Brunello on the Brink
- Tuesday 19 August 2008
No one will forget the scalding summer of 2003, among the hottest and
driest ever recorded in Europe. Many consumers, however, will want to forget the wines from this vintage; Italy was hit hard and most wines reflect the difficult conditions. ‘Because of the extreme heat and drought we experienced in Tuscany, grapes in 2003 had a lot of concentrated sugar but tannins did not always reach full ripeness,’ explains Renzo Cotarella, managing director of Antinori. The Brunello 2003s are no exception. Generally unbalanced with high alcohol, low acidity and green tannins, the vintage’s shockingly optimistic rating of four stars out of five, awarded by Brunello Consorzio’s judges, has misled consumers expecting the same excellent quality of the 1999 and 2001s, given the same rating. A small core of producers, however, made Brunellos with freshness and complexity. How so? The answer, as with the disastrous 2002 crop, lies in the sharp contrasts found among the unofficial subzones of Brunello di Montalcino. As well as individual approaches to vinification, vineyard location is crucial to understanding Brunello. Notable variations exist in the growing area and have a profound effect on Sangiovese, the sole grape allowed. Vineyard altitudes in Brunello DOCG range from just above sea level to more than 500m, and summertime temperatures can vary up to 7˚C between subzones. Add to this an array of different soils, and one can understand why Brunellos range from the elegantly austere and cellarworthy, to fruit-forward, plush and immediate. But where does this leave consumers seeking out specific styles? Until recently, most producers have been happy to avoid the subzone debate. Since it became a DOC in 1963 (and then Italy’s first golden child of Italian wine – demand
has nearly always outstripped supply – and its name enough to secure success.
Now, Brunello’s catch-all guarantee of quality is coming under fire as allegations
of fraudulent blending of non-Sangiovese varieties circulate (see box, p57), and output is set to explode from an average of 6 million bottles a year to double that, starting with the 2004s. The increase can be traced back to overzealous planting in the late 1990s, and many young vineyards are now cultivated in areas never before under vine. As a result, many producers from well-established areas would now like to see official subzones created. But will it happen? Although its critics fear a classification system, no one denies that subzones exist. As Stefano Campatelli, director of Brunello’s Consorzio, says: ‘We feel that there are numerous subzones, but that recognising them all would create more confusion.’ Michael Palij MW, director of UK importer Winetraders, believes it is ‘time Montalcino began recognising subzones to promote the various types of Brunellos now on the market’. He adds: ‘Subzones shouldn’t penalise producers from certain areas or those who blend Sangiovese from different holdings in the DOCG.’ He admits, though, that ‘how
the areas would be broken down is a difficult question.’ For now, subzones remain unofficial, but more and more producers are writing back-label info or the name of the hamlet on the front label. Although some subzones are considered superior to others, ultimately, any such view depends on what you want. Brunellos that will develop layers of complexity with age hail from the original growing area just southeast of Montalcino, while Sant’Angelo is a good source of fruitforward, muscular Brunellos. For a combination of elegance and power, look for Castelnuovo d’Abate, and for Brunellos with exquisite bouquets and refinement, buy from north Montalcino. While unofficial, the following zonal breakdown should provide a useful guide:
Many of Brunello’s 250 producers are clustered just southeast of Montalcino in the original production zone. Most are small scale, as the rugged, hilly terrain doesn’t permit great expanses of vineyard. Here, in Montalcino’s highest vineyards, reaching between 400m–500m, the most elegant Brunellos are produced. Complex and beautifully balanced with rich bouquets, they often need years to reach their prime thanks to naturally high acidity and bracing tannins.The area’s infertile, calcareous soil allows roots to penetrate minerals below the surface that add to Brunello’s complexity, while marked variations between day and night temperatures develop intense aromas. Most of the denomination’s longest established producers are here, including Biondi Santi, the family that invented Brunello in the 1800s. Unsurprisingly, many
winemakers here want to establish subzones. ‘When you buy a Château Margaux, you know what to expect from that wine. We need a similar system here in Montalcino because of the completely different styles of Brunello now available,’ says Franco Biondi Santi, the grand old master of Tuscan winemaking. Andrea Costanti, of the eponymous firm, agrees: ‘It’s time to establish subzones to help guide consumers.’ He adds that, like Pinot Noir, Sangiovese is highly sensitive to terroir. ‘Although Cabernet and Merlot do well everywhere, terroir plays a fundamental role for Sangiovese, which does well at higher altitudes.’ Il Colle also makes impressive Brunellos southeast of Montalcino while further east, Giulio Salvioni and Diego Molinari make cult, port-like Brunellos.
