Brunello di Montalcino 2.0

In preparation for my attendance at Benvenuto Brunello, the annual tasting of the newly released 2005 Brunello di Montalcino, held in that Tuscan hilltop town, I did some homework by opening and drinking some from my cellar—a 2001 La Gerla, a 1999 Fulgini, a 1998 Banfi Poggio alle Mura, and a 1997 Banfi Poggio all’Oro. It dawned on me, again, what a thrilling wine Brunello can be and why it is considered great, not just among Italian wines, but among wines of the world.

At the recently concluded VINO 2010, held in New York and billed as the largest Italian wine show outside of Italy, Anthony Giglio, a well-respected expert in Italian wine, led a us through a comparative tasting of Tuscan wines all made from Sangiovese—Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino.  We sampled three wines from each DOCG.  The differences between the three areas was staggering.

The team at Ruffino, one of Italy’s iconic producers, did a similar tasting a few years ago, showing wines from their estates in the three areas.  It was even more instructive—and the differences were in even clearer relief—because the same winemaking team made all of the wines.  Hence, unlike the VINO 2010 tasting, the producer style was constant. The difference among the wines reflected the area; not the grape, nor the winemaking techniques.  In both the VINO 2010 and the Ruffino tasting, the result was clear. Brunello was unique.

These tastings reinforced my image of Brunello as a powerful, yet classy, wine.  It should deliver a distinctive core of bitter cherry, dark chocolate, and/or an earthy minerality.  The black cherry fruitiness of Sangiovese is apparent, but Brunello should convey what I call a “not just fruit” element—an alluring, dark, pleasing almost bitter aspect.   Around the core are firm but polished tannins and the bright acidity characteristic of Tuscan wines in general.

So what makes Brunello unique?  The clone of Sangiovese planted in Montalcino, called Brunello, is different from the clones planted in Montepulciano, known as Prugnolo Gentile, or Chianti.  In fact, those clones of Sangiovese planted in Montalcino do not produce a wine with the characteristics of Brunello, according to Lars Leicht, spokesperson for Castello Banfi, a leading Brunello producer.

Clearly the clone contributes significantly to Brunello’s uniqueness. If only the clone issue were so simple.  About thirty years ago, Castello Banfi undertook a monumental clonal research project to determine the specific characteristics of the multiple clones of Sangiovese to determine which ones would yield the best Brunello di Montalcino.  After starting with over 600 clones, they narrowed the field to 180 they felt were truly genetically different.  They further identified 15 clones that were best suited to the Montalcino area.  They found no “super clone,” but rather discovered that three complementary clones, each emphasizing a different trait, planted in a vineyard made the best Brunello. Tasting wines made from these clones—remember they’re all Sangiovese—is like tasting fifteen entirely different wines.

“It’s a Rubik’s Cube,” according to Leicht.  Just as the Chianti clones planted in Montalcino don’t produce Brunello di Montalcino, Banfi has discovered that the various Brunello clones produce grapes with different characteristics depending on the soil and locale where they are planted.

Being south of the Chianti region, the Montalcino area is warmer, and you’d expect a riper style of Sangiovese. But Brunello is not just a riper Chianti.  And the Maremma, also further south in Tuscany, is warmer still and the wines from there made from Sangiovese are very different from Brunello.  So it’s not just the climate that defines Brunello.  It’s likely a combination of soil, climate and clone that accounts for Brunello’s uniqueness.

“Brunello makes Burgundy look simple,” according to Kerin O’Keefe, an expert on Italian wine in general and on Brunello in particular (watch for her book on Brunello due out in the latter part of this year).  O’Keefe explains that the sub zones of Brunello are critically important to the style of the wine.  The area south of the town of Montalcino itself, encompassing the villages of Sant Angelo in Colle and Sant Angelo Scalo, is noticeably warmer than the areas north of Montalcino.  As a result, the grapes are typically riper and the wines more robust.

