By Edward Beltrami
Brunello, the signature wine of Tuscany’s tiny commune of Montalcino, holds a special place in the hearts of Italian wine aficionados. Its broad structure and harmony of unusual aromas distinguishes it as a truly noble wine exempt from imitation.
In the pantheon of wine judging, the recognition Brunello receives in the international press generally ranks it among the world’s – not just Italy’s – best wines. And by the prices willingly paid by collectors – bottles have sold in the hundreds of dollars at recent auctions – its cachet is undisputable. In Italy, the wines of Montalcino are rivaled in reputation only by those of Barolo and, between these two, the weight of opinion may currently be in favor of Brunello.
Why the fuss? There are several reasons. First, since its inception in the 19th century, Brunello has been considered an elite wine, scarce and expensive, made by just a handful of boutique producers. Most notable among these producers was Biondi-Santi, which crafted wines of formidable longevity. For a time, wine collectors outside Italy would consider the Brunello of Biondi-Santi as the only Italian wine worthy of attention. So it is not surprising that in 1999 a panel of experts chose the Biondi-Santi 1955 Brunello to be among the top dozen wines of the century, in the exalted company of Château Margaux 1990 and Château Pétrus 1961, and the only Italian wine to be included.
Exclusivity is certainly one of the factors that has created the allure of Brunello, much as it has for any number of very pricey and practically unavailable California cult Cabernets. Yet there is a more substantial reason for the acclaim, which is simply that a top Brunello from a great vintage is truly a remarkable wine.
Nowhere else than Montalcino does the sangiovese grape attain such heights. Ezio Rivella, retired Castello Banfi enologist and one of the most influential Italian winemakers of his generation, is very emphatic when he declares that “sangiovese unquestionably achieves its greatest expression as a grape in Brunello.”
Brunello is the local name for the sangiovese grape or, more accurately, for a handful of mutants of sangiovese. Berry and cluster sizes range from small to medium in what is generically referred to as sangiovese grosso, a misnomer if there ever was one; it alludes to several different phenotypes of the same grape that often appear together in the same plot of land. Several hundred types can be found scattered in the vineyards of Tuscany and a litany of names is used to describe them; among the most familiar are sangioveto, prugnolo and morellino. The considerable variability of this grape is the result of being grown over a period of centuries in isolated pockets of central Italy, where it underwent mutations and adapted to the selective pressures caused by a diversity of climates and terrains. Cultivation of the appropriate clones by the winemaking pioneers in Montalcino more than a century ago was certainly fortuitous. The choices they made created the varietal characteristics that now set the wines of this region apart from those made elsewhere.
So what is a great Brunello? There are different but overlapping perceptions. “The hallmark of Brunello is great concentration, longevity and suppleness,” Rivella notes, while Gianfranco Soldera, the controversial owner of Case Basse, seeks “elegance and complexity.” And Angelo Gaja, the innovative proprietor of Pieve Santa Restituta, notes that “the wines must have power, finesse and complexity.” Different words, to be sure, but from any of these perspectives, Brunello fits the bill.
There is another key requirement, however, and that is that the wine have a sense of place, that it reflect its terroir. While the expression of site is a given, the greater challenge is to transcend the yearly climatic fluctuations and to convey terroir despite the idiosyncrasies of the producer. One senses these intangibles in the minerality of certain Alsatian vineyards, in the chalkiness of the better Chablis vineyards and in the unmistakable tarriness of many Barolo crus. In some parts of Tuscany, but especially in Montalcino, a distinct earthiness comes through regardless of the winemaker.
At its best, there is a sweetness of fruit in Brunello coupled with firm but smooth tannins, aromas suggestive of roasted chestnuts and plum confiture, a spicy component reminiscent of the local panforte cake, hints of the scent of iris and, most significantly, an unmistakable earthy component that one associates with briar and tobacco, anise and roasted coffee. When a winemaker allows the terroir to reveal itself, these qualities come to the fore in their purity. In its most perfect incarnation, a great Brunello possessing richness and extract, and a certain gravitas, has achieved what only Tuscan wines of a certain breed can begin to approach.
Although most of the important wines of Europe have lost their origins in the recesses of history, the birth of Brunello can be dated with some precision to the experiments of Clemente Santi, and especially those of his grandson, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi, which they conducted at their estate, Il Greppo, just outside Montalcino, in the mid-19th century. Biondi-Santi isolated a clone of sangiovese grosso that he called brunello for its dark skin (after bruno, or “dark” in Italian), and he propagated this grape in his vineyards.
In those phylloxera-afflicted days, resistance to disease was at least as important a consideration in choosing a grape as the quality of the wine it produced, and Biondi-Santi aimed for both. The musts were given lengthy macerations with extended aging in oak casks. The goal was to produce ageworthy and concentrated wines. In this he succeeded admirably, and legendary wines were made in 1888 and 1891.
