Brunello: The Original SuperTuscan

To continue last week’s account of I Tre Maestri Toscani at the International Wine Center: After Mary and Ed had treated Vino Nobile and Chianti Classico, my session dealt with Brunello di Montalcino. Throughout the seminar, I emphasized the anomaly of Brunello in Tuscany, but I never managed to say out loud that it was the first, and is probably still the greatest, of the SuperTuscans.

Think about it: Brunello is a great red wine made in a zone far off the then-fashionable or traditional Tuscan track. If the Montalcino area had any wine fame 150 years ago – which is Day One of Brunello history – it was for Moscadello, a light, lightly sweet white wine. This was emphatically not red wine country when Clemente Santi and some neighboring landowners began an experiment – doing what we would now call clonal research with Brunello, as the locally unimportant grape Sangiovese was called in Montalcinese dialect. Moreover, the experimenters violated all the sacred Tuscan traditions by making not a blended wine but a monovarietal one – something at that time nearly unthinkable in the Chianti Classico or Montepulciano zones. Brunello came on the stage as a wine without history and without precedent, a brash newcomer among revered ancients. Kentucky bourbon and New Jersey applejack have longer histories than Brunello. I wish I’d said all that clearly at the seminar.

We did discuss at length the brief but strange saga of Brunello. What Darwinians call “punctuated equilibrium” describes pretty nicely its history. The tranquility of the isolated zone was initially broken by the experimenters (Clemente Santi, Tito Costanti, Camillo Galassi, and Giuseppe Anghirelli are among the names that survive) who showed their new wine in Siena and elsewhere, garnering medals and attention. Then quiet reigned again until the first official delimitation of a Brunello zone in 1932, when there were slightly over 2,300 acres of vineyards and four producers bottling their own wine: Angelini, Colombini, Franceschi, and, most important of all, Biondi-Santi, the descendants of Clemente Santi. That family’s devotion to Brunello assured its survival: At times Biondi-Santi was the only one producing the wine.

The late 30s and 40s punctuated the equilibrium of Montalcino with a vengeance. Belatedly, phylloxera arrived in the zone. According to some sources, the made-in-America root louse almost exterminated the vines around Montalcino. This late attack indicates clearly how isolated the Montalcino zone was: Piedmont, for instance, had been visited 40 years before. Brunello was evolving on its own time scale, largely isolated from the rest of the wine world. Not too long after the phylloxera came WWII, wherein the Montalcino zone became the scene of active fighting; the front passed through it, and there was partisan activity as well.

Then two further cataclysms shook the nearly medieval isolation of Montalcino. Starting in the 1950s and continuing through the 60s, the mezzadria was phased out. The mezzadria, a sharecropping system practiced everywhere in Italy, had guaranteed landowners a steady supply of cheap labor, but had prevented any kind of specialized agriculture (e.g., fine wine), since each sharecropper had to produce everything his family needed for survival.  Now many of the landowners began to consider wine seriously as a possible source of income, which it had rarely been before. This was a major change, not just for Montalcino, but for all of Tuscany, indeed, for all of Italy. Its direction was significantly indicated by the beginning of the DOC system, with one of the first of them going, in 1966, to Brunello.

The arrival of Banfi in the late 1970s and the size of its investment in the zone – the sheer amount of money the American firm brought into what was then still a near-backwater – completed what I think of as the de-feudalization of Montalcino. Henceforth, for good or ill (the locals are very divided on this, as on almost everything else), Montalcino was a center, and it hummed. When Brunello became a DOCG in 1980, there were about 20 producers. Now, there are 250, 208 of whom bottle.

The wine changed as rapidly as the times – again, for good or for ill. Even producers who identified themselves as enological conservatives evolved. I remember tasting barrel samples of Brunello 30 years ago, and it was a very different experience from what it is now: “a mouthful of toothpicks” was what the raw and tannic young wine felt like then. Now, it is far more often soft and even drinkable – a radical and seemingly permanent stylistic change.

The clonal situation in Montalcino is no less complicated than it is in Chianti Classico, but a lot of progress has been made in identifying suitable clones and root stocks and propagating the best ones. With so many producers, generalizations are more often off target than on, but I’ll paraphrase my friend Michael Apstein’s description of classic Brunello, last year in Wine Review Online: Brunello should deliver a core of bitter cherry, dark chocolate, and/or an earthy minerality. It should show the black cherry fruitiness of Sangiovese, but also a ‘not just fruit’ element – a dark, pleasing almost bitter aspect, along with firm and polished tannins and the bright acidity characteristic of Tuscan wines in general.

Among the dozen examples of 2006 Brunello we tasted at the seminar, Tenuta Oliveto, Castello Romitorio, and especially Il Poggione seemed to approach closest to that paradigm condition – lovely wines, all three, with years, maybe decades, of life before them.

Another part of the difficulty of generalizing about Brunello stems from the fact that despite the small size of the producing area – 5,000 acres of vines in all – the soils are immensely varied, more so than in any other Tuscan wine zone. Clarification of this knotty subject looms, however: the University of California Press will be – soon, I hope – publishing Kerin O’Keefe’s book, called, I believe, simply Brunello di Montalcino, and she has made the most thorough investigation of this aspect of Brunello I have encountered anywhere.

The question of identifying subzones within Montalcino – or, more bluntly, ranking the crus of the zone – has been raised more than once, with all the controversy you would expect it to produce. Maybe O’Keefe’s airing of the realities of Montalcino’s terroirs will provide the next “punctuation” of Brunello’s always fragile equilibrium.

3 Responses to “Brunello: The Original SuperTuscan”

  1. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Very interesting piece

  2. Tom Maresca Says:

    That’s a good point, Lorenzo. Cabernet sauvignon at least has been grown in the Carmignano zone and blended with Sangiovese since the 18th century — and it makes some lovely wines. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Lorenzo Says:

    I think actually the grandfather of Super Tuscans would be the nowadays Carmignano DOCG where the frech varieties (once called “francesca”, the wine is better with “francesca” they used to say) were blended with the local ones.

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