Over the weekend I had a chance to spend some time checking out the wine selection at my local Costco. If you know what you want this is an excellent place to shop for wine because the prices are just about as good as it gets in the competitive California market.
Not that my jaw didn't drop a time or two when I came across an array of Bordeaux from the 2003 vintage. I'm sorry, but second-growth Bordeaux at a mere $150 per bottle is a staggering thought. And I don't mean that in a kind way.
Though it was great Bordeaux from the 1960s that drew me into the culture of fine wine, I don't buy it so much any more. Where I once purchased new vintages of classified growths by the case, now I take my Bordeaux one bottle at a time.
It has become something of a luxury item, akin to a specialty bottling of aged Scotch. Some folks could make a mortgage payment with what you'd pay for a bottle of Chateau Latour.
These days I look elsewhere for fabulous red wines to stuff into my modest wine cellar. There are the usual suspects, most of them in the Napa Valley, a few in Australia and South America. Then there is Italy, a country steeped in the tradition of red wine but only recently at the same level of quality as France and much of the New World.
When I say recently I mean over the past 30 years. The Italian wine industry was slow to recover from World War II and lingered far too long at the doorstep of quality, focusing instead on volume while taking advantage of the world's remarkable tolerance for mediocre Italian wine.
One of the shining lights, however, was 'the Brunello,' as it is called in Tuscany. The Brunello is one of Italy's two most important red wines (the other is Barolo). It is 100 percent Sangiovese grown in designated areas of Montalcino in southern Tuscany. Hence the term Brunello di Montalcino.
Great Brunello, much like great Bordeaux, can be cellared for decades and attain extraordinary complexity with the passage of time. These are wines that are not always appreciated when consumed young, though in recent years producers have made strides toward making more supple, approachable Brunello upon release.
There are two types of Brunello - normale, which is aged five years, and riserva, which is aged a minimum of six years, but sometimes more. Brunello normale from a decent vintage typically retails for between $35 and $60, which is cheap compared to Bordeaux, or even to the top Cabernets of the Napa Valley. Riservas fetch slightly higher prices, topping out at about $80.
The exception to the rule is the Brunello from Biondi-Santi, Montalcino's benchmark Brunello over the past 50 years, which retails in the same league with first-growth Bordeaux. Brunello has had a good run over the past decade, with good to outstanding vintages throughout the second half of the 1990s and good vintages so far this decade with the exception of 2002.
I recently attended the Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino, where the new 2001 riservas were introduced along with the '02 normale. I went to Montalcino specifically to taste the '01 reserves because the '01 normale had been so splendid.
Not all of the producers presented their '01 riservas, and I was disappointed to miss tasting the wines of Biondi-Santi and Castello Banfi, but I hardly lacked for great wines to choose from. I've compiled a short list of my favorites from the vintage, most of which will begin to appear in restaurants and in fine wine shops this spring. Unfortunately, prices are not yet available.
Fuligni 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva -- This was a well-rounded Brunello with magnificent structure, purity of fruit (with a preponderance of red-fruit aroma) and remarkable elegance for such a powerful wine. 96
Talenti 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva -- A multi-layered beauty that is exceptionally complex and beautifully balanced. It oozes finesse. One of my most satisfying tasting experiences in Montalcino was a 1997 Talenti that I ordered in a restaurant. 96
Tenuta Oliveto 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva -- A huge, powerful wine that delivers more dark fruit character than most of its rivals. With a hedonistic floral nose, this wine is elegant despite its richness and weight. 95
Il Poggione 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva -- There is an inviting earthiness to this latest riserva from Il Poggione, with a nose of forest floor and mushrooms, pretty red fruits and smooth, supple tannins. 94
Fornacina 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva -- Another earthy Brunello scented with the aroma of forrest floor. The fruit profile runs toward tart cherry, the structure is excellent and the length in the mouth is a pleasant surprise, culminating in a beautiful, lingering finish. 94
Castelgiocondo 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva - Made in the modern style of Brunello, which means a sweet core of red fruits, hints of spice and supple, sweet tannins. Well balanced. 93
Capanna 2001 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva - With so much lifted fruit on the nose there is no question this is one of the more modern Brunellos. Beautifully structured, with firm tannins and excellent palate weight, this spicy riserva can be cellared at length but it's lovely for drinking right now. 93
Photos: Top, a sommelier delivers wines to be tasted at the 2007 Benvenuto Brunello; bottom, a mason finishes laying the tile that signifies the quality of the new (2006) vintage, which the Consorzio awarded five stars.