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The Three Titans of Italian Wine: Amarone, Brunello, and Barolo

Updated: Jun 5

The three most renowned wines in Italy appeal not only to wine enthusiasts. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating stories behind the three titans of the Italian wine industry – Amarone, Brunello, and Barolo. We’ll explore why the King of Italy ventured into winemaking, which wine captured the admiration of Thomas Jefferson, and where one can find the finest Amarone wine

Picture caption: Fields and vineyards in Tuscany: This is where the renowned Brunello di Montalcino wine is produced
Fields and vineyards in Tuscany: Where the renowned Brunello di Montalcino wine is produced. Photo: Ariela Bankir

Italy boasts at least twenty well-known wines, all of which are wonderful, enticing, high-quality, and highly recommended. However, when it comes to naming the three most important and famous wines in Italy, the top three recommended by wine critics, which consistently win awards and medals in international competitions, the answer is simple: There are three titans in Italy. Their names are Amarone della Valpolicella (Amarone for short), Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello for short), and Barolo.

Each of these three wines has a fascinating story, historic roots, and a unique flavor profile that has garnered hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide.

Brunello di Montalcino

Tuscany is renowned for being one of the most important wine regions in Italy. Most travelers are familiar with the well-known Chianti wine, but the most highly esteemed wine in Tuscany is the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG.

Brunello wines are produced solely from Sangiovese grapes, specifically from a clone of this variety called Sangiovese Grosso. Vineyards must adhere to stringent regulations: Brunello must only be produced from vineyards in a specific geographical area around the town of Montalcino in the Orcia Valley, considered among Italy’s most picturesque locales. For example, some scenes from the film Gladiator, which starred Russell Crowe, were filmed here.

Additionally, to be named Brunello di Montalcino, which is a protected brand name, the wine must be aged for at least four years – two years in wooden barrels and at least four months in a bottle. Wines designated as Brunello Riserva must be aged for at least five years.

Brunello di Montalcino barrels in the historic Tricerchi winery. Photo by Ariela Bankir
Brunello di Montalcino barrels in the historic Tricerchi winery. Photo by Ariela Bankir

All the hard work put into producing the Brunello pays off. Once you have tasted a good Brunello wine, you will never forget it. Brunello is a full-bodied wine, with well-balanced acidity, round tannins, and flavors and aromas of red and black fruit, vanilla, flint, and tobacco. The grapes go through a full soaking process to utilize the skin flavors to the fullest extent, as the Sangiovese’s skin is rich in linalool, imparting the wine with its typical floral aroma. The extended aging process facilitates the development of tertiary aromas.

When Biondi Santi Fell in Love with Sangiovese

The area of Montalcino has been renowned for its excellent red wines for over 600 years, but Brunello specifically is a much newer addition, introduced in the 1870s as part of experiments conducted by Ferruccio Biondi Santi.

Biondi Santi was a former soldier who fought in Garibaldi’s army for the unification of Italy. Upon returning home, he, like many others, turned to a career in agriculture and trade. He improved grape growing techniques used in his grandfather’s vineyards and decided to produce a wine based solely on Sangiovese grapes, without any other varieties. At that time, it was considered unusual, even odd. Sangiovese has always been the typical variety of Tuscany (and it remains the most common grape variety in Italy nowadays, and the tenth most common in the world), but nobody thought it was possible to produce wine exclusively from a variety perceived by many as coarse and simple.

Biondi Santi persevered and also decided to age the wine in particularly large wooden barrels, rather than new French oak barrels that many winemakers used at the time. His intention was to prevent the wood from overpowering the grape’s flavor, thus allowing it to fully express itself.

The first Brunello bottle came out in 1888, and it was reportedly a highly fruity and original wine, maintaining its lively character even after aging for five to ten years in barrels. Biondi Santi chose the most fitting name for his wine, which was crafted to showcase the exceptional qualities of Sangiovese grapes: Brunello, as the locals referred to the Sangiovese.

For a long time, Brunello remained Biondi Santi’s private hobby, but over time, the situation changed. His son Tancredi, a talented winemaker, modernized the production process and enhanced the wine. Competitors gradually joined the market, and by the early 1960s, the wine scene in Montalcino flourished, attracting more winemakers.

