Just before the annual Tuscan en primeur tastings (on which I will report in detail later this week) last February, I met up with Kerin O’Keefe in Florence. She reports on Italian wines for both Decanter and The World of Fine Wine magazines,while last year she published her second book, Brunello di Montalcino. Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines.
In her book she describes a system of sub zones in order to get a clearer picture of the diverse Montalcino terroirs, and the different wine styles as a result of this. It is something wine lovers and wine professionals alike are keen to know about more, but a controversial topic in Montalcino itself, where every producer considers his or her vineyards automatically to be of Grand Cru status as long as they are located within the Brunello di Montalcino designated area. It is the reason why the region has never tried to map its sub zones in any comprehensive or systematic way so far.
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.
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.
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.