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Kissing Summer G’Bye with Castello di Monsanto

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Castello di Monsanto wines at the estate.

September is always a busy month from Labor Day on.  It’s back-to-school and back to the grindstone as the lazy days of summer draw to a close.  For those in the financial sphere, September marks the end of the third quarter and is an especially busy time, and likewise, for those of us in the wine world, a parallel whirlwind ensues.  In wine retail circles, we’re busy attending trade wine tasting events and choosing the wines we’ll offer through the fall and winter seasons.  Many importers and distributors hold their portfolio wine tastings in September, making it a wine soaked month for those of us in the trade.

At The Wine Cellarage, we’ve had a very fun and eventful month, with some intriguing and exquisite wine tasting dinners.  Last Thursday, September 22nd, on the eve of the fall equinox, we held our last event of the summer, hosted by Laura Bianchi, who, together with her family, owns Castello di Monsanto in Tuscany.

Starting with their first vintage in 1962, Castello di Monsanto’s founder – the Bianchi family – has achieved distinction in their wines. The Il Poggio vineyard was chosen as the Estate’s first Chianti Classico cru and was carefully tilled out of the land’s stony soils. Fabrizio Bianchi felt that white grape varietals had no place in his impeccable Chianti Classico and removed these from the blend in 1968, giving way to a more refined wine. Castello di Monsanto is distinctly respectful of their Tuscan terroir and its native grape varietals. Their wines are some of the region’s finest expressions – powerful, elegant and pure.

“Monsanto is a reference-point producer for fine Chianti. The estate’s top bottlings have a brilliant track record, but these entry-level wines deliver almost as much pleasure at much more accessible prices.” – Wine Advocate, August 2010

Our Castello di Monsanto Wine Dinner was held in The Morgan Library Dining Room within The Morgan Library & Museum.  This truly special venue was built by financier Pierpont Morgan between 1902 and 1906, next door to his New York residence at Madison Avenue and 36th Street. Designed by architect Charles McKim, the structure was built to display one of the world’s greatest collections of artistic, literary, and musical works, while reflecting the inherent character of the rare artifacts within.  McKim’s design resulted in an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo comprised of three magnificent rooms, an incredibly elegant structure.

The Dining Room itself was the original Morgan family dining room, located in the refurbished nineteenth-century brownstone, and provided the perfect ambiance for showcasing the extraordinary wines of Castello di Monsanto.

Guests were greeted with a refreshing glass of NV Mionetto Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG ($20), crafted from single vineyard grapes that are specially selected from the finest area of Valdobbiadene.  This delicious, exotically perfumed prosecco was provided by Mionetto USA, the importer of Castello di Monsanto’s wines.  A delicate sparkler, with fine, creamy bubbles, the Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore made the perfect aperitif.  A great way to kick off the evening!

Laura Bianchi was a wonderful host and got up several times throughout the evening to introduce Castello di Monsanto and the exceptional wines that we all enjoyed.  Laura explained the history of the estate and shared the story of how she came back to the family business after her career as a lawyer.  She described the beauty of Tuscany and the Chianti region, transporting the entire room to that magical place.  With heartfelt words, Laura spoke of the terroir surrounding the wine estate and how everything in the air, the nearby forests and the soil contributes different elements to the finished wines.  We were honored to have Laura Bianchi host the dinner and share these special wines with us.

Once guests were seated, The Morgan’s staff graciously poured the featured older vintages of Castello di Monsanto’s ‘Il Poggio’ Chianti Classico Riserva and we were all treated to a rare vertical tasting of the estate’s iconic single vineyard wine.  The 1997 Castello di Monsanto ‘Il Poggio’ Chianti Classico Riserva is delicious and just coming into its peak drinking years.  Rich black fruit aromas and flavors are layered with herbaceous notes and a sweet spice character.  Full-bodied and unctuous, the ’97 Il Poggio has great structure and incredible length, a real gem that you can uncork with confidence and drink now!

It was fascinating to taste the youthful 2003 Castello di Monsanto ‘Il Poggio’ Chianti Classico Riserva ($50, Wine Advocate – 92 pts) alongside the 1997 vintage.  2003 was a hot vintage throughout Europe and in the ’03 Il Poggio, the heat manifests itself with generosity and grace, offering opulent flavors and mesmerizing lushness.  It was tough to put the glass down.  Displaying less prominent herbal notesthan the ’97, the ’03s complexity comes through in tiers of tobacco and spice aromas.  This wine is a great beauty!

The older Il Poggio vintages were served with a delightful trio of Savory Popovers, including Asiago, Taleggio and Gorgonzola. Yum.

