Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Montalcino

Montalcino – the kingdom of Brunello

Brunello di Montalcino needs little introduction on account of its fame as one of the great wines of Italy and indeed the world. The production zone of Montalcino is defined by a plateau of between 100 and 560m above sea level surrounded on two sides by the Orcia river.  The town itself is completely dominated by wine, plus summer tourism and honey production, and has splendid views over the surrounding countryside.
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Brief introduction
  • Montalcino is in southern Tuscany, south of Siena and so has a warmer, dryer climate than Chianti Classico; annual rainfall is around 700mm and the plateau is subject to cooling winds from the sea which both give good day-night temperature difference and ventilation.
  • Vintage variation used to be important in Montalcino but recently the only really poor vintage was 2002 (rain) followed by the difficult heat of 2003.  The last eight years have all been regarded as very good (4*) or excellent (5*).  What 2012 will bring is another matter. If the current heat wave with no rain for three months (1 August 2012) continues, we could end up with a harvest of very expensive raisins.
  • the soils are varied with some alluvial soils, marl and limestone. According to Edoardo Costantini’s research team, the distinctiveness of some of Montalcino’s soil types is due to the repeated receding and returning of oceans which mixed up ancient soils from higher areas with younger soils in the middle parts of Montalcino. Kerin O’Keefe reports that Costantini believes that as a result ‘Montalcino’s growing zone boasts many areas with high and very high vocation for Sangiovese’, though other parts of the denomination do not (K O’Keefe, Brunello di Montalcino, University of California Press, 2012, p. 13)
  • the local form of Sangiovese is called Brunello and, depending on which authority you read, is either a distinctive clone or at least a form of Sangiovese Grosso, ie one that has small berries and thick skins.
  • this in turn leads to potentially high alcohol wines (14.5% is becoming common), with plenty of tannins, acidity and extract, particularly given long maceration times sometimes up to a month or so. This results in wines which can be aged for years and decades.
  • unlike Chianti, since Feruccio Biondi-Santi’s practice in the late nineteenth century it became, at least in theory, a monovarietal wine, 100% Sangiovese, and this was enshrined in the DOC of 1960 and the DOCG of 1980.
  • however, as the 2006 edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine states, innocently, some growers have added some Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to the wines to give them appeal. This practice led to the great (or at least well publicised) Brunello scandal of 2008 when four prominent growers were named and their wines declassified on the grounds that they did not conform to the rules. The wines were perfectly harmless; the charge was that they were not what they said they were, but some temporary damage was done to the name of Brunello.  Ironically, the practice of blending with other grape varieties has been (and in other Tuscan zones is) the modern way of tackling the demanding Sangiovese grape, ‘improving’ its colour and fruit concentration, while toning down its acidity and tannins.    Needless to say, since the publicity broke, Brunello has returned to being a uniformly medium ruby and tannic wine.
  • apart from better practice in the vineyard and winery (which has been a noticeable feature of the last decade or so), the legitimate way of tackling the Sangiovese grape is long ageing in wood and bottle before release. The regulations for Brunello require four years plus a minimum of three months in the bottle.  They used to demand four years in wood, but now there is greater flexibility with a minimum of two years in wood, which can in turn be either traditional, fairly neutral, large casks or French barriques, or of course some combination of the two.
  • this means that Brunello should never be and rarely is a cheap wine as it demands that a great deal of stock has to be held by the producer with the provision of cool storage for four years or indeed five years for those classified as Riserva.
  • to tackle this cash flow and price problem, a second wine called Rosso di Montalcino was created, also 100% Sangiovese, but typically made with fruit of younger vines and shorter maceration times. It can be sold 12 months after the harvest.  Because of the fame of the name of Montalcino, these wines too are more expensive than, for example, some good quality Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
  • the massive success of Brunello has seen both a huge increase in production (from 60 hectares in 1960 to 2000 hectares in the mid 2000s) and the virtual elimination of the other traditional wine of the area, sweet Moscadello, made not surprisingly from Muscat.
  • But at its best, Brunello is one of the world’s great wines – complex, multi-layered, expressive of the particular sites on which it is grown, capable of many years development in the bottle.

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Page created 1 August 2012, Hotel dei Capitani, Montalcino

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