Claudio Tipa, proprietor, Poggio di Sotto, Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Montalcino
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)
My latest print article appears in the August 31 issue of Sommelier Journal, one of this country’s finest wine publications. The article is about Brunello di Montalcino and you can read it by clicking on this link. In the article, I discuss the current goings on in Montalcino, about how producers are putting the controversies of the final few years in their rear view mirrors as they move ahead with the most critical business of all – that of making the finest wines possible.
Various producers go about this in different fashions, of course, as some continue the traditional viticulture of their parents and grandparents, while others aim for a more modern style. Some of this philosophy is determined in the vineyards, while much is determined in the cellars; all of this is covered in the article.
Loyal readers of this blog know that I favor traditional red wines from Italy; ones aged in large oak casks known as botti (plural; botte, singular). These casks, ranging in size from 20 to 50 HL – or 2000 to 5000 liters – (some are even larger) have subtle wood influence. The more modern wines are aged in barriques of 225 liters or tonneaux of 500 liters. Clearly these smaller oak barrels impart more wood sensations to the wines, which can dominate a wine with their spicy and toasty notes. Too often wines that have been matured in these containers tend to blur the varietal characteristics of the grapes. Even worse, one loses a sense of place; it can be difficult to identify if a wine is from Tuscany, Abruzzo, Umbria or any number of regions. For my way of thinking, that’s not a good thing.
Botte in a Montalcino cellar (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Now I am not saying that every wine aged in a smaller oak barrel does not have notable varietal character; much of this, as with any discipline, depends on moderation. I enjoy several examples of Brunello matured in mid-size tonneaux; the Poggio Antico “Altero” being a marvelous example. But the appeal of a wine depends on the oak being a supporting player and not the dominant force. It’s all about balance.
In my article, you’ll read tasting notes of some of my favorite wines. Of the more than 75 examples of 2007 Brunello di Montalcino I have tasted this year (2007 is the new release for Brunello in 2012), my favorite is the Poggio di Sotto. This renowned estate in the premier Castelnuovo dell’Abate zone, a bit south of the town of Montalcino, was purchased in 2011 by Claudio Tipa from the original owner Piero Palmucci, who had elevated his winery into one of Montalcino’s most in-demand, due to his ultra traditional style of aging for a longer period of time in botti than required by DOCG reglations for Brunello do Montalcino. Tipa, who also owns the magnificent Bolgheri estate Grattamcacco, promised Palmucci that he would maintain this traditional approach in the cellars.
When I sat down with Tipa this past February at the estate and tasted the 2007 Brunello as well as the 2006 Brunello Riserva, I was impressed with the complexity and richness of each wine. But while I was tasting these wines, it’s almost as though a light went on, as I was completely taken by the delicacy of these wines on my palate. Yes, these are wines that will improve and age gracefully for some 15-25 years, but the beauty of these wines was not their power, but rather their finesse. Clearly much of this elegance on the palate comes from the fact that these wines spend so much time in large oak casks – both were matured for four years in botti – which not only softens the wines, but lengthens the mid-palate and lends an overall sense of refinement. (Note: the DOCG regulations require two years of wood aging for a Brunello normale and three years for a Brunello riserva, so both wines at Poggio di Sotto are matured for longer than normal periods. Even their Rosso, a wine of great character, is aged for two years in botti; this wine type does not even require any wood aging, according to the disciplinare.)
Now this extra time in wood is of course a more costly way to do business and the wines of Poggio di Sotto are priced higher than most other examples of Brunello (I refuse to label these wines as expensive, as that is a relative term. A $150 wine that is magnificent can be thought of as reasonably priced, while an uninspiring $12 wine can be overpriced). But the sensation of elegance, of finesse, of discovering subtleties not found in other wines is a rare treasure. The wines of Poggio di Sotto – along with the examples of Brunello from Biondi-Santi, Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Le Chuise and a few other traditional producers – are in a word, sublime. This is what separates the great producers from the very good ones.
In short, there’s nothing trendy about these wines. For the reviewers at certain influential wine publications in the US, power is what makes a wine stand out; for them, bigger is better. Let them have their way – power is certainly easier to understand than finesse. It’s always been that way and it may always be that way. But for experienced wine lovers, finesse, subtlety and delicacy are magical terms. You wonder if the big-name wine writers will ever learn that lesson.