Brunello di Montalcino: A Reflection
*Based on personal observations and conversations during a recent media trip to the region, November 26-30, 2012, sponsored by Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino.
Before Montalcino became an international food and wine destination, before its lands hosted great vineyards, there were other things:
When phylloxera arrived in the 1930’s to devastate the vineyards, interrupting whatever early fame Brunello may have won, there was despair. And there were hard times when post-war poverty held Montalcino in its grip and tears, too, for what the earth would not give. Weary parents and children, silently uncertain they could carry on. Abandoned farms. Isolation. Doubt.
If you want to know anything at all about Brunello, if you want to really taste Brunello di Montalcino, then you must first know its history and not forget it. Because the Italians have certainly not forgotten, nor have the new-comers to this territory. As if they ever could. Brunello’s history, the traditions and values which derive of it, flow somehow from the earth and up into the feet of these happy, resilient people, runs through their veins and out from their hands to imbue Brunello di Montalcino with a soul so deep as to be inaccessible to mere language. If you want to experience the deepest dimensions of one of the world’s greatest wines, Brunello di Montalcino, you must embrace its history. One cannot be known without the other.
As near as I can tell, it was during the 1950’s when a handful of visionary local wine producers, understanding of Brunello’s great potential, began bottling their own wines which got things back on track. The law around DOC wines was passed in July of 1963 and in July of 1980, Brunello di Montalcino was the first Italian wine to be awarded DOCG status.
Brunello di Montalcino sets itself apart as a wine made from a single vine called Sangiovese, locally referred to as “Brunello”. The varied soils and microclimates of Montalcino transmit to Brunello – and to the region’s other wines – a unique, terroir-driven fingerprint. Interpreted by each producer, the wines I tasted were deliciously different and yet maintained the typicity of their DOC/G. Insofar as Rosso di Montalcino, a younger bottling recognized with DOC status in 1983, is produced from the same Sangiovese vine and in a similar manner, I include it in the tasting notes below.
With approximately 2 hectares and a production of 8k bottles, Armilla is one of the smaller family-owned estates in Montalcino. A vein of really delicious acidity ran through both the Rosso and Brunello vintages I tasted. The 2007 Brunello offered an easy approach with delicate, but expansive fruit, and soft tannins. The 2006 Brunello, in keeping with the characteristics of that vintage, showed more muscle and structure, with more aromatic intensity and the potential for long-living. Armilla’s Brunello 2004 was just magnificent in its focus and integration of components.
True believers in terroir, our hosts at Cupano pointed out that the estate’s soil was, in fact, “…the bottom of a river on the top of the hill”. Cupano brought in its first vintage in 2000 and currently produces about 14k bottle per year. I adored Cupano’s Rosso di Montalcino 2010, with its gorgeous dark fruit, impressions of bacon and long finish. And whatever all-knowing critic claimed that 2002 was bad all across Tuscany had apparently missed a stop a Cupano: the estate’s Brunello 2002, which began a vertical tasting through to 2007, was soft, elegant and delicious. Brunello from the other vintages were impressive with the 2005 and 2006 stealing the show with superb balance all round.
Located at the southern-most tip of the territory, San Giorgio was bought by Guido Folonari in 2004. With five very fertile hectares on the front side and another five of sandy, poorer soil on the backside, the vineyards benefit from superior ventilation thus avoiding its share of disease problems. The estate philosopy suggests that Brunello should taste of “grapes” and wood treatments tend to be new and / or second passage oak. San Giorgio’s Rosso 2011 offered good fruit inflected with well-done oak and spice. The estate’s Brunello Ugolforte 2007 was impressive in stature with rich fruit, big structure and tannins. And I appreciated a pre-release tasting of the 2008 Brunello which I can only imagine will be well-received for its nuanced layers of berries and flowers.
Though Ventolaio produced its first vintage in 2000, the family Fanti have been growers for many generations. The estate holds 13 hectares of Sangiovese and 49 hectares of forest. Ventolaio produces a very traditional Brunello with clear and brilliant color. Soils are mainly Galestro / mineral / rock / clay. Ventolaio’s Rosso di Montalcino 2010 was a joy with very focused, intense aromatics just singing with typical scents of Sangiovese. A vertical tasting from vintages 2003 to 2008 (’03 and ’04 Riserva) was a textbook lesson in traditional Brunello of great purity and depth. It was the 2006 vintage that excelled with moody, dark cherry-cola fruit, sporting bigger shoulders via tannic structure than did ’07. An early taste of Ventolaio’s Brunello 2008 blew me away with laser beams of precision fruit and complex layers of medicinal herb, dried flowers and minerals. Sensational.
After buying the estate in 1985, the owners of Paradisone, hailing from Milan, lived for five years with the former owners to learn about the land and how to follow nature and not oppose it. Paradisone intends to produce a traditional style of Brunello and finds strength in “being small”. All preparations are made by hand, and there are no controlled temperatures before fermentation (only during). Rosso di Montalcino 2007 showed nice cherry fruit, spice, simple and refreshing. Rosso di Montalcino from the 2008 vintage was more open than was the 2007 and with more high-toned personality. 2007 marks the first vintage of Paradisone Brunello which showed on that day with pleasing cherry-cola, chocolate and menthol. Admittedly, these wines challenged me some insofar as I think they could have definitely benefitted from more air exposure, and I look forward to seeing how they behave with earlier bottle opening.
By virtue of sheer size, operations at Altesino are conducted on a grander scale than the smaller estates I visited. The estate is comprised of approximately 80 hectares on the northside of Montalcino, five vineyards which are harvested / aged separately. Harvesting is carried out by hand with a second manual selection for Brunello before fermentation. Unfortunately, the tasting was carried out during meal service, with multiple servers and, realized too late, mixed up pourings. In fairness, I cannot comment here in detail other than to say I totally enjoyed the wines and found them well-made.
