~ Large Slavonian Botte in the cellars at Castello Banfi ~

Wood.  Perhaps more precisely, oak.

Never before has something so integral, so critical and so complimentary to the production of fine wine been simultaneously vilified, criticized and even hated by segments of the wine industry and by extension, the end consumers.  Oak:  Old versus new.  Round versus oval.  Big, medium, or small; toasted heavily or barely at all.  Whatever the circumstance,  it is certain to elicit a passionate response, if not an outright tantrum from those that advocate its application or those that oppose.  Today we’re taking a look at this vile tool (sarcasm blatantly unhidden) and how its application to Sangiovese and Nebbiolo affects the resulting wines.  

~ In this image, you can clearly see three different size barrels used in the cellars at Le Ragnaie ~

For hundreds of years wooden barrels have been the chosen maturation vessel for premium wines. Whether or not the genesis of this treatment rests with France can be debated but what is certain is that it has become the industry standard and while there are occasionally some “oddball sources” of wood,  the three most commonly employed are French, American, or Slavonian oak.    The two former are typically used interchangeably and primarily used to fabricate barrels that are smaller in size.  The latter is used mostly in Italy and routinely comprises very large barrels that hold thousands of liters.  

As I once penned a (somewhat) related article, size can matter.  So too in this case.  Generally speaking,  the larger the barrel,  the less surface area of wine that will come in contact with wood.  This diminishes the wood’s impact on the wine resting inside it.  As barrels get smaller, the surface area of the wood that is in contact with the wine grows proportionately larger.   But why does this matter,  how is it relevant to Sangiovese and Nebbiolo and why does it get people so passionate?  

It seems the revival of this issue has its roots in Piedmont in the early 1990s.  Around that time, estates were passing from Fathers to children and new generations of winemakers took hold.  Simultaneously, many estates that were previously selling their grapes to larger producers,  or only selling their wines locally,  were discovered by US importers that suddenly provided a new rich market for their wines.  “New” producers popped up seemingly overnight and with influential palates such as Leonardo Locasio and Marc de Grazia encouraging them,  their emphasis shifted slightly to creating wines for the American market.  The resulting chasm was born and “Old School”  versus “Avant Garde” became a battle cry frequently heard in the Langhe.  Traditional producers vowed allegiance to the time proven methods for producing Barolo  and refused these new and unnecessary “improvements and innovations”.  Lovers of “Old School” Barolo feared the “Modernists” approach would lead to a homogenization of all Barolo and the wines they love would disappear. 
~ Some would say the fervor reached a peak in 1999 when noted Traditionalist Bartolo Mascarello released his Barolo with the incendiary label pictured above. ~
But what was the issue?  While all the angst?  Generally speaking,  Nebbiolo is a delicate grape that when harvested ripe and matured in bottle offers some amazingly delicate and complex aromas.  The grape is naturally very tannic and before the advance of technology, specifically temperature controlled fermentation,  winemakers employed very long maceration times (20-30 days) followed by extended barrel aging in order to soften Nebbiolo’s tannins and pronounced acidity.  This long barrel aging required neutral vessels that would impart very little aromas, tannins or flavors to the finished wine.  Producers reasoned that in this manner, Nebbiolo retains its purest expression and all its delicate floral aromas. 

However, the new core of “modernists” believed that by using the newest technology to their advantage, they could achieve similar results in shorter times by using smaller barrels.  Maceration times were notably shorter (7-10 days) and cooler fermentation temperatures were employed yielding a younger, fruitier wine that was more open and fragrant and also more enjoyable sooner than wines produced with traditional methods.
~ Barrique in the Cellar of Paolo Scavino ~

Again, lovers of Barolo cried foul. Barriques impart wood tannins and vanilla to the wine!  They’re evil.  It’s heresy!  
What is always puzzling to me is that there seems to be a constant avoidance of those old adages like “Live and Let Live” or “Variety is the Spice of Life”.   The vitriol that is spewed always comes from the traditional camp.  Never do you see a modernist cry foul over Bartolo Mascarello using botte exclusively. And despite what lovers of traditionally made Barolo may say,  the fear of losing their beloved wines simply has not come to pass.  Here we are some 25 years later and there are dozens of Barolo made in all different styles.  The “Old Guard” still exists and includes some of the best producers in Piedmont. So too do the “Modernists”.   I’ve had hundreds of bottles of Barolo from both styles; both current releases and wines that are 10 and 20 years old.  I can assure you that both styles are capable of making great Barolo. Whether Bartolo Mascarello or Gianni Voerzio, if there is a generalization to be made, I’d argue that a traditionally made wine won’t show well very young.  I’ve experienced that often.  The counter argument is that a modernist Barolo won’t age well.  I have not seen that come to fruition. (yet?)  So to those that love the Old Guard,  revel in your Mascarello, G. Conterno, Giacosa, Ratti, etc.. and leave the Sandrone, Scavino, Voerzio etc..  to those who appreciate the style. 

