Brunello – Balancing modern & traditional while still possessing a sense of place
The issue has provoked heated debate in reference to most wine producing regions of the world, but it seems to spark, and understandably so, particularly intense and emotional reaction with respect to Old World producing regions, none more so than Italy.
The discussion is that of traditional versus modern with respect to the style of wines being produced. That discussion becomes heightened when the focus turns to Italy’s iconic wines such as Amarone, Barolo, Chianti Classico and, especially some might say, Brunello di Montalcino.
The medieval Tuscan hill-top, fortressed town of Montalcino has been famous for its wines for centuries. In 1744, Charles Thompson wrote, “Montalcino is not particularly famous, except for the goodness of its wines.”
The history of Brunello can be traced back to the 19th century and since then, the wine has become a symbol of quality for the town, the region and the country. Brunellos can be found in the wine cellars of wine collectors around the globe alongside Bordeaux, Burgundies, Barolos and Super-Tuscans. It is perhaps the last category mentioned, the Super-Tuscans, that has caused much of the debate (but more on this shortly).
The rules for the production of Brunello (the first wine in Italy to be designated a DOCG — Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita — a guarantee of origin) demand that the wine consist entirely of Sangiovese grapes, remain for at least two years in wooden barrels and must not be released to market until January 1st of the fifth year after the harvest.
The discussion of traditional versus modern must start with an understanding of Sangiovese and the unique character given to it when grown around Montalcino. Sangiovese typically tends to be a rather sensitive grape, higher in acidity, with sour cherry and earthy flavours and rarely very dark in colour. According to Casato Prime Donne’s Donatella Cinelli Colombini, “Montalcino is the ideal place to grow Sangiovese. Nowhere else does this grape variety obtain such excellent results.”
The combination of a climate that is drier and warmer than Chianti Classico, the area’s proximity to the sea allowing for breezes to keep the grapes dry and healthy, and wide variation between day- and night-time temperatures results in the ability to produce wines that are ripe and powerful with crisp acidity and ageability. Many producers grow a clone known as Sangiovese Grosso (also called “Brunello”), but several producers use the same clone used for Chianti Classico, which highlights the effect that the differences in terroir between the areas has on the grape.
Even in Montalcino there are significant differences in terroir. The southern side tends to be warmer, resulting in wines with lower acidity, higher alcohol and riper, more powerful wines. The north side tends to be cooler, producing perfumed wines of elegance and higher acidity. But higher elevation vineyard sites in the southern area can result in wines that are as elegant as those from vineyard sites on the north side.
With respect to the traditional versus modern debate, there are two camps. Those that believe that one style is better than the other and those that believe that quality and typicity trump style. Producer Sandro Bottega, a relative newcomer to Montalcino, believes that “Brunello must express the character of Sangiovese and Montalcino terroir, in terms of structure and minerality. Provided the wines are well made and do not dilute the essence of Brunello, both traditional and modern styles can exist in Montalcino, have their own space and keep a distinct personality.”
Traditional Brunello tends to possess higher acidity and tannins, earthy and wild cherry aromas and flavours and are aged in large Slavonian oak casks so as to not impart a strong wood flavour to the wine. They are, according to Col d’Orcia’s Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, “to be consumed in the traditional way, in other words at the dinner table with food.”
Modern styled Brunello tends to be fruitier, riper and plusher with softer tannins and vanilla notes from aging in small oak barrels. The wines are made to be more accessible, consumer-friendly and easier to drink when young.
Is one style better than the other? Both have their advocates. I tend to agree with Sandro Bottega that so long as “the wines are well made and do not dilute the essence of Brunello,” both styles can co-exist and enhance their identity and uniqueness in the eyes of the consumer. The key is to ensure that Brunello does not compromise its identity. That should be the focus of the discussion.
At one point, there was considerable discussion about changing the rules to allow the inclusion of additional grapes in the production of Brunello. Cinelli Colombini attributes the movement to an attempt by some producers to appeal to the palates of the American consumer, “one with great muscles (alcohol, wood, extracts, colour…). A taste which resembled the Super-Tuscans made with Sangiovese and international varieties.” She adds, “This trend has now really gone out of fashion and nobody would go in that direction any longer.” In fact, a few years ago, the producers voted and overwhelmingly decided that only Sangiovese should be used for Brunello. This debate, fortunately, now appears to be settled (although there is still discussion and speculation that some producers are adding other grape varieties to their wines).
Some argue that while Brunello should keep its identity, it needs to be able to compete in the global markets with other international wines. But it is by keeping its identity that Brunello will survive and thrive. The debate should not be about whether the traditional or modern style is better (a debate that tends to polarize producers). The discussion should focus on quality and distinct personality, to avoid a tendency to appeal to a broad consumer base by dumbing down the wine. The justification that the consumer wants easier drinking, fruit forward wines can lead to a belief that overripe, over-extracted, over-oaked wines will sell better. In fact, this leads instead to a homogenization where wines begin to taste the same regardless of their origins. The wine not only loses its unique identity, it loses its ability to connect with the consumer.
Whether modern or traditional, Brunello producers should strive to keep the wines, in the words of Count Cinzano, “unique, recognisable, unreplicable.” Wine gets its context from the people, place, culture and history of its home. Bottega accurately adds, “easy, light or tannic wine, yet lacking identity, can be successfully produced anywhere — while Brunello can only be produced in Montalcino.”
There is a strong movement worldwide with consumers and restaurateurs to support products that possess a sense of place. Consumers are buying from farmers’ markets, restaurateurs are promoting locally sourced menus. With respect to Brunello producers, Cinelli Colombini says, “today we all want to preserve the typicity of the grapes.”
But Brunello producers need to take the next step. With the diversity of the soil conditions, altitude of vineyard sites and micro-climates that exist in Montalcino, producers need to divide the region into subzones based on these differences. This will help consumers understand the differences in the styles of wines being produced and also encourage producers to highlight the differences to further distinguish the uniqueness of their wines.
Ultimately, it seems that the majority of producers agree about the importance of not trying to make Brunello be too similar to Super-Tuscans or for that matter other styles of wines that may, in someone’s opinion, have a greater appeal to consumers. But to elevate Brunello to the next level and create a renewed interest in the wines, producers must move to map the region based on the diversity of vineyard sites. There seems to be a consensus that by maintaining its distinct identity and that of the uniqueness of the terroir in Montalcino as expressed through the Sangiovese grape, the wine and region will continue to be recognized as, in the word of Cinelli Colombini, an “Italian symbol of success.”