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Brunello di Montalcino - a journey through quality, history and terroir

The word ‘Brunello’ conjures images of sophistication, uncompromised quality, rich and full-bodied flavours, and complex aromas - the essence of age-worthy wines. Brunello embodies the marriage of terroir and craftsmanship. And, as with all complex things, beneath the surface of this enigmatic wine lies a fascinating story, fraught with volatility and drama, akin to a movie plot.

This article will delve into the wine’s history – including the influence of Queen Elizabeth on Brunello's quality, describe why wine collectors are willing to paid $850 for a bottle of Biondi Santi, and discuss the controversial episode of ‘Brunellogate’. We also confront the stark reality that most regions designated as ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ should not be bestowed with its prestigious name.

Firstly, what makes Brunello so exceptional? I posit that there are three key elements: its geologic history, the Sangiovese grape - which peaks only in the most ideal conditions, and the harmonious blend of a Mediterranean climate and elevation found in Montalcino's prime vineyard sites, where the most age-worthy Brunellos find their favourite home.

I would argue that Brunello remains relatively undervalued in comparison to renowned wine regions like Piemonte, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. Having said that, this perception is likely to change in the years ahead. If Brunello can surmount the bureaucratic challenges posed by its governing consorzio and gain further delineation through micro-regions (akin to Piemonte and Burgundy), it is poised to reach an even higher perch on the global wine ladder.

Exploring the Terroir of Brunello

Our journey begins millions of years ago when the European and African tectonic plates collided, setting the stage for the remarkable geological dance that shaped the Montalcino area. Over eons, this collision led to the intricate layering of soils, imbuing this area of Italy with a soil complexity rarely seen in other wine growing areas of the world.

Montalcino, carpeted by this rich geological tapestry, tells its own story, where the oceans advanced and retreated several times. This to-and-fro unleashed massive landslides from the elevated reaches, intermingling them with marine sediments. The result? An extraordinary soil composition, resulting in some of the world's most diverse and complex soil profiles.

The higher altitudes of Montalcino boast the oldest soils, characterized by a moderate stoniness, a delicate mixture of sand, and a richness in lime. The lower, more recent soils consist of sand, clay, mud, and marine sediment. The middle regions witnessed the most intense mixing and as a result showcase the greatest soil complexity. Castello di Banfi conducted an extensive study revealing the presence of over 29 distinct soil types within its own vineyard holdings.

The Orcia, Asso, and Ombrone rivers border Montalcino like a picture frame. A quartet of slopes, gently cradling the vines, culminates in a ridge graced by the protective presence of Mount Amiata. This formidable natural barrier serves as a guardian against the capricious whims of hailstorms and tempestuous weather, allowing the vines to flourish in a secure environment conducive to grape maturation.

Montalcino boasts a Mediterranean climate, endowing the region with warmer temperatures during the summer months and a proclivity for drier weather patterns. Montalcino's vineyards are planted on a wide range of altitudes, extending from sea level to heights exceeding 500 meters. The sharp variance between daytime and night-time temperatures due to elevation allows complex aromas to develop in the grapes. This harmonious marriage of climate, terrain and geology is the ideal stage for the crafting and maturation of the late ripening Sangiovese grape.

However, while the higher elevations produce age-worthiness and complexity, they also harbour the risk of encountering climactic challenges such as frost during the ripening process. The subzones within the region can display marked variations in growing conditions from year to year, especially during challenging vintages.

Enigmatic Sangiovese

In the realm of wine, the Sangiovese grape stands as an enigma, much like a temperamental artist who reveals its brilliance only under the perfect conditions. It draws parallels with pinot noir in that it is delicately thin-skinned. Sangiovese is a chameleon, perpetually adapting to the terroir it calls home. Though widely planted in Italy, growing Sangiovese remains a challenge, marked by variability in form and site. Even from the same vine, the grape can take on different physical appearances when grown in different terroirs.

In the 1800s, this grape went by many names, with winemakers in different areas convinced they were dealing with distinct grape varieties. It was only through genetic tests that the truth emerged that it was the same grape all along. In 1879, the decision was made to anoint it with the name Sangiovese, recognizing its prevalence. However, its legacy extends beyond nomenclature. In Montalcino specifically, clones of Sangiovese finely tuned themselves over multiple generations to the area’s unique terroir, developing distinctive genetic compositions.

Planting Sangiovese vines at high densities adds competition for water and nutrients among the vines, which causes them to yield fewer and less compact bunches. This results in a reduction in grape quantity per plant but an enhancement in taste quality.

