Kerin O’Keefe’s Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines (University of California Press; $39.95) is a must-have book for lovers of Brunello and, in fact, for anyone at all serious about Italian wine.
Brunello has burgeoned in my wine-drinking lifetime from a few more than half a dozen producers, mostly clustered around the medieval hill town of Montalcino, to well over two hundred, scattered all over the very diverse territories of the Brunello zone. Keeping track of that highly differentiated production – much more making sense of it – is a monumental task. O’Keefe has managed to do it by dint of persistence and equally monumental effort. As she puts it, “Rather than merely sit in my office and taste thousands of wines every year, I’ve visited all the Brunello estates profiled in the following chapters, some several times, and many more that are not in the book. I’ve spent years researching Brunello di Montalcino. . . . I’ve walked producers’ vineyards, visited their cellars, and talked for hours with the winemakers and their families. . . . I take [lengthy trips] to Montalcino every year.”
That kind of leg work produces the detailed and accurate information that makes O’Keefe’s book a milestone in our grasp of Brunello. I know first-hand the kind of terrier-like persistence it takes to extract that information from even the most candid winemakers. Most are not trying to hide anything: they just don’t at first understand what you’re after. The majority of the wine journalists they encounter have about three questions: what grape (s) is it made from? Is it a good vintage? What does it cost?
(Let’s be honest here, folks; most wine writing doesn’t qualify as Pulitzer-level journalism. It usually runs from pedestrian down to dismal – and at least half the reason for that is that most readers’ curiosity doesn’t extend beyond those three questions, and sometimes doesn’t even include the first one. For readers like that, Brunello di Montalcino will be only a big yawn.)
Back to O’Keefe’s research: The tough first step is getting the producers’ attention – making them aware you are serious and really want to know about why they chose to use botti rather than barriques and how that affects their wines, or why they adopted or gave up on organic cultivation, and what exactly it is about their clones or soils or exposures that distinguishes their wines. Most wine producers have been conditioned to talk about what they think the press wants to hear, and it takes intelligence and persistence and evident sincerity – the quality Italians mean by calling someone simpatico – to break through that to the deep well of knowledge that the best producers possess, and which they willingly share once they understand your seriousness, your willingness to work as hard at your craft as they do at theirs.
Brunello di Montalcino has successfully tapped that well. The discussion of Brunello’s astonishingly short (by Italian standards) history is very complete, and its consideration of wine-making styles very thorough, as are all the portraits and evaluations of individual producers. But the book’s greatest single contribution is almost certainly its detailed presentation of the variety of the Brunello zone’s soil types and the subsequent case O’Keefe makes for the necessity of some kind of subzoning of the territory. This is bound to be controversial: nothing more upsets winemakers anywhere than the thought that someone might entertain the remotest possibility that their vineyards are not the heart of the heart of whatever wine zone they’re in. But for consumers, her breakdown of the areas with soils favorable to great Sangiovese production and those with less likely terroirs, and her later discussion of individual producers within those areas, will be invaluable. It’s not an infallible guide – high achievers in less fine areas can often make first-rate wines, while underachievers in great areas can always produce plonk – but it is an extremely helpful and illuminating one, the best tool I know for sorting out the great diversity of Brunello styles and qualities on the market.
Needless to say, I don’t agree with everything O’Keefe says about individual estates. A few she has, for my palate, been too kind to, and a few too strict with. I think, for instance, she is unduly harsh on Banfi and mis-estimates its wines – but these are minor problems in what is overall an excellent book.
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Full disclosure: I’ve known Kerin O’Keefe for a few years now as a colleague and friend. I was one of the readers for the University of California Press who recommended publication of her book. For both those reasons I’ve hung back from reviewing the book here (it appeared in February). But I urged UC Press to publish Brunello di Montalcino because I thought it was a good book, not because I knew Kerin – and if I think it a good book, why shouldn’t I call it to my readers’ attention? Conscience eased, problem solved: ergo this review.