Transforming from an unknown and misunderstood wine, Brunello gained recognition as one of the most esteemed wines in Italy and internationally. Brunello was the first wine in Italy to receive the DOCG status, a testament to its quality and adherence to traditional winemaking practices in a specific area. Brunello 1955 holds the distinction of being the only wine featured on Wine Spectator’s 12 Most Important Wines of the Century list for ten years. When Brunello reached 100 years, Franco Biondi Santi, Ferruccio’s grandson, was invited to a celebratory event at the residence of Italian President. During Queen Elizabeth’s formal visit to Rome, one of the wines served was, of course, Brunello.

One of the production steps of Brunello di Montalcino. Photo by Ariela Bankir
One of the production steps of Brunello di Montalcino. Photo by Ariela Bankir

Where to Taste Brunello Wine?

The simplest way to try Brunello wines is in one of the wine shops (enoteca in Italian) in the town of Montalcino. This way, you can taste a glass or two from both well-known and lesser-known wineries, without having to commit to a full tour. One of my personal favorites is Alle Logge di Piazza Montalcino, situated on one of the main public squares in Montalcino—Piazza del Popolo. The ambiance is pleasant and relaxed, and while the menu is limited, it features several traditional and well-prepared dishes—try their Pici, which is a sort of pasta typical to Siena, or their truffle tartare. If you sit outside, you’ll be able to observe the lively streets, and if you sit inside, next to the giant windows, you’ll enjoy lovely views of the valley. Try a glass, or two or three, of the Brunello wines on the menu, and you will understand immediately why Montalcino has become such a popular destination for food and wine enthusiasts visiting Italy.

Another option is to visit one of the renowned vineyards in the region and explore the world of Brunello closely. Many vineyards have guided tours including tastings. The type of tour depends on your personal taste and budget, as Brunello is not an inexpensive wine.

Banfi winery is one of the most renowned in the region. Their guided tours include visits to various production spaces and guided tastings. Their high-quality wines can be tasted independently without taking a tour, as their beautiful enoteca is usually open to the public. Those wishing to celebrate a special occasion can enjoy a modern Tuscan dinner at the restaurant in the same complex—La Sala dei Grappoli—which has recently been awarded a Michelin star.

Another recommended destination is Castello Tricerchi, which is a fortress converted to a wine estate that offers complex and well-balanced Brunello wines. Their tours are enjoyable, and the view from the tasting chamber is stunning.

The historic Biondi Santi winery, still active today, is now managed by the seventh generation since Feruccio Biondi Santi. They offer a limited number of guided tours, so it’s advisable to book them at least two weeks in advance.

The view from Tricerchi winery. Photo by Ariela Bankir
The view from Tricerchi winery. Photo by Ariela Bankir

Barolo DOCG

While the grape variety most associated with Tuscany is Sangiovese, the grape variety most associated with the region of Piedmont in northwest Italy is Nebbiolo. Most wine critics consider it the single most important grape variety in Italy. Barolo DOCG, one of the most expensive and luxurious wines in Italy, is produced exclusively from Nebbiolo grapes.

Like Brunello, Barolo isn’t just a wine; it’s a brand—specifically for wine enthusiasts with deep pockets. A standard bottle of Barolo Riserva at the most famous wineries in the region, such as Bruno Giacosa winery, costs about 180 Euros, whereas vintage bottles can easily fetch thousands of Euros. However, it is also possible to purchase more ‘ordinary’ Barolo bottles at much more reasonable prices, around 50 Euros.

Powerful and complex, with deep, enticing aromas of roses, cherries, and sweet spices, Barolo is renowned for its structure and power. Every sip reveals its full-bodied character, the well-balanced acidity, the fruity flavors, and the round tannins. According to regulations, Barolo must be aged for at least 38 months before it can be released for trade, with a minimum of 18 months spent in barrels. Barolo Riserva wines are aged for at least 62 months!

Barolo DOCG in the glass
Barolo DOCG in the glass - Photo: Ariela bankir

The Glorious History of Barolo

The hilly area on which Barolo is produced nowadays is known as Langhe, renowned as a production area for high-quality wines as early as 2500 years ago. Ligurian and Gaelic tribes, along with the Romans, produced wine here, which was highly popular. Even Julius Caesar, who passed through the area after the Gallic Wars, was impressed with the wine and took a large number of barrels to Rome.

Nebbiolo grapes, now fully associated with the local wine industry, were introduced to Langhe in the 13th century. The name ‘Nebbiolo’ derives from the typical climate conditions of the area, often covered in thin, milky fog. Fog translates to nebbia in Italian and nebula in Latin.