New World producers have largely ceased their experimentation with Sangiovese. Piero Antinori, who ventured into California's Atlas Peak in Napa Valley where the landscape reminded him of Tuscany, ultimately had to abandon this pursuit as the grape wouldn’t adapt to the terroir. For now at least, Sangiovese has found its true essence and best expression in and around Montalcino. This truism holds even around in the region itself. Just south of the village along the slope are the oldest wine-producing estates crafting Brunellos with remarkable longevity. In contrast, the more recently planted low-lying areas further down the hill into the lowlands yield wines with higher alcohol content, fuller body, and lower acidity, rendering them ill-suited for long aging.

Tragedy, Resilience and Redemption

Montalcino first gained significance during the Middle Ages, situated along the route of pilgrims making their way to Rome. Here, a beacon of shelter awaited them in the form of the Sant'Antimo abbey, a place even the esteemed Charlemagne had visited. And what do weary pilgrims require more than the sustenance in the form of wine?

Yet, like a page torn from Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables," the annals of Brunello's past are replete with tales of strife and suffering. In the throes of relentless conflict between Florence and Siena, Montalcino found itself under the dominion of Siena in 1260. The year 1555 marked a tumultuous turn of events when Florence, in concert with Spanish allies, seized Siena, causing its ruling elite to seek refuge within Montalcino's protective walls, where they clung to power for a harrowing four years.

It was in 1559 that Florence's Cosimo de' Medici finally asserted control over Montalcino. The town then fell into decline, characterized by refugees, militant factions, and a beleaguered local economy that endured for three long centuries.

However, a glimmer of hope emerged in 1865 when a newly unified Italy extended a railway line to Montalcino. Some of the town's more affluent farmers turned their attention to red wine production, a departure from the sweet white Moscadello they had long been accustomed to producing.

Yet, as World War I loomed on the horizon, the fledgling Brunello industry was nearly extinguished amidst Italy's widespread poverty and the dwindling demand for quality wine. Peasant farmers abandoned their fields to answer the call to arms, and the local economy spiralled into a crushing depression.

In 1926, Tancredi Biondi Santi, a pivotal figure in modern Brunello's genesis, established the Cantina Sociale, a wine cooperative. Local growers rallied to the effort, resolute in their quest to rejuvenate their long-neglected land with Brunello vines. The initial yields were modest, but over time, the new plants bore superior fruit, and production began to rise.

In 1930, disaster struck as pest scourge of phylloxera wreaked havoc upon the vineyards. The region's resilience was further tested when Italy entered the fray of World War II in 1940. By 1944, Montalcino had become part of the war front. The desolation was complete, with little demand for quality wine, abandoned vineyards, and the dissolution of the cooperative.

Tragedy continued to haunt Montalcino, as the town grappled with the aftershocks of war. The mid-20th century brought the demise of the mezzadria system, a sharecropping arrangement that had persisted since medieval times. Industrialization displaced these tenant farmers, and technology rendered traditional occupations obsolete. Montalcino, once a promising beacon of prosperity, found itself ranked as the poorest commune in the province of Siena, if not the entire region.

In 1959, a stark survey revealed the dire condition of local farms, revealing appalling statistics that included the absence of essential amenities such as toilets, electric lights, and drinking water. The population dwindled precipitously, shedding thousands of inhabitants in just a few decades.

Yet, amidst the darkness, a glimmer of hope emerged. In the mid-1980s, after enduring wars, famine, and economic depression, Montalcino discovered its true treasure: Brunello. This resilient town, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, embraced the art of winemaking and embarked on a journey that would elevate it to international acclaim. Today, Brunello di Montalcino stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of a community that refused to be defined by tragedy and instead found redemption in the art of crafting exceptional world-class wines.

A Modern Renaissance

One name stands out as the driving force behind Montalcino’s renaissance: Ferruccio Biondi Santi, the visionary grandson whose innovative techniques transformed this classic wine. He embarked on a mission to identify the best Sangiovese parent vines, grafting their superior clones onto American rootstocks to be more resistant to phylloxera. This painstaking effort eventually led to the birth of the iconic Brunello Biondi-Santi clone, known as BBS 11. Moreover, he dared to produce a 100% Sangiovese wine (rather than the ubiquitous blends).

In the early 1930s, Montalcino witnessed the resurgence of its wine industry, as notable wineries like Biondi Santi's cooperative, La Fattoria di Sant'Angelo in Colle (now Il Poggione and Col d'Orcia), Fattoria dei Barbi, Fattoria di Montosoli owned by Guido Angelini, and Fattoria di Argiano began showcasing their wines once again. Even during the challenging times of World War II, Biondi Santi managed to craft one of their finest wines in 1945.

The turning point arrived in 1950 when Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani discovered Brunello Biondi Santi. So impressed was he that he served it at an official luncheon. The wine was not sold in Rome at the time, requiring the caterer to make a special trip to Florence to find it. The effort paid off – the wine was widely acclaimed at the event.

