Home > Editorial > Brunello di Montalcino: past, present and future





Mark Pardoe, Wine Director


Brunello di Montalcino wines are often upheld as amongst Tuscany’s greatest. They also offer exceptional value compared to those from other fine wine regions, considering their quality, value and longevity. Mark Pardoe MW reflects on the history of the area, and debates what we can expect from it in the future

It may seem that the wines and reputation of Brunello di Montalcino have their roots deep in Tuscany’s history. Yet this appellation was only created in 1968, making it the youngest of Italy’s great wine regions.



Montalcino wines did exist prior to being given official DOCG status. While recorded mentions of winemaking here date back to the 14th century, most of its recognition is centred around the role of the Biondi-Santi family in the region.

Both the name, and the wine itself, were invented by Ferruccio Biondi. In 1865, he was the first to make and bottle a Brunello di Montalcino wine, created from a superior clone of Sangiovese isolated by his grandfather Clemente Santi.

Until just after the Second World War, the Biondi-Santi family remained the only commercial producers of Brunello di Montalcino. The wine’s rarity was amplified by only four vintages – 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945 – being declared until then.

Wine was always produced in the Montalcino region. Prior to Biondi-Santi’s efforts, though, outputs were largely a sweet, and often sparkling, Moscadello. This remained the case until the early 1960s, when farmers began the move to red wine production.

At the time, there were only 11 producers, between them farming around 60 hectares of land. These numbers had swelled to 53 producers by 1980; today, there are over 200 producers, farming over 2,000 hectares. The appellation is now fully planted.

As the only recognised longstanding producer in the region, Biondi-Santi also had the privileged position of forming the laws for the new appellation when it was created. Largely, they based these on their own methods and experiences from their past century of winemaking.



A major shot in the arm came at the end of the 1970s, with American wine importers John and Harry Mariani. The Marianis decided to invest in the region, to create a Brunello for their domestic market. Enlisting Italian oenologist Ezio Rivella, they bought over 2,000 hectares of land and created Castello Banfi.

This was not without controversy. There was uproar when their company began remodelling some of the slopes to maximise exposure to the sun, and make them easier to cultivate. Yet, their efforts created the more modern style of Brunello, with which most people are now familiar. They also led to a brand-new market, and mass loyalty to the wine in the USA.

On the back of this success, Brunello’s producers grew. Many brought in further investment from outside, including the world-renowned Angelo Gaja. The full-bodied, rich style of Brunello di Montalcino began to evolve.

Many producers were small estates, and their wines rapidly became as desirable as Biondi-Santi’s had been in the previous century. Maverick producers like Gianfranco Soldera and Cerbaiona further enhanced the region’s collectable status.



Montalcino now stands at a crossroads, that is both exciting and challenging. While its wines now have an international reputation, its style is still being defined.

As a whole, the region’s geology and climate are not homogenous. There is a wide variety of soil types and altitude here; the now-normal heat of the summers is making vineyards at higher altitudes more interesting, particularly in the newer estates on the steep slopes around the town of Montalcino itself.

Does this level of regional variation suggest a need to identify, more precisely, defined sub-zones within the appellation? It’s likely. The style of wine produced here can vary considerably, and climate change will only continue to accentuate this.



01: Sangiovese vines at Lisini

02: Fabian Schwarz hard at work at La Màgia





Currently, there is hardly any recognition, or promotion, of single-vineyard sites. The hill of Montosoli was introduced as a cru by the highly respected Altesino in 1975. Six different owners now produce a wine exclusively from this vineyard, but few have followed suit with other sites.

As in Barolo and Barbaresco, a single-vineyard wine is not necessarily superior to one blended from complementary components. Yet what it does allow is a clearer understanding of each vineyard’s character and potential. It is inevitable, if Montalcino is to be seen as a great wine region, that the equivalent of its Grands Crus will need to be identified.




Perhaps the greatest challenge Brunello di Montalcino faces is centred around its wine laws. As stated, these were heavily based on the long-established methods practiced at Biondi-Santi. It should be remembered that this famous estate is situated at 400 metres of elevation; the enshrined requirement for extended ageing in wood was necessary here, due to the more astringent style produced in that cooler environment.

While Brunello di Montalcino wines originally had to spend up to six years in large barrels, this has been reduced over the years. Yet, straying from the minimum requirements can still incur a conviction for criminal fraud, and a possible jail sentence.

“This is a region full of variety and enterprise, blessed with breathtaking scenery and an idyllic environment”

It is interesting to see how the more intuitive producers of Brunello di Montalcino are finding ways of working within these laws, while seeking to minimise the impact of the stipulated ageing period. The conditions that predicated the current style of ageing no longer exist: summers are hotter and drier, the fruit is riper and lower in acidity, and the tannins are smoother. As we’re observing in our tastings, there is a charm and elegance to the wines that is already evident early in maturation, and before the full two or three years in wood is completed.

This is a region full of variety and enterprise, blessed with breathtaking scenery and an idyllic environment. There is a mix of larger and smaller producers, and some very small ones. The region will, and must, evolve. But the direction of change is always qualitative.

A revised style of Brunello di Montalcino may emerge, but it will surely remain as compelling as those great, rare wines that first created its reputation.