Brunello is something about which you ought to know, if you enjoy wines. When you want to impress a client or a date at an Italian restaurant, ordering a Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino is usually the way to do it. These are the top red wine appellations in Italy. Several super Tuscans are as highly regarded as the best Barolos and Brunellos, but those usually require more wine knowledge and attention from your guests. You’d hate to spend hundreds of dollars on Masseto and let that go unnoticed. Same goes for Flaccianello, which also has a name that some might not take seriously. Flaccianello.
However, “Barolo” and “Brunello” scream top-of-line, even at much lower price points than Masseto, Solaia and Sassicaia, and most of the wines from Gaja.
The problem with most Barolos and Brunellos at restaurants is that what is available on their wine lists – usually just the most recent vintages – are not old enough to be in prime condition. This is especially the case with most Brunellos, even though the aging requirements are lengthiest in Italy, four-plus years for the “regular Brunello and five-plus for the Riserva. Many of these wines take years to develop. I had the opportunity to visit several producers a few years ago in and around Montalcino. At a tasting at Fattoria dei Barbi, one of the oldest Brunello producers, the Brunellos we tasted were all still extremely tannic. Our guide told us that Barbi’s Brunellos “need to wait five years at the very least.” In late 2012, the 2004 vintage was the youngest of their Brunellos that was ready to drink.
Another issue is that Brunellos are big and usually very tannic wines that demand big, and usually, fat-laden flavors. The most common answer I received from producers to my query of what food best paired with their Brunello was “bistecca,” steak. Dining at wineries and with Brunello for several days, the wine might go best with steak and beef, in general, but it can complement more than that. Legendary restaurateur Piero Selvaggio of Valentino recommends Brunello with “braised meats, any form of steaks and wild boar and pici pasta with a rich meat ragù.” The pici (or pinci in Montalcino) is the indigenous pasta of the area, which are like thick, soft strands of spaghetti. More than bistecca, but big and meaty still work the best.
In a restaurant setting, your guests will likely be ordering somewhat disparate dishes, not all steaks. But, Brunello can still work, especially if it is a lighter style. Two I tasted at that last event in Houston sponsored by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino were from La Fortuna and Camigliano. These wines were medium-bodied, less tannic than typical, and extremely approachable and drinkable, much more so than the typical Brunello, which will need more time to develop. These wines would be good to order at restaurant since, while still carrying the prestige of Brunello, these are really ready to drink now unlike many Brunellos found on wine lists, and the lighter style can appeal to a greater range of dishes than the rich meat preparations.
I asked Joel Mack of the informative, Italian-focused Vintrospective blog, who was a fellow traveler in November, for additional recommendations of a lighter style of Brunello. He suggested, “La Lecciaia, La Poderina, La Magia, and perhaps Gianni Brunelli.” A few more to remember when dining to impress.