Not all that glitters is gold: A (surprising) overview of Montalcino terroir and subzones by Stefano Cinelli Colombini

The question of subzones in Montalcino is a thorny one. For a few years now, they’ve been talking about making an official study of macro- and microzones there. It’s part of a trend in Italy to emulate the success of the Langhe cru model.

But the thought of a subzone map of Montalcino is self-defeating: it would create a de facto hierarchy that most producers and bottlers are eager to avoid.

In the light of this, I just had to share my translation of an op-ed by my client Stefano Cinelli Colombini, legacy owner of the Fattoria dei Barbi. He’s an intellectual winemaker and a wonderful conversationalist. If you have the time, follow the link and read to the end of the post. You might be surprised but what he has to say.

Buona lettura!

brunello subzonesEvery year during harvest, people start talking again about the best growing sites, their slopes, and the quality of the vineyards. All of these things are related to the banal elements of terroir.

Yes, I call them banal. But gauging from what people write on the subject, it seems that most commentators, professional and otherwise, lack a true understanding of the elements of terroir.

But what really is terroir in Montalcino?

Montalcino is a pyramid, with an off-center capstone toward the west where the lowest parts lie at 200 meters a.s.l. and the subsoils are mostly clay. Rising up, they become sandy and at the highest point they are comprised of galestro.

Toward the east and the north, the situation is analogous, except the lowest zones are primarily fluvial deposits. Rainfall affects these areas differently because it follows the currents, thus forming the river valleys.

The northern part is naturally the coolest. Areas like Torrenieri, for example, have abundant rainfall while the central and western zones of the township have a much more dry climate.

The north wind (known as the tramontana in Italian or tramontane in English) is cold and dry. It helps to reduce rot and mildew but it can also dry the grapes too much. It tends to affect the east and the north while the scirocco, the hot wind from the south, mostly affects the hilltops and the west. During summer, the scirocco can be very harmful. The valley floor and the other parts of the appellations are sheltered from the effects of the winds.

Temperatures vary greatly from zone to zone. The lowlands to the east are warm and they are made humid by the Orcia and Ombrone rivers. Here, there is only modest diurnal temperature variation during summer months. The west is equally hot but with little humidity and greater temperature variation during summer.

The central-northern zone is cooler and has greater humidity thanks to the Ombrone river, rainfall, and diminished temperature variation during summer. The central-southern zone is dry, not as hot as the east or the west, and has strong temperature variation during summer.

The mid-level hills are essentially uniform in climate across the four sides of the pyramid. But they are less warm during summer and less cold during winter with respect to the other zones. Ventilation is strong, humidity is low, and there is healthy temperature variation. The highest-lying hills have a similar climate, although they are cooler and at times markedly so.

The repetition of these phenomena and soils creates a crescent-shaped strip ideal for the cultivation of Sangiovese. To the north, it become so narrow that it practically disappears. To the south, it is wider, stretching from 120 meters to more than 500 meters.

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