In a previous article, we examined Brunello’s 100 plus year history. In Italian wine expressions, that is a relatively short period. Nevertheless, Brunello has established itself as one of the premium wines, not only in Tuscany, but also in the entire world. Brunello di Montalcino has an even more brief history in Italy’s wine regulations. Brunello did not become a DOC until 1966 and has only been a DOCG since 1986.

Brunello’s DOCG regulations require that 100% Sangiovese grapes be used. The wines are then aged for a minimum of 4 years (5 years for the Riserva). Traditionally, Brunello required a minimum of three years ageing in wood barrels. That has now been relaxed to two years ageing in wood. In addition, four months must be in bottle (six for the Riservas). The finished wine cannot be released for sale until January 1st of the year five years from vintage year. For example, the 2003 Brunello’s could not be released until January of 2008. Geographically, there is a strictly identified zone surrounding the town of Montalcino, in which the Sangiovese grapes used to make Brunello must be grown and the wines must be bottled.

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So what type of experience should a good Brunello provide? This simple question is controversial at the moment. Traditionally, Brunello, like other Sangiovese wines, is a pale ruby color. The wine is transparent in the glass with lovely perfumed aromas of cherries and floral notes. It has a powerful elegance about it.

Once it ages, it obtains notes often referred to as earthy or forest-floor like. I often get a wet black tea component. These characteristics connect ones soul to the earth. They provide a sexy innuendo that entices without being bold.

Traditionally, and there is that word again, it is not an inky purple monster that is so prevalent in wines the world over in today’s marketplace. Yet, there are some Brunellos that are massive brooding wines that offer up aromas of cherry vanilla milk shakes, inky purple colors and mouth coating tannins. They are opaque and shimmering bright in the glass. Why? That is the million-dollar question in Montalcino today.

One theory is that the wine’s attributes are based on “terroir.” Terroir is the French concept that all of the attributes of the vineyard site (location, altitude, soil, climate, etc,) form the basis of the wines profile. Under this theory, wines grown on the north side of Montalcino are different from those grown on the southern side. In the north, the soil is made up of cool clay soils and the climate a bit cooler. The southern soils are sandier and the climate distinctly more Mediterranean. The result is that the north produces more austere, lighter wines with greater acidity, while the wines of the south are deeper, full-bodied wines that have more color and fruit.

Another theory is that these differences can be attributed to the winemaker’s stylistic choices. The traditionalist versus the modernists debates that are going on everywhere in Italy may be responsible. It is probably true that letting the grapes hang longer on the vines, utilizing smaller oak barriques, micro oxygenation, and whatever modern techniques are in vogue, is making a difference in some of the Brunellos. But, a third, more ominous reason is also possible. As this article is being posted a scandal of sorts is fermenting in Montalcino.

In late winter reports began surfacing of grapes being used in Brunello that were trucked in from the South of Italy. These reports now appear to be unsubstantiated. In fact, the local prosecutor (from the town of Sienna), Nino Calabrese went out of his way to hold a press conference refuting these claims. He stated that there was no truth to rumors that a member of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (the Brunello producers consortium) was using grapes from Apulia. Calabrese did confirm, however, that they are investigating another scandal. This other scandal is being referred to by the local press as “Brunellopoli.”

At the heart of this investigation is whether the vineyards used to produce Brunello also have non-Sangiovese grapes growing. Remember, by law, Brunello must be 100% Sangiovese. In March, it was reported that at least five Montalcino wineries were indicted for adding Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and/or Petit Verdot to their Brunello in amounts of 10% to 20%. The investigations go back to the 2003 vintage. 2003, of course, is the vintage that is about to be released. Some of the producers named publicly include Antinori, Argiano and Frescobaldi. The wineries, for their part, have denied the claims. Tiziana Frescobaldi has denied the charges. Piero Antinori has said that they will not release any of the 2003 wines until the scandal is cleared up.

On April 4, the Consorzio president, Francesco Marone Cinzano, acknowledged publicly that prosecutors were investigating 13 wineries. Moreover, they were holding the wines produced by the above named wineries and also those of Banfi. These are some of the largest producers in Brunello. Cinzano also met privately with Italy’s Minister of Agricultural Policy. Cinzano further admitted that his own wine, Col d’Orcia, is among those being investigated.

These are controversial times for Italy’s wines. Other investigations are probing reports of DOC violations, wines trucked in from other areas of Italy (and perhaps beyond), and even some reports of tainted wines (in very inexpensive wines). The Italian government is understandably upset by all of this. They want to protect the wineries, but they also understand how precious Italy’s reputation is in the commercial wine world. Bad publicity can ruin their standing in today’s competitive world. The Italian government announced it was also investigating the medias role in reporting these scandals. The media responded by arguing that the regulatory bodies have been somewhat reluctant to investigate some of these rumors in the past. The media reports have forced the government’s hand to protect the good name of their wines. It will be interesting to follow these events as they unfold over the next year.

For now, it appears that some of the explanation for these “internationally” styled Brunellos can, in addition to terroir and technique, be attributed to the use of international grape varieties. I am sure that more information will be forthcoming in the next few months. The question remains, what should Brunello be? Is it a bad thing to make a better, more commercially in demand wine by softening it with Merlot or coloring it with Petit Verdot or Syrah?

