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Brunello di Montalcino
Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy's Greatest Wines
By Kerin O'Keefe
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Brunello's entire production area centers on the expansive commune of Montalcino. This medieval hilltop town, whose name derives from the Italian translation of the Latin Mons Ilcinus (Mount Ilex), the ancient Latin name of the hill on which the town perches, and referring to the ilex or holm oak trees that still populate the surrounding woods, lies roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Siena and just over 40 kilometers (25 miles) as the crow flies from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Montalcino occupies a central position within the Province of Siena, though it is far away from busy roads and immersed for the most part in unspoiled countryside. Whereas the ancient town center, dominated by its fourteenth-century fortress, is tiny, the entire municipal area, the largest township in the province, includes several hamlets and stretches across 24,362 hectares (60,200 acres), with 70 percent of the area defined as hilly, 29 percent flat, and 1 percent mountainous. Half of the territory is still covered by dense woods and fallow land while 10 percent is dedicated to olive groves and 15 percent to vineyards. The rest is pasture land or is cultivated with various crops, mostly grain. Of the 3,500 hectares (8,645 acres) of vines planted throughout the large territory, 2,100 hectares (5,187 acres) are registered to Brunello, 510 hectares (1,260 acres) as Rosso di Montalcino, 50 hectares (124 acres) planted to Moscadello, 450 hectares (1,111 acres) to Sant'Antimo, and the rest planted with IGT (Indicazione geografica tipica) vines.
Montalcino's rambling surface area resembles a square 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide, delimited by the Orcia, Asso, and Ombrone Rivers. Within these boundaries four major slopes rise to form a ridge, peaking at 667 meters (2,188 feet) above sea level, with Mount Amiata in the southeast protecting the slopes from hail and violent storms. When compared to Chianti Classico to the north and Montepulciano to the east, both further inland, Montalcino enjoys a decidedly more Mediterranean climate. Sangiovese benefits from the warmer summertime temperatures and drier weather that lead to ideal berry maturation, while day and night temperature differences generate complex aromas—perfect ripening conditions for this temperamental variety. It is no coincidence that of all Tuscany's vaunted denominations only Brunello di Montalcino, and Rosso di Montalcino, the denomination's second wine that is made to be drunk young, are required by law to be made entirely with Sangiovese, or as the Italians say, Sangiovese in purezza.
However, although Sangiovese excels in select parts of Montalcino, it does not perform as well throughout the whole denomination thanks to the dramatic differences within the large growing zone, which is remarkably diverse for a single township. Among the denomination's vivid variations, vineyard altitude, which ranges from just above sea level to over 500 meters (1,640 feet), is a crucial factor in Sangiovese's performance. Although the variety produces more complex and age-worthy wines in the higher altitudes, when cultivated too high the vine can have trouble ripening in difficult years. Montalcino also boasts several distinct microclimates with sharp contrasts in summer temperatures and annual rainfall, which noticeably affect the grape's ripening ability and dictate when growers start the harvest. In the most scorching areas around Sant'Angelo Scalo, the Brunello harvest begins ten days to two weeks earlier than in the cooler, elevated areas. Subzones also react in remarkably different ways during years with extreme or adverse climatic conditions. Though select areas throughout the entire growing zone can produce beautifully balanced Brunellos in outstanding vintages like 2004, in difficult years like the washout 2002 and the torrid 2003, the vintage will have markedly divergent outcomes in the various subzones, a fact generally ignored by the press, which, in the absence of official zoning, tends to treat the area as a uniform whole.
Montalcino also boasts a phenomenal array of soil types within its confines. Seeing that no denomination-wide soil study has ever been undertaken in Montalcino, it is virtually impossible to say how many types of soils exist, although the Banfi estate, which has performed soil studies in its vineyards, declares that it has identified twenty-nine different soil types on its property alone. As geologists point out, Italy was formed by the collision between the European and African plates. Much of Tuscany forges what is known as a suture of the intercontinental impact, where over a period of millions of years, a stacking up process of the land mass created the Apennine Mountains and the many high hills that dominate this part of the region. While it could be argued that this event largely created the same situation in other parts of Tuscany that are relatively close to the sea, Montalcino is extremely unusual for a unique phenomenon whereby the sea retreated and returned several times, thereby generating a highly uncommon soil composition in parts of the denomination. As a result, according to experts, Montalcino's growing zone boasts one of the most complex and varied soil profiles in the world.
