Above: the classic “blue label” Brunello di Montalcino from Fattoria dei Barbi. There’s nothing “normale” about it (full disclosure: I consult with Fattoria dei Barbi on media and marketing strategy).
- normal, adj. and n. Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. (The usual sense.)
- Etymology: < classical Latin normālis right-angled, in post-classical Latin also conforming to or governed by a rule (4th–5th cent.) < norma norma n. + -ālis -al suffix.
- Oxford English Dictionary
Let’s just get this straight for once and for all: there’s nothing normale about Brunello di Montalcino.
Nor is there anything normale about Barolo or Barbaresco.
Ever since Italian wine began “trending” in the U.S. in the late 1990s, wine professionals have been faced with a linguistic conundrum: if the “single-vineyard” or “reserve” bottling of a given wine is considered to be superior in both quality and value, what do you call the “blended” or non-designate wine?
Unfortunately, many American tradespeople adopted the practice of calling the latter categories “normal” or — or even more regrettably, using an erroneous and misguided cultural (mis)appropriation from the Italian — “normale.”
There are two major issues with this convention.
The first is that normal means, quite literally, conventional or ordinary, as in doesn’t stand out in a crowd.
Brunello, like its northern counterparts Barolo and Barbaresco, are not “conventional” or “ordinary” wines. In fact, they are illustrious, exceptional wines, even when not accompanied by a cru or aging designation.
The second issue is that historically, the Italians who make them consider the blended wines to be the more expressive and reflective of the appellation where they are produced.
The same holds for the “riserva” or “reserve” designation. It’s not that it’s a better wine from better fruit. A riserva wine is a wine that was conceived, through vineyard selection and vinification techniques, for longer-term aging.
Many Americans will be surprised to learn that the cru-designate trend in Italian wine is relatively recent. And in many cases, the single-vineyard designation was added to appeal to American consumers who assume that the single-vineyard expression is superior de facto. The same could be said of vintage-designate wines in Champagne where the non-vintage, vintage-blended wines are considered (by the people who grow them) the more indicative of the domaine’s style and tradition.
Calling a classic Brunello (or Barolo or Barbaresco) “normale” is demeaning not only to the wine but also the winemaker and the people who live, work, and grow grapes in the appellation of origin. And it also creates confusion for the consumer.
And that’s why I encourage my wine trade fellows to call wines blended from more than one vineyard “classic.”
Whether classic, cru-designate, or reserve, these categories are simply different expressions of the appellation and the winery’s style. When it comes to the top wines for which we use them, there’s nothing normale about them.