“Benvenuto Brunello” translates to “Welcome Brunello,” an aptly named event for a first-time industry tasting Brunello-novice like myself.
When invited to attend the industry tasting event for the unveiling of the Brunello di Montalcino 2012 vintage, and write about my experience, many thoughts raced through my mind. These included “I get to taste lots of expensive Italian wine for free?” but also “What is an industry tasting?”.
Upon googling the event title, and trying to learn everything I could about the event style to prepare myself, I found surprisingly little information on the web. I soon learned there was a good reason for that, as these vintage unveilings are trade tastings reserved only for those in the wine industry whose job warrants an invitation. So, what are these industry tastings all about? And for people outside the industry, what do they mean for you as a consumer?
The Purpose of the Tasting
Producers must follow strict guidelines to be able to have the right to label their wine “Brunello di Montalcino” (a DOCG, or “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita”). These guidelines include where the grapes may come from, what type of grapes may be used, and specific aging requirements. For Brunello, the grapes must come from the communal territory of Montalcino in Tuscany, must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, and must be aged for at least 2 years in oak casks, followed by 4 months of bottle aging (6 months for the Riserva). The final distinction for a Brunello is that bottles become available for sale no sooner than the 1st of January of the 5th year following the harvest (6th year for Riserva).
Therefore, the Benvenuto Brunello 2017 event, held in January 2017 (holding one event in New York City, and another event in Houston, TX) is the introduction of the Brunello di Montalcino 2012 vintage, along with new releases of Riservas and Rossos di Montalcino, to the U.S. marketplace.
Convention Hall Wine Tasting, Spittoons and All
Upon signing into the event and getting my name tag (color coded green for “Media”), I was given a wine glass to be used throughout the tasting. We were also provided with helpful booklets listing all the participating producers and the wines they were showcasing.
New York City’s Gotham Hall, a popular wedding and event space near Herald Square, was set up convention style with long tables that allowed representatives from the producers to stand on one side, and tasting participants to approach from the other side. I quickly learned that one of the trickiest aspects of participating in this tasting was vying for the spittoons. While spittoons were placed at each producers table, I sometimes found the bucket was just on the other side of a large, chatty Italian-man I needed to politely maneuver around to delicately spit my wine out.
I also quickly learned that producers liked to showcase their full range of wines—preferring that you start your tasting at their table with their Rosso di Montalcino wine (more on that later) and “working your way up” to the Brunellos and Riservas. However, with so many wines to try (in only 5 hours), I sometimes skipped the Rossos and went straight for the good stuff. You heard that right, the tasting lasts for 5 hours! Mercifully, the venue had some Italian cheeses, crackers, and bread to cleanse the palate.
Lots of Wines, Very Quickly
The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, an association of winemakers that came together in 1967, organizes this trade event every year to showcase to the wine world the newly released vintage. The New York City event included wines from 60 of the approximately 209 producers of Brunello. With 60 producers, each showing 2-4 wines, there were literally hundreds of wines to try.
If you had any hope of making it through most of them, you had to keep the pace quick and the conversation light, all while trying to scribble a few tasting notes that will be legible later, while juggling your glass, pen, and booklet and trying to find the nearest spittoon. Sound stressful? Yeah, it was a little stressful. A whirlwind, much like I imagine speed-dating feels like (do people take notes when speed-dating? They should.)
This event is a chance for the producers to show off the vintage to industry folks (restaurant and retails buyers, importers, distributors, and media like me), and it was clear from the first table I went to that the producers were excited about the 2012 vintage. This energy made the vibe in the room positive and bright… much like the wine! I had the expectation going in that 2012 was a good vintage, and feel fortunate that my first experience at an industry tasting was the showcasing of a vintage everyone was thrilled about. The 2012 Brunellos were bright and juicy, and while they are years away from their peak drinkability, they were much more enjoyable to taste upon release than say, the 2011 Riservas, which did not show as much fruit on the palate.
Brunello di Montalcino vs. Rosso di Montalcino
This event is also used to showcase Rosso di Montalcino, as many producers of Brunello also make Rosso di Montalcino. While Brunello is very bold red wine with high tannins, Rosso di Montalcino is like a sassy little sister, in a fruitier, lighter style, suited for everyday sipping. Both Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino are made from 100% Sangiovese grapes from the same area (Montalcino), but Rosso is a DOC (“Denominazione di Origine Controllata”) with guidelines that do not mandate any barrel-aging.
This method produces a much fruitier style of wine that is ready to drink upon release—compared with Brunellos that even after further aging in barrel and bottle still benefits greatly from cellar aging after release. Rosso di Montalcino can be released just one year after harvest, so this event featured Rossos from 2014 and 2015, as some producers opt to age their Rossos for a year prior to release. The 2015 Rossos from Northern Montalcino had well-balanced fruit, while wines from the south had at times a fruit-juice quality.
What I Learned
I have never tasted so many wines back-to-back-to-back, let alone wines all from the same region, from the same vintages, in rapid succession. Previously, when I heard wine connoisseurs compare the distinctions of vintages or producers from the same area, particularly for wines that have strict quality standards like Brunello, I was skeptical that anyone could tell marked differences between these wines with confidence. However, now that I have experienced this speed-dating-like Brunello tasting, I immediately understood that tasting wines in a concentrated, intensive way can quickly build a mental bank of flavors, styles, and certainly preferences all within what to me previously seemed like a minuscule spectrum.
While most people do not have access to these types of tastings, I would recommend trying to set up a similar boot camp-like tasting at home with friends, or some other like-minded wine drinkers in your area. I often find that restaurant and wine class-driven tastings cover a wide range of varietals, styles, and regions, drawing upon obvious differences for teaching purposes. However, there is value (and fun too!) in trying to exercise your palate further by lining up a few wines of very similar styles, varietals, and vintages, and picking up on the nuances within those sub-categories.
Alternatively (or additionally), trust those wine connoisseurs in your life, whether the Sommelier at a restaurant, or the owner of your local wine shop, because they have likely had experience at these industry tastings that you can benefit from. “Tasting Groups” are a great way to approach the same type of tasting that wine professionals get to experience all the time, in which a group of similarly minded wine drinkers pool their funds and host themed tastings. Grab some folks and try it out!