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Brunello di Montalcino is one Italy's most famous and prestigious wines. In Tuscany, its homeland, it shares the top spot with only the highly-prized Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and of course the ubiquitous Chianti.

All Brunello di Montalcino wine is made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around Montalcino – a classic Tuscan hilltop village 20 miles (30km) south of Siena. The word Brunello translates roughly as "little dark one", and is the local vernacular name for Sangiovese Grosso, the large-berried form of Sangiovese which grows in the area.

The first recordings of red wines from Montalcino date back to the early 14th century, but the all-Sangiovese Brunello di Montalcino style we know today did not emerge until the 1870s, just after Il Risorgimento (the unification of the Italian regions into a single state). Its evolution was due in no small part to the efforts of Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, whose name lives on in one of Montalcino's finest Brunello-producing estates. A soldier in Garibaldi's army, Biondi-Santi returned home from the Garibaldi campaigns to manage the Fattoria del Greppo estate belonging to his grandfather Clemente Santi. It was here that he developed some novel winemaking techniques which would revolutionise wine styles not only in Montalcino but in much of Tuscany.

Biondi-Santi's unique approach to oenology took Brunello from Montalcino to another level, as he vinified his Sangiovese grapes separately from the other varieties. In Tuscany at that time it was common practice to co-ferment all the grapes together – not just different clones and varieties, but red and white grapes too. Thus Biondi-Santi's pure, high-quality Sangiovese was something of a novelty. His wines were also noticed to be livelier and fruitier than most other wines, something he achieved by forgoing the second fermentation (as distinct from the secondary fermentation used in méthode traditionelle wines) which was also standard procedure among his contemporaries. What makes the freshness of these wines all the more remarkable was that these wines were aged in wooden barrels, sometimes for more than a decade; that was the third key change this maverick Tuscan winemaker implemented. The distinction between Brunello and other Tuscan Sangiovese wines was reinforced by the local synonyms given to Sangiovese. In the Montalcino terroir Sangiovese vines grow particularly large berries, which led it to be dubbed Sangiovese Grosso ("fat Sangiovese"), and later Brunello (hence the official name of the modern-day wine).

This wine gained a reputation as one of Italy's finest by the end of World War II. According to government documents of the time, the only commercial producer of Brunello was the Biondi-Santi firm, who had only declared four vintages by that time: 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. This encouraged more producers to try their hand at making this new Brunello di Montalcino and by the 1960s, there were at least 11 Brunello producers. At this time Brunello really began to make a name for itself, and was formalised as Italy's first DOCG in July 1980, alongside Piemonte's Barolo. Today there are almost 200 winemakers producing this high-quality red, most of whom are small farmers and family estates.

Traditional Brunello di Montalcino winemaking methods involve ageing the wine for a long time in large oak vats, which results in particularly complex wines, although some consider this style too tannic and dry. Modernists set the ball rolling for a fruitier style in the 1980s, when they began to shorten the barrel-maturation time and use smaller barriques (59 gallon/225l French oak barrels).

In keeping with the regulations of Brunello's DOCG classification, the vineyards must be planted on hills with good exposures at altitudes not surpassing 1,968ft (600m) above sea level. This limit is intended to ensure the grapes reach optimal ripeness and flavour before being harvested; any higher than 600m and the mesoclimate becomes cooler to the point of unreliability. Fortunately the climate in Montalcino is one of the warmest and driest in Tuscany, so achieving ripeness is rarely a problem for Brunello's vignerons. In good years the Sangiovese Grosso grapes ripen up to a week earlier than those in nearby Chianti and Montepulciano.

Naturally, microclimates vary between the different vineyard sites depending on their exposure. Grapes grown on the northern slopes tend to ripen more slowly, resulting in racier styles of wine. On the southern and western slopes, however, the grapes are exposed to more intense sunlight and cool maritime breezes, resulting in more complex and powerful wine styles. Top Brunello producers tend to own vineyards on all the finest terroirs. This allows them to create base wines of both styles, and to use those to create a blend in their desired style.

According to the disciplinare di produzione (the legal document laying out the wine's production laws) for Brunello di Montalcino, Brunello must be made from 100% Sangiovese and aged for at least four years (five for riserva wines). Two of these years must be spent in oak, and the wine must be bottled at least four months prior to commercial release. The elegant, age-worthy wine which results from these strict laws is known for its brilliant garnet hue and its bouquet of berries with underlying vanilla and spice. A hint of earthiness brings balance to the finest examples.