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1998 Podere Salicutti Brunello Di Montalcino (Tuscany), Italy

You know how some wines are so much better because of the memories you have attached to them? Whether it's drinking from the bottle on a beach with your buddies, or the wine that you had on your first date, you tend to remember them, and having them again is like visiting with an old friend. This is definitely one of those wines for me.

The story behind it involves a trip I took with Ruth to Italy about 2 years ago, ostensibly for a wedding we were attending, but we squeezed in a couple of weeks in Tuscany beforehand. We were there in May, which is a glorious time -- the height of Spring -- and it was a magical trip. Driving through Chianti, walking up the winding cobblestone streets of Montepulciano. I get chills just thinking about it.

The food we had there was, of course, amazing, but there was one particular meal that still lingers in my memory as one of the best meals of my life. It was one of those meals that was absolutely flawless, where everything coordinated like a symphony, each part building on the other to create something that was elusively magical. Even during the meal, we found ourselves marveling at every element that unfolded. The olive oil on the table was some of the best we'd ever had. The bread was intoxicating. And the wine. Ah yes. The wine. I had a small chat with the waitress about a strange thing I saw on the menu -- a Brunello that was pretty reasonably priced amidst a selection of some pretty big heavyweights, and she assured me that it was a great small producer, and so I followed her recommendation. It was one of the better wines we had for the entire trip. In fact, I spent the rest of the trip trying to re-arrange our schedule so I could go visit them, and when that didn't work out, I spent the rest of the time trying to find somewhere I could buy some to take home. Unfortunately those efforts didn't turn out as well as the meal, but when I returned home I was able to find some that I could stash away and enjoy occasionally, like a dinner we had with some friends last week.

Podere Salicutti is situated at the top of a natural amphitheatre in the countryside hills near Montalcino, Italy, in the heart of Tuscany. The estate is small, taking up only about 25 acres, 8 or 9 of which are covered with olive trees and natural forest. The earliest record of the estate shows up in documents from the beginning of the 1800s, distinctively described by its bowl-scooped hills, and it remained mostly a small farm until it was purchased by owner Francesco R. Leanza in 1990. He spent the next few years transforming the property into a working wine estate, and I believe the first commercial vintage bearing the Podere Salicutti name and the image of an amphitheatre was in 1997. Until 1999 all of its winemaking operations took place in the old stone buildings that had been built up over decades from what originally was the small peasant farmhouse. In 1999, however, the estate completed construction of a new warehouse, winemaking facility, and offices.

Salicutti is a certified organic producer, and has been for years, using simple techniques of mulching and composting, mixed with rigorous hand weeding and vine maintenance. Winemaking takes place in typical fashion for the appellation, with initial fermentation in steel tanks and then secondary fermentation and aging in a combination of French Oak barrels and the much larger Slavonian Oak foudres. Per regulations, all Brunellos must be aged for 36 months in barrels and 12 months in the bottle before release.

Salicutti also produces a Rosso di Montalcino (same grapes, less aging) that is quite good. 1998 was a mixed bag of a year for Brunellos -- some are great, others are not so good. Salicutti has made one of the best wines I've had from that vintage.

Tasting Notes:
This wine is a dark, blood red in the glass with slight tinges of brick at the edges, and smooth aromas of leather, incense, cherries, and sawdust. In the mouth it has primary flavors of cherry, saddle leather, dry earth, and hints of cinnamon. It is nicely balanced with a decent amount of acid and very fine, delicate tannins that support a substantial finish. Like all Sangiovese based wines in my experience, it benefits greatly from decanting and lots of air.

Food Pairing:
Well, you know how these nostalgic memories work. I can't imagine anything better to serve with this wine than what I had the first time I drank it: a classic tuscan veal chop with rosemary.

Overall Score: 9.5

How Much?: $60

This wine is available through various online retailers.

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