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Facts About Brunello

The following are reproduced, for convenient reading, from Il Palazzone's website, 10 Facts About Brunello (or "FABs"):

Fact #1: The Weather Rule

First things first : one of the DOCG regulations that governs the production of Brunello is that no intervention with the weather is permitted. That’s right, no use of technology, no smudge pots or vine irrigation, no compensating for nature’s deficiencies or excesses. In short, none of that new world nonsense. I can assure you this gives a whole new meaning to being in the hands of the Gods not to mention a new kind of marital stress for Marco and myself when it comes to deciding when to start picking at harvest time

Aha! So that’s why vintage in Montalcino is so important….  

Fact #2: Vintage Evaluation

Vintage tiles on the Comune Vecchio
Every vintage of Brunello receives a star rating out of five, ranging from insufficient (one star) to exceptional (five stars). The vintage evaluation takes place in the January following harvest. All producers are invited to submit their latest wine for lab analysis. 20 trained technicians taste the wine and vote on the vintage’s star rating. This is kept under wraps until Benvenuto Brunello, the official launch of the new wines hitting the market (in 2010, 2005 and 2004 Riserva) which takes place at the end of February. Since 1992  a celebrity of sorts (artists, designers, Olympic gold medallists…) is selected to secretly design a tile commemorating the vintage. During BB there is an official ceremony whereby the identity of the celebrity is revealed, their tile is cemented into the wall of the town hall and the last vintage (2009) is officially given its rating. For both the tiles and the stars: http://www.consorziobrunellodimontalcino.it/en/the-wines/vintage-quality-evaluation.html. The vintage evaluation is a useful guide for consumers although it can be a curse for sales since often the vintage evaluation is used as a short cut to cherry-pick the “best” i.e. 5 star vintages.

Take 2002; a terribly wet year, with vineyards like rice paddies, excessive acidity, poor ripening and sugar levels, green tannins and mould. 2002 was rated as one of just 2 two-star vintages in the last 20 years and rightly so since it was a challenge for the whole Montalcino territory. Some top producers even skipped Brunello production in this vintage.

2002s generally have a shorter cellar life, a lighter structure and a more interesting price point, although for a producer, making a good wine in a difficult vintage is infinitely more expensive than doing the same in a great year since it involves increasing selection procedures in the vineyard and making less bottles. This actually means that a 2002 from a reliable estate can be a perfect ramp into the Brunello world, requiring less cellaring and showing its best earlier…

In no way would I personally avoid a 2002 right now, in fact, right now a 2002 would be infinitely preferable to the infanticide of drinking a 2004. In fact I might just slip down into the cellar to revisit the hickory smoke and citrus peel notes of our 2002 while I contemplate the order of the next 8 episodes of this series.

The Weather Rule (Fabs for Fops #1) means that there are peaks and troughs – 1997s and 2002s…  The “petit vendages” as the French so kindly put it, do not necessarily mean worse wines, but in the best scenario, they generate Brunellos that can be enjoyed earlier with a clear conscience.

Fact #3: Soil Types

Premise: I am staying well clear of the definition of terroir …

Wonderful Eric Asimov in the New York Times http://tinyurl.com/yb7q373 recently compared the set-up in Bordeaux to that of Montalcino:

“Bordeaux .. recognizes .. adjoining territories can have differing characteristics and so distinguishes Pauillac from St-Estèphe, and St-Julien. But as far as Brunello di Montalcino is concerned, it is left to consumers to try to recognize which wines come from the lower elevations and clay soils in the south, and which are from the higher, lighter soils in the central area around the town of Montalcino”

Anyone visiting Montalcino who is sufficiently unconcerned with map-reading to be able to look out of the car window will see enormous differences in soil types visible to the naked eye (even at speed). The red colour of the earth on the Sesta road that links Castelnuovo and S.Angelo in Colle (where the Terra Rossa estate is, funnily enough), the huge dolmen like rocks that many estates prop up around the property and that have been extracted from the vineyards, lumps of clay between the vine-rows, patches of burnt sienna earth and so on. Montalcino exhibits an extraordinary array of types and combinations of types of soil and these, combined with a vineyard’s position (altitude and exposition) and the microclimate of the vineyard, exalt different aspects of Montalcino.

