Making Sense of Montalcino
—By Kerin O'Keefe
Forget recent debates over new oak, excessively low yields and native grapes versus international varieties. Today, the hottest topic in Italy is the creation of subzones.
Nowhere does it stir up more passion than in Montalcino, home to the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita).
“I used to get asked about wood aging when I visited different markets,” says Francesco Marone Cinzano, owner of the Col d’Orcia estate and an avid supporter of creating subzones in Montalcino. “Now, I get more and more questions regarding the physical location of the vineyards.”
Cinzano’s observations reflect consumer appreciation of the growing trend among Italian winemakers to focus less on cellar practices and more on vineyards—specifically, vineyard location.
Barbaresco and Barolo led the way in 2007 and 2010, when the two denominations officially mapped out their vineyards into “geographic mentions.” In Chianti Classico, producers are rallying to create subzones based on that region’s nine -townships.
Montalcino, however, is a single township. Most producers—with some notable exceptions, like Altesino’s Montosoli bottling—don’t refer to their single vineyards on labels or as distinct geographic locations.
This has led to the perception that Montalcino is one big, happy denomination, with no need to highlight differences by adding another layer of geographic precision.
Producers here are divided over zoning. Opponents fear that a classification system would penalize them, says Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello di Montalcino consortium.
“Our 5,187 acres of Brunello represent the ‘premier cru’ of Montalcino, the best areas that you can find throughout -every part of the township, with no distinctions,” says Bindocci. “So far, no one has put forth a zoning proposal. If producers do, then we’ll evaluate it.”
For Piero Antinori, zoning is premature.
“Zoning runs the risk of giving imprecise and misleading evaluations,” says Antinori. “I think we still need more years of experience to carry out a work of solid scientific value that this delicate matter requires.”
Other producers say zoning is essential now.
Sangiovese, the only grape allowed in Brunello, is notoriously site-sensitive and performs differently depending on its environment.
In the vast township of Montalcino, growing conditions vary dramatically. Vineyard altitudes range from 300 to over 1,640 feet above sea level, there is a dizzying array of soils and summertime temperatures can vary more than seven degrees from north to south.
Wine styles here can range from elegant and ageworthy to muscular and immediate. Subzone supporters insist that creating separate regions will highlight the characteristics of each and help consumers navigate the minefield of Brunello styles.
“All the great wine denominations in the world are divided into smaller, distinct subzones,” says Andrea Costanti, a highly regarded producer. “Montalcino can’t avoid the situation for much longer. And a better knowledge of Montalcino and its wines will only benefit everyone in the long run.”
Even though some subzones are clearly superior to others, deciding which Brunello to buy depends on what consumers are seeking. Those looking for ageworthy Brunellos that will develop layers of complexity should concentrate on the original growing areas around Montalcino’s town center.
For more muscular Brunellos, consumers should investigate bottlings from Sant’Angelo. For combined elegance and power, look to Castelnuovo dell’Abate.
Though unofficial, the following breakdown is widely regarded as the most sensible initial zoning for Brunello.