It seems whenever I visit a wine shop, I’m confronted with a new Brunello label. Maybe it’s a producer that sold their fruit in the past and is now bottling their own wine, or perhaps they’ve never before exported their wines.  Staying abreast of trends in Brunello can be daunting. 

It doesn’t help that styles can vary widely among estates.  There’s traditional or modern, and something I’ll call a hybrid.  This can vary from producer to producer.  Indeed, it can vary within a single estate as many producers now make wines in differing styles.  Is this a good thing?  Is this sort of variability what the region and the consumer needs?  I’m not sure that it is.

I like being able to identify a “House Style” for a given producer.  It guides decision making when shopping for wine.  It allows one to draw inferences and comparisons when a given wine seems to fall short of what you’d expect it to be.  It allows vintages to become legend when a given estate excels.  Are these things not desirable?
I recently had a few Brunello producers remark to me that they thought Brunello was in a state of flux.  That in fact it was like a teenager battling some sort of identity crisis.  Just like parents, cliques of friends, younger siblings and perhaps a first employer, all demanding time and attention of a teenager –  so too have broadening global markets demanded more from Brunello.  As a consequence of the pressures the emerging markets of China, South America and Africa are putting upon Brunello, the zone has reached a crossroads.  It speaks volumes that the official website of the Consorzio del Brunello is now automatically translatable into Chinese.
Yet it’s precisely the Consorzio whose steering hands must assert themselves into the coming debate. Guided by the Consortium, and ultimately by the producers themselves, Brunello must decide how to move forward and what it is going to be. It can’t be everything one expects and yet be something different to everyone. It can’t be many different things in order to satisfy the growing thirst of the marketplace.  Brunello shouldn’t come to them.  They should come to Brunello. 

With the relaxing of the minimum aging requirements there is even more variability among the finished wines.  Brunello now must only age for a minimum of two years in oak. Many, if not most producers extend this to 3 or 4 years.  However, what this does is provide a staggering array of potential styles once you factor in the age, size, toast, and origination of the wood vessel used. 

~ The Abbey at Sant’Antimo in the Brunello Zone ~
In a recent discussion I had with Luca Vitiello from Tenuta Fanti, he acknowledged that beginning with the 2008 vintage  Fanti  decided to dramatically alter their oak aging regimen.  The change was apparent to me even before I tasted the wine.  On sight alone, the color of the 2008 was ruby red.  In prior vintages Fanti’s Brunello had been nearly black.  The change was striking and obvious.  Fanti will be the topic of an upcoming interview here at Tuscan Vines and we’ll delve into the reasons and methods behind their decision.  It’s this kind of variability that tugs at consumers as they attempt to frame expectations of a given wine.  Compounding the stylistic issues, the geography of the zone itself further complicates the issue of defining what Brunello is.

~ Aerial View of Montalcino with the Famed Fortezza in the Foreground ~
Yet, whoever said that variety is the spice of life was clearly correct.  Homogeneity equals boredom at some point.  I don’t dispute that fact for a moment and it isn’t my argument that Brunello should be identical from estate to estate.  Rather, it should showcase the differences by limiting stylistic manipulation. 
The terroir of Brunello is unique to Montalcino but it varies throughout the zone almost as much as the number of producers. Just as there is a difference between Barolo of La Morra and Monforte d’Alba, so too is Montosoli different from Castelnuovo dell’Abate, and Sant’Angelo. Soils vary greatly, vineyard altitude skews wildly from just about sea level to almost 500 meters above. Such dramatic swings can mean a 10 degree temperature difference during the key summer ripening season.

~ Vineyards in Brunello di Montalcino ~
As recently as 2008, former Consorzio Director Stefano Campatelli admitted that the Consorzio was considering creating sub-zones within Brunello to reflect these dramatic changes in the terroir.  Ultimately, Campatelli said, “we decided that this would lead to even greater confusion.”  However, the late Franco Biondi Santi supported the idea and stated that he was in favor of creating sub-zones within Brunello. “When you buy Chateau Margaux, you know what to expect from that wine. We need a completely new system in Montalcino because of the completely different styles of Brunello available.”
Brunello is a great wine that has earned its reputation. It commands attention and stands among the world’s greatest wines.  It may very well be the greatest singular expression of Sangiovese.  That is what the world should be coming for when they look to Brunello for great wine.  That is what they should expect. 
Yet, as another producer recently told me, those expectations can often be muddied.  “This crisis stems from many factors. A combination of post-Brunellogate confusion plus the rise in general of “modern” Brunello and the sheer number and variety of producers has meant that consumers have varied expectations of Brunello and naturally some disappointments along the way.”
For now it appears the issue has been tabled by the Consorzio.  However, as international demand for Brunello increases and expands, it is likely that we could see increased pressure and potential regulation in order to elevate and define the “Brunello Brand”.  Perception is reality. 

Benvenuti a Brunello, indeed. 

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