His successor, Tancredi Biondi-Santi, continued this work until he was temporarily interrupted by the Second World War. By then, however, the few bottles that had trickled into distribution had already acquired a certain mystique because of their uncompromising depth, longevity and high price. This phenomenon evidently influenced a handful of aristocratic landowners in the area to follow Tancredi into bottling their output, an unusual practice in those days when wines were usually sold in bulk.
After the war, winemaking continued on a reduced scale, as the old system of sharecropping began to collapse in the 1950s and young farm workers looked to the cities for employment opportunities during the postwar economic boom. Many properties were sold off to a new breed of well-financed and forward-looking city dwellers who longed for the opportunity to become landowners in a prestigious wine region.
Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo, however, remained in the hands of the family through Tancredi’s present successor, Franco, and Franco’s son, Jacopo.
To this day, it is a special treat to be invited to a tasting of older vintages, especially the 1955, in their cellars.
By the 1960s, the spirit of growth that we see today had begun in earnest and was aided materially when, in 1970, Brunello became the first wine appellation in Italy to be granted the coveted DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantitia), an official recognition of the significance of these wines.
Shortly thereafter, money started to pour in to Montalcino. Among the more influential investors were entrepreneurs John and Harry Mariani, the American brothers behind the vast Castello Banfi, enterprise (see “Castello Banfi,” page 44).
The infusion of cash over the last two decades has transformed Montalcino from a sleepy and slightly rundown medieval hamlet to a prosperous tourist town.
Today the region is home to a number of top restaurants and a plethora of wine bars and artisan shops of every sort. It has become a mecca not only for travelers on the wine trail, but also for tourists at large who have discovered that it is one of the best preserved and most charming hill towns in Tuscany. Travelers routinely visit the nearby Romanesque abbey of Sant’Antimo set in the midst of an enchanting landscape of olive groves and vines, and find that it is one of the most moving sights in Italy.
While there were only a handful of small Brunello estates in 1970, there are now a total of about 130 registered producers, although only a few dozen dominate the marketplace in terms of size, prestige, or both. Most of the others are small landowners whose miniscule productions are rarely, if ever, exported, but rather are usually bought up on release by a select European clientele. To lend a sense of scale, consider that the region’s total annual Brunello production of about 350,000 cases is easily dwarfed by the output of a single, medium-sized winery.
The producers who account for a sizable portion of the wines exported are Castello Banfi and Marchesi di Frescobaldi’s Castelgiocondo. And while it was Biondi-Santi that forged a new wine and created a unique niche for Brunello as the first elite Italian wine, it was Banfi that broadened the appeal of Brunello without compromising its allure, bringing it to the attention of a much wider segment of the wine consuming public.
Brunello DOCG is a small, roughly square area of gently rolling hills about ten miles wide surrounding the town of Montalcino, which is perched at an altitude of about 2,000 feet southwest of Siena, not far from the Maremma, the coastal section of southern Tuscany. The rivers Arbia and Orcia border it on two sides, and Mount Amiata, which dominates the landscape of southern Tuscany, rises on its southeastern flank. Most of the terrain is uncultivated scrub and woodlands, with a small fraction given over to viticulture.
After the 16th century, with the surrender of the Republic of Siena to the Medici of Florence, Montalcino settled into a rural backwater that subsisted on agriculture largely sustained by the feudal system of sharecropping.
The castles and fortifications of the region attest to years of continuous strife during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, as warring factions and foreign powers contested the rights to the strongholds and the land. The imposing fortress that crowns the town of Montalcino is emblematic of those times.
The Second World War brought with it another period of devastation as the opposing armies swept through Italy, a story vividly recounted by Iris Origo in The Second World War in Val D’Orcia, her published diary of life on a farm near Montalcino.
Sangiovese at its best
Sangiovese, like pinot noir, is a capricious grape that is more sensitive to site than the more adaptable Italian varieties such as barbera and dolcetto. Depending on vineyard practices, climate and terrain, most clones of sangiovese yield wines that can be acerbic and restrained. To ensure success, it requires – demands, in fact – low crop yields and full grape maturity, but the use of appropriate clones is an equally important factor.
In selecting the appropriate clone of sangiovese for cultivation in Montalcino, visual inspection of cluster and berry size had long been the usual method of distinguishing between phenotypes, until nearly a decade ago when Castello Banfi, in collaboration with the University of Milan, began a more systematic investigation into the issue of clonal diversity. Their aim was to distinguish the mutants of sangiovese that had adapted to the selective pressure of different microclimates. By isolating those grapes that were more advantageous in terms of color and aromatics, acidity and tannins, they then narrowed the list to about a half dozen variants. Those that made the short list were then vinified separately, but in an identical manner, to better understand how clonal type can affect wine quality.
