The latest releases from Montalcino’s cellars have had their first outing and they’re a mixed bag. The 2008 Brunellos and 2007 riservas shown at the annual Benvenuto Brunello tasting ranged from outstanding to unpleasant, and the two vintages could pose serious challenges for Brunello fans.
The first thing to do was to pull up tobacco and wheat; after that it was years of studying Sangiovese. All that work has paid off, says Kerin O’Keefe, and Col d’Orcia continues to set ever higher standards in Montalcino.
Perhaps one of Francesco Marone Cinzano’s most significant contributions to Montalcino was choosing the right areas to plant Sangiovese.
A medieval Montalcino castle inspires a stargazer to make his own wine.
When Giuseppe Sesti, a historian of astronomy, purchased an ancient ruined castle in Montalcino, he did not realize he had just sealed his own destiny as a boutique Brunello maker.
Sesti, whose rich and powerful Brunellos are a cult favorite among fans of Italian wine, is Montalcino’s accidental winemaker; when he bought the splendid Castello di Argiano estate in 1975, wine was the last thing on his mind. The property came complete with a disintegrating but authentic medieval castle tower, a ninth-century church, and a stone country house with a tree growing through the roof and pecking chickens milling about the sitting room. Sesti and his English wife, Sarah, were captivated.
O’Keefe dishes all the secrets about who’s on the hillsides and who’s on the flats; and for those who would find it fascinating to know who makes wine from Montosoli (probably the second-most esteemed Brunello vineyard after Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo estate) without bothering to mention it on the label, this is the source.
And a valuable source, too, because it gives the appellation something that it has deserved for some time: a critical voice who writes about Brunello with the affection and focus ordinarily reserved for the likes of Burgundy, and, more important still, one who appreciates Brunello for what Brunello is and not for what it can be when it’s dressed as something else.
Kerin O’Keefe’s authoritative book on Brunello is in the Broadbent/Coates tradition…
…Brunello di Montalcino is a wine that makes enthusiasts push the expressive power of language to its limits. Even the normally reserved O’Keefe lets herself go when describing Biondi Santi’s 2004 Brunello: “a true masterpiece, a monument to Brunello . . . layers of wild cherry, earth, and mineral and a hint of tobacco . . . . A stunning, gripping wine with Grace Kelly-like finesse and polish”.
I must confess I don’t have much time for tasting notes. My eyes glaze over when I survey either Parker’s romantic rhapsodies or Broadbent’s classical sonatas. But the world of wine is baffling, full of opaque terminology, hyperbole, snobbery and downright deception. It is easy to make expensive mistakes. Many will have had the experience of coming across some quite stunning wine and wanting to repeat the experience – but finding too that it can be hard to locate the very same thing again. So we need a guide we can trust; and those once seduced by the delicate complexity of a perfect Brunello could hardly do better than O’Keefe’s book.
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.
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.