Thursday, August 1, 2013

Brunello at a Crossroads?

It seems whenever I visit a wine shop, I'm confronted with a new Brunello label. Maybe it's a producer that sold their fruit in the past and is now bottling their own wine, or perhaps they've never before exported their wines.  Staying abreast of trends in Brunello can be daunting. 

It doesn't help that styles can vary widely among estates.  There's traditional or modern, and something I'll call a hybrid.  This can vary from producer to producer.  Indeed, it can vary within a single estate as many producers now make wines in differing styles.  Is this a good thing?  Is this sort of variability what the region and the consumer needs?  I'm not sure that it is.

I like being able to identify a "House Style" for a given producer.  It guides decision making when shopping for wine.  It allows one to draw inferences and comparisons when a given wine seems to fall short of what you'd expect it to be.  It allows vintages to become legend when a given estate excels.  Are these things not desirable?
I recently had a few Brunello producers remark to me that they thought Brunello was in a state of flux.  That in fact it was like a teenager battling some sort of identity crisis.  Just like parents, cliques of friends, younger siblings and perhaps a first employer, all demanding time and attention of a teenager -  so too have broadening global markets demanded more from Brunello.  As a consequence of the pressures the emerging markets of China, South America and Africa are putting upon Brunello, the zone has reached a crossroads.  It speaks volumes that the official website of the Consorzio del Brunello is now automatically translatable into Chinese.
Yet it's precisely the Consorzio whose steering hands must assert themselves into the coming debate. Guided by the Consortium, and ultimately by the producers themselves, Brunello must decide how to move forward and what it is going to be. It can't be everything one expects and yet be something different to everyone. It can't be many different things in order to satisfy the growing thirst of the marketplace.  Brunello shouldn't come to them.  They should come to Brunello. 

With the relaxing of the minimum aging requirements there is even more variability among the finished wines.  Brunello now must only age for a minimum of two years in oak. Many, if not most producers extend this to 3 or 4 years.  However, what this does is provide a staggering array of potential styles once you factor in the age, size, toast, and origination of the wood vessel used. 

~ The Abbey at Sant'Antimo in the Brunello Zone ~
In a recent discussion I had with Luca Vitiello from Tenuta Fanti, he acknowledged that beginning with the 2008 vintage  Fanti  decided to dramatically alter their oak aging regimen.  The change was apparent to me even before I tasted the wine.  On sight alone, the color of the 2008 was ruby red.  In prior vintages Fanti's Brunello had been nearly black.  The change was striking and obvious.  Fanti will be the topic of an upcoming interview here at Tuscan Vines and we'll delve into the reasons and methods behind their decision.  It's this kind of variability that tugs at consumers as they attempt to frame expectations of a given wine.  Compounding the stylistic issues, the geography of the zone itself further complicates the issue of defining what Brunello is.

~ Aerial View of Montalcino with the Famed Fortezza in the Foreground ~
Yet, whoever said that variety is the spice of life was clearly correct.  Homogeneity equals boredom at some point.  I don't dispute that fact for a moment and it isn't my argument that Brunello should be identical from estate to estate.  Rather, it should showcase the differences by limiting stylistic manipulation. 

The terroir of Brunello is unique to Montalcino but it varies throughout the zone almost as much as the number of producers. Just as there is a difference between Barolo of La Morra and Monforte d'Alba, so too is Montosoli different from Castelnuovo dell'Abate, and Sant'Angelo. Soils vary greatly, vineyard altitude skews wildly from just about sea level to almost 500 meters above. Such dramatic swings can mean a 10 degree temperature difference during the key summer ripening season.

~ Vineyards in Brunello di Montalcino ~

As recently as 2008, former Consorzio Director Stefano Campatelli admitted that the Consorzio was considering creating sub-zones within Brunello to reflect these dramatic changes in the terroir.  Ultimately, Campatelli said, "we decided that this would lead to even greater confusion."  However, the late Franco Biondi Santi supported the idea and stated that he was in favor of creating sub-zones within Brunello. "When you buy Chateau Margaux, you know what to expect from that wine. We need a completely new system in Montalcino because of the completely different styles of Brunello available."

Brunello is a great wine that has earned its reputation. It commands attention and stands among the world's greatest wines.  It may very well be the greatest singular expression of Sangiovese.  That is what the world should be coming for when they look to Brunello for great wine.  That is what they should expect. 

