Decanter book reviews

8 of 12
Books, Brunello-di-Montalcino

Brunello di Montalcino - Kerin O’Keefe - University of California Press, £27.95

As I was reading this book, I kept saying to myself that I really ought to be enjoying it. After all, it’s not everyday that a full-length tome comes out on an Italian wine. Kerin O’Keefe’s credentials are impeccable. She knows Montalcino intimately and she wrote the biography of Franco Biondi Santi, hailed as the region’s creator. Her exhaustive tasting notes go back to the historic vintages of the 1940s and beyond. She has done the legwork – the book includes the profiles of 53 producers, personally visited and interviewed, and she has put in the hours in the library too. Her bibliography starts almost 150 years ago in 1864, goes right up to the present and includes rare and previously unpublished source material.

I am not out of tune with her predilections – some of the greatest wines I have ever tasted have been made by producers who are among her benchmarks for the denomination, such as Biondi Santi and Soldera. I can also say that I share some of her dislikes. And yet, and yet, I found I could not sign up to her view that there is only one way to read Brunello di Montalcino. The central thesis of the book is that once upon a time there was the real Brunello, and then Banfi moved into Montalcino and triggered the adulteration of the terroir by planting in unsuitable locations, and the dumbing down of wine styles via Bordeaux-inspired winemaking methods.

O’Keefe identifies totally with a single model of tipicità. She polarises. You are either a ‘wine lover’ (you appreciate the beauty, the elegance and the refinement of pale wines of earthy, mineral character drunk at 20 years from the vintage) or a ‘wine drinker’, (you slosh back inky-black, fruit-forward, dense soft, round, Brunello with aromas of coffee and vanilla). You are either a ‘connoisseur’ or a ‘consumer’ who, in her words, has been ‘nearly brainwashed’ by certain wine journalists and ‘mainstream wine magazines’. There is no middle ground.

I would like to think that there are wine lovers out there who can appreciate both Biondi Santi and Siro Pacenti, for example. I would have liked to hear in O’Keefe’s book the voices of producers seriously committed to Brunello di Montalcino who interpret the terroir in a different way, such as Giacomo Neri or Roberto Cipresso. Andrew Jefford, writing in the June 2012 edition of Decanter on the controversy between the modernists and classicists in the Rhône’s Châteauneuf du Pape region concludes: ‘They are both right. Magnificent wines can be made by both approaches’. Hopefully at some point in the future the Brunello controversy will be laid to rest in the same way.

Book reviews: Brunello di Montalcino

After reading Richard Baudains’ review of my book on Brunello di Montalcino, I can’t help but question whether he read the book or merely skimmed a few sections. Every fact he cites is wrong: there are 58 producer profiles, not 53 as he claims; he declares that the bibliography ‘starts nearly 150 years ago in 1864’ when it actually starts in 1590. Baudains laments that I don’t include Roberto Cipresso when in reality I profile Cipresso’s estate and detail his winemaking methods and wines.

Yet the most inaccurate part of the review is Baudains’ statement that the ‘central thesis of the book is that once upon a time Banfi moved into Montalcino and triggered the adulteration of terroir’ (his term, not mine, and one I would never use). While my book covers all aspects of Brunello: its history, viticulture, geology, pedology, the Brunellogate scandal and contains indepth producer profiles, the book’s main focus is clearly on the crucial role sub-zones play in Brunello production and the pressing need to officially zone the denomination. Curiously, Baudains never mentions sub-zones in his review; a glaring omission. His piece reads more like a rebuttal than a review. Indeed he writes far more about himself and his own tastes than he does about the book, using the first person 11 times in his short piece.

Kerin O’Keefe, Varese, Italy

Richard Baudains’ oddly skewed review of Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello book completely ignores the main thrust of this very important book. O’Keefe’s point is not, as Baudains maintains, a subjective preference for one style of Brunello over all others, but rather the presentation of detailed and circumstantial information about the various terroirs of the Brunello zone – information currently available nowhere else – and about the relative suitability of each for producing great Sangiovese. This is basic information of the sort that will eventually make intelligent sub-zoning of the Montalcino area possible.

Baudains’ failure to even mention this aspect of the book is doubly troubling in light of his remark, in his introduction to your Brunello panel tasting in the same issue of Decanter, that ‘calls for sub-zones... fail to take into consideration the diversity of terroirs... Scientific studies of soil and climate differences would be necessary for a serious mapping of sub-zones.’ Indeed they would be, Baudains, and they have already begun: read O’Keefe’s book more attentively and you will see.

Tom Maresca, New York, US

I was dismayed by the recent Brunello panel tasting (August issue). As often seems to be the case with large tastings, where ‘palate fatigue’ surely sets in, the big, brash bombshells seem to have dominated over the subtle, elegant beauties, which may take time to show their best. Despite claims that tasters were looking for elegance, the ‘Highly Recommended’ section was full of 14.5-15«v wines, even 15.5%. Meanwhile, stellar producers of elegant, nuanced Brunellos which need time to develop (Fuligni, Gianni Brunelli, La Gerla) all earned modest scores. Wines were marked down for high levels of tannin and acidity, surely prerequisites for good Brunello, a wine requiring ageing to soften. Which leads to my big problem with the whole thing – why conduct a Brunello panel tasting in its year of release, judging them on drinkability now, when most will not be ready or intended to be ready? (Editor responds: We aim to do panel tastings at the stage at which the wines are available for consumers to buy, and our tasters take into account how they feel a wine will develop.)

In the same issue, I took exception to Richard Baudains’ review of Kerin O’Keefe’s superb book on Brunello. Thoroughly researched and meticulously compiled by an author who is steeped in knowledge of the wines of Montalcino, I found it a triumph. Her knowledge of the zone is exemplary and clearly far superior to Baudains’, whose review is disrespectful and patronising, reducing her very well argued views to caricature. She does far more than polarise Brunello into inky, dense international and elegant, lighter, traditional styles – she goes to great lengths to describe the characteristics of each unofficial sub-zone, and the effects of the varied terroir.

Adam Ventress, Lancashire, UK

Richard Baudains responds: Yes, what I was wrote was a personal response to Kerin O’ Keefe’s book. If the author has read this as a rebuttal, I am sincerely sorry, since that was far from my intention. What I wanted to express were my personal reservations about her judgemental approach to the issue of wine styles, which on a second reading of part one of the book in particular I still find a strong underlying theme. She states her position unequivocally in the introduction when she writes ‘don’t be surprised if some estates that annually rake in top scores from mainstream wine magazines and critics are absent [from her profiled estates]’ and goes on to explain that she has ‘avoided the big, black and inky Brunellos on steroids’. I do not want to defend one style of wine as opposed to another. But it seems a more objective and impartial approach would have been appropriate in what is destined to become the definitive work on Brunello in any language.

I acknowledged the depth of research underlying the work. The author also deserves credit for her admirably restrained treatment of the recent blending scandal and for opening a debate on the very complex issue of sub-zones. (Though Tom Maresca’s incomplete quote from my introduction to the Brunello panel tasting in the same edition completely misrepresents what I wrote).

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