Montalcino: the next step? Angelo Gaja weighs in.

Above: that’s my good friend Robin Stark (center right) tasting with legendary Piedmontese winemaker Angelo Gaja on one of her wine-themed bike trips in Piedmont. Our mutual friend Terry Hughes over at Mondosapore likes to call me Zelig but Robin makes me look like Forrest Gump!

Legendary winemaker Angelo Gaja made news today when he published an open letter calling for changes in Brunello appellation regulations that would allow for the use of grapes other than Sangiovese. I have translated an excerpt at VinoWire.

As I get ready for my trip to Germany and Montalcino, I wish I had time to translate the entire letter, which is already creating waves in the blogosphere. But I’ve been busy working on the production of our record, getting ready for my trip (see below), and taking some time out to stop and smell the roses (yellow roses, in this case).

Angelo Gaja is one of the most charismatic and interesting figures in the world of Italian wine — and the world of wine period. I’ve met and tasted with him on a few occasions, including once at the winery. The Gaja winery is a unique experience, an objet d’art in and unto itself, where modern sculpture and architecture live side-by-side with the wine. Years ago, Gaja caused a controversy when he proposed that the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations be changed to allow for the use of international grape varieties. And after he was unsuccessful in his bid to revise the appellations, he declassified his site-designated wines. No one knows exactly what he puts in them but they are among Italy’s most collected — if not the most collected. A long-time proponent of barriqued Nebbiolo, Gaja makes wines that even the most fervent detractors of new oak aging will gladly drink. I’ve tasted Gaja back to 1971 and have to say that his wines are simply exquisite. He also produces high-end wines in Montalcino and Bolgheri.

Here’s a interesting passage that I translated but didn’t include in the post at VinoWire.

    In the 1960s, there were less than 60 hectares of vineyards planted to Sangiovese earmarked for the production of Brunello di Montalcino. There were roughly twenty producers, and no more than 150,000 bottles were produced [every year]. In the same period, there were 500 hecatres planted to Nebbiolo in Barolo, 115 producers/bottlers, and 3,000,000 bottles of Barolo produced annually. While Barolo did not have a leading figure, Brunello di Montalcino already had Biondi Santi: its founding father, an artisan who over time had raised the flag of quality high and he had also raised the price of his aristocratic, rare, and precious Brunello, available only to the few who could afford it.

    And then came Banfi…

He doesn’t take issue with Banfi but he reveals how the expansion of Sangiovese vineyards, spearheaded by Banfi, led to many “large” producers (as he puts it) planting Sangiovese in growing site that don’t have the right soil and climate conditions to grow superior Sangiovese. This phenomenon, he says, is what led to the current controversy there. It’s important to note that Banfi’s expansion and extremely successful marketing of Brunello made the appellation a house-hold name in the U.S. I remember the first time I saw a bottle of Brunello at the supermarket in La Jolla in the early 1990s: it was Banfi.

I wish I had time to translate the entire letter but you can read it in Italian here.