Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines (University of California Press; $39.95) is a must-have book for lovers of Brunello and, in fact, for anyone at all serious about Italian wine.
Brunello has burgeoned in my wine-drinking lifetime from a few more than half a dozen producers, mostly clustered around the medieval hill town of Montalcino, to well over two hundred, scattered all over the very diverse territories of the Brunello zone. Keeping track of that highly differentiated production – much more making sense of it – is a monumental task. O’Keefe has managed to do it by dint of persistence and equally monumental effort. As she puts it, “Rather than merely sit in my office and taste thousands of wines every year, I’ve visited all the Brunello estates profiled in the following chapters, some several times, and many more that are not in the book. I’ve spent years researching Brunello di Montalcino. . . . I’ve walked producers’ vineyards, visited their cellars, and talked for hours with the winemakers and their families. . . . I take [lengthy trips] to Montalcino every year.”
That kind of leg work produces the detailed and accurate information that makes O’Keefe’s book a milestone in our grasp of Brunello.
In an era where there is so much misinformation about any number of wines and wine news, it’s refreshing to read the work of an author who not only knows her subject in great detail, but one who is opinionated and tells her story in an engaging fashion. Whether you are just discovering Brunello di Montalcino or have been enjoying these wines for decades, this book is highly recommended.
Forget blending scandals and infighting over the make-up of Rosso – the biggest issue facing Brunello di Montalcino is the creation of subzones. Kerin O’Keefe argues that consumers need better guidance around what is a vast region of hugely variable styles – and quality.
If Brunello di Montalcino’s 2008 grape blending scandal proved anything, it was that the region’s native Sangiovese excels only in certain areas of the vast growing zone. Why else would producers be tempted to adulterate it with other varieties?
It is surely no coincidence that since the scandal, which was effectively swept under the rug in 2009, there has been an attempt to change Brunello’s rigid production code to allow other grapes, as well as two efforts to modify Rosso di Montalcino – reportedly launched by some of the denomination’s largest firms. The efforts failed.
Now a number of producers are arguing that, rather than allowing other grapes to bolster wines hailing from inferior vineyards, it is instead time to recognise quality by creating official subzones. Summertime temperatures can vary by up to 7°C between Montalcino’s northern and southern extremes, and a dizzying array of altitudes range from just above sea level to more than 500m. Montalcino also boasts one of the most complex and diverse soil profiles in Italy, and all of these factors have a marked effect on the performance of the temperamental Sangiovese. Despite such obvious differences, or perhaps because of them, the powers that be in Montalcino continue to ignore pleas from a growing number of parties to officially acknowledge Montalcino’s varied subzones.
Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino is not simply an enjoyable wine book; it’s one of the rare wine books that is truly important.
O’Keefe, an American writer with many years experience in Italy and, particularly, in Tuscany, sets out to explain what makes this wine so special. And in doing so, she takes a sledgehammer to the developments that have threatened to make Brunello just another wine, indistinguishable from the masses.
The author’s values shine through in every chapter. O’Keefe speaks for many, many fans of Brunello who dread the internationalization of these wines. Her tasting notes are impressive, and she takes a brickbat to critics who celebrate the ubiquitous chocolate notes now so often lurking in Italian wines. Those notes come from wood, not the land, and not the grapes, she explains.
Ultimately, Kerin O’Keefe has done a great service to Montalcino and to wine lovers who appreciate a sense of history and place. Tuscany, as she reveals, has some growing up to do. It is unlike Piedmont in the way that it has allowed outsiders to dominate the conversation and the production. This book comes at a time when the region has the opportunity to determine its identity going forward. Thanks to Kerin O’Keefe, that identity is more likely to be mindful of Montalcino’s riveting past.
The tail-end of the vintage was a washout, leading some to write it off. Yet many smaller estates have made impressive Brunellos in 2005, says Kerin O’Keefe– perfect as we wait to open the magnificent riserva 04s…
One of the biggest problems facing producers of the recently released Brunello 2005s is that the vintage is sandwiched between the superb Brunello 2004s and the already much-hyped 2006s, scheduled for release next year. While 2004 is a classic vintage, thanks to perfect climatic conditions that yielded structured, harmonious wines with serious cellaring potential, 2005 was an unstable year in most of Montalcino’s growing zone, with a cool summer that culminated in heavy rains at harvest time.