Certainly one reason for Montalcino's composite soils lies in the fact that the celebrated hill was formed in different geological eras. While this makes it difficult to make sweeping generalizations, in the broadest terms the higher reaches of the denomination just south of the town center have the oldest soil since they were the first land masses to rise above the receding oceans that once covered the earth, while the soil in the extreme southwestern lowlands are the youngest soils. Soils in the middle altitudes, on the other hand, are a complex mix of both. The younger soils that dominate the plains in the southwest, comprising alluvial deposits from the relatively recent Quaternary period (up to 1.8 million years ago) and Pliocene epoch, consist of sand, clay, mud, and marine sediment. Heading further uphill, the terrain is clay-enriched with calcareous fossil material usually attributed to the Miocene-Oligocene epochs; while in the upper part of the territory soil is moderately stony, mixed with sand and rich in lime where the well-draining soil is very old (Cretaceous-Eocene) and can restrain the youthful exuberance of productive grapevines.
However, the reality in Montalcino is far more complex than this simplistic breakdown, and the growing zone's pedological (soil) situation is extremely intricate. According to Edoardo Costantini, a professor of pedology and geopedology at the University of Siena for twenty years and the lead researcher of agrobiology and pedology at Florence's CRA-ABP Research Center (Centro di ricerca per l'agrobiologia e la pedologia), not only is Montalcino complex because it was formed in different geological ages, but because parts of the growing zone benefit from a highly rare natural phenomenon. "Usually, land protruded from the sea when the oceans receded, and that was it—end of story. What era the oceans receded in helps define a given area's geological and pedological composition. But in Montalcino, our research demonstrates that the oceans came back again and reclaimed the newly uncovered land masses up to the middle altitudes, roughly 300 to 350 meters (985 to 1,148 feet) above sea level before receding yet again, and that this phenomenon repeated itself several times," explains Costantini.
Costantini, who has compiled a fascinating study on viticultural zoning in the Province of Siena, says that the receding and returning oceans caused massive landslides of an almost unimaginable scale that sent millions of cubic tons of earth crashing down from the higher reaches that mixed in with the marine fossils and sediment deposited by the oceans, and these two events repeated themselves over an extended period. Costantini added, "I don't know of any other wine growing region where both of these occurrences happened together, and it is a major reason why Montalcino has such an intricate soil situation." Costantini stresses that the mixing of the ancient soils from higher up in the growing area with younger soils is found only in certain areas of Montalcino's middle reaches. The lower altitudes, on the other hand, dominated by marine sediment, did not benefit from the massive landslides generated by the returning and retreating seas. Given all these factors, Brunello's entire growing zone boasts a dizzying variety of soils not often found together in a single growing area, or as Costantini says, from a pedological viewpoint, Montalcino is "dynamic, complex, and unique."
According to Costantini and his research team's soil findings, which were achieved through on-site analysis of terrain, climate information, geological surveys, and results from experimental vineyards, with particular emphasis on the most illustrious denominations in the province, there are a number of select areas demonstrating suitable and high vocation for Sangiovese in the immense Chianti Classico zone, whose 70,000 hectares (172,900 acres) spread across nine different townships and include more than 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of vines registered to Classico production. The much smaller Montepulciano, on the other hand, with a total surface area of about 16,500 hectares (40,755 acres), generally has less ideal soil than its famed neighbors. "Montepulciano's soil is very uniform, and overall it is too fertile for Sangiovese," explains Costantini. Based on the same research, Montalcino's growing zone boasts many areas with high and very high vocation for Sangiovese, although other parts of the lauded denomination demonstrate downright dismal results, underscoring the necessity of zoning the area for Brunello production.
For more in-depth analysis on the specific conditions in the various parts of the denomination, see the chapters on the individual subzones.
MONTALCINO'S EARLY HISTORY
Based on archeological excavations, we know that the area of Montalcino was inhabited as far back as ten thousand years ago. Excavations throughout the territory have uncovered numerous Etruscan and ancient Roman artifacts, tombs, and ruins, including Roman villas. The most notable find at the Poggio alla Civitella archeological site, just three kilometers from the center of Montalcino, is slowly revealing a fortified Etruscan city that is still waiting to be fully unearthed.
In the Middle Ages, Montalcino prospered thanks to its convenient location along the Via Francigena, the road that pilgrims took from all over Europe for their journey to Rome. They would stop in Montalcino not only to rest but also to visit the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, the beautiful Romanesque abbey that sits in the quiet valley in Castelnuovo dell'Abate. The abbey was abandoned in the mid-fifteenth century, then restored by the Italian government at the end of the nineteenth century when it became property of the state. For many decades the abbey risked becoming merely another museum. Deprived of its clergy for over five hundred years, Sant'Antimo opened its doors as an abbey once again only in the late 1970s, thanks to the determination of an order of Augustinian friars, or more precisely, canons, after they had fought a long battle with Italian bureaucracy to recover the church and canonic housing and establish their religious community at the abbey. Sant'Antimo has become famous once more thanks at least in part to the canons' mystical and hypnotic Gregorian chants.
