Above: the 1975 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino was one of the most beautiful expressions of Sangiovese I’ve ever tasted. The wine was so bright and alive, with gorgeous acidity, red fruit flavors, and the elegant tannin that defines truly great Brunello. Look at the clear color of the wine: 100% Sangiovese. THANK YOU ALFONSO!
menthol, cedar and sottobosco (woodsy), pecan pie and cherries with cinnamon, tar and liquorice, cherry vanilla oatmeal with cinnamon, chocolate (only for a second)… two constants: cinnamon and vanilla caramel…
The fact that on Monday, members of the Brunello Consortium will vote on whether or not to change appellation regulations was not lost on us. Currently, regulations require that the wine be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, grown in Montalcino. Many believe — as do I — that over the last decades, unscrupulous Brunello producers have blended international grapes, and most notoriously Merlot, in their wines.
Above: it was tough to pull that cork but Mr. Bianchi knew what to do!
To put it all into perspective, I sat down and took a look at a book that’s been sitting on my virtual shelves for some time: I vitigni stranieri da vino coltivati in Italia or Foreign Grape Varieties Cultivated in Italy, by Salvatore Mondini, Firenze (Florence), Barbèra Editore, 1903 (reprint Zazzera, Lodi, 1998). Keep in mind the date of the original publication of this tome, 1903:
- “Tuscany has the greatest number of foreign wine grape varieties in Italy… These plantings, however, rarely reach important quantities, save for Gamay, which is widely planted, particularly in the province of Pisa. … When he saw the scarce productivity of planting foreign varieties, the inferiority of the wines they produced, and the difficulties caused by their early ripening (which consequently affected the progress of the harvest), Baron Ricasoli decided to transform his vineyards by grafting Tuscan varieties onto the foreign varieties previously introduced there” (p. 45, translations mine).
Mondini is referring to the famous letter sent by Baron Ricasoli (1809-1880, producer of Chianti Classico and the second prime minister of unified Italy) to Professor Cesare Studiati in 1872, in which the Baron writes:
- “As early as 1840, I began experimenting with every grape variety. I cultivated each one in significant quantities on my Brolio estate. Our goal was to test the quality and taste of the wines produced from each grape.”
“Following this comparative study, I restricted the number of grapes at Brolio and began growing Sangioveto, Canaiolo, and Malvasia almost exclusively. In 1867, I decided once again to make wine using these three grapes. I made a relatively large vat of each one and then I blended the three in another vat using exact proportions” (translation mine).
There are “plantings of Merlot in Italy,” wrote Mondini, only in ten provinces belonging to the regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia, Tuscany, Latium, and the Mediterranean [coastal areas] of the South” (p. 294).
“In Tuscany, there are some very limited plantings of Merlot in the provinces of Lucca and Pisa” (p. 296).
As the documents above reveal, historically, Tuscan growers have not favored Merlot. It’s a pity that so much Merlot has been planted in Montalcino over the last two decades.
Yesterday, I read another document that gave me hope that Brunello will come out of this mess unscathed. I rarely agree with James Suckling’s take on Italian wine but I was thrilled to see that he spoke out against a change that would allow the blending of grapes other than Sangiovese.
You need to subscribe to the Wine Spectator site to be able to read his blog (yes, I admit it, I subscribe!). But I’ve copied and pasted the following passages below.
- “I think that Montalcino is the greatest place on earth to grow Sangiovese, and allowing Brunello to be something other than 100 percent Sangiovese would be scandalous. … No thank you!” …
“Something as unique and as delicious as a great Sangiovese from Montalcino needs to be protected, even cherished. Its great quality can’t be replicated any place in the world, except for a few other parts of Tuscany. There are other DOCs in the Montalcino area and the rest of Tuscany for blended wines. Let Brunello be Brunello.”
I couldn’t agree more: Let Brunello be Brunello. Chapeau, James. I hope Brunello producers are listening.