It must be noted that producers are free to use whatever blend they choose. If the wine does not conform to the DOCG regulations, however, the winery must label it as an IGT. This is not such a terrible plight. In fact, in Tuscany, of all places, this has proven to be a successful alternative. The wines known as “Super-Tuscans” sell for large sums. They are wines that include international and indigenous varietals in blends not sanctioned by their DOC’s. So why the issue?

The answer to that question has more to due with the mystique and reputation of the name Brunello. Unlike Chianti or other areas of Italy, the name Brunello has come to mean the best of the best, with prices to match. There is tradition and prestige behind the name. Brunello producers want to be able to take advantage of that. It is possible that the DOCG rules will be changed to allow a percentage of non-Sangiovese grapes to be used. I do not foresee this happening. There is a long history and ritual behind the name Brunello. The public outcry might be too formidable. It is also possible that those offending producers will not be allowed to release their wines as Brunello until the vineyards have been replanted.

The key issue in this case would be the wines already in production, including vintages 2003 thru 2007, and perhaps longer until the vineyards can be reworked. Many of these vintages look promising so far. It might make some sense for the producers to be forced to release their wines as IGT’s until they can again qualify for Brunello status. That would, of course, still hurt the general impact on the market for the rest of the Brunello producers. Don’t forget, the named producers are some of the regions biggest wineries with the largest advertising budgets. These wineries have enough clout that they could simply opt out of the DOC (as Angela Gaja did in Barolo or Roberto Anselmi did in Soave) leaving the DOCG potentially weaker.

In the meanwhile, there are some very good wines labeled as Brunello di Montalcino. currently on the store shelves. 1997 was a stellar year. The wines are very ripe and forward, but the nuances are only now beginning to show up in these wines. Perhaps unfortunately, the Wine Spectator magazine rated it quite highly and really trumpeted its quality. This resulted in price increases and increased demand. Nevertheless, these wines are drinking very well right now. 1998 was a very good vintage also, but it is sandwiched between the brilliant 1997 and 1999 vintages. The wines from 1999, another truly exceptional year, should be cellared for a few more years. 2000 was another good year, followed by 2001, which is again an outstanding year. The only substandard vintage in a while, 2002 was weak and rainy. Many producers chose not to make Brunello’s. Instead; the wine was declassified and sold as a Rosso di Montalcino. This vintage really should be avoided. 2003 again appears to have had the makings of a very good year. We shall see, if and when, the wines are released.

In terms of choosing a producer, there are many good ones available in the market place. There are also many whom I have been disappointed by, especially for the money. I would recommend sticking to the producers you trust (either by personal experience or critic’s recommendations) unless you can first taste the wine. On the more traditional side, Biondi-Santi is still making wines that require ageing and patience. The wines are more austere and don’t have the copious amounts of up front fruit. The wines are often disappointing to some because they are looking for something that is not there; an abundance of very ripe fruit.

For those who like this traditional style, these are wines to lay down for 10 to 20 years in the cellar before opening. Another very expensive wine in this category is Case Basse di Soldera. Soldera’s wines are wonderful, but their price tag can be staggering. For an excellent traditional wine, that is (only) slightly more affordable, try one from Poggio di Sotto, Il Poggione, Talenti, Fattoria dei Barbi, Costanti, Pertamalli, Val di Suga, Mastrojanni, Salvoni, or Fuligni.

If you prefer a more “international” or modern style of wine, producers such as Antinori, Banfi, Argiano and Fescobaldi, do in fact make their Brunellos this way. Also look for Valdicava, Caparzo, Fanti, Poggio Antico, and Casanova di Neri. Whether this style is from an addition of non-Sangiovese or some combination of other factors, these are very good wines that do show some Sangiovese character but also are made for more immediate consumption. Nevertheless, these modern Brunellos will also age well.

My personal opinion is that these wines also benefit from age and should not be drunk for at least 10 years from the vintage year. And of course, nothing is black and white when it comes to the wines of Italy. There are many fine producers that straddle the modern versus traditional debate. In fact, some of the above listed wineries may get some debate as to whether they belong in a particular camp. To my mind, Altesino, Campogiavanni, Ciacci Piccolomino, Castel Giocondo, Piancornello and Villa Poggio Salvi all represent some middle ground.

Expect to pay a lot for Brunellos. The good ones can range from $60 a bottle to over $100. As I said, these are wines that reward ageing. You may have to pay a bit more for already cellared wines that are mature. Assuming the bottle has been well stored, the Brunello’s from 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996 are drinking beautifully right now. They all have lots of life left in them and I would not hesitate for a moment to open one.

Brunellos are wines that shine at the dinner table. This is especially true for the mature ones in either style. These wines are from Tuscany. Hence, Tuscan foods are always a good way to go when thinking about serving matches. Some of the more traditional matches include wild hare or wild boar. They go nicely with pastas with tomato based sauces. Brunello’s also work great with cheeses at the end of a meal.

We will have to keep our eyes and ears open for breaking developments in the Brunellopoli scandal. In the meantime, I would certainly endorse buying a bottle and sticking it away in your cellar. And if you should run into an older bottling, go for it. I hope you all go out and try a bottle. Please let me know what you think.

 

Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.