And of course, the gorilla in the room affecting style is the amount of oak aging a producer employs. Wines aged in large (10,000 liters) barrels—called botti—common to the area will exhibit less oaky or vanilla notes than those aged in small (225-liter) new French barrels known as barriques.  But, according to O’Keefe, the area from which the wines come influences what’s done in the cellar.

For example, producers in the southern zones feel that their more robust wines can hold up to, in fact need, more oak treatment.  According to O’Keefe, the situation in the northern subzones—with small plots in hillier area and vineyards with less tight spacing–produce wines that are more fragrant and elegant, but whose elegance can be overwhelmed by excessive use of barrique aging.

But unlike Burgundy, where the name of the village (equivalent to Brunello’s subzone) is on the label, all Brunello is simply labeled Brunello di Montalcino without regard to subzone.  A consumer might be able to discern the subzone by where the producer is located, but even that extrapolation is hazardous because many producers own vineyards scattered throughout the area.  Caparzo, an excellent Brunello producer, has vineyards in multiple subzones and makes a blend from them. (Caparzo also makes a terrific Brunello from a single vineyard, La Casa).

One of the wonderful aspects of the Benvenuto Brunello tasting is that tasters evaluate the finished and bottled wines, unlike at the Bordeaux Primeurs tasting in which representative blends of barrel samples that are still at least 12 months away from bottling are presented.

The 2005 vintage for Brunello will always live in the shadows of the superb 2004 vintage and the highly anticipated, but not yet released, 2006.  The word on the street leading up to the tasting of the 2005 at Benvenuto was that it was not a “great” vintage.

Once again, the tasting reinforced the hazard of relying on conventional wisdom in lieu of tasting the wines.  Yes, 2005 in general lacks the complexity and power of 2004, and some were austere, but many have a charm and balance that make them very appealing.

It’s a vintage that produced lush wines that are quite approachable now and well suited for earlier consumption while waiting for the grander 2004 vintage to come around.  I recommend them enthusiastically, especially to those consumers who are new to Brunello, because their charms and approachability are a window into the true character of Brunello.

Even these approachable Brunello are not aperitif wines.  Their savory character, alluring balsamic notes and engaging firmness make them a perfect foil for food.  It’s an excellent vintage to start learning about producers.  Some producers apparently thought that a little extra oak would muscle up the lighter wines.  That philosophy often produced a woody shell surrounding an empty core. The best, by contrast, are charmingly forward without losing the essential earthy minerality of Brunello.

Along with worldwide attention, and increasing prices, the number of Brunello producers has skyrocketed from under 20 just thirty years ago to over 200 today.  The result is an enormous range of styles.

At one end are the producers who focus on the ripe plumy fruity aspect of Sangiovese married with a healthy dose of alluring oak and whose wines are frequently more appealing when young.  At the other end are those who emphasize the firm earthy minerality the region offers.

The consumer needs to determine where on the spectrum his or her individual tastes lie and choose producers who make wines in that style.  Much as they do with the range of Riesling in Alsace—from taut and racy at Trimbach to fruiter and softer at Schlumberger—consumers need to recognize and match producer style and their taste preferences.

As with Burgundy, the key to Brunello is producer, producer and producer.

My top dozen Brunello di Montalcino from the 2005 vintage based on the Benvenuto tasting spanned a range of styles and were Baccinetti, Banfi’s Poggio alle Mura, Caparzo, CastelGiocondo, Col d’Orcia, Mastrojanni, Palazzo, Talenti, Tenuta Le Potazzine, Tenute Silvio Nardi, Uccelliera and Villa I Cipressi.

Oh yes, and the results of my homework.  The 2001 La Gerla showed great potential, but was still young.  The 1999 Fulgini and the 1998 Banfi Poggio alle Mura were just hitting their strides, but there’s no rush to drink up remaining bottles.  And those who believe the much-heralded 1997 vintage is not living up to expectations should try Banfi’s marvelous 1997 Poggio all’Oro.

April 6, 2010