August 31 2012 issue

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PAGES (88-95) August 31 2012

Brunello di Montalcino: Reputation on the Line Tom Hyland

During much of the winter in the southern Tuscan town of Montalcino, about an hour’s drive south of Siena, the streets are quiet. Only one or two hotels are open for business; many eateries, whether elaborate ristoranti or simple trattorie, have shut their doors for the season. But suddenly, for four days in mid-to-late February, Montalcino becomes the capital of the wine world—attracting scores of international journalists as well as hundreds of tourists, all eager to taste the latest vintages of Rosso di Montalcino and especially of Brunello di Montalcino, both normale and riserva . The annual Benvenuto Brunello, organized by the local Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, demonstrates the excitement generated by this iconic Italian red, which is produced solely from Sangiovese Grosso. Yet as recently as 1966, there were only 40 producers of Brunello, releasing 375 cases a year from 425 acres of vineyards. By 1979, production had swelled to 25,000 cases per year; in 2012, some 330 producers, working 5,100 acres, turned out 750,000 cases.

What happened to cause such spectacular growth? For Fabrizio Bindocci, who has been winemaker at Il Poggione since 1999 and has recently been appointed president of the Consorzio, the answer has much to do with quality. In recent years, he says, producers have begun to pay careful attention to their vineyards, using methods such as green harvesting. Technological improvements in the cellar have also improved the caliber of the wines. Of course, enthusiastic reviews from the Italian and American wine media haven’t hurt. In response, dozens of wealthy entrepreneurs—many from outside Tuscany—have purchased land and planted vineyards in hopes of obtaining a small share of fame and fortune for themselves. Unfortunately, the rush to glory has brought some growing pains.

REGULATORY CHANGES

Many local producers will tell you that the 1995 enlargement of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) was a mistake; in their view, a good portion of this land is unsuited for growing vegetables, much less world-class wine grapes. Although they generally agree that the areas south of the town of Montalcino, including Castelnuovo dell’Abate and Sant’Angelo in Colle, offer exemplary conditions for ripening Sangiovese, their disdain for the zones northwest of Montalcino is often palpable. Yet the highly regarded Casale del Bosco, acquired by vintner Silvio Nardi in 1950, is situated in this quadrant. Nardi also bought the Manachiara estate, just southeast of Montalcino near Biondi Santi, in 1962, and that vineyard is now the source of his Brunello Vigneto Manachiara. His daughter Emilia, who currently manages the company, sees advantages in both locales: “To the northwest, Casale del Bosco is more affected by winds coming from the north, so there we have more aromatics. Manachiara is affected more by winds from the south, so it’s warmer. This means that we have a little bit more concentration.”

Nardi laughs about the reputation of the northwestern vineyards. "We’ve had people tell us, ‘Oh, that is the worst place in Montalcino to make wine,’" she says. "But you know what? We are going to release a new single-vineyard from here called Poggio d’Oria." (The name, meaning "hill of gold," refers to the sunset.) "Sangiovese reacts to climate and soil," she adds. "Perhaps those people were talking about the Torrenieri area, where there is a lot of clay. This is on the northeast side; from there, for example, you have a great wine from Giacomo Neri. It’s in the hands of the winemakers to plant the vineyards in the right place and make great wine."

Further modifications in the DOCG regulations have been more technical. Until 1996, oak or chestnut botti were the required aging vessels, but today, neither wood source nor cask size is specified. That allows the option of using barriques, seen by some producers as a way to craft a more modern style of Brunello that can compete with the Bordeaux classified growths and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. In 1998, the minimum aging requirement for Brunello was shortened from three years to two (and for riserve, from four years to three) as a direct consequence of the acceptance of barriques. Because these 225-liter barrels provide a much greater surface ratio of wood to wine than do the much larger botti, which hold from 1,500 to 12,000 liters, the theory was that a Brunello aged for three years in barrique would be overly dominated by oak. That same logic was applied to 500-liter tonneaux, which some producers adopted as a compromise.

