Americans have a love affair with Tuscany and few grapes are as quintessentially Italian as the cherished region’s workhorse, Sangiovese. Chianti Classico may be where it’s best known, but it’s in Brunello di Montalcino (where the grape’s grosso clone accounts for 100 percent of the wine) that it’s the most revered.
That’s not saying a whole lot as of late though. Ever since the “Brunello-gate” or “Brunellopoli” scandal of 2008, in which 6.7 million liters of 2003 Brunello were impounded under accusations that it contained Bordeaux varietals, Brunello’s fallen from grace like an athlete caught doping. That’s not to say that its prices have dropped any, but the wine’s far from the object of desire that Burgundy, Bordeaux, or even Barolo are.
The genuine article, which has a surprisingly short legacy for an Italian-born wine (the Biondi Santi family was the first and only Brunello producer for the first half of the 20th century and by 1960, the count numbered 11), occupies a vast style spectrum despite its relatively piddling 3,000 acres, use of only one grape, and DOCG-mandated aging requirements. Traditional producers harness the grape’s dusty, lean characteristics by using huge Slavonian oak barrels called botti, in which to ferment and age the wine so that the presence of oak is integrated, if not indetectable. The result, after the required four years of aging (five if it’s a riserva), is a garnet-colored wine that you can see through. It tends to be fairly austere with an exacting acidity, the bitterness of the cherry flesh that’s closest to the pit, and the spiciness of cedar. Nothing pairs with traditional examples of Brunello quite like the pasta with cinghiale ragù (wild boar sauce) famous in this region 75 miles south of Florence.
Modern producers mollify the grape’s edges by fermenting and aging in barriques, or small French oak barrels, making a weighty, lusty, cocoa-licious wine that’s darker, more accessible, and ready to drink sooner. These are precisely the same qualities that the producers who adulterated their Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot were after, and sadly, both practices make Brunello indistinguishable from the masses and unidentifiable as Italian. The addition of such “alpha” grapes cloak how distinctive and sublime Sangiovese can be in Montalcino’s auspicious terroir that boasts warm, dry microclimates, altitudes of 1,600′ above sea level, and layered marine soils.
Proposals to permit percentages of Bordeaux varietals in Brunello did float around in the years following the scandal, but regional pride (or perhaps just old-fashioned peer pressure) won out. Besides, Tuscan producers are already allowed to blend Sangiovese with Bordeaux varietals in Super-Tuscans—a now-dying breed that grew out of Chianti Classico producers’ frustration in the ’70s and ’80s over government-imposed constraints and lack of freedom to experiment. The wines went with “Super” to mitigate for their lowly vino da tavola designation and to legitimize their three-digit price tags. But by mid-2000, people had stopped buying them—they lacked the sense of place that make Italian wines so charming.
In 2011, laws did relax a bit for Rosso di Montalcino (Brunello’s baby brother) when producers were granted the option to use 15 percent of grapes other than Sangiovese. Still, more changes loom on the horizon. Some traditionalists find the one-size-fits-all aging requirements (the longest in Italy) too stringent—especially in weaker vintages when a wine might not have the backbone to withstand four to five years in the cellar. And one idea that’s gaining traction is the creation of eight sub-appellations based on altitude and soil type. Because more angular, aromatic wines come from the schist (see Winespeak 101) and sandstone soils and cooler temperatures in the north, and more potent, structured wines come from the compact clay soils and warmer temperatures in the south, defined labeling might better assist consumers in finding their preferred styles.
Gianfranco Soldera, part of the Brunello elite along with Biondi Santi, would like to see all Brunello back where he believes it does best—in non-clay soils at elevations above 1,000′, and in Slavonian oak for at least three years. Recently, his outspokenness placed a target on his back, and in early December, vandals broke into his estate’s cellar and opened the valves of 10 barrels of six different vintages of aging Brunello. The loss, amounting to 80,000 bottles and undefined economic damage, though beyond unfortunate, might be just what Brunello needs to become covetable again.
Schist (n.): Flaky rock-based soil that retains heat well and is rich
in magnesium and potassium, but poor in nitrogens, forcing vines to gain vigor in search of moisture and nutrients.
Six ways to taste the Tuscan sun
Canneta Brunello di Montalcino 2004. Tastings of Charlottesville. $46.95
Fattoria Scopone Brunello di Montalcino 2007. Wine Warehouse. $50
Le Gode Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2001. Tastings of Charlottesville. $79.95
Mocali Brunello di Montalcino Vigna delle Raunate 2007. Wine Warehouse. $60
Poggio Apricali Brunello di Montalcino 2006. Tastings of Charlottesville. $44.95
Verbena Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004. Tastings of Charlottesville. $79.95