When my client Ethica Wines sent me to Italy a year ago in January, their Brunello producer Ridolfi wasn’t even on my radar.
Montalcino is where I first became interested in wine (while I was a grad student in Italy in the late 80s) thanks to one of the town’s leading sommeliers at the time. It’s the appellation I know possibly better than any other because of my extended time on the ground there and my work for some of the DOCG’s top players. But I had never even heard of newcomer Ridolfi when I saw the estate on my itinerary.
After the mandatory tour of the estate’s onsite vineyards and the winemaking facility, I finally got to sit down with winemaker Gianni Maccari and taste through his first vintages for the winery (which is owned by Giuseppe Peretti, an Italian entrepreneur who bought the estate in 2011).
Honestly — and this was a lacuna — I didn’t know that Gianni had quietly made some of Brunello’s most coveted wines from the 1990s. I don’t want to name the winery here (because it’s not my place to name names) but if you worked in the New York/Italian wine industry in the early 2000s like I did, there was one Brunello, and a very famous 1994 Brunello that was reclassified as a Rosso di Montalcino, that everyone was talking about. And I mean everyone. That winery’s 2001 Brunello would go on to be one of the appellation’s most collected wines of all time.
Little did I know that Gianni had been responsible for the day-to-day winemaking for those bottlings.
I was also unaware that Gianni had also been one of the last disciples of Giulio Gambelli, the humble but widely celebrated blender of Sangiovese who had a hand in some of Tuscany’s greatest wines of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
“Giulio tastes what others do not,” said one of Brunello’s most famous growers when Gambelli passed in 2012. “There’s no one like him.”
(Google “Giulio Gambelli” and you’ll see what an impact he had on Italian wine over the years.)
As I tasted the wines with him, I had no idea of Gianni’s connection to Gambelli and his own legacy as one of Montalcino’s most deft hands. I just knew that I was sitting with the winemaker for one of my client’s estates.
But Gianni didn’t have to say much: his wines spoke for themselves.
I was completely floored with how good these wines were. Across the board, they delivered classic Sangiovese color (always first and telling indication of the Brunello producer’s approach); great acidity and freshness that countered the wine’s powerful tannin; a lithe and nimble character that gave the wines lift in harmony with the rich body; and brilliant clarity of fruit, perhaps reluctant at this early moment in the wines’ evolution but surely destined for greatness.
But the most important element — the thing that makes these truly great expressions of Montalcino Sangiovese in my view — was the notes of sottobosco or underbrush/vegetation. Those flavors, which evoke the Montalcino countryside with its mix of woods and vine, are the hallmark of Brunello greatness. They shouldn’t eclipse the wine’s fruit, savory flavors, or minerality. But if ever there were an example of terroir in wine, this is one: in my experience, it’s what makes Brunello Sangiovese so unique and compelling.
If it’s not already abundantly apparent, I’ve been obsessed with the wines since I first tasted them over a year ago in Montalcino (on my last trip to Italy). So you can imagine my joy when I received a bottle in an Ethica Wines care package.
After letting the wine rest for a week, we opened the bottle with some collector friends on Sunday. It was wonderful to watch our friend Bill marvel at the color of this wine — the true color of Sangiovese! He was also surprised by its buoyant character. It was so different from what he was expecting, he said.
This is one of the true Brunello greats, I told him, by the once and future king of Montalcino: Gianni Maccari.