something gutsy and I would say go for some heavy duty game (pasta with hare or wild boar) or a whopping bisteca all fiorentina.

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