Next up, we were each poured glasses of the 2006 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva and the 2003 Castello di Monsanto Nemo Cabernet Sauvignon Tosana IGT to accompany our delicious main course, a Pan Roasted Chicken Roulade with Alphonso Olive Gnocchi, Braised Romaine and Preserved Lemon Emulsion.

The 2006 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva ($23, Wine Advocate – 91 pts) is adorned with its original label and in Laura Bianchi’s words, is a “true expression of Tuscany and the Sangiovese grape.”  The image on the label is a painting of the estate from the 1800s and the label itself has never been changed since the wine’s release.  The 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva is stunning and delicious, a great value from the estate.

The 2003 Castello di Monsanto Nemo Cabernet Sauvignon Tosana IGT ($52, Wine Advocate – 94 pts) is still in its youth and will continue to age beautifully for years to come.  The Nemo was named for the latin saying “nemo propheta in patria” (No-one is a prophet in his own land) and pays tribute to the resistance that the estate met with during the early 1980s, as they began producing wine from Cabernet, which was an unconventional choice at the time.  The grapes for Nemo come from a single vineyard, Il Mulino, and the wine is truly spectacular, rich and enchanting.

The evening concluded with a glass of the 1993 Castello di Monsanto Vin Santo La Chimera IGT ($54 for a 375 ml bottle), which was perfectly paired with The Morgan’s Oven-Roasted Seasonal Fruit Cobbler.  Laura introduced the Vin Santo, explaining that the Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes for the dessert wine are left to hang on the vines until the end of October, then carefully harvested and dried on racks until the beginning of March, giving them greater concentration.  Once fermentation begins, the grape must is transferred to 50-100 liter oak casks, where the wine continues to undergo alternating cycles of fermentation and then maturation.  Fermentation happens during the warm, summer months and is halted during the colder, winter months, during which time the wine is allowed to mature.  These cycles of fermentation and maturation go on for 12 years!  The 1993 Vin Santo La Chimera is the current vintage and is a lovely wine, not too sweet with pretty aromas, fine texture and medium body.  This is my kind of dessert wine, refreshing the palate after a delightful dinner.

The Castello di Monsanto Wine Dinner was the perfect way to end the summer season and to transition into the fall.  These warming Italian wines are ideal for drinking throughout the harvest season and into the cold weather months.


Brunello: Montalcino’s Fine and Rare Wine

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Vigna di Pianrosso

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the recently released 2006 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino, and for good reason.  2006 was indeed a spectacular year for Brunello, one of the best of the past decade, right on par with 2001 and 2004 in exceptional quality.  And so, it only seems appropriate to spend some time reflecting on this great wine, one of Italy’s shining stars.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG

Brunello di Montalcino is one of twenty Italian wines that have garnered the prestigious Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status, and was in fact the first to receive the title.  In Italy, this is the highest quality classification bestowed on wines, a step above Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status, which is similar to the French Appellation Contrôlée (AC) qualification, stipulating the geographical area, grape varietals and quantities of production among other requirements.  In addition to meeting the DOC criterion, DOCG wines must be bottled in their region of production and must be tasted and approved by the Ministry of Agriculture.  One of Brunello di Montalcino’s definitive requirements is that it must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, a rule that the Italian government takes very seriously, as do the wine’s producers. Brunello is among a small handful of well-known and collected DOCG wines, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, Gavi and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano.

Superior Sangiovese

Amidst the rolling, sun-kissed hills of Tuscany, south of Siena and the Chianti region, lies the commune of Montalcino and the home of Brunello.   The town of Montalcino is perched high on a hilltop and is surrounded by vineyards of Sangiovese grapes.  Brunello is made from a clone of Sangiovese, the Sangiovese Grosso grape, which is also called Brunello in the local dialect.  There are a total of four Tuscan DOCG wines, including Brunello, that are made from the Sangiovese varietal.  The others are Chianti, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano and Carmignano, however, Brunello is the only DOCG that must be made from 100% Sangiovese.  The result is a wine that is comparatively more distinct, denser and darker, the purest expression of the grape.

While Chianti typically displays a red cherry flavor profile with herbal, earthy notes, Brunello is known for aromas and flavors of black cherry, blackberry and black raspberry, with characteristic notes of violets, cocoa and leather.  Rivaling the great Barolos of Piedmont, Brunellos have intense tannins and high acidity, placing them among Italy’s most age-worthy fine wines.  Brunello must be aged for at least four years prior to release, two of which must be spent in oak casks, and a minimum of four months in bottle.  Like Barolo, these wines benefit from lengthy cellaring and need significant ageing time in order to reach maturity and their full drinking potential.

