The more I think of recent events in Montalcino, the more the fable of the goose with the golden eggs comes to my mind. Eternal optimistic as I am, I find it difficult to believe that greed will prevail; that a majority of producers in Montalcino are so blinded by greed that they are ready to kill the goose.
The fortune of Montalcino resides in the fact that for many decades it has produced a unique wine. The very special combination of pure sangiovese with the soil and climate of the hills surrounding this medieval town yield a very distinctive and recognizable wine. Apart from its typicality, Brunello also offers another rare element of distinction: it will last and it will improve and it will age and will go on getting better and better.
Starting in the 1960’s the Italian market first and European ones soon after started discovering this little known gem from Tuscany. Swiss and Germans in the 70’s followed by Belgians and Scandinavians discovered Brunello and started loving it. Japanese soon joined the group of markets that appreciated the unmistakable warmth of this wine. A wine that when poured in the glass will fill your senses with all the heat and dryness and elegant aromas of the Tuscan hills. Eventually in the mid 90’s, when the grand vintage 1990 was released, Brunello became a worldwide phenomenon and the goose was really lying golden eggs for everyone.
Now, no one said this came easily. Sangiovese is a very sensitive grape; its yields vary greatly depending on climate. The quality, one year compared with the next, is even more variable. Some vintages may allow you to bottle only half a normal production, some very difficult years even less if not none. If you work properly, the fact of having four/five vintages aging in the cellar tends to even out the ups and downs of nature and allow you to supply your customers without too many disruptions. All this as long as you are not overtaken by greed and you do not demand from your vineyard to deliver every single year the maximum yield allowed by the protocol of production. And if the vineyard of sangiovese does not comply, finding other ways of filling the gap.
The Public Prosecutor in Siena, in 2007, started an investigation into such practices. He stated clearly that he is not after the presence of a small number of vines other than sangiovese in the Brunello vineyards. The wrongdoing he is concerned about is how some producers could have yielded in the 2003 vintage as much Brunello as in other years when even school boys know it was the hottest, driest, most difficult summer on record and in some cases the grapes just dried up in the vineyard before reaching ripeness.
Because unfortunately the bending of the rules has become somewhat widespread in Montalcino, in order to save themselves, some producers are turning the issue into a debate about traditional versus modern style Brunello. They say that the markets want softer, deeper colour wine and that this is the way forward.
My provocative answer to proposals of allowing a percentage of other grapes into Brunello is that it would probably be faster, considering Italian law making rapidity, to subscribe to the Consorzio of Chianti Classico and change the name of Montalcino into Castellina in Chianti.
Currently the key word in Montalcino for some is “tolerance”. Tolerance concerning grapes that are used in Brunello. Tolerance in cellar practices. Tolerance because nature is never 100%. In my view tolerance is as good as killing the goose, because it goes well beyond using a little merlot or syrah in the wine:
It means changing radically the typology of the wine we produce
It means accepting higher PH’s from sangiovese at harvest for a more ready to drink wine.
It means allowing the grapes to go into over ripeness
It means allowing more oxidation during vinification for wines that will not age as long.
It means releasing wines such as some of the 1997 Brunellos tasted last year at the 40th anniversary of the Consorzio in Montalcino that where strongly criticized by journalists.
My opinion, as a father that has in mind what he is going to leave his children, is that Brunello producers today need to stop thinking on how to fix the problem of the vintages that are aging in the cellar currently and look at the medium long term, recognizing that our goose of the golden eggs is the uniqueness, the recognizability, the strong link with our territory and our grape, the magic mix achievable only in Montalcino that makes true Brunello a wine a breed apart.