Yet, as another producer recently told me, those expectations can often be muddied.  "This crisis stems from many factors. A combination of post-Brunellogate confusion plus the rise in general of "modern" Brunello and the sheer number and variety of producers has meant that consumers have varied expectations of Brunello and naturally some disappointments along the way."
For now it appears the issue has been tabled by the Consorzio.  However, as international demand for Brunello increases and expands, it is likely that we could see increased pressure and potential regulation in order to elevate and define the "Brunello Brand".  Perception is reality. 

Benvenuti a Brunello, indeed. 



  1. Great post, John. I agree with most of what you say.

    Brunello used to be one of my favorite wines but over the last years many producers changed the style of their Brunello. The result is that these days it can be a hit and miss with Brunello.

    I also think that Brunello is rather overpriced because of its high demand. Wineries that heavily export their Brunello make more money with these new regulations which only require 2 years of oak aging. In my opinion the "traditional" Brunello that aged 3-4 years in oak taste better though. Money makes the world go round..

    I also don't think sub-zones for Brunello would be a good idea. Tuscany has already way too many DOC and DOCG wines. Adding more would make no sense. Look at regions like Alto Adige or Valle d'Aosta - they have only a few DOCs (in case of VdA it's just 1 DOC).

  2. John, this is so well written, and I especially love this comment: Brunello shouldn't come to them. They should come to Brunello.
    The Boston Red Sox use to have a saying: it's just Manny being Manny. So also "it's just Brunello being Brunello! Less than that will harm its legacy, its renown!

  3. Julian,

    That's a big issue in my mind; (the 2 year minimum requirement). There is a big difference between that and a 4 year aged Brunello. Without knowing, it can lead to disappointments when someone purchases a bottle of Brunello. I'm not sure how I'd go about minimizing that though.


  4. well written John.
    Interestingly though, the 'international style' suspiciously dark overextracted and over barriqued Brunello is falling out of fashion slightly again now, the traditional wines have come slightly back into favour with critics and therefore with producers. One of the traditional producers, Alessandro Mori of Il Marroneto, told me that some of the bigger producers aiming at the international market who have previously made big butch heavy Brunello with big sweet oak and flabby fruit have now decided to artificially add acidity to their wines because they believe that is now more in fashion. Laughable really.

    I personally think the Brunello zone has been expanded too far for the benefit of big boys like Banfi, and the southern low altitude vineyards are too hot and can't naturally produce a fresh, elegant style, and the 'real' unique Brunello is from nearer the town at higher altitude, and is more elegant, with more natural acidity and complexity. I would be in favour of subzoning, not as separate DOCGs but, like many Barolos have commune added to the label... and why not have Brunello Classico for the classic zone around the town where it is mostly traditional wines from small producers?

    However, from wherever the wines come within the zone, the key is to make wines true to Sangiovese and true to the region and terroir, true to where they are from, not manipulated for the sake of Parker points, Gambero Rosso bicchieri or even for international consumers. That does not produce uniformity, because of the huge subzone variety in altitude, soil and climate, and even within subzones, every vineyard is different and there is still room for different winemakers' styles and approaches.

    The reduction in minimum oak age to 2 years does not especially bother me, as 4 years is still required in total before release so many producers still leave in oak for much more than 2. The minimum in oak was reduced to 2 so that those who prefer barriques to botti or cask can combine 2 years in barrique with 2 years bottle age to achieve a different, more 'international' style.

    The trad/modern split does seem more polarised and pronounced in Montalcino, than say, Montepulciano where many producers have a foot in both camps, whether that is a mixture of barrique and large cask or whether it is some traditional wines (aged in botti, Sangio plus Tuscan varieties) and others aimed at the international market (Sangio plus Merlot/Cab, aged in barrique)

    I can't see subzoning or reversing of minimum ageing happening though so the bottom line is find producers/styles you like and stick with them and similar. For me, it's mostly the more elegant, ethereal, classical style, aged in botti not barrique. They are expensive wines to waste good money on a disappointment.

  5. By the way, I also absolutely agree with the 'They should come to Brunello' comment. that should be true of any fine wine, otherwise it ceases to be unique and true.

  6. Adam,

    Thanks for reading and for the great comments. I think your point about a Brunello Classico zone is interesting, even if I doubt, due to politics, that it will happen. I guess, as with anything, the cream rises to the top, and it's not hard for lovers of the wines to know and understand what and who are making wines to their liking.

    The biggest issue is making Brunello in different styles for all the different markets in the world - hence the "come to Brunello comment". If Brunello isn't what they like, then find something you do. That's the lynchpin of the entire discussion in my mind.

    At any rate, we're lucky to have a lot of good Brunello to choose from.