I like wine. Maybe it’s as I’ve aged (like a fine wine) or maybe it’s a more general shift to a slower pace of life, but I can genuinely hand on heart say that I have definitely grown to value a good quality glass of wine over the last few years. Like most casual quaffers, I have some basic rules, learnt from years of perusing the shelves at Tesco and searching for the holy grail of a fancy label with a price discount. These rules are based on nothing of substance beyond my own personal preference – always dry, never fruity, and wherever possible that magic word: mineral. Do I know how fruits grown on vines become such a delicious combination of zing, tang and sparkle in my mouth? Of course not, just give me the good stuff, right?
And so, in early October 2016 we set off on a gastronomic odyssey to Tuscany, because we like wine and pizza, and it was on the second to last day of our trip that I transformed into a mini oenophile on the ramparts of a 14th century fort in one of the most famous wine making towns in Europe. My first ever glass of Brunello di Montalcino was only a few days prior, at another fort (wine and forts is a thing in Italy) in Siena. There, already a few days into our journey, and already a little tired and weary of the 2014 Chianti Classicos that were, literally, everywhere, I decided to treat myself to a 10 Euro glass of the good stuff. I can’t remember the vineyard, I can’t remember the vintage; all I can remember was that it was presented to me in a glass goblet and it smelt and tasted like heaven. We sat on the sun drenched terrace of the Enoteca and I swilled and sipped and knew that I’d discovered something that was likely to change my outlook on wine for a while.
Three days later and we were on our way to Montalcino, home of the world famous Brunello wine and a little over two hours’ drive from our villa. Let’s not underestimate the significance of that drive; we were in one of the most beautiful parts of the world I’ve ever visited, with each bend of each road offering spectacular views and countless opportunities to try wine, bread, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and many other epicurean delights. This was a trek, nay, a pilgrimage, based solely on one fleeting experience of only a few days prior.
And so, a little before lunch, as the roads narrowed, we approached Montalcino. We knew it was coming; the signs advertising tasting tours, agriturismos and “produce of the region” lined the path. As we climbed the hill we watched fields of red gold pass us by, wondering how delicious the fruit of each one could be, and whether it was better (or just more expensive) than the one before. There’s nothing like drinking wine in a fort. There’s nothing like drinking the type of wine that is borne of centuries of craft in a medieval structure built in 1361. And so we did, at the Enoteca la Fortezza in Montalcino, which offers a dazzling array of tasting experiences that completely encompass the startling range of wines offered by the town. We passed on the opportunity to try 3 wines recently rated “100 points” each by the international press, almost certain that the 100 euro experience would be entirely wasted on us. Instead we went for a taste of 5 separate Brunellos across a variety of vintages and styles, all priced in the relatively reasonable range of 40-60 euros a bottle.
Ably guided by Jo, who left us to try each (with free snacks!) before returning to quiz us on what we’d tasted, see what we liked and try to explain why each tasted different, this was truly a unique experience. And here’s the thing: Brunello di Montalcino must, by law, contain 100% Sangiovese grapes, matured no less than two years in casks and coming to market no less than 50 months from harvest. Everything else is up for grabs. There are varieties of Sangiovese, different types of barrels, different slopes on which the wine is grown, and, of course, different summers that sweeten and ripen the grapes according to their own rules.
I know very little, still, about how these processes could have made each of those 5 glasses of wine taste different, but to know that someone does, well, it’s a bit mind-blowing, like some kind of mystical magic trick that excites, amazes and intrigues all in one go. I think Jo had us pegged though. Five glasses of wine (plus the freebie Super Tuscan) meant we were a little too happy to hand the credit card over. I’m just grateful we went for the cheap selection because I reckon the rate at which I was falling in love with Brunello I’d have bought whatever was put in front of me.