The research yielded useful results that have since been used to enhance clonal selection.
Maurizio Marmugi, chief agronomist at Castello Banfi, recently dipped into the cellar to offer me sample tastes of these separately vinified, preferred clones of sangiovese. The differences were notable. Relying on the best characteristics of each clonal type permits the winemaker to average out this fickle grape’s response to various climates and terrain. And as one would expect, an assemblage of the separate clones yielded a sum greater than its parts.
“Only 25 percent of the variability of sangiovese is within the control of the vineyard manager,” Marmugi says. “The rest of its unpredictability is due to random fluctuations in the environment. By contrast, grapes such as cabernet sauvignon appear to be less variable in nature and the grape quality more consistent.” Winegrowers in Montalcino have therefore determined that an effective way to harness the capriciousness of sangiovese is to plant several clones of the variety in a single vineyard.
A glaring illustration of the variability of sangiovese can be found in the vini da tavola made solely from this grape in other parts of Tuscany, most of which only vaguely resemble Brunello in aroma and taste. Montalcino lies barely 40 miles south of the center of the Chianti Classico region, where sangiovese also reigns as the dominant grape, but what a difference there is between these zones.
Chianti’s terrain is more abruptly variegated with areas that are subject to wider extremes of baking sun, winter frost and excess moisture – conditions that favor sangiovese only in certain vintages from low-yielding vineyards in ideal exposures. Only a few purely sangiovese wines from the southern Chianti Classico communes of Gaiole and Castelnuovo Berardenga have the color, concentration and sheer heft for any comparison to Brunello to be apt. Other than differences in climate and terrain, the principal reason for this is that the mix of sangiovese clones planted in the vineyards of Chianti differs from those in Montalcino. Banfi’s Marmugi makes an apt analogy: “It is like taking two twins and raising them in separate environments.”
It is no wonder that the traditional formula for Chianti, conceived by Count Bettino Ricasoli in the last century at his Brolio estate (a recipe that has more or less remained intact), was to blend the often edgy sangiovese with other varieties that soften its acerbity in less than favorable vintages. Today many producers continue to employ this tactic, albeit with blending grapes that are not necessarily the indigenous canaiolo and colorino, but rather the more fashionable foreigners like cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Indeed, the rise of Super-Tuscans as a marriage of sangiovese with foreign varieties – as in Antinori’s celebrated Tignanello – began as an effort to improve Chianti, to give it more weight and suavity (see “Super-Tuscans” in the February/March 2000 issue). The concept is rejected outright for Brunello, however, and is, indeed, prohibited by DOCG statutes because foreign varieties would compromise the purity of the breed; moreover, outside help, quite frankly, isn’t needed.
All the same, Super-Tuscans are now produced even in Montalcino. It seems their allure has proven irresistible – both to the wine-consuming public and to some of the region’s winemakers. The watchdog consortium of Brunello producers, Montalcino sees to it that these hybrids are never confused with Brunello, which still reigns supreme in the region. Not everyone has bought into the notion of Super-Tuscans, and it is doubtful that producers here will ever reach a consensus.
In fact, several have distanced themselves from the Super-Tuscan concept, none more so than the outspoken Gianfranco Soldera of Case Basse. “Cabernet sauvignon is only good for people who are poor winemakers,” he declares, “because the grape is much less of a challenge than sangiovese.” Firm in his beliefs, he also delights in the role of provocateur, adding with a note of mischief that “compared to the finesse of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are positively vulgar!”
The Brunello that Soldera is so passionately committed to making is grown within a relatively small DOCG zone that harbors a number of distinct microclimates within its hilly terrain and range of altitudes. It is alleged, in fact, that the northern and higher altitude vineyards close to the town of Montalcino produce aromatic wines of greater finesse than those from the southern slopes, which are reputably more massive. The wide array of soil types in these vineyards – from schist and limestone marl to volcanic soil and clay – contribute in part to the differences evident in the wines.
Most vineyards are located at altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,500 feet, with a few even higher. Some of the oldest vineyards, situated on the northern and eastern slopes near the town, face north and are therefore subject to cooler temperatures than those located south and southwest of the town where the climate is warmer. In the cooler, higher elevations, the grape matures more slowly, and producers in these sub-climates generally allow for a longer hang-time.
Virtually the entire Brunello zone benefits from prevailing sea breezes wafting in from the Maremma. The constant air movement from the coast reduces moisture levels in the vineyards, thereby reducing the threat of rot (something to which tight-clustered sangiovese is susceptible), while adding a certain freshness that enhances the aromatics.