A grand state dinner in 1969 reshaped the destiny of Brunello. President Giuseppe Saragat, a renowned wine enthusiast, selected the 1955 Brunello Biondi Santi to grace the table of visiting dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth. She greatly admired it. This significant exposure prompted other producers, previously intimidated by Brunello's stringent production regulations, to start planting. These rules mandated 100% Sangiovese, a four-year aging period, and the use of costly oak casks from Slavonia, in Croatia.

The results of this newfound fame were remarkable. In 1967, Brunello production stood at 150,000 bottles, and by 1975, it had surged to 800,000 bottles. In just four more years, by 1979, the numbers had skyrocketed to 1.5 million bottles.

Prologue to Brunellogate

Two Italian-American brothers, John and Harry Mariani, renowned for their success in importing humble Lambrusco (a sparkling red wine from Emilia Romagna), embarked on a venture that would leave an indelible mark on the Brunello landscape. Enter Castello Banfi, their brainchild, which emerged under the guidance of Piemonte enologist Ezio Rivella.

As the Mariani’s carved their legacy in Montalcino, a wave of European investors also sought to stake their claim in the region's vinous heritage. CastelGiocondo and Col d’Orcia fell under the ownership of the Marone Cinzano family, setting the stage for an era of transformation.

However, it was the Marianis' choice of location that would raise eyebrows and voices. They acquired land in Sant’Angelo Scalo, a previously untouched terrain for wine closer to sea level. The bucolic expanse had been formerly devoted to crops and farmland. Controversially, the brothers undertook land-levelling, an act that drew local consternation and speculation of soil erosion. Geologists postulated that this manoeuvre unearthed rich marine deposits and salts, adversely affecting the vineyard's soil composition.

The Mariani’s expanded their holdings to a staggering 2,100 acres under vine, driving production to a formidable 10 million bottles annually (mostly non-Brunello). Initially, their focus lay elsewhere, aiming for sparkling Moscato and easy-drinking wines, a quest that bore little success. International varieties also started to be planted.

In 1984, the brothers acquired the Poggio alle Mura property, home to age-worthy wines in the revered Montalcino heartland. Intensive clonal research for Sangiovese ensued, yielding their most illustrious wines.

Yet, the harsh heat of Sant’Angelo proved less than ideal for Brunello, compounded by the proliferation of non-Sangiovese grapes in the region. Producers found themselves resorting to blending, contravening the traditional production code. The 1980s witnessed a softening of the code to accommodate these new winemakers, resulting in a surging industry. By the mid-1990s, 125 producers were churning out three million bottles of Brunello annually.

Simultaneously, Italy passed the Law of Entrepreneurs, ushering in an era of unchecked vineyard planting between 1997 and 2002. Traditional vineyards reached saturation, while new areas, once deemed unsuitable for Brunello, were cultivated.


This dark chapter in the history of Brunello wine that took shape in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with two pivotal industry developments that altered the course of this esteemed Italian wine.

First, the influence of French barriques swept through the region, introducing new winemaking techniques. Second, certain leading wine critics (one bearing a surname that rhymes with ‘marker’) began to extol the virtues of what were then known as 'noble' grapes. Their influence on market demand steered Brunello winemaking toward a formula that included international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and the use of French barriques - a formula seemingly designed for profit.

The catalyst for this shift in the Italian wine landscape was the international acclaim garnered by Sassicaia 1985 when it was released in 1988, unleashing a craze for ‘Super Tuscan’ wines across Italy. These new wines were characterized as 'inky black,' 'jammy,' 'massive,' 'awesome,' 'fruit bombs,' and 'oaky,' leading critics to declare them more interesting than Italy's traditional gems like Brunellos, Barolos, and Barbarescos.

In Piemonte, where tradition was deeply rooted, resistance to diluting the wines emerged in what became known as the Barolo Wars. Conversely, in Tuscany, outsiders with little regard for tradition were quick to acquire land from willing locals and enthusiastically embrace international grape varieties and winemaking styles.

A steadfast group within Brunello, including Biondi Santi, Gianfranco Soldera, the Lisini family, and Poggio di Soto, held fast to tradition. Nevertheless, many Brunellos underwent a transformation, becoming darkly exotic, instant gratification wines laden with oak flavours. Traditionalists lamented these changes, but defenders argued they catered to the evolving market demands.

Soldera succinctly criticized this trend, stating, "Barriques are only for deficient wines that don't get enough tannins and flavours from the grape and need to make up for this lack with oak sensations."

