The Real Story of Brunello di Montalcino

April 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm 8 comments

Brunello di Montalcino, one of the world’s most celebrated red wines, is particularly loved and appreciated in America. Approximately one in every four bottles of this wine is sold in this country, as consumers seemingly have identified Brunello as their favorite premium Italian wine. The fact that it’s from Tuscany doesn’t hurt, but it’s also become a bit of a status symbol among American wine drinkers, even more so than its Italian counterparts, Barolo and Amarone.

Yet few consumers really know a great deal about this wine, the territory where it is produced or the individuals who make it. The Brunello marque is so strong, the identity of this wine so associated with grandeur, that few consumers can name more than a handful of estates that craft this wine. The fact that they can drink a bottle of Brunello is what’s most important in the eyes of many.

Given this view, it’s wonderful that Kerin O’Keefe has just written Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appeciating one of Italy’s Greatest Wines (312 pages, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, $39.95). O’Keefe, an American who has been living in Italy since 1991, began writing about Italian wines a few years after that and today, is one of the world’s leading journalists on the subject, contributing articles to such publications as Decanter and The World of Fine Wine among others. Personally, I have known Kerin for about a decade, when I first met her – appropriately enough – at a tasting in Montalcino. She is a trusted colleague and someone who willingly shares her knowledge and opinions.

O’Keefe’s book is worthwhile on so many levels, combining an introduction to the area and its wines in general to a look at recent events and finally, detailed descriptions of a few dozen estates that she considers important as well as influential. One of the primary themes that she drives home in this work is that over the past three decades, the style of Brunello has undergone a serious change, at least with some producers. She writes about the introduction of French barriques – 225 liter barrels – that became fashionable for maturing Brunello in the 1980s and ’90s (and still continues today to some extent). These casks are much smaller than the large oak barrels known as botti that were the traditional vessels used to age the wines in this area. As botti range in size from 20 to 60 hectoliter – or 2000 to 6000 liters – these casks gave far less wood influence to the wines, allowing for greater varietal character (Brunello di Montalcino must of course, be produced entirely from the Sangiovese grape).

The reason why some producers made the switch to the smaller barrels, according to the author, was to try and earn a high score from one of the influential wine publications that were rewarding California and French wines – as well as the infamous Super Tuscans made from international varieties – for their dark colors and super ripe fruit qualities. O’Keefe describes the characteristics of these barrique-aged wines as having “intense chocolate, vanilla and toast influences of new oak;” for the author, this was not beneficial for a wine made with Sangiovese, as the oak flavors “weighed down the variety’s vibrant cherry-berry and mineral sensations.” She is clearly opposed to barriques – she labels this trend in Montalcino as “the dark side” – and she also quotes area producers who explain why barriques significantly alter the true character of a Brunello, resulting in a loss of tradition as some producers opted for instant fame. (The author is also quick to point out that thankfully, there are still many estates that have stayed with the time-honored ways of producing Brunello.)

O’Keefe also goes into great detail about the infamous Brunello scandal of 2008, when it was reported that the prosecutor of Siena had charged four producers with using varieties other than Sangiovese in their Brunello. Given the deep ruby red and purple colors of some of the examples, journalists had been suspecting this for several years, but now here it was officially out in the open. Much was written over the past three years about this sorry affair (not all of it true); O’Keefe’s account of this situation is the best version I have read, not only for its attention to detail, but also in its fairness (she lets one of the accused producers have his say about his winery’s involvement).

Francesco Marone Cinzano, Proprietor, Col d’Orcia  – Col d’Orcia is one of the leading producers of Brunello in the traditional style and one of the author’s favorites. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The author takes a close look at the best producers of Brunello, organizing them by subzone and explaining why the best wines take on a sense of the local terroir. Among her favorites are companies such as Col d’Orcia, Poggio di Sotto, Lisini and Biondi-Santi (the author had previously penned a book on this last producer.) She writes about their particular conditions, both in the vineyards and the cellar and contributes a nice summary of the characteristics of each particular wine from these vintners. I love the fact that O’Keefe has omitted several famous Brunello producers, as they favor a modern approach not in step with her likes, while for some producers (such as Banfi), she includes them for their influence, but at the same time, takes them to task for their business practices as well as the style of their wines.

O’Keefe ends the book with a section entitled, “Beyond Brunello,” in which she describes other wines of the area (Rosso di Montalcino, Sant’Antimo, e.g.) as well as lending some valuable tips on pairing Brunello with local foods. This section alone, particularly the food and wine recommendations, should prove to be of invaluable help to anyone touring this area or trying to impress friends at dinner.

In an era where there is so much misinformation about any number of wines and wine news, it’s refreshing to read the work of an author who not only knows her subject in great detail, but one who is opinionated and tells her story in an engaging fashion. Whether you are just discovering Brunello di Montalcino or have been enjoying these wines for decades, this book is highly recommended.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Charles Scicolone  |  April 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Nice review on a very important book!

    Reply
    • 2. tom hyland  |  April 28, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Charles:

      Thank you. You are correct that this is indeed a very important book, especially as it is written by someone who is an expert on the subject.

      Reply
  • 3. Ciro Pirone  |  April 29, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Hi Tom,
    I have not read her book and i am looking forward to, but i tend to disagree with the view that a winery like Castello Banfi is “included for their influence”. I think the Mariani did what no one else did, and brought the name of Montalcino and its Brunello in the world. Maybe without them Montalcino now would still be a sleeping rural town in central Tuscany. But after all when you write a book, you have the right to express your opinions.
    Regards

    Reply
    • 4. tom hyland  |  April 29, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Ciro:

      Thank you for your comment. What you are saying is exactly why Kerin included them (along with some other reasons, not so flattering). They have done much to make the word Montalcino better known across the world, as you say, which is why Kerin has written about them in her book. She has problems with the stylistic direction of their wines, however.

      Reply
  • 5. Arnold Hunter  |  April 30, 2012 at 6:24 am

    Thanks for your review. I tested myself about how many Brunello producers I could name and I came up with 9. Not too bad I suppose, given that it is more than a handful, but I definitely want to learn more about this wonderful wine and territory.

    Reply
  • 6. randall neidermair  |  April 30, 2012 at 9:16 am

    nice review and good job alerting us that at last there is a book on the best wine in the world!

    Reply
  • 7. David J. Cooper  |  May 17, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    I’ve read the book and really enjoyed it. In fact I even left a review on Amazon. I don’t subscribe to her point of view completely, but enjoy her position. I find that a lot of my favorite producers don’t get even a mention, like Agostina Pieri and Talenti. It leaves me wondering why. Are they too modern? Are they not important enough?

    Also I find her traditionalist views a little too unrealistic. After trying many wines at Bellisimo Brunello in SF, I found very few that I would call modern, except Valdicava.

    Reply
    • 8. tom hyland  |  June 6, 2012 at 9:34 am

      David:

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry it took me so long to get this up, but I was in Italy for two weeks and didn’t get to that many emails.

      I also love the wines of Talenti. As to why it’s not in the book, I can’t speak for Kerin. Perhaps there are other producers she would have included, but ran out of the allotted space given to her by her publisher.

      Reply

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