I recently returned from my second trip to Montalcino this year – how nice to see the colors of the vineyards and wildflowers in May instead of the grays and browns in February – and I’ve tasted through more than 75 examples of the new releases of 2007 Brunello di Montalcino and almost as many versions of the 2006 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. I’ve reported on these wines already and will write more in the future.
Whenever I visit a producer in Montalcino, I taste through the entire lineup, which includes their Rosso di Montalcino. This is a wine, also made exclusively from Sangiovese, that is sourced from vineyards that are less than ten years old or perhaps from cooler vineyards that do not get as ripe as the finest plantings in the area. It is a wine that is generally released some 18-24 months after the harvest – much earlier than Brunello, which is on a five-year release cycle – which makes the Rosso a lighter, more approachable wine that is meant for earlier consumption. I don’t generally agree with those who label Rosso di Montalcino as a “baby Brunello,” as it doesn’t have the richness or the complexity of a Brunello, but is is a pleasant, sometimes very fine bottle of wine that does at least give one a preview of the vintage, letting us know what that year’s Brunello will be like in some three years’ time upon release.
What all this is leading to is the remarkable quality of the 2010 vintage for Rosso di Montalcino. I met with several producers who told me about the excellence of this particular growing season in Montalcino, with Mario Bollag of Terralsole telling me that, “the grapes from 2010 are the best he’s ever seen.” Other producers echoed this thought, so while the bottles of Brunello from this vintage will be something to look for when they are released in three years, at leat now we can enjoy the new versions of Rosso di Montalcino.
I’ve tried several examples of 2010 Rosso di Montalcino to date and have been most impressed by the SestadiSopra, a small traditional estate that I’ve rated as among the best producers of Brunello over the past half-dozen years. Their new Rosso is a lovely wine, with aromas of ripe morel cherry, cedar and a hint of mint with precise acidity and an ultra clean finish and excellent persistence. I ordered a bottle of this for our small group at Taverna Grappolo Blu in the town of Montalcino and it was wonderful with lunch; I don’t know if I’ve ever tried a more delicious Rosso di Montalcino!
Other 2010 Rosso di Montalcino I love include the elegant Ciacci Piccolomini, with its lovely red cherry and red rose aromas; the Lisini, with its light herbal notes in a traditional, subdued style; the fruit-forward Uccelliera; the appealing and perfectly balanced Fuligni, which has lovely cleansing acidity; the irresistible Le Chiuse with inviting fruit and floral aromas and remarkable balance and finally, the exquisite Il Paradiso di Manfredi, with beautiful morel cherry, red plum and iris aromas, notable concentration and gorgeous varietal purity; this is as complex and as ideally structured a Rosso as you can find.
There are other examples of 2010 Rosso di Montalcino that I have yet to try, these include top producers such as Il Poggione and Gianni Brunelli. Then there are producers such as Biondi-Santi, Tassi and Poggio di Sotto, who will not release their 2010 Rosso for another 8-12 months; I can’t wait to try these versions!
While these are not wines to replace Brunello, as they do not have the depth of fruit of those wines, these Rosso are beautiful wines that are ideal bottles to enjoy while you wait for the 2010 Brunello to become available on the market in 2015. Many of the best Rosso di Montalcino from 2010 will be at peak enjoyment then, so grab them now while you can easily find them. You have been warned!
Antoine Gaita, Villa Diamante (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Per leggere quest’articolo in italiano, clicca qui.
Last week in Part One of this series on Campania whites (read here), I wrote about the wines of Donnachiara, Feudi di San Gregorio and Mastroberardino. In this post, I will deal with three artisan estates in Irpinia I visited during my recent trip.
At Villa Diamante in Montefredane, Belgian native Antoine Gaita began producing one wine in the mid-1990s at his tiny estate named for his American born wife Diamante. This wine has become legendary in Campania, a single vineyard Fiano di Avellino named Vigna della Congregazione, named as it was once property of the church. Gaita today produces only about 6000 bottles of this superb Fiano, which is aged in steel tanks and sees no oak.
