Montalcino’s Brunello: A Taste of Tuscan Perfection

Perhaps sheep, goats and a cowbell-clad donkey don’t greet everyone heading down the dirt and gravel road to La Magia vineyard in Montalcino, but they should. Even as a particular long-horned goat unflinchingly stared into our car, my four wine-loving friends and I had to chuckle at the setting’s perfection: a Tuscan sun illuminating the verdant pastures and vineyards, a charming cowbell clinking in concert with the leaves that gently swished in the breeze, the smell of lavender and herbaceous air – how could fabulous wine NOT be produced in this environment?

And sure enough, as we made our way to the unassuming vineyard known as Fattoria La Magia, we were soon to learn just how great that wine could be. Winemaker and owner Fabian Schwarz greeted us and casually took us to a hillside overlooking his grapes with a breathtaking view that also included a distant Benedictine St. Antimo abbey that Charlemagne built so many centuries ago. While it is far from being the biggest vineyard in the world (approximately 52 hectares of which you can see all of it from this one vantage point), here is a winery that has flourished, exporting its wine around the world.

“Do you ever get sick of this view,” I said while transfixed by the gentle vineyards with the abbey beyond and a backdrop of the majestic Apennine Mountains.

Fabian chuckled and said, “No, but sometimes they look even better after I have been away traveling.”

The Brunello everybody loves

Most wine experts will say that Brunello is Tuscany’s greatest wine varietal; others say it is the best in all of Italy. Roughly translated as “nice dark one,” this is a red wine lover’s dream with its smooth tannins and robust dark fruit and leather flavors. Brunello di Montalcino was awarded with the first DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in 1980, which means it can only be grown and produced in Montalcino, that everything used to make the wine must also come from Montalcino and that it can only be made from 100 percent Brunello grapes, which are a perfected clone of the Sangiovese grape that dates back to the mid-19th century. Fabian explained that Brunello must age at least two years in oak barrels and a minimum of four years overall as part of the DOCG rules. Riserva Brunello ages at least two and a half years in oak barrels and five years overall.

Like many of the local winemakers, Fabian and his wife offer tastings and tours by appointment, and depending on what you taste and whether you would like some charcuterie alongside your wines, the price ranges between 10 and 18 Euro ($14-25 US).  The tour starts in the vineyard, goes through the cellars and finishes outside under a shady tree, where the family dog is quick to nestle herself comfortably under the tables as well.

It’s this kind of environment that allows one to learn about the challenges a winemaker has and see the parts of winemaking that drive his passion. My friend’s simple question about Fabian’s wine label revealed that when he was just four years old, an artist had come to visit his father to design that year’s label for the Riserva wine. However, on that occasion the four-year-old created art that proved to be longer-lived, still adorning all of La Magia’s wine bottles rather than just one vintage like the work from the more experienced artist.

A satisfying tasting

So, La Magia, like most of the wineries in Montalcino has found the benefits of location and have clearly specialized in Brunello. Like most winemakers in this area, Fabian specializes with the three wines of Montalcino: Rosso, Brunello and Brunello Riserva. While winemakers save their best quality grapes for Riserva and lesser quality grapes for Rosso, a lot of the rules can change depending on a good or bad vintage. Many reviewers will note that in bad vintage years, these wines can prove to be exceptional values. As winemakers downgrade their best grapes, the Rosso’s quality improves. Asking Fabian about which years were good years for Rosso and good years for Riserva proved mind numbing. Compounding the confusing list of vintages was the fact that as we tasted his three wines, they all had impressive aroma, taste and color, despite ranging in price from 12 to 45 Euros/bottle.

Bad quality Rosso?  Not from this place was the conclusion we drew. Yes, the Rosso lacked some of that depth and tannins in which the Brunello and Riserva bathed your tongue, but it definitely held its own as a hearty, earthy, robust red wine. We bought two bottles of each wine for the rest of our Tuscan vacation. However, we couldn’t resist opening them in threesomes to continue comparing and contrasting.

My husband likes to say that the best wines are always best because of context – you’re having a good time, surrounded by friends or family, or the setting is just perfect. Well, for six traveling friends in Tuscany, we decided La Magia has some damn fine context.

– Ivy F. Kupec


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