The Montalcino Wine Detective

Sleuthing the latest on a world-class Italian wine region.


When I first became interested in wine I used to get Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino mixed up, never mind having difficulty pronouncing them. A few years down the line I’d sorted it; both are from the Tuscan town of Montalcino in Central Italy, from the same grape variety, and come in a similar shaped bottle. Or had I? A recent visit told me that I only knew half the story. The attractive hilltop town of Montalcino is 40 kilometres south of Siena and 540 metres above sea level. My illusion that these illustrious vineyards rolled down the town’s spectacular hillside slopes to spill over into a limited sweep across the adjacent hills was destroyed when a map in the cobbled town square showed a region that covered an area of 40 kilometres by 40 kilometres! So much for my thoughts of a small, classic Italian region. 
For my anorak readers, the total area of vineyard covers approximately 3500 hectares, 2100 hectares being Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G. with Rosso di Montalcino D.O.C. accounting for a further 510 hectares. Fifty years ago the vineyard area was only 20 percent of today’s expanse as the 1980’s heralded an enormous growth. Montalcino now exudes a powerful air of success.
The Mediterranean-influenced vineyards are 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. The “north-east’ having less sun, gives more acidity and less colour. The ‘south-west’ enjoys  good sun, light and higher temperatures resulting in good colour and lower acidity. The ‘north-west’ attracts good sunlight to produce “a structure similar to the south-west whilst the ‘south-east’, stylistically and climatically sits in the middle of the north-east and south-east”. With each producer extolling the virtues of their particular compass-zone, once you add altitude, varying soil types and aspect into the equation an interesting discussion is never too far away. My initial, simple view of Montalcino was already in tatters. 
Brunello gained D.O.C. status in 1966 and D.O.C.G. status in 1980. I wondered if the region needed a Classification System, maybe a Classico zone? “It’s not needed as the selection of the best terroirs has already been made with two-thirds of the best vineyards used only for Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G.”, one winemaker explained. “It would be difficult to do a classification now as politics would also play a part”, another added realistically. 
The production of Brunello di Montalicino wines is controlled by Italian law which states that the grape variety must be hand picked 100% Sangiovese (or Brunello as the locals call it, hence the name), grown in the designated Montalcino region with a maximum yield of 8 tonnes per hectare, (approximately 52 hectolitres/hectare). So far so good. Then came the bit that had me thinking; to gain the title Brunello di Montalcino D.O.C.G. the wine must spend a minimum of 2 years in oak casks followed by a minimum of 4 months in the bottle. I tasted some super Brunello’s over my two day visit but, I asked, what happens if a fruit-starved vintage can’t handle two years in cask? The answer came back quickly, “such wines could be declassified to Rosso di Montalcino D.O.C.” 
I was in mischievous mood. I wondered. With Brunello often costing about £40 ($60) and Rosso hitting the shelves with a £20 ($30) tag, that’s a brave label change. Is that the accountant I see peeping around the door? 
Rosso di Montalcino, which received its D.O.C. in 1984, must be 100% Sangiovese with a yield restricted to 9 tonnes per hectare and can be available for sale on the 1st September the year following the vintage. Importantly, having no oak ageing regulations the winemaker has far more freedom in the cellar; 6 months in barriques is a popular choice for these generally easy drinking, fresh, fruity and earlier maturing wines. Interestingly, my tasting notes revealed several Rosso wines that compared well to some Brunello’s whose fruit struggled to handle the compulsory two year oak regime. ‘Just saying.
The key therefore is to know the region’s vintages and winemakers before shelling out your hard earned cash. ‘Easier said than done but some producers to look out for are; 
The all-important vintages? Clock these numbers on the front label; 
1990, ‘95, ‘97, ‘99, 2000, ‘01, ‘04, ‘05, ‘09 and 2010. 
I’ve recently tasted some super 2010 Brunello’s (rich fruit, fresh, with powerful tannins) by the way; the vintage is destined to become a classic.
Montalcino, Brunello and Rosso are booming. You feel it around every corner, even when you’re sipping an espresso with smiling winemakers in the town’s sun-dappled square. Oh, and talking coffee, one euro for a cracking espresso – London please note! Following coffee you have a little thinking to do. After checking your wallet and the vintage, will it be Brunello or Rosso. Could be a difficult decision!
John Downes, one of only 340 Masters of Wine in the world, is a speaker, television and radio broadcaster and writer on wine. Visit

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: mattpark
    572146 16

    Hi John, great review of the area - but you somehow missed Salicutti which is just down the hill bordering Brunelli, and just up the hill from San Polino (which I also love). But Francesco Leanza at Salicutti is doing the most amazing Brunellos and his rossos are really amazing too and better than many Brunellos at a fraction of the cost - and he was the first organic producer of Brunellos.

    Feb 26, 2016 at 3:41 PM

  • Hi John, perhaps a bit simplified but I think your review is handy to beginners. Concerning your list of producers to look for I miss two names: Le Salette and Caprili. The first because it is truly one of the greatest producers of the Montalcino area. In the last 10 years, their top level Brunellos are outperforming many of the names in your list, including or should I say especially Biondi-Santi. The other name I am missing in your list is Caprili, a regular overachiever that will cost you no more than € 25,- (!) Caprili gets better and better since the mid-nineties. A producer to look for! I know that everyone has their own favourites, but these two producers are unarguably ''must haves'' ! I am not going to bash some other names in your list, but I am sure some of them do not offer the best Brunellos ... last but not least, are you sure you want to put the 2005 vintage up for ''best vintages to look for'' ??? 2006 and 2007 were much better for Brunellos (and I am not seeing them in your list !). 2005 was definitely not a great vintage for Sangiovese.

    Feb 27, 2016 at 6:40 AM

  • Snooth User: Jo Hoeppner
    1889494 15

    Well, if you're lucky enough to get to go to Montalcino, you cannot miss a visit to Abbadia Ardenga. Mario Ciacci is a former director of the Consortium Brunello di Montalcino, and president of the DOCG-DOC wine tasting commission for the Chamber of Commerce of Siena. He produces one of our very favorite Brunellos, as well as an excellent Rosso, and loves to host tastings in the tasting room. Quite the character, he is a wealth of knowledge of the processes, traditions and secrets to growing Sangiovese in the area. The museum attached in the old wine cellar of Il Poggio-Abbadia Ardenga is a very unique look back into Italy's agricultural history--not to mention a very impression collection of Brunellos dating back to the 1950s.

    Feb 29, 2016 at 10:32 AM

  • Snooth User: Linda Mohr
    1976464 20

    I have a 2000 bottle of Brunello di Montalcino given to me by my uncle who lives in Florence, Italy. He gave this to me when my daughter and I visited a few years ago. I am almost afraid to open it. I am waiting for some special occasion .I hope this wine ages well! I might just have to open it on my birthday. Sorry to just ramble!

    Feb 29, 2016 at 12:46 PM

  • Snooth User: courgette
    124481 158

    Nice allusion to one of my favorite fictional detectives (even if his stomping grounds are un-Tuscan)!

    Apr 15, 2016 at 12:29 PM

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