I love the ripe fruit and texture of Fiano; this wine displays these qualities in great style. But it’s the richness and lushness of this wine that really impresses; this is about as full-bodied a Fiano as I’ve ever tasted. Yet, this is not an exercise in intensity, but rather a wine that combines impressive concentration with wonderful texture and a powerful finish of great length. This is why I get so excited about Campanian whites and about Italian whites in general; the sheer individuality of this wine is something to get marvel at. It’s a wine that many famous wine publications don’t even deal with; I can only guess they haven’t tasted it, as they’re too busy trying the latest red from Tuscany or Piemonte. I have to think that if they did try it, they’d praise the wine to the high heavens.
I was able to taste several vintages with Gaita and his wife; the 2010 shows a great deal of potential, but it’s a baby. The 2009 is a five-star (outstanding) wine for me, as it’s got that intensity along with amazing complexity. I describe the aromas as multi-dimensional with notes of apricot, quince, honey and pear, while there is a generous mid-palate and a lengthy finish with excellent persistence. Gaita told me we were going to try the various versions of this wine, “the Sauvignon Blanc, then the Chardonnay and then the Riesling,” and he was spot on with his descriptions, as different vintages did seem to offer those characteristics. It’s this chameleon-like nature of this wine that makes this one of Italy’s – and the world’s – greatest white wines. One final note; for the 2009, I scribbled down 7-10 years for peak consumption, but I’m thinking now, I may be a bit conservative in that estimation.
Raffaele Troisi, Vadiaperti (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Also in Montefredane, less than a mile away, Raffaele Troisi makes lovely Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo at his Vadiaperti estate, which was established in 1984 (Montefrdane, by the way, is in the Fiano di Avellino zone; Troisi also works with vineyards in Prata and Montefusco in the Greco di Tufo zone).
Troisi, make no mistake, is a farmer at heart, just like thousands of other producers throughout Campania and all of Italy, for that fact. He takes great pride in his work in the fields and follows that up with his approach in the cellar. He was kind enough to arrange a tasting of eleven white wines for my guest and I on the day we visited with him; this was much more than we expected, but we loved every minute of our meeting, as Troisi told us about his various wines – new releases and older offerings – with great conviction.
Along with Greco and Fiano, Troisi is also working with the Coda di Volpe grape. Best known as the primary variety in Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, the ultra popular white wine for tourists that crowd the open air trattorie of Napoli, Coda di Volpe is not generally regarded as a “serious” variety. Yet in the hands of a precise vintner such as Troisi, Coda di Volpe can yield quite a complex wine; his 2011 offering lemon, stone fruit and almond perfumes, impressive concentration and a light minerality in the richly detailed finish. This is a wine to be enjoyed over the next 2-3 years, but instead of the lightest seafood, this is a wine that can stand up to fattier fish and even lighter poultry, it’s also marvelous as a starter white for many meals.
His versions of Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino are so admirable for their varietal purity as well as their subtle manner; these are not powerhouse wines, but ones of notable restraint. Their natural acidity is a dominant feature here, meaning you immediately want to try another glass. Troisi makes two special bottlings that are among the region’s finest; the first, a Fiano labeled as “Aiperti” that has beautifully appealing honey, mango, pear and magnolia aromas and a seductive finish with a subtle hint of almonds. The second wine is a Greco di Tufo labeled as “Tornanate” that has inviting lemon peel, lime and chamomile perfumes backed by excellent concentration and lively acidity as well as distinct minerality. Here is a wine that is pure Greco in its flavors and presentation and teases you with its promise of greatness some five to seven years down the road. While I always think of Fiano as the bigger of the two wines, it’s Greco that tends to reveal more of itself with time, a rather nice quality of this variety.
Troisi also treated us to some older bottles of Fiano di Avellino and if I had any doubts about the potential of this wine to age (which I really didn’t), they were wiped away with these wines. The 2004 has dried pear, herbal tea and sassafrass aromas, admirable ripeness and excellent persistence. It’s still a young wine, very delicious and I don’t expect it to be at peak for another three to five years.