Langhe hills in the region of Piedmonte in autumn. Photo by Ariela Bankir
Langhe hills in the region of Piedmonte in autumn. Photo by Ariela Bankir

When Italian Royalty Embraced Barolo Winemaking

During the Renaissance, the Barolo industry in the region thrived. By the 18th century, it had made its way to the tables of important diplomats such as Thomas Jefferson, who would later become President of the United States. However, the wine that Jefferson and other diplomats tasted bore little resemblance to the Barolo we know today. Back then, Barolo was a light, fizzy, sweet wine, akin to champagne.

So, who transformed this sweet peasant wine into the powerful wine now fetching thousands of Euros in auctions? Credit is due to several Italian industrialists and noblemen who played pivotal roles in reinventing Barolo, along with one woman who dared to rewrite the rules of the game.

Count Carlo Tancredi Falletti, a wealthy banker with connections in Napoleon’s court, owned extensive properties throughout the hills of Langhe. His wife, Juliette Colbert Faletti, was a prominent figure in societya philanthropist who led several important charity organizations and possessed an entrepreneurial spirit. Following her husband’s death in 1838, Juliette purchased his lands from his family, hired one of the most renowned French oenologists of the timeLouis Oudartand embarked on her own enterprise.

She decided to try her hand at producing fine French wines in Italy, utilizing the local grapes at her disposal. The outcome was so delightful that it captured the admiration of the King of Italy, Carlo Alberto di Savoia. Juliette Faletti demonstrated her marketing acumen. Upon learning of the King’s fondness of her wines, she promptly sent 325 barrels of Barolo to the royal courtone for each day of the year (Why not 365? Because of the 40 days of Lent, on which traditionally wine is not consumed). Consequently, Barolo gained recognition among the Italian royal family and was bestowed with the moniker Il Re dei Vinithe King of Wines.

In fact, the King of Italy purchased some land in Langhe and began producing wine himself. His son, Vittorio Emanuele II, founded a winery in the area in 1858 that still operates todayFontanafredda winery. Oudart, the French oenologist, continued his collaboration with other noblemen in the area, including figures like Camilo Benso Cavour, who later became the first Prime Minister of Italy, after its unification. Gradually, the modern recipe for Barolo, as we know it today, was perfected.

The palace of Count Cavour. Photo by Ariela Bankir
The palace of Count Cavour. Photo by Ariela Bankir

Not All Barolos are Born Equal

A tasting tour in the region takes you through several charming towns, overlooking beautiful and enchanting scenery: Serralunga d’Alba, Barolo, Monforte d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, and more.

According to wine regulations, any wine produced within the designated area is labeled as Barolo, but in practice, there are significant variations among Barolo wines produced in different towns, stemming from the terroir, climate, and exposure to the sun.

Consequently, the ratings awarded by wine critics to Barolo wines vary greatly depending on the area, and so do the prices the winemakers can command in the market. It’s worth noting that a truly exceptional Barolo wine possesses a refined power and elegance that few other Italian wines can rival. These wines can easily age for 20 years, and each area has its own fans. Many, myself included, consider Barolo wines from the Monforte d’Alba area to be among the finest available, characterized by rich and dizzying flavors and aromas, as well as a particularly elegant structure.

Where to Taste Good Barolo Wine?

As always, there are two main options: One option is to take a guided tour of one of the region’s renowned wineries, and the other is visiting a local enoteca and trying a few glasses. Whichever option you choose, it promises to be an unforgettable experience. Naturally, the finest restaurants in the area boast a wonderful, sometimes jaw-dropping selection of excellent Barolo wines. Given the robust structure and power of these wines, they are best enjoyed alongside the region’s typical meat dishes, such as Ravioli del Plin, filled with meat and served with ragout; the traditional Piedmontese fried meat dish known as fritto misto alla piemontese; and, of course, high-quality steaks made from Piedmontese cows.

A typical enoteca in Langhe. How can you not dance with joy in such a place?
A typical enoteca in Langhe. How can you not dance with joy in such a place? Photo by Ariela Bankir

In the town of Barolo itself, try La Vite Turchese enoteca; their selection of bottles will delight any wine enthusiast, and you can also enjoy wonderful, high-quality antipasto with the wine. When in Monforte d’Alba, make sure to reserve a table at Borgo Sant’Anna, one of the best restaurants in the area, which boasts a Michelin star. The cuisine here is exceptional, and the view from the large windows overlooking the valley is equally delightful. The chef, Pasquale Laera, was born in Puglia in the south of Italy but fell in love with the north and skillfully prepares Piedmontese dishes with a modern twist.