The turning point arrived in 1997, hailed as the greatest vintage ever in all of Italy, as critics lauded the darker, softer, and rounder wines with excessive oak. However, a debate raged over which wines would age better. In 2007, the debate was put to rest when tasting revealed that of the twelve 1997 Brunellos sampled, seven were past their prime, having lost all their fruit, despite receiving the highest scores five years earlier. Among the remaining five, only two were deemed very good, and these were produced by traditionalists benefiting from cooler temperatures during a hot growing season.

Then, in 2008, the infamous Brunellogate scandal erupted. Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani exposed rumours from Montalcino of confiscated wine, with wine critic James Suckling expressing his shock at the blending practices, though the darkness of the wines should have provided a hint. Accusations were leveled at prominent producers such as Antinori, Argiano, Banfi, and Frescobaldi, the latter two being the leading producers in the denomination.

The authorities seized 6.5 million litres of suspect Brunello and 700,000 litres of suspect Rosso di Montalcino. The names of the producers involved remained shrouded in secrecy due to Italy's stringent privacy laws.

Banfi's wine maker, Rivella, who later headed the Consorzio in 2010, voiced concerns that Brunello's production code was too rigid. Gaja also questioned the 100% Sangiovese rule, claiming that Sangiovese didn't thrive in their vineyards.

Producers were divided, with some expressing outrage. The owner of Col d'Orcia wryly noted that these individuals were essentially saying, "We broke the law, so let's fix it by changing the law." Nevertheless, 96% of the Consorzio members voted to preserve the 100% Sangiovese requirement for Brunello, thus preserving the integrity of the wine.

The Future of Brunello

Montalcino’s dramatic growth has resulted in a multitude of styles and complexities, making the task of selecting a Brunello increasingly challenging.

To address this complexity, a compelling argument can be made for subdividing Brunello into distinct sub-zones, much in the way that the Chianti zone was divided further north in 1996 to delineate Chianti Classico DOCG from seven other sub-zones. The original growing areas around Montalcino have consistently yielded Sangiovese grapes capable of producing highly perfumed Brunellos, characterized by their strength and finesse. At mid to high altitudes, where Sangiovese achieves optimal ripeness and complexity, producers tend to employ Sangiovese-friendly techniques. These include the use of botti oak casks of medium and large capacities, coupled with minimal intervention in the cellar. These practices serve to enhance Sangiovese's quintessential aromas and flavours.

However, it's in the northern regions and low-altitude vineyards - particularly in the southwestern and southern areas of the denomination - that differences in approach have become apparent. Producers in these areas have resorted to increased cellar intervention, employing more aggressive extraction methods. Additionally, a number of producers in these regions have opted to use higher proportions of new barriques, which expedite aging but can lead to Brunellos that do not age gracefully.

Carlo Ferrini, a renowned consulting enologist, aptly notes, "Sangiovese can indeed yield exceptional wines, but it demands careful attention both in the vineyards and the cellar."

The question of whether Brunellos should incorporate international grape varieties still lingers, particularly with climate change. It is a moment for Brunello producers to reflect and make a deliberate choice. If the aim is to craft exceptional Brunellos exclusively from 100% Sangiovese, then a comprehensive zoning strategy is imperative.

The influence of global warming is unmistakable, with a 1-degree Celsius increase in average temperatures over the past three decades and reduced annual rainfall. These shifts have exacerbated the disparities between the various zones within Montalcino, further underlining the importance of precise zoning in the region's viticultural future.

The Sub-Zones

Montalcino can hypothetically be divided into seven distinct zones, each with its own unique character and vinous identity.

First, we ascend to the heart of Montalcino itself, where ancient soils and lofty altitudes conspire to birth wines of unparalleled elegance and complexity. These wines, exemplified by luminaries such as Biondi Santi, Conti Costanti, and Il Colle, are celebrated for their aromatic allure and the promise of graceful aging.

Venturing southeast, we arrive at Castelnuovo dell'Abate, a village with a penchant for crafting Brunellos that present with equilibrium and intrigue. Here, vintners like Poggio di Soto and Fanti craft wines that captivating with balance and excitement.

Our journey then takes us to Tavernelle, a place where Sangiovese grapes thrive, offering ripe and deeply profound expressions.

Descending to Sant'Angelo in Colle, we find wines that wield both power and finesse. With ripe fruits, refined yet bracing tannins, and the promise of longevity, gems like Il Poggione captivate the palate. However, in the low-lying Scalo region, young soils and searing summer heat create wines of little complexity, marked by high alcohol and imposing tannins.

Beyond these zones, the prospects for crafting wines of enduring character diminish. In the northwest, Bosco needs better clones and extreme vineyard care, a land not easily tamed. Torrenieri, shrouded in thick clay and besieged by frost and fog, offers a harsh environment where inexperienced winemakers have set up. In Camgiliano, winemakers lean towards raw power and dense concentration rather than intricate complexity, owing to soil types and lower altitudes.



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