Crossed swords over Montalcino – a review of Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino

In the age of the internet, one fears for the future of book publishing. This is particularly the case for niche markets such as wine books. While the standard reference works, atlases and annual wine buying guides are going strong, there are few more specialist volumes being commissioned and published. The World of Fine Wine’s Finest Wines series is a rare and heartening exception, as is the University of California Press which has published Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino. Understanding and appreciating one of Italy’s greatest wines. A book of nearly 300 pages of pretty much unadorned text on one appellation shows a serious intent. The fact that one in four bottles of Brunello ends up in the United States also means that there is a relatively large market for a book by an American from an American publisher on a wine whose commercial success largely depends on that market.

Gianni BrunelliBrunello di Montalcino is both a great source of information about what is arguably Tuscany’s most important wine appellation – and a call to arms for what its author regards as the one, true style of Brunello. Its greatest value is the way that it combines recent research on terroir in Tuscany with the author’s extensive personal interactions with the wines and their producers. It draws helpfully on the soil surveys led by Edoardo Costantini (Universities of Siena and then Florence) in an attempt to explain why Brunello can be so variable across this large area where 3,500 hectares are under vine of which 2,100 are registered for the making of the top wine, Brunello. As reported here, Costantini not only plotted the various types and ages of soil according to their geological age, he also estimates the soil types’ suitability for the notoriously difficult-to-grow Sangiovese grape. In short the most suitable soils are the oldest which combine low fertility, excellent drainage and a rich mineral content. By contrast, alluvial and low lying younger soil types are not suitable for this particular variety. Montalcino has a great range of soil types, which range from the highly suitable to the completely unsuitable – buyer beware.

O’Keefe is also assiduous in noting the importance of altitude in Montalcino. It is difficult to create elegant wines in warm to hot Southern Tuscany below around 200 metres of altitude; on the other hand, if you are too high, say above 500 metres, the grapes won’t ripen in cool years, though this has not been a problem in recent times. But while the rules forbid the making of Brunello from the highest parts of the plateau, there is no lower limit – even if the land is really too low and too hot to be suitable. O’Keefe also tells the story of the short and meteoric rise of the appellation in post-world war two Italy and the controversies that have accompanied it, especially the charge that broke in 2008 that many producers (including four large firms) were ‘improving’ their Brunello by adding small percentages of other grapes varieties, Gianfranco at Stella di Campaltoespecially Merlot, a practice which while not dangerous would be fraudulent.
O’Keefe’s undoubted knowledge – whether academic or in terms of tasting and through personal encounter – is accompanied by a crusading spirit for what she regards as the true style of Brunello. For her, this great expression of the Sangiovese grape should be pale in colour, redolent of the earth and sour cherry fruit and not dominated by new oak. It should be a wine of long ageing, not manufactured in toasty barriques for quick drinking. Correspondingly she is deeply critical of wines which have been made to appeal to the tastes of certain, as it happens American, critics – deep in colour, full bodied and high in alcohol, the fruit overlaid (or obscured) by layers of oak-derived aromas – vanilla, leather, chocolate, coffee. The enemy is these ‘darkly exotic, instant-gratification Brunellos that seemed more like Super Tuscans’ than ‘classically crafted Brunellos’ (p. 66). In all this Kerin O’Keefe is entirely on the side of the angels. It would be a travesty if Brunello were to be no longer a 100% Sangiovese wine, pale and fragrant but with structure from its acidity and tannins, if it were to become a Tuscan version of Merlot. However, the crusade does get a bit tiresome – and the battle is being won. Having just returned from Montalcino (reports), my single strongest impression is that Brunello at its best has become a pale ruby, elegant and balanced wine, not the tired, long aged wine one admired rather than enjoyed in previous decades, nor the inky, oaky blockbuster much criticised here. Yes, there are inky, over-oaked wines from a few big producers – but one doesn’t have to drink those.  One wonders why the point has to be made repeatedly until one remembers that this is an American writer arguing mainly with the American founded and owned dominant Banfi estate and with the American journalists such as James Suckling about a style created for transatlantic-influenced tastes.