Then there was the 1994 Fiano di Avellino, a wine that showed the promise of this great area. Deep yellow in color (though not as deep as one might expect for an 18-year old white), this combined dried pear and honey aromas with notes of caramel and dried yellow flowers. Medium-full, this was actually a fresher wine than the 2004, though a touch lighter on the palate. The finish has subtle notes of honey; overall the wine displays lovely finesse and elegance – what a light touch Troisi displays in his winemaking. Here’s a wine that I think will peak in another two or three years, meaning that you’ll have a 20 year old Fiano di Avellino at peak condition!
Of course, any white that ages this long has to be expensive, correct? Well this isn’t white Burgundy, so you don’t have to take out a loan; as the current 2011 vintage retails for about $25 on American retail shelves, one can only imagine what this 1994 costs when it was released back in 1996. Again, here’s a wine that the Parkers and Sucklings of the world too often ignore- perhaps it’s because they don’t understand it or think their readers don’t care about it – believe me, there are enough of us that do. It’s a great wine, so thank you Raffaele for such a lovely tasting!
Sabino Loffredo, Pietracupa (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
My final visit was an all-too brief meeting with Sabino Loffredo, the proprietor of Pietracupa, also situated in Montefrdane. Loffredo comes to America each February for the Tre Bicchieri tasting of Gambero Rosso (he’s been honored with this award many times, deservedly so), but as he doesn’t have an importer in Chicago, I always miss out on meeting him during his time in America.
I almost missed him again in Campania, as he wasn’t in the winery the day I was in Montefredane and I was scheduled to leave the area the following day. He was kind enough to meet me for a few minutes on my travel day so he could introduce himself and his wines. While our conversation was brief, I was able to taste both his 2010 Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo and am I ever glad I had the opportunity!
His Fiano is a brilliant light yellow with intriguing aromas of Bosc pear, sassafrass and cinnamon (!); I can’t say I’ve really found a set of aromas such as this in any other Fiano. Meanwhile, the Greco di Tufo displayed perfumes of mango, melon, mint and acacia flowers – here is a wine that has great focus! Certainly the allure of these Pietracupa whites are their uniqueness, which comes from the soils in which the grapes are grown. These are true terroir-driven wines and while that term is rather casually tossed about these days, these wines are first-rate evidence of how climate and soil affect a wine. Both wines are outstanding in my opinion and will be at peak in five to seven years.
Sabino told me that he always wants to meet with someone such as myself at his estate so he can explain his wines and his territory. Based on these highly individualistic offerings, I know that I’ll get a great understanding into what makes a brilliant Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino when I sit down with Sabino during my next trip to Campania. I know it won’t be too many more months from now and frankly, I can’t wait!
I never met Aldo Conterno, but I feel like a lost a friend. The great man passed away on Wednesday at the age of 81 and leaves behind a wealth of brilliant Barolos from his estate in Monforte d’Alba, where his sons Franco, Stefano and Giacomo continue to produce legendary wines.
I did visit with his sons in 2011 at the estate and was impressed with their graciousness and courtesy, as they were delighted to present their cru Barolos – Cicala, Romirasco and Colonello – so I could taste them and share my thoughts. The smile on Giacomo’s face, as I told him of my thoughts on these wines is something I’ll remember for some time. Giacomo, Stefano and Franco are Piemontese gentlemen and it’s clear that their father taught them well.
While Aldo is gone, his sons remain as do his glorious wines.
Fiano Vineyard at Montefalcione (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Per leggere questo articolo in italiano, clicca qui
I recently returned from a two-week trip to Italy that included three days in Campania. As the majority of my trip was in red wines zones of Tuscany (Montalcino and Scansano), I needed to head to a region that produces great whites, so I squeezed in some time in one of my favorite wine territories, the province of Avellino, also known as Irpinia.
