Forty years ago, it was the poorest hill town in Tuscany, Now montalcino is a wine world aristocrat. Richard Woodard unpicks the region’s terroir and asks what’s next for the kings of Brunello
In the 1970s, when Montalcino was the poorest hill town in Tuscany, subsistence farming was the norm and vineyards changed hands for a pittance. Yes, it was pretty, but it was also pretty hard work if you scratched a living from a few rows of vines (alongside growing other crops and rearing various animals), then watched as the grapes or juice were shipped north to the fat cats of Chianti.
Brunello the wine, such as it was, was the Cahors of Italy, an inkily intense expression of Sangiovese Grosso bottled by the very few (until the past few decades, Biondi Santi and essentially nobody else) and left for several years to settle into drinkability. Only four vintages were ‘declared’ between 1888 and the end of the Second World War. A bit of a niche product, in other words.
Change came gradually, with the most dramatic shift occurring in 1979, when US wine group Banfi bought 3,000 hectares of land in the region for a reputed US$20m. The company had planned to make a sweet wine from Moscadello, to repeat the success of Riunite Lambrusco, but switched its attention to Brunello when the product bombed in the US.
How times change… Today, Brunello vineyard land will set you back €300,000 to €400,000/hectare or €500,000 if it’s top-notch – which gives you an idea of just how rapid Brunello’s recent rise has been.
Vintages such as 1997 and 2010 have cemented its reputation as one of Italy’s great wines, especially in the US. Demand for the 2010s has been so strong that bulk prices have risen from €8.50/litre to €18.50/litre in little more than a year – if, that is, you can find any left on the market as the big players scour the land for stray wine to satisfy the huge demand.
Further up the quality ladder, if Brunello’s relative youth means that its pricing still lags somewhat behind the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco, that situation is slowly changing. Giacomo Bartolommei, sales manager at Caprili, reckons that most producers pushed their prices up by about 20% in 2015, but wonders if they have quite perfected their pricing strategies yet.
‘When we have a great vintage, we try to increase our prices and people get angry with us,’ he explains. ‘But, in bad years, we drop the prices and then it’s hard to go back up. Only the French, I think, are good at this,’ he adds.
So, does the 2010 vintage of Brunello justify the hype? Yes. The wines are powerful, concentrated, but also – crucially in an area where heat can be an issue – fresh and food-friendly.
For Sangiovese, it’s very important to have a September without rain and with sunny days
The key was 2010’s combination of wet spring and hot summer (but without potentially damaging heat spikes), with cool nights in August to suppress humidity and preserve freshness.
Hang time was long, with Banfi winemaker Gabriele Pazzaglia postponing the harvest by eight to 10 days – starting the grape-picking on 25 September and not finishing until 18 October. ‘For Sangiovese, it’s very important to have
a September without rain and with sunny days,’ he says.
‘The wines are characterised by levels of polyphenols that are seldom seen in Sangiovese, yet also have a wonderful freshness of perfume and superb acidity, without any raisined fruit character,’ adds David Gleave MW, Liberty Wines’ MD, who describes 2010 as ‘a classic vintage that will age superbly over the next five years, if you can resist temptation, as they are also delicious to drink now’.
That said, all of the chatter about the undoubted quality of the 2010s is – as so often happens – overshadowing the claims of other recent vintages. ‘What makes me angry is that consumers are told how good 2010 is, and then they forget how good other vintages are,’ comments Guido Orzalesi, sales and marketing director at Altesino. ‘After all, the 2009 vintage is not so bad, and we will see how well 2011 goes.’
Looking further forward, Orzalesi sees ‘more elegance’ in 2012 and balanced wines from the 2013 vintage – before a frankly disastrous 2014 harvest in which Altesino produced none of its flagship Montosoli single-vineyard wine, and not much Brunello. Even the olives failed in Tuscany that year.
Meanwhile, alongside 2010, Gleave adds the claims of 2008 – ‘another classic, age-worthy vintage’ – alongside the ‘fleshier, more forward’ wines of 2007 and 2009.
Unity in diversity
Whatever your favourite vintage is, Brunello’s recent success does appear to have put to bed the debate about whether the wines should continue to be made exclusively from Sangiovese – a crucial point of difference when comparing the area to more northerly Chianti.
‘The secret [to the area’s future success] is to explain why Montalcino is different to other regions,’ says Bartolommei. ‘Remaining 100% Sangiovese is probably the best part of Montalcino and has made a big difference in the world.’
Bartolommei’s family were in the forefront of opposition to change – alongside Biondi Santi, Soldera and others – during the most recent votes on the issue, in 2008 and 2012. In 2008, 96% voted against change; in 2011, when the vote was confined to Rosso di Montalcino, 69% voted against change.
‘Now, with 2010, I think there is no way of changing, as the rating has been so great,’ says Bartolommei. ‘Two big producers have been pushing for this, and I understand their position, because they have to make numbers, as well as quality.
‘But I don’t understand the small ones. If you want to have your personality and your point of difference, you have to remain in a certain position, and keep the opportunity to make wine from just a single grape variety.’
