Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Battle for Brunello

There are many more qualified to offer their thoughts on the subject, but for some reason as I was jogging I couldn’t get these ideas out of my head. I started to go down the line of all the Brunellos I had had since I tried the first one I’d ever had, the 1964 Costanti. That wine, a memory that seared my impression of Brunello, was as good as I could have hoped for. It was 16 years old when I tried it and an unexpected treat. I was working at an Italian restaurant and the owner was sitting with his wife having dinner. It was a Saturday night and the evening was winding down. The sommelier, an older (35-ish) lady in short shorts and full sommelier regalia took a liking to me and called me over to the cellar, where she was decanting a wine. “Take a sip of this,” she offered. The color was medium-light ruby with a slight tinge of tan on the edges. The aromas were flowery, salty, cherry, a wild herbal note like oregano/rosemary, but less obvious than those. And then I took a sip. In the flavors I tasted the warm afterglow of love, a sunset on the Pacific, a deeply wooded vale, a bowl of bitter-sweet cherries and a rush of mellow alcohol slightly rubbed with the oxidative caress of soft wood.

A few years later I took my first trip to Montalcino, one of many over the next generation or so. I look over this area and love it but it remains a mystery to me. If all Brunello could taste like my first time, that would be the impossible dream, no? But what does the Italian wine lover do who doesn’t have 25 years to stumble in the fog looking for “their” Brunello?

And who do we turn to, who can make sense of the styles of wine coming out of this enigmatic zone?

Style, what a loaded word. What are the "styles"?

For the sake of writing a post and not a book (there are some out there worth seeking out) I have narrowed it down to three styles.

Traditional – this would include producers who own property and make wine from their grapes. It would eschew the use of small barrique and generally work with the wines in as minimal as way as possible and style to remain within the discipline of winemaking that employs methods to insure a safe, healthy, natural product. Out of the 200+ producers who are registered with the Brunello Consorzio (not to mention those who stay away from the “club”), how many of these traditionalists exist today?

Modern- can I use a better word? Contemporary? Post-Atomic? 21st Century Modern? You get the point. This style is driven by other factors than history. Science, medical advances, changing tastes, active participation in the wine “making” process. Enologist-driven wines could we say? Important influences could be high scoring reviews, clean, laser-focused fruit, noticeable oak in the flavor, a deeper color, possible higher alcohol and generally a higher concentration of flavors.

Tweens - the most difficult style and probably not a style, but a “range”. These wines range from a little of tradition and a lot of modern to a lot of tradition and a little modern. Hedge wines. Maybe these wines started out modern and the owner saw these wines weren’t to his (or her) tastes. So slowly the use of barrique was backed out. Maybe an owner was imbedded in an old winery (and a slightly tired wine style) and started to improve their estate with some “cleaning up”. I’ve seen both of these and while these two wines in no way resemble each other; neither do they echo their traditional or modern counterparts. I reckon there are many in this “tween” state, this Purgatory for Brunello.

So some questions, maybe to open this up to the outside world rather than to produce another “list of best Brunellos”.

1) Is Biondi-Santi the standard bearer of Brunello? And moreover, who gets to drink this wine? Has it been reserved for Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires? Where does this wine stand these days other than as the one everyone seems to note as the proto-archetype for Brunello “from the beginning”?

2) Are there modern styles of Brunello that traditionalists can love? Can Carlo Ferrini be forgiven if he makes a modern wine that appears to be flavorful and enjoyable even to the most dogmatic diehard?

3) What to make of these folks who laud the line “Ours is a winery with one foot in history and one foot in the future,” and all those endless variations that ultimately confuse the non-cognoscenti (most of us). I’m all for interesting code and that kind of stuff, but is that giving Brunello their “best shot”?

4) The garagiste movement is alive and well in Bordeaux and beyond. Does Brunello have a similar movement and if so, do those wines go modern (like much of Bordeaux garagiste wines do) or is it more similar to the Loire or Burgundy (i.e. rustic, minimal interventionists)?

5) What about some of the producers thought to be traditional that might not really have all their feet in that barrel? Where is Costanti in this mix? Il Poggione? Brunelli? Lisini? Just to name a few and not to embarrass them or anyone s left out. Just stirring the tank, looking for your ideas and thoughts.

6) The 900 pound gorilla of Montalcino – love ‘em or hate ‘em?

7) The obtruders – wealthy merchants from Milan, successful winemakers from Piedmont, Wall Street moguls. And what about the pharmaceutical, agro-industrial and insurance corporations that have bought into the dream of Montalcino? And if we can forgive Ferrini can we ever exculpate Rivella?

8) Who is in trouble in Montalcino? Are some of the more established wineries in peril in these economic times? I hear rumors that so and so winery is for sale. Many wineries are for sale. In reality, everything is for sale at the right price, is it not, at least in the mind of a banker or a venture capitalist?

9) The iconoclasts – the fools on the hill – how many are there now? More than 30 years ago or an endangered species, muddling about their primal ponds waiting for their curtain to fall?

10) When you mix chocolate with vanilla you get neither nether chocolate nor vanilla. What to do about the “tweens”?

After 1000+ words and 50+ years is it really a battle or is it a tussle? Or maybe a tango? Maybe it is a book that has yet to be written. All this from a brief plunge that began many years ago. I know that Brunello inveigles me. Like Charles Foster Kane and his beloved sled, Rosebud, I am still looking for more Costanti moments. After all, what’s a warrior without his impossible dreams?

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