Avellino is most famous for two white wines: Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino. The wines are quite different with Greco tending to be lighter and a bit more reserved, with slightly higher acidity. Fiano on the other hand, tends to be most lush and ripe, being a bit more approachable upon release, while the finest examples of Greco tend to need a year or two after release before showing their best. Generally, Fiano, as it is a bigger wine, tends to age longer.
There is a third white grape planted in Avellino called Falanghina that is also planted throughout the Campanian region. Falanghina has vibrant acidity that is a trademark of the variety. It is an ancient variety that was almost forgotten over the last 30 years, but several producers in the region have made an effort to craft notable offerings from this grape. Many of the best examples come from the Sannio district in the province of Benevento, situated north of Avellino.
Ilaria Petito, Donnachiara (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
A small producer that has become one of the most critically acclaimed for its whites is Donnachiara, headed by the engaging Ilaria Petito. Her first vintage for this project was only in 2006, so for her to gain as much attention as she has to date tells you the qualilty of the fruit she is working with along with the care in the cellars. For her new releases, it is the 2011 Fiano di Avellino that is a standout, with pear and quince aromas alongside those of toasted almond and hay. Medium-full, the wine has excellent ripeness and a lengthy finish with lively acidity. This should offer optimum drinking for 3-5 years, perhaps longer.
A quick word here about 2010 and 2011 in Campania. 2010 offered wines that were beautifully balanced with very good acidity; while not a powerful vintage, the wines offer very good typicity and are excellent representations of their types. 2011 was a warmer vintage and the wines are definitely richer on the palate and more forward. Yet this is not a flash in the pan vintage, but one that yielded excellent wines from many producers. Of course, some of the best estates have not yet released their 2011s, but based on what I’ve tasted so far, 2011 is clearly a successful vintage for white wines in Campania, with impressive depth of fruit as well as overall balance.
Cutizzi Vineyard of Feudi di San Gregorio, planted to Greco (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
One of my favorite estates – not just in Campania – but in all of Italy – is Feudi di San Gregorio, situated near the town of Sorbo Serpico. Proprietor Antonio Capaldo has done a marvelous job at this winery, producing offerings that lead the way for the region’s wine stature. One of my favorite wines from Feudi each year is the Greco di Tufo from the Cutizzi vineyard in Santa Paolina in the heart of the DOCG zone. The 2011 is medium-full with excellent concentration with aromas of pear, melon and kiwi. The wine is a bit plump on the palate and there is a lengthy finish with excellent persistence and very good acidity. This is a Greco di Tufo that reveals greater complexities with time, so look for this wine to be at its best in another five years.
The 2011 Falanghina “Serrocielo” is one of the best releases to date of this wine. This is a single vineyard Falanghina, something you don’t see to often; this planting is situated in the Benevento province. The aromas on this wine – stone fruit (peach and pear) along with notes of honey – are delightful and there is excellent weight on the palate and a nicely structured finish. This is a pleasure for current consumption and will improve for another 3-5 years.
The finest white from Feudi I tasted this trip was the 2010 Campanaro, a blend of Fiano and Greco. This wine is always released one year after the other Greco and Fiano bottlings, a wise choice, as the wine needs time to come together and show its finest characteristics. The 2010 has beautiful floral aromas (geranium, magnolia) to go along with its notes of Bosc pear, melon and lemon; medium-full, the wine offers excellent complexity. This is an outstanding wine that will drink well for 7-10 years.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Matroberardino, the grand patriarch of all Campanian producers. My first visits, some ten years ago were with Antonio Mastroberardino; today I meet with his son Piero, a thoughtful individual who caries on his father’s work with great tact and skill. His new 2011 whites are beautifully made, from the simple, refreshing Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio – made entirely from the Coda di Volpe variety – to the single vineyard and selezione wines. The 2011 Greco di Tufo “Nova Serra” has yellow flower and lemon peel aromas, impressive weight on the palate and a beautifully defined mid-palate and a lengthy finish with distinct minerality; in short, this is a Greco di Tufo of excellent typicity.
