Terroir isn’t just about wine. Chefs in Italy are looking local for their ingredients, from Caffè Cibrèo in Florence to Osteria Disguido in Piedmont.
“Terroir-driven wine” has become synonymous with a high-quality product loaded with the personality of the place (or soil) in which it’s made/grown. But in Italy, terroir is also a key concept behind much of the country’s best cuisine.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, winemakers focused efforts on new techniques and cellar technology to improve their wines. Since then, producers have turned their focus to the vineyards. How and where grapes are grown are now seen as the most important factors in quality winemaking.
The same emphasis on terroir can be said for today’s best Italian cuisine. It starts with select ingredients from distinct areas of the country.
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.
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.