Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sub-Zones versus crus: A conversation with a Brunello di Montalcino insider

I recently read Cathrine Todd's Forbes article titled Brunello di Montalcino's Grand Cru Vineyard, a paean to Montalcino's Montosoli vineyard. Having tasted the "creme de la creme" of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino's with Antonio Galloni, a tasting which did not include any of the Montosoli producers, I forwarded the article on to a Montalcino-resident estate manager to get their input on the cru. The response from my interlocutor expanded the discourse beyond my initial narrow query to one encompassing alternative mechanisms for interrogating the rich vinous diversity of Montalcino. Before exploring my colleague's discourse, I provide some context.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is, unquestionably, one of the leading red wine regions of Italy and the world but defining a typical Brunello is a challenge. According to Monty Waldin (Brunello: The many crus of Montalcino, Decanter, 3/19/15), 30 - 35% of Brunello is sourced from the cooler grounds north of the town (yielding paler Brunellos) with the remainder from the warmer south (darker colored, more overtly fruity, savory wines). Of course, producers can blend grapes from the two areas to ameliorate stylistic differences.

In an effort to gain an even finer definition of the wines, a sub-zoning proposal (spearheaded by wine writer and educator Kerin O'Keefe) -- with the nomenclature and relative characteristics indicated in the chart below -- has been advanced.

But all hands are not on board with this proposal. According to Waldin, "Vineyards zoned in less highly regarded spots may be penalized by the media and then by the marketplace." In a blog post passed on to me by my Montalcino whisperer, Stefano Cinelli Colombini, owner and winemaker at Fattori dei Barbi, states that sub-zoning only works on paper, given the diversity in Montalcino vineyards. In a response to one of the comments on his post he notes that, in mapped areas, soil and geography stays constant but weather and things associated with humans are changeable. "You cannot make a reliable map of quality areas," he says. Stefano foresees journalists creating a ranking between zones and it being very difficult to change these down the road "because important economic interests will be involved."

Waldin proposes a different path forward for those seeking to comprehend Montalcino's rich vinous diversity: "... break the region down into its constituent parts by familiarizing oneself with Brunellos from single vineyards or single terroirs." And he has provided the roadmap summarized in the table below.

My Montalcino compatriot is torn: "I will admit that I am confused and a little resistant to the Montalcino Cru argument while agreeing wholeheartedly about the very real and multiple manifestations of terroir in Montalcino. Montosoli is indeed a great site (depending on vintage) but there are many others emerging and the most sought after land these days is high altitude (see the €1 million/ha purchase price at Villa Le Prata) due to the sad effects of climate change. However, in Montalcino it is always about the vintage/position combo so I am reluctant to see one area lauded above all others. Nature tends to give all areas a turn at greatness."

Continuing: "I agree ... that it is not useful to apply a podium paradigm to Montalcino wines, vis-à-vis single versus blended, vineyard against another -- what I enjoy sharing with visitors are the differences between the sub-zones and the different aspects of each that emerge depending on vintage and canopy management."

That being said, my Montalcino friend is considering creating a new label for some of the estate's high-altitude vines. Sometimes Montalcino leaves the best of us "confused."

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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