Spotlight on Sangiovese: Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino 2003

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Despite its remarkable beauty and immediate loveability, Italy is a daunting country for any wine lover. With over 800 grape varieties, countless DOC and DOCGs and thousands of wineries, Italy is both deeply regional and a nuanced amalgam of grape and terroir.

While I have consumed hundreds of Italian wines, I feel as though I have only a limited understanding of the country. When faced with an immeasurable chasm of learning I like to start with the fundamentals. Sangiovese is perhaps the Italian grape, with nearly twice as many plantings as the next most populous varieties. Though planted throughout Italy, Sangiovese is best known in Tuscany and Umbria, with other significant plantings in Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna.

Sangiovese is also a grape that seems unable to succeed anywhere else in the world. Despite occasional pleasurable examples from California and Australia, for the most part nowhere makes good Sangiovese except for Italy. And yet within Italy, Sangiovese is possible of many different expressions.

In this spotlight I will focus on understanding the many faces of Sangiovese: whether terroir truly speaks or whether clonal selection and viticulture and cellar practices make the most significant impact on the final product. What makes Sangiovese so uniquely Italian and which producers are staying true to the grape’s indigenous character?

Instability and Brunello

Sangiovese is notoriously genetically unstable. It mutates with ease and clonal variation proliferates. The traditional line for Brunello di Montalcino’s greatness was that its Sangiovese clone were unique. There are, however, at least 6 different clones used in Montalcino, and it is more likely that the warm climate and the sandy and limestone soils contribute at least as much to the region’s distinctiveness than the particular clones used (soils also vary considerably between the northern and southern vineyards in Brunello di Montalcino).

Sangiovese is a late-ripening variety. In Brunello, with its hotter climate as compared to other Tuscan regions, Sangiovese vinifies into powerful, tannic and dark fruited juice. The required minimum of 4 years aging exists because the juice from these grapes is so taught and undrinkable in its youth. Most Brunello di Montalcino’s also need at least 5 years bottle age after being released before it becomes truly drinkable. With age, however, Brunello di Montalcino can blossom into a many-scented, deeply elegant and yet powerful wine of great distinction.

On Salvioni

Salvioni is a new-comer in Montalcino compared to storied producers like Biondi-Santi (1888) or Fattoria dei Barbi (the next oldest at around 1950). Founded in 1985, Salvioni has quickly catapulted into the upper echelons of Brunello di Montalcino, sharing pride of place with producers like Soldera. Owning 4ha of vines planted in the original Brunello di Montalcino zone (at the high-elevation vineyards near Biondi-Santi), Salvioni heavily restricts yields through considerable pruning but ultimately vinifies the wines very traditionally, using extended macerations and blends together 5 different clones. Only about 800 cases are produced and Salvioni makes no riserva bottling.

Choosing a good producer in Montalcino is essential. Since 1975, the number of producers has increased from 25 to 500. Plantings are at an all time high and many critics believe that the region is over-planted and many sub-standard sites are being made into wine that simply does not bear the hallmark quality for which Brunello di Montalcino has become known. The battle between modernists and traditionalists continues, with modernists winning short term scores and making rich up front fruity wines, but with traditionalists making more difficult to appreciate but much longer aging wines. Salvioni is generally seen as part of the traditionalist camp.

A Traditional Brunello

2003 was a hot year across Europe. It was difficult to make good wine in this year, particularly in warmer zones like Brunello di Montalcino. Salvioni’s high altitude vineyards, however, assisted greatly in producing a more elegant and balanced wines than most of his peers.

Still pouring very dark red despite its 8 years of age, this Brunello was all classic dried cherries, leather, sandalwood and flowers on the nose. The palate offered a powerful but tight acid structure and was ultimately still too tannic and not yet fully resolved.

It is always unfortunate to open such a prized bottle when too young, and that was certainly the case here though this Brunello had started to open and show its complexity after a few hours decanting. Licorice, roots and dried cherries – right now this is good but not great for the price and I expected a lot more. I believe this still needs 5+ years in the bottle, but it is also possible that 2003 will never shed its awkwardness even as it becomes less aggressive with age. I will open another in a few years to see.

Very Good+
$180 at Kits Wine


  1. Brad
    October 24, 2011

    Great topic to choose Shea. I’m looking forward to reading more about your Sangiovese adventures/experiments. It’s one of my favorite grapes. Sorry to hear your first selection of the Brunello wasn’t ideal. I would agree that unless you have some older ones stored away, you might end up having that happen again. Probably find more success with the Chianti’s and Vino Nobile’s…or maybe even an over-delivering Rosso. Either way, as you said at the top of the post, there’s certainly lots to choose from.

    Here’s hoping you come across a killer QPR one that we can all take pleasure in!


  2. Shea
    October 25, 2011

    Well Salvioni is one of the absolute best producers in Brunello and this vintage is 8 years old so I expected great things. However, I simply opened the bottle too early I think. 2003 is also a tricky vintage. You might think they should be drinking now, but my experience across Europe with the serious reds is that they are often developing much slower than expected. I am sure I will have better luck with a few other Brunellos I have lined up.

  3. Joon S.
    October 25, 2011

    Excellent article, as always (but dang, BC mark-ups give me the chills!). Did you see Eric Asimov’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times? He has a good write-up of Sangiovese, but in its Rosso di Montalcino incarnation. Perhaps you could wait for the 2003 vintage of Brunello to mature by quaffing some of the simpler, but sublime, Rossos:

    I agree with the panel’s assessment of Mocali, which is not only delicious but extremely affordable. I’d strongly recommend it if you can find it in your neck of the woods.

  4. Shea
    October 25, 2011

    Joon, I will be looking at good value Sangioveses as well of course! I will read the Asmiov piece, he’s one of my favourite wine writers. I’ve normalized the taxes to the point of numbness.

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