The following is an op-ed that I translated yesterday for Fattoria dei Barbi owner Stefano Cinelli Colombini, scion of one of Montalcino’s leading families. I hope you’ll find it as compelling as I did. Please see also his response to reader Andrea Fassone, a top east-coast importer of Italian wines.
You can see Sangiovese’s gold across all of Montalcino!
In the background in the photo, you can also see another vineyard that’s located at the same elevation. But the color is different.
According to fanciful subzone-lovers, who are armed with their little multi-colored maps and their written-in-stone certitudes, it’s the same subzone. But according to nature, it’s not — obviously!
For all intents and purposes, Montalcino is a nearly monovarietal appellation. And at this time of year, the landscape reveals — with clear-cut evidence — that sub-zoning only works on paper. At every elevation, on every type of soil, and with every type of exposure, we can see different vines side by side, some resting, some with full vegetation, and others in an intermediary state.
Yet it’s all Sangiovese. If the subzone theory were exact, vines would act more or less in the same way in a given subzone. They would produce the same colors and aromas. And therefore, they would grow in exactly the same way. But that’s not the case. Why not? The answer is simple and anyone who has muddy boots knows the reason. Soil matters. Exposure matters. Rainfall matters. And grape growers matter even more.
If I use organic fertilizer to fertilize one half of a vineyard but don’t do the same for the other half, the wines will become more and more divergent over the years. The same thing will happen if I train the vines differently or if I use different rootstock or a different clone. And we’re not even considering the influence of spraying the vineyards at the right or wrong moment or the effects of poorly executed pruning.
Try combining all these effects. Mix them up with the thousand other variables created by nature and you’ll see for yourself. Great appellations like Montalcino were created for a reason. They offer the grape grower a range of variables that share a common theme.
The vineyards at Argiano and Sesti are divided by just a single hedge but are vastly different. If anyone can tell me what they have in common even though they are so diverse, I’ll be happy to give that person a big fat kiss. Their wines are much more similar to Brunellos made in the same style but in different locations. And they’re not similar to one another even though they are farmed side-by-side.
Ladies and gentlemen, take a look at the evidence and leave your colored maps for people who like to play Risk!
Translation by Jeremy Parzen.
“Soil matters. Exposure matters. Rainfall matters. And grape growers matter even more.” Absolutely! Especially that last sentence. I would add that this does not only apply to Montalcino, but everywhere. Including the Côte d’Or. Thus, subzoning can be quite misleading in all wine regions of the world. In my experience, wine producers are by far the single most reliable quality predictor when choosing a wine.
I think that Stefano’s point about Sesti and Argiano really brings his thesis home. Subzones help the people who sell the wine, not the people who make it.