There are, however, some surprisingly good Brunellos from
the vintage, and those estates – mostly small – that were able to
pick entirely before torrential rains arrived, like Costanti, made
some of the best 2005s. Many of the larger houses, on the other
hand, were not able to finish harvesting before the rain, so had
a mixed quality crop.
The 2005 vintage underlines the need for official subzones
in Montalcino. While many Brunellos hailing from estates just
north and south of the town are delicate, with earthy, floral
aromas, Brunellos from Castelnuovo dell’Abate in the southeast
have bigger structures (though grape selection was still crucial).
The higher areas of Sant’Angelo in Colle in the far south also
yielded some very good wines, such as Il Poggione’s.
“By law, Brunello di Montalcino can be made only with 100 percent Sangiovese cultivated in Montalcino. Otherwise, it’s not Brunello. It shouldn’t be difficult to grasp,” asserts Gianfranco Soldera of Case Basse regarding “Brunellogate,” the grape-blending scandal that broke wide open just days before Vinitaly, the country’s largest annual wine fair, rocking both the sleepy village of Montalcino and one of Italy’s most esteemed denominations. The always forthright Soldera is one of the very few Brunello producers to speak out on the issue that currently besieges the wine and threatens its future. A tense silence has fallen like an iron curtain among the majority of Montalcino’s growers and winemakers, as well as their governing Consorzio. This near-total communication breakdown has not only left Brunello fans in the dark but has also generated controversial media coverage that has confused, exaggerated, or even made up the facts, while at the same time casting doubt as to the fate of Brunello as a varietal wine.
An overhyped 2003 vintage, a fraud scandal, and the threat of a US ban has left Brunello in crisis. Could subregions be the answer, asks Kerin O’Keefe.
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.
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 fruit forward, 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…
Read the article: Brunello on the brink
While the notion of terroir has been both celebrated and ridiculed in some of the world’s greatest wine-producing areas, one of Italy’s most illustrious denominations has instead chosen to ignore it—until now. Kerin O’Keefe discovers Montalcino’s unofficial subzones.
Majestic. Elegant. Powerful. Long-lived. Expensive. Rare. All these adjectives have been applied to Brunello di Montalcino by the world’s leading wine authorities, from Cyril Ray to Burton Anderson, but may soon be supplemented by another much less positive—overflowing. Due to massive overplanting, Brunello production is now on the brink of exploding, which has pushed the long-neglected question of Brunello’s tipicità to the forefront, as Montalcino winemakers search for ways to protect Brunello’s identity and prestige from the perils posed by a saturated market. As areas previously considered unsuitable for winemaking are cultivated, many producers feel the time has come to recognize officially Montalcino’s greatly varied subzones and to curb vinification techniques that render a more international style.
Con il suo libro Kerin non ci propone solo una documentata, appassionata, ben raccontata biografia della dinastia Biondi Santi e di Franco, gentleman del Brunello, descritto a tutto tondo nella sua umanità e nel suo voler essere il degno testimone di un impegno, quello della qualità senza discussioni, che è sentito ancor più fortemente perché s’intreccia con la storia della sua famiglia.
O’Keefe, e di questo dobbiamo esserle profondamente grati, nel suo libro dimostra di credere in una sua idea del Brunello, (che, vedi caso, coincide con la visione di Franco Biondi Santi), e con coraggio, senza perifrasi e giri di parole, ricorda chiaramente che ora ci si trova di fronte ad una “situazione allarmante per il futuro del Brunello, il cui carattere e la cui tipicità uniche al mondo sono minacciate”, e che “oggi con il futuro di questo grande vino in pericolo e il volere da parte di certi produttori di cambiare ancora il disciplinare”, Franco Biondi Santi ha scelto di aderire al Consorzio per combattere dal di dentro ,”nella speranza che lui e gli altri produttori del Brunello tradizionale possano fermare la tendenza a renderlo un vino irriconoscibile”.