Ten km southeast, Castelnuovo dell’Abate houses some of today’s most exciting
Brunellos, including Mastrojanni and Piero Palmucci’s Poggio di Sotto. ‘I’d love to have a Castelnuovo dell’Abate subzone so wine lovers would know they were drinking wine from one of the most beautiful parts of Tuscany,’ says Palmucci. One reason for the success of Castelnuovo is its eclectic combination of soils hailing from different epochs that impart layers of complexity and flavour. The area benefits from warmer temperatures but doesn’t suffer scorching maritime
breezes. Enjoyable young, Castelnuovo Brunellos can also age well thanks to moderate acidity imparted from vineyard altitudes of between 250m–450m. Other estates to look for here include Belpoggio, San Giorgio and Uccelliera.
North of Montalcino is another area densely populated with small wineries. The limestone and clay soil, combined with different altitudes, create a fascinating variety of microzones, with aromatic Brunellos that are lighter coloured but remarkably complex, like those from Il Marroneto, Pertimali and La Capanna. The latter makes soulful and earthy Brunellos with heady aromas. Boutique producer Gianni Brunelli blends his northern Sangiovese with some from his estate southeast of town. ‘The wines from northern Montalcino have great bouquets butlack power, so I blend Sangiovese from my two holdings to create the perfect balance,’ says Brunelli. Montosoli, one of Montalcino’s greatest crus, is here. Single-vineyard bottlings from this 30ha (hectare) hill are more powerful
than most from this subzone, but don’t have the structure for cellaring.
Until the recent planting boom, few estates existed in the far northern reaches of the DOCG, where vineyards are prey to fog and devastating spring frosts. Without the ventilation of the higher vineyards, grapes risk developing mould during the rainy season. Most firms here blend their grapes with fruit from southern holdings. Examples include Altesino, which blends its grapes with those from La Velona, while Silvia Nardi blends her northern grapes with those
from Manachiara 25km further south. In the northeast, the dense clay which tends to yield tannic wines once deterred the widespread planting that has now
taken root in Torrenieri. Growers must carefully choose rootstocks and clones to combat this but, so far, most wines are uninspiring.
Altitudes decline and temperatures warm up around Tavernelle in the southwest. Wines here tend to be fuller and riper than their northern counterparts. Notable estates include Case Basse, run by Gianfranco Soldera, and Angelo Gaja’s
Pieve Santa Restituta. Gaja is against subzones. He says: ‘Just as we didn’t participate in Barbaresco’s sub-zoning, we prefer to promote our own specific vineyards in Montalcino and not an entire area.’
The neighbouring villages of Sant’Angelo in Colle and Sant’Angelo Scalo are in the deep southwest, the hottest and driest part of the zone. These subregions are dominated by large-scale operations such as Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia and Banfi. Sant’Angelo alone produces about 40% of all Brunello output. Roasting summertime temperatures in the mostly low-lying vineyards produce wines that are darker, fruitier and higher in alcohol. These muscular Brunellos are most
enjoyable young. Lars Leicht, vice-president of Castello Banfi, is all for subzones. ‘Anyone travelling around the area cannot help but be struck by the variation of soils and microclimates, and the wines of each subzone reflect that variation. The recognition of subzones would only enhance the special character of this region and its great wine’. The subzone debate is destined to rage for years. David Gleave MW, director of Italian specialist Liberty Wines in London, thinks this no bad thing. ‘It is too early to talk about subzones in Montalcino,’ he
says. ‘It is still a young zone, with most of the vineyards planted in the past 30 years and, during most of this period, viticulture has not been all that good. This has improved in recent years, but we need time to look at results before deciding whether to go for subzones