The winters are moderate and the summer heat, especially along the southern exposures, is tempered by cool nights. Rainfall is ample, but not excessive, with sudden squalls and hail storms weakened by the nearby barrier of Mount Amiata.
In an attempt to zero in on these microclimatic differences, I attended a tasting in April of eleven Brunellos from the 1995 vintage, arranged by Tullio Scrivani, who owns, with his wife, Francesca, a well-stocked wine bar in Montalcino called Enoteca Osteria Osticcio. The wines he chose were from the several sub-zones of Montalcino. I assembled a similar tasting a month later in New York, this time with 20 Brunellos from the same 1995 vintage (see tasting notes, page 42).
One was able to discern appreciable differences between wines grown from grapes on the northern slopes and at higher elevations close to town, which tend to have more focused aromas of high-toned fruit, and those from the lower and warmer slopes, which are inclined toward plumpness and possess smokier elements. Nevertheless, the variations between these microclimates ultimately seemed to be less significant than the intra-zonal differences among individual producers. In part, this is because the Brunello zone is still in a state of flux, with legislation regulating the production of these wines having changed several time over the last two decades.
Vinification of the wine varies with the experience and prejudices of each proprietor. And while the DOCG rules promulgated in 1970 (and since modified) require the wine to age in wood for a minimum of two years, to be released not less than four years after harvest, anything else goes.
Vineyard practices vary greatly, as do cellar techniques, which range from traditional to high-tech. Some vintners insist on aging their wine in large, oval vats made of Slovenian oak, called botti, that hold about 2,500 gallons. Those who strive for more pliant and supple wines – à la the international trend – employ a certain percentage of new 60-gallon barrels of French oak as part of their aging regimen. Many producers use cultivated yeasts, while others favor natural yeasts; some filter lightly, others don’t; maceration times are all over the board and so on and so on. In short, there is no such thing as a cookie-cutter Brunello.
Because of the range of cellar practices, the stylistic differences are marked and, in some cases, the impact of microclimate is partially masked. One can only hope this state of affairs is temporary because the scramble to find a formula for Brunello that most producers can endorse has come at the expense of terroir.
The use of large vats for more extended aging periods was the tradition, at least until 1985, and it is only in recent years that the DOCG rule was changed from the original requirement of a minimum of three-and-a-half years of oak aging to the current two years. Regardless of the change, several producers continue to adhere to the stricter regulations.
The argument one hears against prolonged wood aging is that it leads to partially oxidized wines lacking freshness with fruit that is overwhelmed by tannins. While this can be a problem, especially in weaker vintages, prudent vintners generally haven’t erred on the side of excess. The exemplary older bottles of Biondi-Santi attest to this, along with the wines of Case Basse, which are still aged for about five years in botti, but remain fresh and compelling years after their release.
The vin de garde Brunello from Biondi-Santi’s Il Greppo vineyard has not been treated with respect by the press in the last couple of decades, possibly as a backlash to the producer’s uncompromising adherence to long-lived Brunellos, in which there are no concessions made to oak-driven New World winemaking. Franco Biondi-Santi claims that the longevity of his wines is due “to a delicate balance between ample but mature tannins and elevated acidity.”
The flip side of the coin is that the excessive use of small new oak barriques, even for the minimum two years, can interfere with the inherent characteristics of Brunello. Some view the excessive use of barriques as a disturbing development that may alter and ultimately diminish the personality of Brunello in an attempt to make it more international in style. This is a controversial issue with many adherents on both sides of the polemic.
At the moment, the more progressive wineries are hedging their bets with a judicious use of large Slovenian vats and smaller French oak casks. By borrowing from both disciplines, Vincenzo Abbruzzese, owner of the excellent Valdicava estate, asserts “that the aim is to maintain the traditional structure and aromas, while achieving elegance and harmony.”
Brunello producers may also legally turn up the volume by isolating fruit from especially favorable blocks of vines within a property or from exceptional vats in the cellar. These superior batches are sometimes bottled separately as a riserva. The DOCG regulations then require an additional year of aging, making the minimum aging period three years in wood before release.
These DOCG Brunello strictures do not apply, however, to the category of wines called Rosso di Montalcino, in which there is no mandatory wood aging period. While the fruit may be from less favorably exposed and younger sangiovese vines, in a fine vintage, the Rosso serves as a delicious and moderately priced, scaled-down version of Brunello.
The leading vintages of the last decade are generally agreed to be 1990, 1995, 1997 and 1999, while the years 1991, 1992 and 1994 are usually judged to be below par, with 1993 being just better than average in most instances. More controversial are 1996 and 1998 because only those properties on a roll, such as Castello Banfi, made wines that are significantly better than average in these years