As for Fiano di Avellino, I am very impressed with the Radici offering (radici meaning “roots”), which has expressive aromas of quince, Bosc pear, yellow flowers and chamomile. There is a rich mid-palate and excellent persistence and the wine is very clean and flavorful. There is excellent complexity and this year, a bit more ripeness, which only adds to the wine’s appeal. This is delicious and a great example of how beautiful the whites wines of Campania are for food, be it shellfish (especially with Greco di Tufo) or lighter poultry, veal and pork dishes, which are best paired with Fiano di Avellino.
In Part Two of this study of 2010 and 2011 Campanian whites, I will discuss the wines from some of the finest small estates of Avellino, including Villa Diamante, Vadiaperti and Pietracupa.
Of all the celebrated wines in Italy that do not receive the recognition they deserve, perhaps no wine is as given little attention today as Marsala. This is a shame – un gran peccato as they say in Italy, as Marsala was the most famous wine from Sicily for hundreds of years; today, it is still important, but as producers on this island focus more on table wines today, a lightly sweet fortified wine such as Marsala seems to be considered a thing of the past. Un gran peccato, veramente as a top-flight Marsala that has been aged for many years at the winery can truly be one of the world’s great wines.
Marsala is a fortified wine produced in far western Sicily near Trapani; salt is a major product of this area as well and certainly one of the postcard images of this zone are the windmills that stand sentinel over the salt pans. The often torrid conditions here, somewhat tempered by breezes from the nearby sea, are ideal for ripening white grapes that are the source of a wine that reaches 18% to 19% alcohol. The primary grape used is Grillo, which tends to perform well in the heat; Cataratto grapes are also used in some blends, but clearly Grillo is the base of the finest examples.
I recently sampled five different examples of Marsala from Cantine Florio, a company founded in 1833, that is one of Marsala’s – and Sicily’s – most historic cellars. Today Florio is part of the giant company ILLVA Saranno Holding spa, which also includes Duca Enrico and Corvo wines from other areas of Sicily. Clearly the funding from this company has kept Florio a thriving wine estate, today producing some 3.5 million bottles of wine per year. But it has also remained a traditional Marsala producer, making several different versions, from the simple to the sublime.
Here are thoughts on the five different offerings of Florio Marsala I tasted:
2009 Marsala Superiore Secco “Vecchioflorio” - When you mention Marsala to Americans, most of them have an image of a cooking wine; this bottle is probably what they have in mind. A blend of Grillo and Cataratto aged for 30 months in Slavonian oak (the typical large barrels used in Marsala and many other Italian wine zones), this has a light amber color with aromas of caramel, molasses and hints of Scotch whisky. This is clean and well made with a light sweetness and should be consumed over the next six to ten months.
2001 Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco “Targa Riserva 1840″ – 100% Grillo aged for six years in Slavonian oak. Light amber with aromas of caramel and hints of butterscotch. Medium-bodied with an off-dry finish of good length. Nicely balanced – best consumed over the next 12-18 months.
2000 Marsala Vergine “Terre Arse” – 100% Grillo aged for more than ten years in Slavonian oak (the term vergine refers to a Marsala that has been aged at least five years in oak). Light amber with aromas of heather, caramel and hazelnut. Medium-full with very good persistence and a lengthy finish with a light hint of sweetness. Good balancing acidity keeps this wine delicate in the mouth. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years.