Being made solely from of the superior Sangiovese Grosso clone certainly contributes to Brunello’s character, but it is the climate of Montalcino that has the most considerable effect on these distinctive wines.  Montalcino is the driest of the Tuscan DOCGs, and has a much warmer climate than Chianti, which gets more rain and is cooler overall.  The Sangiovese grape achieves full ripeness in Montalcino and is harvested several weeks earlier here than in Chianti.  The harvest is usually completed by the end of September, whereas Chianti is still harvesting into October, when rains pose a constant threat.

Styles and Terroirs

In addition to being a unique expression of Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino is a unique expression of its terroir, which can turn this wine into a perplexing study.   Montalcino comprises many varied terrains and soils, factors that have an affect on the Sangiovese grapes grown here and the wine styles that they produce.  The situation is further complicated by different winemaking techniques and their influence on the finished wines.  Despite the resulting array of styles and potential for confusion, we can simplify things quite a bit by grouping Brunello into one of two categories, north or south.

According to many Brunello producers themselves, the different soil types and terroirs of the northern and southern parts of the appellation result in two distinct wine styles.  The vineyards that stretch north from Montalcino grow on mineral-rich clay soils known specifically as Galestro, which maintain a cooler temperature.  The altitude in the north is higher and the microclimate is cooler overall, factors that tend to produce elegant, aromatic wines that have more finesse.  To the south, the vineyards grow in sandy clay soils, receive more sun exposure and have a warmer microclimate.  Here, a shift toward the Mediterranean climate becomes apparent with the vineyards ripening earlier than those in the northern area.  The resulting wines lack the zippy acidity and aromatic nuances of their northern counterparts, but are fuller-bodied, more powerful, fruit-forward expressions.

Ascent of a Fine and Rare Wine

Although Brunello di Montalcino was the first appellation to gain DOCG status, it is actually the most recently established of Italy’s fine wines and was somewhat monopolized by a single family up until the 1950s.  Climente Santi is credited with singling out the Sangiovese Grosso clone in the mid-1800s, yet it’s hard to say that he was the only one who had done so.   It was in fact his grandson, Ferruccio Biondi who first bottled the wine under the Brunello di Montalcino label, establishing the Biondi-Santi brand in 1888.  The Biondi-Santi estate remained the only commercial producer of the wine for the next sixty years and it wasn’t until after WWII that other producers slowly began coming into play.  This combined with the fact that only four vintages were declared between 1888 and 1945, positioned Brunello as one of Italy’s fine and rare wines.

Brunello Buyer’s Guide

When shopping for Brunello, as with any fine wine, it is important to have a handle on the best vintages and producers.  Some of the best Brunello vintages of the past two decades include 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005 and of course, the talk of the town, 2006.  If you’re looking for that perfect Brunello that is ready to drink now, both the 1995 and 1997 vintages are a good place to start.

From one of our favorite producers, the 1999 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino is a great bottle to bring home and drink tonight!  Another exceptional Brunello from the 1999 vintage, but one that will benefit from more cellar time, is the 1999 Livio Sassetti Pertimali Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.  Brunellos that are labeled as Riserva are aged for a year longer than regular release wines and are only produced in the very best vintages from the very best grapes.

Castello Banfi is one of the best producers from the southern area of Montalcino, and among our personal favorites.  Both the 2001 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino and the 2001 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura are outstanding wines that are still developing, making them ideal choices for the cellar.  The former will be ready to drink in the next five years or so, while the latter will need at least eight to ten years before it reaches its prime.

From the outstanding 2004 vintage, the 2004 Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Vigna di Pianrosso is only produced in the very best vintages and will make a great addition to your cellar.  A few more incredible wines from the 2004 vintage are the 2004 Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, the 2004 Podere Salicutti Brunello di Montalcino Piaggione Riserva and the 2004 Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, which are sure to age beautifully over the next decade.

Altesino is one of the top producers from the northern part of Montalcino.  Why not stock up on a wine from both this great recent vintage and an all-star producer, such as the 2006 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli.  Others from the 2006 vintage that we’re excited about include the 2006 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino, the 2006 Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino and the 2006 Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino.  Of course, these too will need cellaring and require a bit of patience, but will be well worth the wait!

A Food Wine

With its intense tannins and great acidity, Brunello di Montalcino needs food just as much as certain foods need Brunello!  Rich dishes such as braised short ribs pair perfectly with Brunello, as do more complex sauces and casseroles that are made with game meats (duck, squab and rabbit to name a few).  Another to try, Brunello with a wild mushroom risotto.  The earthy flavors and richness of the risotto make a great match for Brunello’s flavor profile, structure and acidity.