Italy is the world’s biggest wine producer, accounting for a quarter of the world’s production. The country’s rich and diverse wine heritage dates back more than two thousand years. Each of Italy’s 20 geographically defined wine regions is special for a certain type of wine, and each type of wine enhances and complements the food of its region.
Among these appellations of Italy, are the wines of Piedmont and Tuscany, surely the most famous, sought-after and collected, not to mention the most long-lived. Wine-lovers the world over crave the renowned Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino, the famed ‘Killer B’s’ of Italy.
Renowned as some of the world’s greatest red wines, these pure-varietal expressions compete for prestige with the Grand Crus of Burgundy, the classified growths of Bordeaux and the cult cabernets of California. All carry the DOCG denomination – which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – designed as the pinnacle of Italian wine quality assurance.
Popularly referred by many enthusiasts as the wine of kings and the king of wines, Barolo is made exclusively with the nebbiolo grape and widely considered to be the cream of the crop when it comes to Italian reds. Barolo (pronounced bah-ROH-loh) refers to a wine production area located in the northwestern portion of Piedmont and lies just southwest of the large Barbera producing areas of Asti and Alba. Over 90 percent of Barolo wines come from five prominent communes: Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, La Morra Valley, Monforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba.
The slightly higher altitude of these locales (relative to other neighbourly wine producing areas) provides less of a maritime influence and thus cooler temperatures. Producers of Barolo tend to fall into two categories: modernists and traditionalists – often a subject of controversy and debate. Whereas modernists use more New World techniques – shorter maceration and fermentation times without stems, commercial yeasts, pump-overs, and aging in smaller French barrels – traditionalists use methods that have been used for centuries. Wine is fermented in concrete cisterns with natural yeast for three weeks or longer, after which it’s aged for a number of years in enormous 500–1000-gallon casks, known locally as botti. Common food pairings tend to include truffles, cured meats, venison, and beef.
Like its cousin Barolo, Barbaresco (bar-bah-RESS-koh) is made entirely from the nebbiolo grape and situated in Piedmont. And although the two areas are only two miles apart, there are some notable differences between the two wines that set them apart from each other. While Barolo typically has more structure and thus the ability to age longer, Barbaresco wines are said to be more perfumed and softer, and thus highly favoured by drinkers for its earlier approachability.
Barbaresco wines come primarily from three communities: Barbaresco, Neive, and Treiso. The wines of Neive are considered by many to be the best examples of Barbaresco. DOCG requirements mandate that Barbaresco wines must be aged in cask for a minimum of one year and one year in the bottle before release.
Brunello di Montalcino
This Tuscan giant (pronounced brew-NELL-loh dee mont-al-CHEE-noh) is produced in the tiny commune of Montalcino, which lies in the Siena province of Tuscany. The name “Brunello” refers to the grape, which is a clone of sangiovese, and is also known locally as sangiovese grosso. The origin of the name “Brunello”, which translates to “brownish,” is unknown. Some believe the name came from the colour of the wine, while others believe it to be a family name or derivative.
In order to label a wine “Brunello di Montalcino”, DOCG rules mandate that it be made from 100 percent sangiovese, aged in cask for a minimum of two years (although three years is more typical), and bottle aged for another six months before release. Traditionally, the wine goes through a period of extended maceration following fermentation, where the spent grape skins are allowed to remain in contact – sometimes for weeks – with the finished wine.
Brunello has grown immensely popular over the last few decades. In the 1960s, there were only 11 producers. Today there are over 200.
Ultimately, deciding which wine to buy or consume depends greatly on your overall preferences and expectations. While there are some flavours common to all three of these Killer B’s, such as dried herbs, pepper, cherry, leather and earth, the difference in grape variety and location means that these wines have very different common tasting notes. And though all three styles of wine can age well, Barbaresco and Brunello can be enjoyed sooner, and your initial investment is likely to be lower than with a Barolo of the same vintage.
Reva 2015 Barolo Ravera
The Reva estate is run by a group of young professionals who value both tradition and innovation, managing vineyards in some of the most important crus. All vineyards are cultivated organically. This is as extremely complex as it is balanced and elegant. Scents of spice waft from the glass, with floral, red and blackberry fruit, tobacco and cedar notes in hot pursuit. The palate is succulent, with a deep, yet floral taste of rose petal, licorice and spiced berry fruit. Tannins are velvety smooth and chewy, with fresh and lively acidity maintaining the balance and keeping the wine’s structure intact. ($99.95 | Vintages Online Exclusive)
Punset 2014 Barbaresco Basarin
Punset is an innovator when it comes to organic winemaking in Italy and this Barbaresco is testament to the pioneering measures that fifth generation winemaker Marina Marcarino has taken in bringing her estate up with the times whilst preserving age-old traditions. This is her flagship wine – known to be the very first certified organic Barbaresco of Italy. It’s bold, yet elegant and pleasant on the palate. The wine’s floral and berry aromas immediately seduce the senses, but this is no delicate flower. This is a wine that can stand up to any steak, lamb or veal main course meal. ($66.95 npwines.com)
Cortonesi 2015 ‘La Mannella’ Brunello di Montalcino
La Mannella refers to the estate’s former identity which was renamed to Cortonesi to put emphasis on this winemaking family’s history and their connection to Montalcino. Roughly eight of their 56 hectare property is reserved for producing Brunello. This cru wine is a powerful and expressive example of what one can expect from these wines when they’re made in terrific vintages. Dark fruit aromas combine with pepper, cloves and nutmeg. Palate flavours are rich and bold, with more dark fruits being revealed through the very structured and smooth tannin profile. There’s some espresso on the finish. Perhaps a few more years of age will bring out an earthier core. ($78.95 | Available this December as a Vintages Classics selection)
Cortonesi 2018 ‘La Mannella’ Rosso di Montalcino
While not exactly a Brunello by traditional standards, I’d be remiss to not want to include this “baby Brunello” – a beautifully aromatic and expressively structured wine for about a third of the price of its big daddy. Expectedly, this doesn’t exactly match the depth and richness, nor imaginative experience as the Brunello, but this does make for a fine alternative, all things considered. Fresh and vibrant with juicy red fruit that’s angling toward the brambled spectrum, there’s subtle hints of herbs and spices, cedar and earth. Perhaps a tad on the young side still, two to four more years of cellaring will likely calm its firm acidity and tame its tannins. However, if choosing to drink right now, that liveliness makes for an excellent pairing with tomato-based dishes like lasagna or manicotti vs. later on with rich risotto or lamb stew. ($29.95 npwines.com)