The Sant'Antimo Abbey that stands today among cypress trees and olive groves against a backdrop of vineyards dates to the twelfth century, and was built over another Benedictine monastery originally constructed at the end of the eighth century, which in turn had been erected at the site of an earlier chapel dedicated to Saint Antimo. Though there are various unfounded legends regarding the French king Charlemagne and miracles at the site, it does appear that Charlemagne put his official seal on the partially constructed monastery in 781 when he visited on his way back to France from Rome. In 814 Charlemagne's son and successor, Louis the Pious, granted the abbey his protection and donated it gifts, ensuring not only that it would become an important religious destination for pilgrims, but also that both Sant'Antimo and Montalcino would serve as main rest stops for merchants and soldiers. Montalcino's fortunes continued to rise when, in 1462, the town was elevated to the then highly coveted status of cittá (city) by Pope Pius II, a member of the illustrious Piccolomini family from nearby Pienza.
Montalcino also played a crucial role in the incessant and violent conflicts between the Republics of Florence and Siena. Montalcino, annexed to Siena in 1260 after Siena won the Battle of Montaperti, became the last stronghold of the Republic of Siena. When Florence and her Spanish allies conquered and occupied Siena in 1555, the heads of Siena's tattered city-state, along with thousands of its citizens and its allied French troops, fled to Montalcino. There, protected by the town's fortified walls and its impenetrable fourteenth-century fortress, they withstood a brutal siege that lasted for four long years and ended only when Spain and France signed a peace agreement in 1559. Montalcino, and the remains of the Republic of Siena, went under the control of Florence's Cosimo I de' Medici, and became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Today Montalcino locals proudly point out that their town and their ancestors literally held down the fort for the peninsula's last independent republic; it is an episode that underscores the fiercely independent and individualistic nature that the town and its people boast even today.
Due to the grueling four-year siege, Montalcino never benefited from the Renaissance that illuminated so many other cities and towns in much of Tuscany. The thousands of militants and refugees from Siena drained the town's resources and destroyed the local economy. Montalcino entered into a state of limbo, and would only begin to shake off its stagnation after the unification of Italy in 1861, when the state began building an infrastructure of roads and bridges across the country, and more importantly, railroads. The first train arrived in one of Montalcino's hamlets, Torrenieri, in 1865, connecting the isolated town to the rest of Italy and civilization. It was at about this time that a few of Montalcino's wealthy gentlemen farmers, most of whom already made a well-known sweet white wine called Moscadello, began experimenting with red wine, eventually leading to the creation of Brunello.
Economic relief didn't last long, however, and hard times returned to Montalcino by the early twentieth century. The town had always been dependent on agriculture and the many products it derived from its surrounding woods, including charcoal made from carbonized wood, produced with an antique and laborious method, which fueled fires to heat homes. Montalcino's craftsmen also used local wood to make numerous goods, including baskets and other wicker products that were once essential household items in rural parts of the country. The two world wars generated crippling economic depressions, and as peasant farmers were called to arms, farms lay neglected for years, wreaking further havoc on Italy's agrarian economies that produced little or nothing during the wars and in their immediate aftermath. Already in a sorry state, Montalcino's countryside was further laid waste in June 1944, when the Allies passed directly through the town, liberating it from the occupying Germans.
The first half the twentieth century proved almost fatal for Montalcino's nascent Brunello production. In addition to the catastrophic wars of the period, there were also outbreaks of phylloxera, the root-eating aphid that nearly destroyed winemaking throughout Europe. Only a handful of Montalcino estates were making Brunello at the beginning of the twentieth century, when production was nearly thwarted during the First World War. After the Great War, all of Italy was immersed in poverty and there was little request for quality wine. Montalcino's vineyards lay in ruins. Tancredi Biondi Santi, whose family had created Brunello at the end of the nineteenth century, saw local wine production plummet and realized that Montalcino's winemakers needed to work together to keep the sector alive. In 1926, he founded the Cantina Sociale Biondi Santi e C., a cooperative cellar headquartered in the center of town. He invited other local growers to join him, offered them use of his cellars and equipment, and encouraged them to replant their forsaken land with Brunello vines. The united growers began replanting their ruined vineyards, but yields were understandably low those first years before vines reached full maturity. Just as the new plants began yielding better fruit and production started increasing, the most devastating wave of phylloxera attacked Montalcino's young vineyards in 1930. The area had barely recovered when Italy entered the Second World War in June 1940. By 1944, with demand for quality wines once again nonexistent and most vineyards abandoned for the second time in just a few short years, Tancredi and the other members dissolved the Cantina sociale.
Excerpted from Brunello di Montalcino by Kerin O'Keefe. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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