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.
Long-lived, elegant wines.
Recommended producers: Altesino, Barbi, Baricci, Biondi-Santi, Canalicchio di Sopra, Costanti, Gianni Brunelli, Il Marroneto, Paradiso di Manfredi
Many of Brunello’s 200 or so producers cluster near the town center. These estates are generally small and occupy the region’s most elevated vineyards, at 984–1,640 feet.
With rich bouquets and ample complexity, these wines often need years to reach their prime, thanks to naturally high acidity and bracing tannins that yield the longest-lived and most elegant Brunellos.
Even this zone can be divided into distinct microzones.
North of Montalcino, artisanal estates make enticingly aromatic Brunellos on soils dominated by limestone and clay. The best are remarkably complex, like those from Il Marroneto, Paradiso di Manfredi, Altesino, Canalicchio di Sopra and Baricci.
This is also home to Montosoli—Montalcino’s most famous single vineyard. It consistently produces wines that combine heady aromas and elegance with ripe fruit and firm structure.
South of Montalcino, infertile, calcareous soils encourage deep roots to reach underlying minerals that add depth and complexity. At the highest vineyards in the district, marked variations between day and night temperatures generate intense aromas.
Most of the denomination’s storied producers are here, including Biondi Santi, Costanti and Barbi. Rising stars include Gianni Brunelli, whose Brunello includes grapes from Le Chiuse di Sotto in the north, which add elegance and perfume, and Podernovone to the south, which lend structure and depth.
Powerful yet graceful wines.
Recommended producers: Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Mastrojanni, Uccelliera
About six miles southeast of Montalcino’s town center, in the hamlet of Castelnuovo dell’Abate, producers make powerful, yet graceful Brunellos. The multifaceted soils of different geologic epochs impart layers of complexity.
While the area benefits from warm temperatures that promote ripening, Montalcino’s ridge protects vines from scorching maritime breezes.
“Castelnuovo also benefits from having a great amount of sunshine, and from the cooling effect of the Orcia River below,” says Paolo Bianchini of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona.
Castelnuovo Brunellos have round, fine tannins and age well, thanks to moderate acidity generated by vineyard altitudes of 820–1,476 feet.
Fresh, but less-structured (Bosco) and full-bodied, tannic (Torrenieri) wines.
Recommended producers: Castiglion del Bosco, Citille di Sopra, SassodiSole, Tenute Silvio Nardi
Only two sprawling estates, Tenute Silvio Nardi’s Casale del Bosco and Ferragamo’s Castiglion del Bosco, are located in the northwestern quadrant, where protected woodlands inhibit expansion. This area’s cool temperatures yield fresh, but generally less-structured wines than other zones.
In the northeast of the denomination, dense, compact clays can result in excruciatingly tannic wines. That originally deterred the recent, widespread Sangiovese planting around the hamlet of Torrenieri.
Growers now carefully choose rootstocks and select clones to match the soils.
The best wines hail from a limited section of hilltop vineyards, where better soils produce full-bodied, well-balanced wines like those made by Citille di Sopra and SassodiSole.
Evenly ripe (Tavernelle) and potentially superripe (Camigliano) wines.
Recommended producers: Antinori Pian delle Vigne, Armilla, Caprili, Marchesato degli Aleramici, Soldera Case Basse
In the hamlet of Tavernelle, southwest of Montalcino, warm temperatures and mid-hill altitudes of 984–1,148 feet encourage even ripeness.
The top Brunellos here, like those from Caprili and Armilla, boast structure, ripe fruit and depth. Other top estates include Gianfranco Soldera’s Case Basse.
Further to the southwest, in the hot, arid subzone of Camigliano, wines can easily take on overripe characteristics if producers aren’t scrupulous in their vineyard management.
Brunellos to try from this zone include Antinori’s Pian delle Vigne, grown in mineral-rich soils, and Marchesato degli Aleramici, which benefits from cooling breezes from the nearby Ombrone River.
Muscular wines of variable longevity.
Recommended producers: Banfi Poggio alle Mura, Col d’Orcia Poggio al Vento, Lisini, Sesti Phenomena
Made up of two distinct areas located in the extreme south-southwest, this is the hottest, driest part of the denomination.
The highest vineyards beneath the hamlet of Sant’Angelo in Colle, where altitudes average 984–1148 feet above sea level, produce gripping wines with muscle, finesse and longevity.
Sant’Angelo Scalo, situated on the plains far below, has broiling summertime temperatures in the low-lying vineyards, especially those just above the Orcia River, where soils are a combination of Pliocene clay and Alluvial deposits.
This area produces dark, brawny Brunellos that are higher in alcohol and are generally more approachable upon release than those from other zones. Their relatively low acidity doesn’t support the marathon aging for which Brunello is famous.
Given the many differences within the denomination, some producers blend Brunello from vineyards throughout the region, like Altesino, which owns property just north of Montalcino, in Sant’Angelo in Colle and Castelnuovo dell’Abate.
“We believe that our straight Brunello is a true expression of Montalcino because it incorporates grapes from very different areas throughout the entire production zone,” says Guido Orzalesi, Altesino’s assistant director.
Having vineyards in three different subzones helps ensure consistent quality, Orzalesi says, as harvests can vary tremendously.
It will likely take years for zoning to become a reality. Until then, the producer’s name and reputation are the best guarantees when it comes to Brunello.
- 3Castelnuovo dell
- 4Northwest (Bosco) and Torrenieri
- 5Tavernelle and Camigliano
- 7The Future of Montalcino