In the end I could not help wondering if the campaigning spirit which is entirely appropriate in day to day journalism needs to be toned down, or handled in a different way, in a full length book. For example her call to arms to small producers to oppose the proposals of some of the biggest growers to allow other grape varieties in the second wine, Rosso di Montalcino, was a real contribution to that debate. If accepted, the proposal could have weakened the Montalcino brand (unique in Tuscany for being 100% Sangiovese) and would have led to the same proposal being brought forward again for Brunello itself. But, at the end of the day, I would start from the view that people will buy wines that they want to drink – even Americans with their reputation for needing to be told what wines are good. If they prefer short lived oak-boosted Brunello (Banfi’s basic Brunello makes up 10% of the appellation’s entire production), so be it. Contrast the scorn heaped upon these poor, misguided mere drinkers here: ‘It is almost impossible for Sangiovese to excel in mass production, and despite being beefed up with evident wood sensations, in my opinion these are entry-level bottlings that will appeal more to wine drinkers than wine lovers.’ (pp. 221-2) Ouch!

Let’s move on – this strand of chastising her fellow country men and women is just one component of this valuable book. Its other big theme is the attempt to classify Brunello by zones, a proposal much talked about but rarely worked out in detail. MontalcinoKerin O’Keefe groups her reviews of nearly 60 producers (out of the current total of 250) under seven zones: Montalcino (ie around the town), Bosco (in the North West of the appellation) and Torrenieri (North East), Tavernelle (south of Montalcino town and central), Camigliano (South West), Sant’Angelo (South West to South), Castelnuovo dell’Abate (South East). This is valuable because it is a concrete way of dealing with the really important natural factors which affect the style of wines: soil type, orientation of slopes, altitude with its effect on maximum temperatures and on day/night temperature difference, and rainfall. The scheme doesn’t entirely work as the reality is more complicated than any simple classification. O’Keefe herself states that the Montalcino zone should really be divided into north and south, that Bosco and Torrenieri are somewhat arbitrarily grouped together and, most importantly, that there is a huge difference between classic vineyards at altitude in Sant’Angelo in Colle and the flat (actually flattened by Banfi), hot, low plain of Sant’Angelo Scalo. So, using her judgements, the scheme could be: Montalcino North, Montalcino South, Bosco, Torrenieri, Tavernelle, Camigliano, Castelgiocondo (which she says could be a one winery – Frescobaldi – zone of its own), Sant’Angelo in Colle, Sant’Angelo Scalo. I also wondered if you could group Sant’Angelo in Colle with the adjacent Castelnuovo dell’Abate. It’s a short drive on the strada bianca between the two.

The glorious thing about wine production is the complexity of the factors which affect the final outcome in the glass. In the end this will defeat any simple system of classification, however helpful the system may be. Other natural factors and human intervention can moderate or profoundly affect outcomes. Thus SassodiSole’s wines are praised by O’Keefe despite being the product of soils which are predominantly clay with rock fragments, the former certainly not recommended by Costantini for Sangiovese. Despite being part of the criticised expansion in the unsuitable Torrenieri zone, fine wines are produced at SassodiSole because of excellent south and west exposure of the vineyards, good canopy management, altitude of 330m and deep ploughing between the vines which forces them to put their roots down into soil below the clay … So soil type on its own does not determine the outcome.

All in all, this is a very welcome addition to the literature in English on Tuscan wine and on Montalcino in particular. It records in a highly readable way the conflicts within the denomination itself – the controversy surrounding Banfi’s actions as the foreign interloper which became by far the biggest producer despite originally wanting to produce sparkling Muscat not Brunello; the Brunello scandal of 2008; the battles over Rosso, and the academic research on the origins and types of Sangiovese. Less happily, it feels as if the book is driven by the duelling between mainly American wine writers over the style of the wine. Overall however it represents a huge step forward in understanding why the wines of Montalcino are so variable, explaining in detail both the natural variations of terrain and climate and the different approaches in vineyard and winery of the producers. The winery profiles are detailed and lovingly celebrate the many small family producers, while criticising some of the big boys. While I agree with her strong preference for (the best modern versions of) traditional Brunello I would be more tolerant of a range of styles in this one large appellation. But O’Keefe’s love of the traditionalist style will make these wonderful wines more accessible to her readers. We are in her debt. And we can salute the few publishing houses continuing to produce books of this quality and substance.

Kerin O’Keefe, Brunello di Montalcino. Understanding and appreciating one of Italy’s greatest wines, University of California Press, 2012, xii + 281 pages

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