If choosing a good wine is a challenging business, it's because the label is not a guarantee of quality. Not everything that has Bordeaux on it is first-rate; the region produces plenty of truly mediocre stuff, and not merely from the unglamorous appellations such as Cotes de Blaye and Cotes de Bourg. The same is true of Burgundy's fickle Pinot Noirs.
One of the wines you can rarely go wrong with is Brunello di Montalcino. If the label is an assurance of quality, it is partly because Brunello (or nice dark one) is grown in a small region around one village (Montalcino) in the southern and warmer part of Tuscany, where the weather is more conducive to the ripening of grapes and the production of big-bodied reds. Also, wine laws demand a more rigorous ageing process – between four and five years depending on whether it is a regulation Brunello or a riserva. The wine must spend at least half this time in oak and the remainder in the bottle.
Made from a clone of Sangiovese, a variant of the one used in Chianti, fleshy and aromatic Brunellos vary from their Chianti cousins in both character and style. Brunellos are made from 100 per cent Sangiovese unlike Chiantis, which are allowed up to 20 per cent of other varietals, including French ones, in the blend.
So when Castello di Banfi – which owns what is the largest contiguous vineyard in Italy – held a recent wine dinner, it was the Brunellos I was looking forward to drinking and not so much their Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay (which were perfectly acceptable by the way). There were two on offer, the first being the eponymously named Brunello di Montalcino and the other being the Poggio all'Oro.
Both complemented the splendid pistachio-coated rack of lamb, one of the highlights of Chef Giovanna's painstakingly paired six-course dinner. But surprisingly it was the former – with its muted notes of chocolate and licorice and an authority held behind an unassuming veil of restraint – that scored over the more celebrated Poggio. The latter had the body and fruit-forwardness of a youthful new world wine, more Napa than Tuscany. This seems almost sacrilegious to say about a wine so fastidious in its selection of grapes that it is produced in years only when the vintage is excellent – and that too only in nine years since it was launched in 1985. But I say it. “Perhaps, it needs some more time in the bottle,” agrees Paolo Fassina, Castello di Banfi's Area Manager, graciously. And adds, “But then it's all a matter of taste.”
Brunellos have a history that go back to the 1870s and the American-owned Banfi is not merely a new player – it is also an unconventional one. A few years ago, it innovated by developing fermentation tanks that use both wood and steel, the former reintroducing the traditional (and now almost lost) touch of oak fermentation. The stainless steel used at the top and bottom helping to do what modern fermentation tanks do – maintain temperature accurately and facilitate cleaning.
Brunellos are expensive and, despite being made by some 260 producers around Montalcino, they are not easy to lay your hands on. But they are no-brainers if you have the money and find a wine store that stacks them. You can be more or less sure the label's the thing.
(The wine tasting was held over dinner at Prego at the Taj Coromandel, Chennai)