If you happen to visit the region during truffle season (tartufo in Italian), sampling a pasta dish with white truffles is a must. The Alba area in Piedmont is one of Italy’s two most famous areas thanks to the truffles growing in it, which are an unforgettable delicacy.

A dish of pasta with fresh white(!) truffles.
A dish of pasta with fresh white(!) truffles. Photo by Ariela Bankir

Amarone di Valpolicella DOCG

The third titan is Amarone wine, one of the most renowned in the country. Amarone is a bold wine, known for its intense flavor, depth, high alcohol percentage, large number of fans, and power. Surprisingly, this esteemed wine was born out of a mistake!

Indeed, it all began with a forgotten barrel.

The production technique of Amarone is unique, relying on a process known as appassimento in Italian. After harvesting, the grapes undergo a prolonged drying period until most of the liquid evaporates, resulting in grapes that are almost raisin-like and with a higher sugar concentration.

The appassimento method has been known since the days of Ancient Rome and has aided winemakers in crafting highly sweet and concentrated wines, such as the Recioto wine, which remains popular today in the hills of Valpolicella. One day, a local farmer produced Recioto wine and accidentally left a barrel in his cellar. Upon finally opening it, he discovered a fascinating phenomenon: The sugars in the Recioto had fermented into alcohol, transforming the sweet wine into a deep, complex beverage, with subtle notes of bitterness in every sip (amaro translates to ‘bitter’ in Italian). The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Villa Bertani in the hills of Valpolicella. Photo by Ariela Bankir
Villa Bertani in the hills of Valpolicella. Photo by Ariela Bankir

How is Amarone Produced?

Amarone has a designated area of production known as a ‘classic area’, which spans the towns of Negrar, Fumane, and Marano on the hills of Valpolicella in the Veneto region. The combination of climate conditions and terrain in the area has made it one of the most important wine production areas in Italy.

According to the law, Amarone must be produced solely from a list of permitted grape varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara, and Oseleta. Corvina and Corvinone, named for their dark color resembling that of a raven (corvo in Italian), are primarily responsible for imparting Amarone with its full body and strength.

The grapes are harvested when fully ripe and then dehydrated in special chambers. In the past, farmers used to dehydrate them on mats, but nowadays, the process takes place in designated chambers with full climate control and supervision.

This step is crucial in Amarone production, significantly impacting the wine’s flavor and its tannin structure. Following dehydration, extraction, and fermentation, the wine is transferred to barrels for an extended aging period—mandated to be at least two years by law. Many vineyards opt for longer aging periods, typically allowing four to five years to elapse between harvest and the wine’s release to the market. The result justifies the wait, as exceptional Amarone—yes, exceptional—will make your jaw drop and leave you eager for another glass. Characterized by its power and complexity, Amarone exhibits round tannins, gentle sweetness, vibrant fruity notes of strawberries, cherries, and plums, delicate balsamic undertones, and ripe aromas of violets and roses—qualities that have made it one of Italy’s most cherished wines and a frequent winner at wine competitions.

Where to Taste Amarone?

There are several fine wineries specializing in Amarone located a short distance from Verona. With a wide selection to choose from, the variety might seem overwhelming. Personally, I prefer the historic wineries, which provide not only an exceptional wine experience but also the opportunity to explore magnificent estates with significant artistic and cultural heritage.

For instance, Tenuta Santa Maria di Gaetano Bertani stands out as one of the most picturesque wineries in the entire Veneto region. A tasting experience here will delight not only your taste buds but also your eyes and heart.

A guided wine tasting in a historic manor in the hills of Valpolicella.
A guided wine tasting in a historic manor in the hills of Valpolicella. Photo by Ariela Bankir

The family has been producing wine for generations and acquired the Mosconi Bertani manor in the heart of the hills of Valpolicella. Tours must be reserved in advance, of course.

Another option is sitting for a fabulous meal at one of the renowned restaurants amid the hills of Valpolicella, accompanying each course with wonderful Amarone wines. For instance, at Ristorante Valpolicella in the town of Negrar, you can enjoy excellent food and an extensive wine menu, as long as a book. Reservations are highly recommended, if not essential.

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