A Brunello for Caravaggio's Bacchus

Is Caravaggio’s Bacchus (1597-98) teasing us to join the party with his rich goblet of wine?

Im sitting in the pergola reading Andrew Graham-Dixons fascinating new book on Renaissance artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) when I drift off to the last time I was in Rome, in 2007, and I saw the great painters work in the Contarelli Chapel of La Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi(The Church of St. Louis of the French).

Deep in the recesses of the 423-year-old church, tucked away in a dark corner, hangs a cycle of three glorious Caravaggio paintings on the life of St. Matthew. The works sit in the shadows until an observer deposits a coin in a small wall box that turns on a delicate beam of light and just for a minute or two.

Only in Italy can such a mundane process become miraculous as one of the masters famous works, The Calling of St. Matthew, comes into view in the light-starved landscape.

Its an incredible experience.

Caravaggios paintings, like his life, were of light and darkness. The technique he mastered chiarascuro brought briliance to subtle details on canvas and opened a new world of realism in art.

If youve never seen The Calling of St. Matthew, its worth exploring. In Caravaggios focused style, a tightly contained arc of light originates from the top right corner of the large canvas, and barely illuminates Jesus hand pointing to the seated tax collector. Weve seen that hand before. Its from Michelangelos colorful Creation of Adam fresco in the Sistine Chapel where God, soaring high in a resplendent sky, reaches out to man down below with the touch of life. Here, though, the scene is a bare, dingy room where Caravaggio, in contrasting shades of gray, brings Matthew into the sacred fold of Christs disciples. The effect is stunning.

So what does this have to do with wine? Caravaggios fascination with Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, is captured in two paintings, a sickly self-portrait as Bacchus done during his discontented apprentice days of 1593-94 and then a more sophisticated, sensual work that dates to 1597-98. The latter Bacchus is rich, colorful and expressive. In it, the slightly inebriated god wears a crown of luscious black grapes and ripened fig leaves. A decanter of wine is at his right while Bacchuss left hand holds out a goblet filled to the brim of deep ruby wine. Is he offering it to the viewer? What does it mean?

A good quality Brunello for the price.

The painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and has sparked art historians speculation for centuries. Some say Bacchus is offering the blood of Christ and eternal life; others say he is enticing the viewer in a sensual way.
From my Wine Novice perspective, Id like to think that Caravaggio had cracked open a bottle of Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova, shared some with the model in the room, and then got out his brushes and paint and let it rip.
Brunello is made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes from the vineyards in Montalcino, Tuscany, and produce Italys greatest red wines. It dates back to the 14th century. The wine can stay in barrels for up to a decade and remain fresh for even longer, sometimes 50 years or more. The taste is exquisite and complex: Berries, cherry, vanilla and spice.
The wine is expensive, but there are several good high-quality buys out there now in the $40 to $60 range. Id suggest you tuck a bottle away for the fall or a special occasion. Like studying a Caravaggio masterpiece, the taste of a good Brunello is something to reflect upon and savor. My suggestions:
1. 2004 Rendola Brunello di Montalcino, $33-$40: Exquisite structure and balanced dark fruit. Can be purchased locally at fine wine stores. Decant for four hours at least.
2. 2006 Tenuta di Sesta Brunello di Montalcino, $29-$46: I purchased this two months ago on sale at www.ultimatewine.com for $29. It was a steal. Luscious, full with long, layered mineral finish. A delight with pasta.
3. 2006 Il Poggione (Propriet Franchesi) Brunello di Montalcino, $60-$90: One of the very best in all of Italy. If you can hunt this down and get it for less than the high-end cost, buy a case and stash it away for a family wedding or retirement and call Bacchus.

Follow Jim Campanini on Twitter@suneditor.