Nowadays, the aging process in Montalcino differs from winery to winery. Paola Gloder and her husband Alberto Montefiore, owners of Poggio Antico, age their regular Brunello in botti for three years, according to tradition, while their Altero Brunello spends two years in tonneaux . At Il Poggione, Bindocci likewise continues to age his wines for three years in botti, though he now he prefers the grain of French oak to that of Slavonian oak. Other producers, both traditional and modern, use a mix of barrel types. Talenti’s regular Brunello is aged half in tonneaux, half in 1,500- to 2,500-liter botti; Castello Banfi relies primarily on custom-built 350-liter barriques, along with 6,000- to 12,000-liter botti .

According to Banfi winemaker Rudy Buratti, "Maturation is determined by the quality of the wine—above all, its concentration of color and tannin—and the capacity. The winemaker knows how to manage these elements in a way that has nothing to do with winemaking trends; it is his job to exalt the inherent quality of Brunello. At Banfi, the combination of barriques with botti is fundamental." Although his wines show much more oak influence than do those of the traditionalists, they’re not as wood dominated as those from, say, Casanova di Neri or Fanti.

Among the current releases, both the 2007 Brunellos and the 2006 riserve have received five-star (outstanding) ratings from the Consorzio. Given the inordinately high number of such verdicts from the marketing association (the 2004 and 2010 vintages were also given five stars), one should take them with a grain of salt; in any case, the true quality of a Brunello is not realized until at least a decade after release. Most producers do agree that these two years were special, but whereas the 2006 bottlings are more tightly wound, the 2007s have been more approachable upon release. In the view of Uccelliera owner-winemaker Andrea Cortonesi, "The wines from 2006 are more austere, profound, and concentrated, but the 2007s are extraordinary as far as overall balance; they are very harmonious." By contrast, Mario Bollag, proprietor of Terralsole, recalls that "2006 was an abundant vintage in every way. We made very bold, full-bodied wines. 2007 was a little less abundant, but still perfect timing-wise. The result: lighter bodied but more elegant wines."

GETTING PAST THE ARGUMENTS

With such successful vintages now on the shelves, Brunello producers hope their reputation will again revolve around winemaking, rather than the political battles that have marked recent years. There was the notorious scandal of 2008, when a few wineries were accused by local authorities of blending their 2003 Brunellos with Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. A handful of individuals were convicted on minor charges of falsifying documents, but no proof of wine doctoring was ever produced. Today the affair is a fading memory, although the suspicion that illegal blending did occur—and may still be occurring—lingers in the minds of some vintners (and journalists).

Then there was the 2011 vote over whether to allow the use of other varieties in Rosso di Montalcino—a lighter, earlier-drinking wine that, like Brunello, has always been made exclusively from Sangiovese Grosso. Vintners who backed the proposal argued that it would attract new international markets, but it was soundly defeated. "I am confident that it is over and nobody has the intention of proposing it again," says Bindocci.

Ultimately, most local producers maintain an optimistic outlook. Bollag believes that as long as producers stay true to Brunello di Montalcino’s authentic character, worldwide recognition will only increase. "Montalcino is the holy grail of Sangiovese," he argues. "The United States still has a love affair with Brunello, and now Asia is starting to get into fine wines other than Bordeaux. The worldwide economic turmoil, in my opinion, is only temporary. I am very positive as far as Brunello’s future is concerned."

Ian Louisignau, wine director for Chicago’s Italian Village Restaurants, agrees: "We offer an extensive selection of Brunelli, and as a category it is one of our best movers. People are more apt to buy even a basic Brunello simply because it bears the name, rather than a very well-made but unfamiliar 100% Sangiovese labeled as a super-Tuscan." Piero Selvaggio, owner of the Valentino restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas, adds that "of the Italian reds, I will say that Brunello has enjoyed a great deal of response by the new consumers of Italian wines. The American media embraced Brunello after the 1997 vintage, and many good vintages have followed."

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