 Though generalisations can certainly be made and it is interesting to know the distribution of “alberese” (marl-rich limestone / half way up the hill, both north and south-east sides) or distinguish Pliocene from plasticine but nothing beats talking to the producers or walking their vineyards.

Ps. Actually producers of Brunello are increasingly are sharing the details of single vineyards, for example:

http://www.casanovadineri.it/en/vino/vigneti.asp 

http://www.lagerlamontalcino.com/ivigneti_eng.html

 http://www.ilpalazzone.com/the-estate/location-and-terroir/

Alessandro Bindocci is about to embark on a discussion of the 9 subzones of Montalcino (as described by Emanuele Pellucci) on his blog http://www.montalcinoreport.com/ which will be interesting reading.

Fact #4: Vineyards All Over the Place

It is quite common for wineries to own several vineyards in quite different parts of Montalcino. There are many single vineyard cru (wines made exclusively from one vineyard, usually bearing the name of that vineyard); Cerretalto from Casanova di Neri, Ugolaia di Lisini, Vigna di Spuntali from Tenimenti Angelini to name but a few.

There are also many many estates with vineyards in different positions that choose to vinify the vineyards separately and then blend them (as in fact we do at Il Palazzone). If you visit Montalcino at harvest time the roads are full of tractors taking grapes to centralised cellars… since the microclimate of Montalcino is so particular as is the soil (see FABs for FOPS # 3), each different vineyard yields different flavours that are reflected in the final wine.

The location of an estate’s vineyards is something, sadly, that can’t be seen on the Consorzio map…

Fact #5: Yields

The maximum yield for Brunello is currently 7.000 kg of grapes per hectare.
For those of you who enjoy mathematics, the conversion of grapes to wine is 68%.

Producers prune to limit the potential production of grapes. This results in improved quality since the bunches that remain on the vine receive all of the vines’ strength.

As so often in viticulture, less is more.

At Il Palazzone we never pick more than 5.000 kg. of grapes per hectare; our goal is extremely high quality grapes. To have such a low yield involves a green harvest and trained staff pruning. We end up making 2.000 fewer bottles of Brunello than the legislation permits … but we are convinced that the bottles we do produce are better as a result of our self-inflicted limitations.

Fact #6: Winemakers

Only a very few winemakers – enologi – work in Montalcino.

I’ll leave a pause for this statement and its implications to sink in.

So how many? Perhaps nine or ten, four of whom only work for one estate. That’s over 200 wineries “sharing” the winemaking expertise of the remaining five or six people. This even strikes me as improbable as I write – and I know it’s true. Several estates do their own winemaking and might use an external technician for lab analyses and cross controls. Our own esteemed enologo, Paolo Vagaggini, works with a third of Montalcino’s wineries, including Poggio Antico, Biondi Santi and Eredi Fuligni. He also has a third of Montepulciano’s wineries under his belt.

How can this be?
Wineries are generally small here in Montalcino. 75% of the estates have less than 15 acres… which means that a winemaker as a consultant is the only viable possibility.

What does this mean?
Winemakers rely on estate staff to follow their instructions from a distance so cellar workers end up with a lot of winemaking responsibilities. This set-up means that estates need someone at the helm with a philosophy for wine and wine-making who then works with the winemaker. Estate expertise is prized and the boundaries between different jobs are more permeable here in Montalcino than in wineries in other parts of the world.

Fact #7: Wood

There are DOCG rules for everything so it should come as no surprise that the wood ageing of the wine is also monitored. However this is one area where there is a lot of room for different interpretations which result in very different styles of Brunello. Wood (i.e. time spent within, size, age and provenance) is at the heart of the contentious division between “modern/international” Brunello and “traditional” Brunello

Producers have to show the exact date that the wines went into wood and the precise exit date. Any interruptions must be accounted for in the wine registers. The current regulations insist on a minimum of two years in wood and the wine can be released on the fifth January after harvest. The original aging time for Brunello, when the DOCG was set out back in 1980 was four years in wood with the same release terms. Over the last thirty years the obligatory time in wood has been halved, chipped away six months at a time, from four to two years.

