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Red-Blooded Brunello

The tables and the benches arrange you for the summer, forehead to a panorama that removes the breath to every look. Ah, the poetry of those automated Google translations! Not long ago, as the weather turned pissy and cold in Brooklyn, I discovered that my favorite little down-a-dusty-road Tuscan restaurant has a web site—Italian-language only—and as I stumbled through the rotini syntax I was reminded of a wonderful meal: A fine Brunello di Montalcino drunk with rosemary-grilled rabbit and a heap of fresh pasta whose sauce was infused with the deep-woods essence of black truffle. The restaurant is one of those places where you sit on a patio watching the sun set on the silvery leaves of black-branched olive trees and realize that God or some conspiracy of fate did bestow a greater love on certain parcels of earth—and you just don't happen to live there. Wine drunk in such a place is inseparable from that place. Brunello, one of the world's great red wines, is greatest on a Tuscan table on a Tuscan patio.

Brooklyn, love it as I do, is not such a place, and brunello in Brooklyn is not the same wine. But it is a great wine nonetheless, and 1997 was a brilliant year for brunello. So much so that Wine Spectator, which rates vintages as well as wines, scored it 99 points out of 100, meaning that, like 1961 and '82 for bordeaux, prices will skyrocket once the '97s are off wine-store shelves.

A once-in-a-decade vintage sends fresh red wine into the barrel (and later the bottle) bulked up on the natural steroids of perfect ripening, promising more of what you love. Reviewers—the ones paid to uncork a young monster and project a future Heidi Klum—will go gaga and then note that a supervintage wine will be "best after 2006." It's tempting to disregard the 2006 bit. But caveat potor: At release many a wine jam-packed with flavors is too immature to drink. Such a wine can't resolve into something remarkable until its puckery grape tannins are wrestled to the mat and there's a general smoothing and "opening" of the wine. True, a lot of people who have fallen in love with the huge flavors of young California cabernets don't mind raw intensity. And many of those cabs have the vibrant, in-your-face fruit and sweet oak that can balance the tannins' ferocity. (Add thirty-six ounces of corn-fed Nebraska beef and some creamed spinach and you have the archetypal dot-com-era American power meal. Salute!)

Young, powerful Italian reds are another matter. They tend to be acidic, tart, lean, cut and focused: more Zegna suit than Botticelli Venus. The acid zing of sangiovese-based Tuscan wines in particular, including chianti and brunello (which is basically a superchianti, made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes from a particular town about forty zigzag kilometers south of Siena in the Tuscan hills), will surprise anyone weaned on, say, lollipop zinfandel. Yes, there are lavish raspberry and plum and cherry and licorice and lavender flavors and aromas, but the wine has a sharpness and a tannic bite as well. This is true even though brunello is aged for four years before release, making it one of the longest-aged red wines to reach the market. This extra aging, along with the relatively small production and the renown of the wine, boosts brunello to prices chianti makers can only envy: $40 to $80 per bottle and up in a good year, at release.

So there we were, my fellow tasters and I, in chilly Brooklyn, savoring a raft of the 1997 brunellos. Of seven we tasted, four were unmistakably delicious wines, powerhouse examples of the regional style, with concentrated fruit and rigorous tannins on a zingy, acidic base. Antinori's Pian delle Vigne was the clear standout: a powerful, intense wine with a beautiful label to match—the sort of wine you might roll out to applause at a big dinner in five years or so. Frescobaldi's CastelGiocondo was almost as good. On the lighter side—drinkable now, if you serve it, as I did, with something as rich as a slow-cooked osso buco—was the Castello di Camigliano. Other brunellos to look for include Argiano (we tasted the great, earthy '95 to compare), Lisini, Altesino and especially Castello Banfi. But it was clear that most of the top '97 brunellos are not quite ready for prime time. Better wait, in my opinion, another three to five years before uncorking these worthies, or even longer for a triumph like the Antinori.

All this means that if you love great Italian wine and have a cool place to store a few cases, these '97s constitute one of the best wine investments you can make. Set some down now (they're disappearing from wine stores as we speak) and figure the wine will go beautifully with herb-roasted bunny sometime in the middle or latter part of the decade. Meanwhile, hunt for '93 or even '90 brunellos—they're drinking deliciously now, in brunello country, in Brooklyn and at any good table.

TASTING NOTES: THE BRUNELLO CLASS OF '97
Antinori Pian delle Vigne ($70): Gloriously intense, deep, long lasting and mouth filling, like a bunch of vibrant red and black fruit: cherries, plums, blackberries.
Argiano ($55): A tart, focused, tannic wine with earth and tobacco tones.
Castello di Camigliano ($48): A lighter, less expensive brunello with a nose of raspberry, violet and a hint of oaky vanilla. The Castello di Camigliano is medium bodied compared to the powerhouses.
Fattoria dei Barbi ($45): Deep cherry flavor, wonderful aromas—its tannins allow the cherry and spice to come forward.
Frescobaldi CastelGiocondo ($62): One of the stars of the region, a grand wine loaded with cherry and plum flavors and hints of tobacco.
Il Poggione ($64): Tannic and firm, with an appealing earthy character.

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