Friday, August 6, 2010

Long Live Brunello Tradition

Montalcino
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)



There has been a lot of teeth gnashing lately over the recent election of Ezio Rivella as President of the Brunello Consorzio. It seems that some journalists believe this is a disastrous sign that could lead to all sorts of changes for this great Tuscan red wine. There may indeed be changes in store, but I for one, think a more measured response would be appropriate.

Let me state that I am a traditionalist when it comes to Italian wines in general and Brunello di Montalcino in specific. More than anything else, that means aging the wine in botti grandi, large wooden casks that don't overwhelm the wine with notes of wood. There have been dozens of producers over the past 20 years or so that have decided to depart from this practice, opting to age their wine in barriques, small French oak barrels that deepen the color of the wine and add spicy, toasty notes to the final product. These producers also tend to pick their grapes a bit later than usual (when this is feasible - autumn rains can spoil these plans). meaning the acidity is a bit lower. That means the wine is softer in the finish, a style these producers believe will win them more customers world wide.

Botti Grandi, traditional casks for aging Brunello
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)


While I do think that some of the modernists do produce very good to excellent Brunello (such as Valdicava and Fossacolle), I will almost always choose a traditional Brunello. These wines have a garnet and not a ruby red color, tend to offer higher levels of acidity (which make them better at accompanying a wider variety of foods) and most importantly, display the local terroir. This last point is important, as the modern wines that are aged in barriques tend to lose their sense of place, as the spice notes from the small barrels often cover up the charms of the Sangiovese grape.

Ezio Rivella is someone who has espoused a modernist style for Brunello to be sure. He was oposed by Fabrizio Bindocci, winemaker at Il Poggione, one of Montalcino's greatest traditional producers. I clearly would have preferred that Bindocci win the election, but it didn't happen. So now many journalists who favor traditional wines are sounding the panic button.

Could there be dramatic changes for Brunello under Rivella's watch? It's possible and it's interesting to ruminate about such things. But too many people are sounding like politicians here in our country as when the opposite party takes office. Things rarely turn out as badly as they think.

I tend to believe that the future for Brunello will be bright. I may be wrong, who can tell? But I do know that there are many traditional producers that have enjoyed great success making wines that reflect the local terroir and stress finesse and elegance over power and ripeness. Here is a brief list of these producers in no particular order:

Il Poggione
Biondi-Santi
Le Chiuse
Pian del'Orino
Il Palazzone
Talenti
Lisini
Col d'Orcia
Fuligni
Mastrojanni
Caprili
Sesta di Sopra
Sesti
Tenuta di Sesta
Tenuta Oliveto


I've left a few names out, but you get the point. Those are some of the great producers of Brunello di Montalcino, so as long as they're around and continue to craft traditional wines, the future of this iconic Tuscan red will be sunny. It's only natural for some people to worry about what lies ahead, but there's no need for alarm. Instead, communicate to lovers of Brunello that traditional wines are alive and doing quite well in Montalcino today!

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