 Many producers currently exceed the minimum time in wood. Here at Il Palazzone we always give our Brunellos three or even four years in wood, the “traditional” time. In our case this decision is connected with the volume of the barrels we use. We use mostly large Slavonian oak (the comically named “botti” which go from 18 Hl to 50+ Hl) so the ratio of wood:wine is very much weighted towards the wine. Those producers who favour French barriques (225 litres) are more likely to adhere to the minimum 24 months since the extraction is much more pronounced due to the smaller volume of the barrels. There are also producers who use tonneaux (500-700 litre) or a mix of all three, depending on vintage characteristics and/or estate philosophy.

There is no DOCG legislation regarding volume or provenance of the wood so there is a huge variety of sizes and kinds of oak being used in Montalcino (and of course the additional variable of how old the barrels themselves are and how often they are used).

Just for the record, at the very beginning of Brunello, over a hundred years ago, barrels were made from chestnut wood. Marino Colleoni at Sante Marie www.santemarie.it has experimented with chestnut barrels and the results are amazingly tannic but very interesting.

Nowadays everyone in Montalcino uses oak but it may be from France, America or Slavonia with consequential differences in the grain and in the taste/s conferred to the wine. Slavonian (no not Slovenian) oak is from Croatia, from a part of the Danubian plain known as Slavonija. Slavonian oak is famous for making the most long-lived casks.

Not least, we are plagued about whether to adopt US or GB spelling of “aging” or “ageing” in estate literature, not to mention the circular from the Consorzio about seven years ago which suggested replacing the verb “invecchiare” with “affinare” wherever possible. In Italian the latter is considered to be free of the negative implications of ageing. It doesn’t have the same effect in English where we have ageing gracefully and oil and sugar refining but there you go; even the wood lexis is controversial in Montalcino.

Fact #8: Microclimate

A microclimate is a local atmospheric zone where the climate differs from the surrounding area.

The Brunello production area is nearly circular and has a 16 km diameter (10 miles). It covers 240.000 hectares (nearly 60.000 acres) of which only 15% are vineyards….

Montalcino town is at 565 metres above sea level. The highest point, the evocatively named, Passo del Lume Spento ("The Guttered Candle Pass," so named because of the wind that used to put out all the candles on horse-drawn carriages), the long rettilineo (finally a straight bit of road…if you’ve driven it you may remember it with relief) is nearly 600 metres above sea level. Three rivers, the Asso, Orcia and Ombrone, frame and delimit the Brunello territory, causing humidity that sometimes shrouds the top of the hill in fog, but more often veils the north facing side. My father-in-law used to say that the people in Buonconvento campano un anno in meno (they live a year less) because so many of their mornings were spent in fog. Sometimes there is a basin of thick white fog below S.Angelo in Colle. You can usually make out the odd castle or podere floating without context, looking like boats on a great sea. The imposing Monte Amiata (1738 meters), protects the southeast side of Montalcino and acts as a sort of magnet, drawing away hail and heavy rain from this area.

Anyone who lives in Montalcino has daily proof of the different microclimates that abound on this hill. It hails in terrifying stripes or rains in concentric bands around the hill so that you are constantly switching the wipers on and off as you go up the hills. Just yesterday I saw the first almond trees in bloom, splashes of pink standing out in the military shades of winter, here and there from S.Angelo in Scalo up to S.Angelo in Colle. Any higher and the trees are yet to blossom. Next the mandorle blossom will be joined by bright yellow mimosa, blossoming in the protected and warmest spots first. There can be a months difference between the start dates of harvest amongst low-lying and high altitude estates. Our agronomist, Massimo Achilli, has seen a 5° C (9°F) temperature differences between the Valdicava area and S.Angelo on the same day at the same time….

Altitude and aspect (which way the vineyard is facing) are the main factors in determining temperature difference. The situation of a vineyard governs the maximum and minimum temperature in a given day, the thermal excursion (difference between day and night temperatures) and the Winkler Index (the total hours of sunlight per day). All these factors change the way that the grapes mature, not just in terms of how long it takes them to ripen, but also as far as regards their composition and characteristics when ripe and ready to be picked.

Curioser and curioser….

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