One factor marking out the 2010 vintage is the consistency of the wines produced. Montalcino is a surprisingly diverse area, given its relatively small size, with a multitude of soils, aspects and altitudes all impacting the vineyards.
The south, protected by the extinct Monte Amiata volcano, is hot, while the north is typically cooler and later ripening. But this helpful generalisation is also simplistic: higher vineyards in the south-west benefit from maritime breezes; warmer sites in the north can hit 15% abv in a hot year. As ever, it pays to know your producer – and the terrain.
‘Sometimes it’s hard to say it’s a good vintage in Montalcino – to say it’s a good vintage everywhere,’ explains Orzalesi. Particularly when the harvest can take place a week to 10 days earlier in the south, with average temperatures varying by 1-2°C. But 2010, he says, ‘was very uniform across the north and the south’.
Diversity, of course, can also descend rapidly into inconsistency if you don’t do your homework. Brunello production doubled in 2009 (since when yields have been reduced to mitigate against the increase), with recent bandwagon-jumpers planting in the wrong places and forced to sell their sub-standard wares at eye-wateringly low prices. A canny wine shop owner in Montalcino can buy in Brunello at €7 a bottle – and, with the cost of production roughly €8, it’s fair to say that the boom has been far from universal.
There are different areas in Montalcino and they react in different ways
‘[The appellation] has grown too much, with vines being planted in areas that are far from ideal if the aim is to make top-quality wines,’ argues Gleave. ‘All you need to do is drive through the zone and look at the vigour and viticulture, and you quickly realise how important the site is to the production of top-quality Brunello. That’s why the best wines are coming from producers in the classic areas.’
One response would be the creation of sub-zones in the area, but it remains a hugely controversial and divisive issue – and even those in favour are far from certain that it’s a good idea.
‘I think it can be ok, but we have to do it really well, because you can have some problems with this – too much fragmentation and it could be really confusing,’ explains Bartolommei.
‘I think there are different areas in Montalcino and they react in different ways,’ adds Orzalesi. ‘The debate hinges on the size of the winery. It looks like the bigger wineries are scared of that, because they are scared that one area might be thought better than the other.
‘On the other hand, I’m scared that the final consumer will be confused. But being able to [express] those differences on the label could be good for the future.’
To an extent, this is already happening, with small areas such as Altesino’s Montosoli acquiring the status of de facto crus, thanks to combinations of soil, aspect and microclimate. But don’t hold your breath for anything more ‘official’: zoning would require a combination of organisation and political consensus that remains elusive in the region.
After all, however much Montalcino may have advanced and developed over recent years, this is still Italy.
A message from Hamish Anderson, Tate Britain drinks and wine buyer, during his tour of Montalcino...
'I don’t think price is holding Brunello back – it is comparative to other ‘great’ regions like Barolo that sell themselves off the list. But, unlike in the US, Brunello is on the default list of very few consumers [in the UK] when they are looking for a bottle of fine Italian wine.
'Rightly or wrongly, I also think the US factor stands against Brunello in the UK market; gatekeepers can be snobbish about wines that are popular in the US, particularly as many top names that grabbed the points were made in a more international style in the past.
'The buzz around 2010 is great for the region, even though the fact that the wines won’t be drunk for a while puts it back of mind for the consumer. I’ve had disillusioned Bordeaux en primeur buyers come into the restaurant, having just bought some Brunello 2010 to lay down, and order an older bottle to see what it tastes like.
'Diversity in Montalcino is really interesting – I had no idea it was so varied. Contrast this with Barolo, which has done an excellent job of getting vineyard and village on the agenda.
'Brunello does not tell this story well, partly I would imagine because the DOCG system is messy – many,
it seemed to me, were making the choice between Rosso and Brunello, not based on site or quality, but rather on what they could get a licence to produce.
'Politically impossible, I am sure, but some sort of vineyard classification for Brunello wines is needed.
'Wish you were here…
BANFI American powerhouse owned by the Mariani family, with 850ha of vineyards.
Style: Rich, warm wines with power and concentration. The best examples also demonstrate considerable focus.
Look out for: Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino 2010
Importer: Bibendum Wine, 0845 263 6924
CAMIGLIANO The fourth-biggest Brunello producer in terms of volume, however it’s not the best-known by any means.
Style: Supple, more fruit-forward wines that benefit from cooling sea breezes.
Look out for: Gualto Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2009
Importer: Eurowines, 0870 162 1420
CAPRILI This producer was founded 50 years ago by a sharecropping family. Today Caprili’s shiny new winery encapsulates the Brunello success story.
Style: Traditional wines that showcase great precision and balance.
Look out for: Brunello di Montalcino 2010
Importer: Uvinum, 020 3514 0552
ALTESINO Owns a total of five vineyards, including the semi-legendary Montosoli.
Style: Elegant, perfumed wines that have an understated power.
Look out for: Brunello di Montalcino ‘Montosoli’ 2010
Importer: Bordeaux Index, 020 7269 0703