Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino: pure sangiovese or with cab?

Posted by Mike Tommasi on 6 September 2011 in Wine
Montalcino

Montalcino

The typically Italian controversy currently raging over Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino is a battle between extremists. On one hand, conservatives want to keep the dogmatic principle of the single grape variety, which I hope to show is inconsistent with Tuscan tradition and penalizes those who want to make good wine in these areas. At the other end shameless opportunists are ready to perform a viticultural sacrifice by drowning Sangiovese with Bordeaux grape varieties that will leave no organoleptic trace of the Tuscan variety par excellence, to the point that it could safely be removed from the mixture altogether.

In addition, everyone feigns that the problem is limited to Rosso di Montalcino, which was created as a catch-all repository for wines unworthy of the Brunello label, while everyone knows that the real issue is Brunello, and a vote on cheapening Rosso is a test before moving on to attack the prestigious cousin Brunello… Meanwhile, a recent scandal revealed that producers in Brunello were adding cabernet, syrah and merlot, and at least one prestigious producer got caught.

I think it is self-evident that Bordeaux grape varieties will irreversibly pollute traditional Tuscan wine: it makes no sense to add them to Sangiovese, and I would be tempted to call such wines “Bordello di Montalcino” or “Cabernello”.

But to insist on 100% varietal is no less absurd, and is certainly not coherent with Tuscan tradition, rather it is an accident in the recent history of Brunello.

In historic and prestigious wine regions with moderately warm climates (including Bordeaux, Rhone and Tuscany), the blending of grape varieties is not an arbitrary choice, in order to make a great wine blending is a necessary choice, the result of centuries of tradition and experience. With the longer growing season it is difficult to make a great wine with one variety, and not by accident all these area converged independently to the use of a main late-maturing grape variety to establish the wine’s structure and tannin, and one or more varieties that complement the wine with secondary but essential elements such as color, aroma, acidity, etc. .. In truly rare situations of vintage and terroir the bravest winemakers in these climates can produce great wines using only the main grape, but these are exceptions, and in general the single grape wines from these areas are sharp, incomplete, missing the generous contribution of the minor grape varieties. For this reason, truly remarkable Brunello wines are quite rare.

In contrast, in relatively cool climate wine regions the short season does not allow growing early and late varieties: high quality varieties such as Nebbiolo, Chenin, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Grüner Veltliner are self-sufficient in the areas where they achieve their best expression, they do not need outside help because they are complete unto themselves, with structure, elegance, finesse, bouquet, balance, and aging potential. I would add corvina to the list, but the Amarone issue is yet another subject, almost a corollary to Brunello, I will deal with that in a future post.

How is it then that Brunello made such a strange choice, one better suited for cold climate areas? Despite the long history of the birth of Brunello, before the ’70s it was relatively unknown and rare, with very few producers of which only one was by far dominant on this small market. When the Brunello DOC was finally defined, in 1966, there was no obligation to use only Sangiovese, and in a way the DOC was created ad hoc specifically by and for Biondi-Santi. Brunello had a single producer, not a single grape variety… the latter is a more recent error, less than 45 years old. Another error was to set the vine yield at 8 tons/hectare, but it was reduced a few months ago to a more reasonable 6 t/ha.

While everyone screams for or against Cabernet, it does not occur to anybody to find a shade of gray between these Manichean dogmatic positions, an intermediate solution that is supported by years of history of winemaking in Tuscany and in zones of similar climate. Is it possible that the only choice is between the current undrinkable (© Ezio Rivella, president of the Brunello appellation) 100% Sangiovese Brunello and a future international cabernetized Brunello?

If I were to rephrase the text of the vote, I would ask to vote for allowing, for Rosso di Montalcino but also for Brunello (!), the use of those traditional Tuscan complementary grapes (Trebbiano canaiolo etc..) that historically have always supplemented the structure and tannins of Sangiovese, and to use them in quantities that the vigneron can decide from year to year in his particular situation, thus encouraging a consistently excellent and complete expression of the local terroir, in a way that is reproducible each year and not merely due to a miraculous juncture of rare circumstances.

The criticism from the English speaking world seems limited to platitudes like “cabernet and merlot will destroy the character of single variety wines”. Nicolas Belfrage, instead of dismissing the cabernet maneuver as absurd, has published an edict, praised by his colleagues, backed by very strange arguments:

Rosso di Montalcino, like Brunello di Montalcino, has created for itself a strong personality on international wine markets based largely on the fact that it is a pure varietal wine” – Rosso di Montalcino has a strong personality? Based on the fact of having a single grape variety? Therefore it is comparable to Brunello? And Brunello is recognized by international markets just because it is 100% Sangiovese? Please ….. what planet are you on?

“the strongest factor in the identity of Rosso di Montalcino (and of course Brunello di Montalcino) is the fact that it is 100% Sangiovese” – so much for terroir! That is a very shallow identity indeed! So Brunello has identity in the same sense that Yellow Tail does?

Who could ever imagine the producers of Bordeaux voting to allow 15% of Sangiovese into the Bordeaux blend?” – Yes, it is absurd, as much as a Bordeaux AOC defined by 100% Cabernet would be absurd. It would be a disaster, a wine that would express 100% of its area’s potential in very rare circumstances, like… Brunello!

I am convinced that it is against the long-term interests of Montalcino to allow any other grape variety, including any Italian or Tuscan variety, into the Rosso, just as it would be fatal to great Burgundy, for example, to allow Syrah to be blended with Pinot Noir, as was once widely practised” – but Sangiovese has been blended with Tuscan varieties for centuries, and Burgundy has nothing to do with Tuscany, it is from a cold climate, like Loire and Alsace, like Barolo and Mosel, where blending would serve no useful purpose. Besides, back then in Burgundy they added Syrah from the Rhone or North Africa, so the situation is totally different, in Burgundy it was fraud much like in Montalcino today!

Let us help Sangiovese find its historical partner grapes again: simply opposing attempts to make supertuscan everywhere is not enough, it’s time to admit the shortcomings of single variety Brunello and find a solution that is oenologically and historically consistent.

Tags: brunello, Cabernet, montalcino, rosso, Sangiovese

2 Comments on “Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino: pure sangiovese or with cab?”

  1. Mark Lipton says:

    You’ve got a good point, Mike, about the nature of blends and their value in a place like Tuscany. I doubt very much, though, that the entrenched interests will go (back) to the blending of “lesser” varieties such as Canaiolo into Sangiovese grosso. Much better to loudly proclaim “100% Sangiovese” and then turn a blind eye at the hectares of Syrah growing everywhere you look, no? And at the prices being charged for these wines, I’ll happily continue to invest my shekels in Montevertine and leave the more fabled DOC(G)s to their own sad fates.

  2. Mike Tommasi says:

    Mark, I love Montevertine.

    The bigger issue is that DOC and even DOCG have become meaningless. They now have DOCGs for wines that are totally unknown.

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