Brunello: Tradition vs Technology

Brunello,Italy,tradition,technology People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 1 April 2009

The Brunello blending scandal may be over, but it has reignited the spirited debate about the best style for Montalcino’s flagship wine. RICHARD BAUDAINS listens to arguments from both camps

Stefano Campatelli has had a tough year. The director of the Montalcino Producers’

Consorzio, he is the man responsible for picking up the pieces in the wake of last year’s inquiry uncovering the use of varying percentages of unauthorised grape varieties in the

production of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino.

Campatelli is under no illusions as to the need to restore confidence in Tuscany’s most prestigious DOCG: ‘Unfortunately the outside world seems to doubt whether we make Brunello with 100% Sangiovese. Clearly we have had to do something about that.’

The Consorzio’s first move was to convene the producers and, in October 2008, put the existing production norms to a vote of confidence. The result was a virtually unanimous rejection of the proposal to allow the blending in of other grape varieties.

To enforce that decision Campatelli says the Consorzio intends to introduce compulsory varietal analysis, so that in future all Brunello will come with the incontrovertible guarantee that it is made exclusively from Sangiovese.

End of story?

Not quite. Producers have presented a united front in defence of monovarietal Sangiovese, but the scandal has brought to the surface other issues that divide Montalcino’s winemaking community.

I put the question, ‘What should authentic Brunello taste like?’ to Giacomo Neri, one

of the leaders of the new wave. His reply was: ‘I couldn’t tell you. I can only tell you

about my Brunello.’

There is no doubt that the scandal has shaken producers’ sense of collective identity. In particular, it has put into sharp relief two contrasting philosophies of winemaking: on one hand the traditional Italian Riserva approach, involving lengthy ageing in large Slavonian oak barrels; and on the other a modern, Bordeaux-influenced style of winemaking.

Filippo Paoletti, the young winery director at Lisini, draws the battle lines very clearly. ‘We are not interested in modernity, only in creating the best wines possible from our terroir. Our aim is to go further towards the expression of the terroir, in terms of structure and

mineral character.’

Paoletti’s Brunello soaks on the skins for three and a half weeks and spends 36 to 40 months in wood, at least a year longer than the DOCG requires. He is sceptical about

laboratory tests of phenolic ripeness – one of the pillars of the Bordelais approach –

and believes 24 months in barriques is ‘a death sentence for Sangiovese’.

His wines are big and uncompromising, full of personality, tough and angular when

young but capable of prodigious ageing.

Modern times

Giancarlo Pacenti, on the other hand, is a self-confessed fan of technology. He employs automated selection tables and custom-built fermentation vats. He ages exclusively in barriques, in a barrel cellar with computer-controlled humidity and

temperature control.

And he insists on levels of hygiene that would not be out of place in an operating theatre. His Brunello is stylish and highly focused, with precise fruit aromas and silky textures.

It is the kind of wine that clearly benefits from top level oenological input… which raises another issue.

The consultant winemaker is very much a part of the set-up at estates of the modernist school. Bordeaux University professor Yves Glories has worked with Giancarlo Pacenti for many years, and freelance winemakers, such as Carlo Ferrini, Paolo Vaggagini and Lorenzo

Landi, have had a huge influence at Montalcino.

Traditionalists, by contrast, tend to believe that to take on a consultant is to relinquish a vital part of the autonomy of the estate. Giancarlo Soldera puts it more bluntly: ‘Anyone who has to hire a winemaker doesn’t know anything about making wine.’

(Significantly, however, he and many other small-scale producers, including Lisini, call on the legendary tasting abilities of Giulio Gambelli, eminence grise of traditional winemaking in Tuscany.)

No going back

One of the effects of the blending scandal has been to boost the credibility of a traditional style of Brunello. Some producers, though, are worried by signs of a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis that takes refuge in the past.

There is talk, for example, of reverting to the three years of barrel ageing that were obligatory prior to the 1998 modifications to the DOCG. Pacenti believes it would be a huge mistake to try to transfer historical models to the present.

‘Brunello has to express the character of Sangiovese at Montalcino, but it also has to compete with the top wines on international markets,’ he says. In the opinion

of Donatella Cinelli Colombini, this means being open to progress; her fear is that as a

result of the scandal, Montalcino has ‘lost the road that leads to the future’.

So is Brunello heading for stylist schism? Not necessarily. There is a middle way.

Stefano C o l o m b i n i (Donatella’s brother) from the historic Fattoria di Barbi estate, who defines himself as a ‘progressive conservative’, does not see a conflict between tradition

and modernity: ‘At Barbi we want to make an elegant style of great traditional Brunello... and we use every modern means available to reach this end.’

To put the debate in perspective, it’s necessary to separate issues of quality and style. A wine is not intrinsically superior because it ages for five years in Slavonian oak rather than two years in French barriques, and in a world of globalised winemaking, the fact that both

styles exist at Montalcino can only be welcome.

As Pacenti says: ‘There’s space for both traditional and modern styles, provided the wines in both schools are well made and have a distinct personality that originates in their terroir.’

On the issue of quality, the traditionalists and progressives probably have more in common

than they are willing to admit – starting with an impeccable grape supply based on low

yields and almost obsessive selection at harvest time.

Traditionalists may have an aversion to technology, but they are anything but naive. Gianfranco Soldera would never allow a consultant winemaker to darken his cellar door, but

he draws on cutting-edge research in the field of microbiology, and says, ‘Without science, you won’t get anywhere.’

Another point to make is that the wines themselves are much more difficult to pigeon-hole than the theories. Brunellos from the leading estates regularly refute the stereotypes of their supposed genre.

‘Fruit first’ is supposed to be the motto of the modern school, but the wines of arch-traditionalist Piero Palmucci (who ages his Poggio di Sotto Brunello in Slavonian oak

barrels for up to five years) burst with fruit aroma.

Move to elegance

As for the wines of the modern school, they are rarely guilty these days of the charge of oak-drenched over-extraction. In this context it is interesting to compare the evolution of Banfi’s Poggio alle Mura from the muscle-bound heavyweights of the late 1990s to the

more elegant style of current vintages.

Herein lies a discernible trend. ‘Elegant’ is the adjective most used in producers’ descriptions of their own wines. The danger is perhaps of going too far in that direction.

The challenge for producers is to ‘square the circle’ as Donatella Cinelli Colombini puts it, by

making wines that can be drunk on release without sacrificing their characteristic ageability. But this needs to be done without diluting the essence of Brunello.

Andrea Costanti sums it up: ‘There’s a temptation to go for easy consensus by making softer, more accessible wines, but that would be to deny the terroir.’

Ah, terroir… The one thing everybody agrees about is Montalcino’s unique vocation for Sangiovese. As Stefano Colombini says, ‘There is nowhere else on the planet where Sangiovese ripens like it does in Montalcino.’

The other consensus point concerns the native variety itself. Costanti says, ‘Sangiovese is vital, not just for reasons of image or tradition, but because it is a medium that transmits terroir like no other.’

What it transmits is a tightpacked, ripe tannic structure that sets Brunello apart from all other Sangiovese based wines and needs bottle ageing.

Which brings us back to the central, unavoidable issue of market demand.

Can a wine that only begins to peak at 8-10 years preserve its true character in a world of same-day consumption? I posed this question to Franco Biondi Santi, the man whose family ‘invented’ Brunello in the 19th century and who represents the most classic model of winemaking at Montalcino, whether Brunello was still a contemporary wine.

‘Certainly,’ was his reply, ‘but the world must learn patience to appreciate it.’

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