Azienda Agricola Verbena, Montalcino, Tuscany

Luca Nannetti and his wife Elena own Azienda Agricola Verbena which sits just over halfway up the south side of the hill of Montalcino in the south of Tuscany.  The Verbena farmstead’s lands extend to a total of 23 hectares along the Via Traversa dei Monti at about 400m above sea level and comprise a mixture of vineyards, olive groves and woodland offering complete biodiversity.  From their 10 hectares of vineyards Luca and Elena make about 50,000 bottles of wine each year.
Their grapes are all Sangiovese Grosso (there are about 14 different clones of Sangiovese but Grosso is the one planted around Montalcino) and the Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino made here are therefore single varietal wines.  There are some who would change this; moves by some of the larger producers in the region to allow other grape varities to be used were recently defeated in a growers’ vote – much to the relief of smaller producers like Verbena – and thus the particular identity of Brunello is secure, at least for the time being!  “To allow the use of other varieties” explains Luca, “would remove the unique character of Brunello.  You might as well call us Chianti di Montalcino if other grapes were permitted!”
Everywhere at Verbena there is evidence of an almost obsessive attention to detail; the cellars are bright and modern, the casks aligned in serried ranks like an army on parade, as are the vines in the vineyards.  The harvest was brought in less than a week before our visit and beneath most vines lay bunches of discarded grapes, not considered of sufficient quality to allow even as far as the crusher.  Even after the green harvesting in July and August where maturing bunches are removed to concentrate each vine’s efforts into those that remain, not all of the remaining bunches make the final grade.
In some vintages several leaves are removed from each vine to allow the sun to reach the grapes and encourage air circulation to keep the threat of damp-induced problems away, but 2011 looked like being a warm year so these leaves were left in place to afford a decree of protection to the fruit.  This can be something of a gamble from vintage to vintage since the decision whether or not to manage the vine canopy in this way really needs to be taken before a grower knows just how hot the summer will be!  2011 was very hot though; grapes ripened quickly and the harvest was almost a month earlier than normal.  The fruit was no doubt glad of the extra shade!
Luca and Elena make up to 4 different red wines each year:  Their mainstay is Brunello di Montalcino, but cuvees that are considered good enough may become Brunello di Montalcino Riserva which requires longer in both cask and bottle before release – the wine needs to be considered good enough to take this extra age though – particularly in cask since Verbena’s Brunello di Montalcino Riserva only sees new oak.  Verbena own about 220 barriques (225 litre casks) of French oak which each receive a light toasting when new.  Each barrique is retained for 5 years with Verbena replacing one fifth of their stock of casks annually.  This represents a considerable annual investment.
The ageing process for Brunello di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva wines means that they are ready to drink when they are released.  The current vintage of Riserva available in the UK is the 2004 of which only 4,500 bottles were produced.  Wine for more immediate drinking will become Rosso di Montalcino and the wine from Verbena’s younger vines will be released simply as Sangiovese or Rosso di Toscana, the latter of which may be made with the addition of other varieties.
We tasted the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino from cask.  This is a youthful deep cherry red colour with a wonderfully pure nose of ripe fruit, mellow oak and slight leathery notes.  In the mouth the tannins are ripe but chewy, with the gentle oak adding concentration and depth.  The finish is long and rich and, although this wine needs more time, it should be super.
The 2009 Brunello di Montalcino (tasted from cask) is a different beast altogether.  It is more closed on the nose and less giving on the palate with a slightly hotter flavour; perhaps something of a problem child as the result of a hotter summer.  Elsewhere in Tuscany it rained in September before the grapes were picked which enabled winemakers to keep alcohol levels in check, but the rain did not fall in Montalcino.  This is still a good Brunello, but has a very different character to the 2008.  It will be interesting to see how it has developed once it is released.  The more approachable 2009 Rosso di Montalcino (now in bottle and available) has a gamey nose with authentic Sangiovese notes of violet with just a hint of chocolate and eucalyptus.  Again the fruit is wonderfully pure and accessible yet there is still good structure and length.  Drinking well now.
The 2010 Brunello di Montalcino (tasted from cask) is enormous.  It has bags of fruit on the nose with gentle hints of chocolate and is already strangely attractive in its youth.  The tannins are ripe and round.  Time in cask will temper and mellow its exuberance.  This should be a wonderful wine.  The 2010 Rosso di Toscana is very fresh, clean, easy and direct.  The nose is almost sweet but the fruit is pure.  This has 15% of Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot included.
The current vintage of Brunello di Montalcino available in the UK is the 2006.  Some thought this still too young but I felt is drinking beautifully now.  Such things are, of course, subjective, but it has an earthy note which balances well with the ripe fruit (which had a slight raisin note to it) and makes it delicious now - balanced and rich.  The 2006 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva still has a few months of its bottle age to go but it too is utterly delicious.  It’s full, rounded and again shows Verbena’s characteristic well-judged use of oak with concentrated fruit.  Further time in bottle will help.  The current Riserva available is the 2004  which shows marked age through orange hints in the colour and its full, gamey nose. There is a real perfume here with depth and penetration.  The palate is fully developed and amazingly together.  Perfect for drinking now.
The 2007 Brunello di Montalcino still has 3 months to go until release and seemed to me to be much gamier than the 2006.  Leather again on the nose with mellow fruit and ripe, round tannins in the mouth and well-integrated oak.  The hint of chocolate is there again too.  A lovely wine.
Verbena (like the majority of Tuscan producers) also produce an olive oil, a Vin Santo and a Grappa, though these are not available in the UK. The Olive Oil is clean and grassy, fresh and light.  The Vin Santo is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, picked and then air dried and crushed several months after the vintage.  The wine is left in cask for 5 years.  It has a nose of concentrated raisins with a hint of toffee and vanilla.  The palate is clean, fresh and nutty with a fresh bite of acidity.  Verbena’s Grappa di Brunello (42% abv) is crystal clear with a clean penetrating nose.  The palate is delicate and elegant with no bitter edge and a ripe grape finish.  Clean and pure.
We can obtain the following wines from Verbena should you be interested – please contact us for details:
2009 Sangiovese Toscana  £10.95
2009 Rosso di Montalcino  £16.75
2006 Brunello diMontalcino  £31.00
2004 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva  £41.50
Vintages and prices correct as at 6th October 2011 
 Luca and Elena Nannetti
Luca in his vineyard.
Note the discarded bunches of grapes on the ground.

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