Intelligent innovation at Vitanza is impressive: grapes are brought to a “piazza” of sorts where they are de-stemmed and gravity-fed downward into fermentation tanks. A glass elevator descends to lower levels of the winery. The estate is energy independent (solar tiles) and tries to recycle everything. Vitanza counts approximately 25 hectares of Sangiovese. I found Vitanza’s Rosso di Montalcino 2011 delicate and floral, exhibiting stunning finesse for this level of wine. The Brunello Tradizione 2008 was lip-smacking good with tantalizing layers of cherry fruit, tobacco, and earth served up on a classic frame. The estate’s Brunello Signature 2007 found magnificently romantic personality in a very well-done wood treatment of 30% Tonneau and 70% Slavonian oak, seductively warm in the mouth, intimate in spirit, a romantic meditation. The masculine Brunello 2006 Riserva brought up in all Tonneau demonstrated layered complexity and big-boy tannins with a long life ahead.
Castello Romitorio is, of course, the estate of renowned artist Sandro Chia. But, there are two artists in residence here: The estate’s winemaker Stefano Martini provided an instructive tasting experience of incredible openness and learning. Using comparative tasting examples that included an unfinished Brunello 2012 from stainless steel, a 2010 vintage resting in Tonneau, and 2011 tasted from 1st and then 4th passage Tonneau, Mr. Martini demonstrated a few of the brush strokes and palette colors he uses to create the estate’s stellar wines, along with enologist Carlo Ferrini. Romitorio’s Rosso di Montalcino 2010 demonstrated a simply pure expression of Sangiovese, as did its Brunello 2007 with more depth, sublime fruit and clear, gemstone-like garnet color. A Brunello 2006 Riserva proceeded with a massive core of fruit and the refined masculinity of that vintage.
Fattoria Barbi produces 3 types of Brunello: a base Brunello, a Riserva and the single-vineyard Vigna del Fiore. The wines are typically big, rich with tannins and reach top quality at about 7 years after harvest. Notably, Barbi, I’m told, was the first cellar in Montalcino to open its doors to customers and the first to export to USA. The estate’s Rosso di Montalcino tasted of tart cherries with a hint of French oak vanilla. Aggressive tannins from the Brunello 2007 suggested more time in bottle to suit the elegant cherries and roses that were underlined with a hint of tobacco. Brunello Vigna del Fiore, produced from the oldest vines at the estate, felt very traditional, even graceful, offering only a hint of barrique. Barbi’s Brunello Riserva 2006 brought intense aromatics, elegance and power to the lineup.
Croce di Mezzo
If I understood correctly, a great grandfather worked this estate which its owner ultimately gave to him. From its 4.5 hectares, Croce di Mezzo produces approximately 40k bottles in total and follows a “classic” approach. Turning of the soil encourages the clay / sand Galesto to break into pieces, giving excellent drainage. Vines benefit from reliable morning and afternoon winds which keep them dry preventing disease, as well as a wide differential between day and night temperatures that improve development. Croce di Mezzo’s Rosso di Montalcino 2010 drank with loads of refreshing red fruit character. Delicate and graceful, the Brunello 2007 shimmered with brilliant ruby-red color, an intoxicating mix of rose petals, raspberries, cherries and menthol, with good grip on a very clean, fresh finish. The estate’s Brunello Riserva 2004 rose up out of the glass an elegant mist of cherry pipe tobacco and mint, with a perfectly tart cherry palate and fine, silky tannins with good grip. Everything you can love about Brunello, nothing to excess.
Loacker Corte Pavone
Loacker Corte Pavone follows a biodynamic approach to cultivation, intending to help nature to help itself. Owner Rainier Loacker has established three estates in Italy, in South Tyrol, Montalcino and in the Maremma. Total production amounts to 300k bottles a year. Corte Pavone Rosso di Montalcino 2010 was juicy and full of sweet cherries with floral overtones.Their Brunello 2007 displayed big aromas of black / blue berries, a plush palate and silky tannins, in contrast to the 2006 vintage which offers riper berry fruits and anise on a bigger frame with medium tannins. While similar in style, the center of gravity for the estate’s Brunello 2004 Riserva is more around riper, drier aromas / flavors like raisin and fig, as was the case for both the normale 2001 and Riserva 1997. The wines mentioned here were born of clay soil and all showed an interesting juicy, wet earth character.
40 hectares that play host to Sangiovese and Bordeaux varietals. Bottle production totals 300 – 350k at this estate that has been producing wine since the 1100’s. All Argiano’s wines are started with natural yeasts except for its Non Confunditor aka simply “NC”. Said our tour host, “To preserve identity in terroir, it is essential to avoid to big oak”. The estate currently uses Slavonian oak, barrique and Tonneau, but is shifting to Tonneau to replace barrique.. The Rosso di Montalcino 2009 just beamed with fresh, clean fruit , acidity and good grip, a super food wine. A natural middle weight, the estate’s Brunello 2007 weighs in with berries, tobacco, rose, earth and minerals dressed in a suite of sweet, silky, integrated tannins.
Before closing, I’d like to note that teaching people how to think about wine is, IMHO, the most important cornerstone in creating wine culture and educating new wine lovers in developing markets. The work being done by International Event & Exhibition Management (IEEM), from their Simply Italian tour events to partnerships with various Consorzio and Grandi Marchi to regional education seminars, is vital in that regard, and for that I express my gratitude for the organization’s fine work, and for its stellar management of this media trip. For more information please see here.
Finally, you can learn more about Brunello di Montalcino and other outstanding wines of the region – Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’Antimo and Moscadello di Montalcino – by navigating to the excellent website maintained by Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, available in Italian, English and Chinese, here.