Sunday, February 27, 2011

Open That Bottle Night - 2011 Edition

Needing to drink ourselves through 2001 bottles, there's no question that Boo and I will need to drink our entire cellar and much more. We have, however, managed to gather a few cellar-worthy bottles over the last so many years - and there's always the question of when will it be the right time to open some of them. A continual parade of big ticket bottles, night after night, may be a sinful thought - but it's hardly practical. At least not on our budget.

As a result, we get caught up - like many other people - in the practise of buying some nice bottles with the thought of opening them when a special occasion comes our way. The bottles seem to collect a little faster than the occasions come along though and it's not all that difficult to find yourself in a situation like the Tyrant was in just the other night - having a 1983 vintage of a wonderful wine that just didn't age as gracefully as the owner did.

Welcome "Open That Bottle Night." The concept is the brainchild of the former wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, John Becher and Dorothy Gaiter. In 2000, they wrote on the topic of so many of us having one or more special bottles of wine hidden away in a closet or cellar - waiting for just that special occasion to open it. Somehow that extraordinary occasion often takes longer than expected and many of those special bottles, unfortunately, go off. Becher and Gaiter urged everyone to make an exceptional event out of nothing - make the wine the centrepiece of the event - open that bottle, with or without friends, just for the thrill and the memory of it. Capitalizing on that line of thought, Boo and I are going to re-live a bit of a Tuscan escape.

Becher and Gaiter actually advocate that there's no reason why every night can't be open that bottle night, but the formal event is traditionally scheduled to be the last Saturday of every February - and that's tonight, the 12th edition of Open That Bottle Night.

742. 2004 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino (DOCG Brunello di Montalcino - Italy)

It's taken awhile, but I'm finally adding a Brunello di Montalcino to The List. I've come close with a Rosso di Montalcino, also called a "Baby Brunello," and there have been a few Sangiovese based wines sampled along the way, but I decided that Open That Bottle Night was a great opportunity to pop the cork on the real deal.

Along with Barolo and Amarone, Brunello di Montalcino is seen as one stars of Italian wines. Before the Super Tuscans arrived on the scene as the new darlings of Italian wine production, the relatively small Brunello district was well regarded as producing distinctive wines of high quality and longevity. Altesino - the winery we're trying tonight - has been referred to, by none other than top British wine writer Jancis Robinson, as having "long been a standard bearer for Montalcino" and one of the "more senior, more distinctive vineyards" in the region.

Back in 2008, when Boo and I had a brief stay in Tuscany, we knew nothing about Brunello but Terry and Marcello, our B&B hosts, hooked us up with a tour at Altesino. It was the only winery tour we managed to pull off in Tuscany but, luckily, we happened upon a good one.

As a wine, Brunello di Montalcino has a great story - limited production, scandal involving the possible use of international varietals, old school producers facing the introduction of new procedures to increase the wine's allure to foreign markets and, not the least, a romantic Medieval village centring the regional adaptation of the local grape. This posting will barely scratch the surface but it's an example of how the story behind the wine can be as enjoyable as the wine itself.

Brunello must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes; however, the region has excelled in its adaptation of particular clones of the grape to local hills. The Montalcino district is barely 40 miles from the centre of the Chianti Classico region - where the Sangiovese grape is also foremost - yet, the wines made from the same grapes see very different results.

Brunello has traditionally been aged for a minimum of between three and four years in large Slovenian oak botte as they impart far less of an oak influence on the wine than the smaller French or American oak barriques do. However, as some producers have introduced the use of French barriques to their winemaking process, the appellation regulations have been revised to allow a shorter minimum of two years oak aging.

Altesino produces three Brunellos - the bottle we're trying, a single vineyard label (Montesoli) and a Riserva that requires even longer aging and is only produced in exceptional years. Our "basic" Brunello is somewhat "old school" in its approach. The winemaker isn't going for a big, modern, fruity style. Rather, there's an earthiness that is front and centre and cries out for some great, Italian cuisine. Our choice of moules/frites isn't likely what we'd have been served in the local enoteca but the acidity of the tomato broth and the richness of the mussels worked fine for us. The dinner certainly brought back memories of Tuscan decadence and fanned the fires of a desire to return sooner than later.

According to the powers that be, the 2004 vintage was a particularly good one for the Montalcino region and the Altesino picked up some big scores, in the 90's, from publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I'm hardly a point-chaser, but I always like seeing that a wine we're drinking has earned a bit of a badge of honour.

Part of the allure of Open That Bottle Night is to live and re-live life to its fullest while enjoying a special bottle of wine to heighten the experience. I think our Brunello and the accompanying memories of Tuscany is exactly what was intended.

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