1998 Marsala Vergine “Florio Baglio” - 100% Grillo aged for ten years in old 300 liter casks. Lovely caramel, honey and heather aromas. Medium-full with very good concentration. Rich, dry finish with excellent persistence, very good acidity and a light nuttiness. Beautifully made – enjoy over the next 5-7 years. Excellent
Marsala Superiore Riserva “Donnafranca” – Dedicated to Franca Icona di San Giuliano, known as Donnafranca, the queen of Palermo. 100% Grillo aged for more than fifteen years in 300 liter botti. Deep amber with intoxicating aromas of caramel, hazelnut, chocolate, orange peel and marzipan. Medium-full with excellent concentration, this coats the palate and glides to a lengthy, graceful finish with delicate sweetness, outstanding persistence and impressive complexity. So rich and yet so elegantly styled. Enjoy now and over the next 10-12 years – perhaps longer. Outstanding
This collection of various examples of Marsala was a real eye-opener for me, given the quality and various styles. A few of these reminded me of lovely older sherries or Vin Santo and as those wines are celebrated and noted in the international press, one wonders why Marsala is not given similar treatment. Perhaps it is the image of Marsala being something that was enjoyed last century; I imagine for some people, Marsala is not relevant. This is a shame, as the wines are magnificent!
Florio also produces other classic dessert wines of Sicily including Passito di Pantelleria and Malvasia delle Lipari, which I will review in a future post.
Carlo Schiopetto (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
The hillsides of the Collio district (the word Collio means “hill”), are the home of some of the most vibrant white wines in the world. Here, varieties such as Friulano, Sauvignon (Blanc), Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Bianco and Ribolla Gialla are farmed to small yields, resulting in deeply concentrated wines that define the soul of this lovely territory in far northeastern Italy. There are certainly several producers from Collio that are among the finest in all of Italy; given their long track record of success as well as their contribution of local wine tradition, Schiopetto is a logical place to start when listing the great Collio wine estates.
When Mario Schiopetto established his Collio estate in 1965, white wines from this area – and from Italy in general – were rather simple products at best and at worse, dull, slightly oxidized offerings that faded away in just a few years. Schipoetto wanted to produce more complex, more vibrant whites, so traveled first to Germany and France to learn how vintners there made their white wines. Combining these practices, he utilized new technology in his cellars, being among the very first in Italy to use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to preserve varietal aromatics as well as freshness and color.
Mario passed away in 2003, leaving his three children – twin brothers Carlo and Giorgio and sister Maria Angela – to continue his work. They have carried on brilliantly, as the Schiopetto white wines (there are also two reds produced) are wines of superb complexity, richness on the palate, brilliant varietal purity and notable structure. These are wines that drink beautifully upon release, but improve with 3-7 years in the bottle, depending on the variety as well as the particular vintage.
I recently tasted four of the Schiopetto 2010 whites and found that each wine offered complexity and tremendous style. The Pinot Bianco has lovely quince and apple aromas along with distinct spice; there is very good acidity and persistence and I’d expect this wine to drink well for another 3-7 years. The Blanc de Rosis, a blend of Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, Malvasia and Pinot Grigio has inviting Anjou pear and tea leaf aromas, excellent persistence and a light nuttiness in the finish. This is an expressive, complex wine that should peak in another 5-7 years.
My two favorites Schiopetto whites are the Sauvignon and the Friulano. Sauvignon from Friuli is at its most interesting when it is a vigorous, almost assertive wine and in that respect, the 2010 Schiopetto succeeds marvelously. Brilliant light yellow with aromas of spearmint and Anjou pear, this is medium-full on the palate with wonderful texture and bright fruit. This receives no oak maturation, but is given 8 months of lees aging before bottling. There is vibrant acidity and excellent persistence. This is an excellent Sauvignon which will drink beautifully for the next 5-7 years.
My favorite of the Schiopetto whites from 2010 (and often my favorite every year, as it is a toss up between this and the Sauvignon) is the Friulano. Friulano is somewhat of a chameleon grape in this region, as local terroir is a key characteristic of this variety; I have tasted examples that are more fruit-driven, while others tend to feature more of a minerality. This has beautiful aromas of golden apple, Anjou pear, quince and chamomile; there is excellent persistence and vibrant acidity along with outstanding complexity. This is an outstanding wine and among the two or three very best examples of Friulano produced each year, a statement I make without any doubt and one that confirms the brilliance of the wines of this great winemaking family in Collio.
The wines of Schiopetto are imported in the US by Vintus, Pleasantville, NY.
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.