“We believe the quality of a Barolo resides in the terroir and in the ability of a winemaker to grow exceptional quality grapes. The technique of winemaking or aging is a mean not an end. We never try to do stylistic wines as “traditional” or “modern”. Our aim is to make Barolo which express, in a pure way, the terroir and the complexity, elegance, and identity of the Nebbiolo grape. This is one of the reasons we have many Cru wines, to show the differences of the terroirs.  Likewise, vinification and aging are the same for all our Barolo, precisely to underline vineyards diversities.”   Elisa Scavino  

We prefer to use Slavonian or Austrian large barrels (botti grandi) for ageing our Nebbiolo. However, I don’t think that barriques are devilish instruments. I don’t like rigid DOGMAS in winemaking. I know that barriques can be a good oenological instrument if used with proper care.”   Cristina Oddero

~ The debate is not restricted to Barolo:  Large barrels at Monteraponi in Radda ~

Not to be undeterred,  it seems this debate has been taken south.  Whether by sheer transference or encouraged by stodgy, contumacious, grizzled British wine critics,  the “Old School” vs.  “Modernist” argument has become an ever increasing cry related to Sangiovese; most notably directed at Brunello.  
Like Nebbiolo,  Sangiovese is capable of charming with wonderful aromatics that can be elegant and powerful and echo that power with its flavors while remaining fresh and vibrant.   

Despite its relatively small area,  Montalcino offers a diverse range of microclimates mostly due to the numerous soils present and the varying elevations.  Generally,  in the south of the zone,  the land is flatter with gently rolling hills  that increase in grade and height the closer you get to the central and northern part of the zone; especially in areas north of Montalcino proper.  I’ve driven it many times and the difference in altitude is notable; the popping of your ears punctuating any hidden effects of the gradual ascent.

Naturally the landscape has an impact on the resulting wines.   Brunello from the southern part of the zone will often feature riper, rounder, more masculine fruit profiles that verge on black cherry, and spicy black plum.  They’ll be more accessible in their youth and generally possess lower acidity levels than their contemporaries.

~ Various size barrels in the Cellars at Mastrojanni ~
Conversely,  Brunello from the northern part of the zone grown at higher altitudes will retain more acidity and have crisper fruit profiles that are reminiscent of raspberry, and wild berries.  The tannins are typically more angular and there’s often a tart mouth watering sensation to the wines. Generally, they are more delicate and feminine than their contemporaries in the south. 
In an area as diverse as this, harvest can often be separated by weeks in different parts of the zone.  The analogy I often use to explain Brunello is that the styles in the zone are similar to Napa Valley.   Brunello from the south of the zone are more akin to Valley Floor Cabernets while Brunello from the northern portion of the zone are reminiscent of mountain fruit grown on the hills overlooking the valley;  Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, etc.  All  Cabernets; all excellent wines.  Just different in style,  no?

~ Cabernet Vineyards high atop the Snowden Ranch in Napa Valley ~

It should come as no surprise that I’ve had amazing wines from all areas of the Brunello zone.  Hundreds of times over wines have impressed me whether barrique aged, botte aged, tonneaux aged or some combination of  the above.  The overriding factor is that the winemaker must realize what nature has given him and proceed judiciously.  Regardless of the style employed, the aging vessel used, or the area where the grapes were grown,  winemaker after winemaker has told me they all strive for the same thing;  balance! 
Over the years I’ve interviewed many winemakers, both on this site and casually in Montalcino.  Here are a few thoughts regarding oak application and stylistic balance.

“Over the past few years we have begun reducing the capacity of our botti from the standard of 54 hl to smaller capacities such as 33, 25 and 16 hl.   Even these smaller sizes are not considered true barrique, which will only hold 200 liters.  As a final sum, I repeat, the wood must only influence the flavour of the wine and never dominate the taste of our Brunello.”  Andrea Machetti, Mastrojanni   

“In my opinion, I suppose that the Sangiovese grape  evolves better with longer time of aging in the barrel both to allow for the tannins in the wine to soften and to give greater stability to the coloring matter. So a correct use of oak helps the wine to grow better in the long term; the abuse of oak (excess oak or old oak) it’s wrong.”   Giacomo Bartolommei,  Caprili   
~  Fog over vineyards at Il Palazzone ~

“The botti are just a way to age the wine; we don’t want or expect our wines to receive character from them. The botte’s job is to allow the passage of oxygen in order to fix the colour of the wine and allow it to age and evolve. The ratio of wine:wood in large barrels means that the wine has a low surface area contact with the wood which allows for a slow and balanced ageing. We expect the time spent ageing to exalt the vintage specific characteristics of our wine and the different elements from each of our vineyards. Those who love big barrels and traditional Brunello tend not to use wood to give character, but rather to allow the full expression of what is already there.”   Marco Sassetti,  Il Palazzone 
“The distinct character of Sangiovese grown in Montalcino demands that it be tamed by fermenting and aging in oak.  Because the wine is in contact with the oak at such a  crucial point in its development, and, in the case of Brunello, is with it for so long, choosing the right type of oak and container is as important as choosing the right spouse!  This is why we closely control the sourcing, selection, aging and cooperage of our oak, from forest to barrel.  Oak should be a complement to wine – much the way a frame around a painting should hold together a piece of art and highlight it, but never dominate what is the true artwork – the fruit itself.”    Rudi Buratti,  Castello Banfi

~ Sloping vineyards and olive groves lead up to Castello Banfi ~
It’s clear that the intent of winemakers is to seek balance and a style that befits the raw materials they harvest from their unique micro climate.  There are no absolutes in wine making. There should be no “rigid dogmas” that preclude excellent wine from being made in the name of tradition or due to the opinion of an isolated wine critic.

I simply don’t understand where the anger comes from?  There are over 200 Brunello producers in Montalcino.  Isn’t it all right if some make traditional wine, some produce Brunello with a modern interpretation and some are in the middle?  That some use barrique, some use botte, some use both? 

Why is it a matter of right and wrong?  Black and white?  Sure, it’s perfectly permissible to declare your preference, but that doesn’t mean you have to elevate your favorites by knocking down those you dislike.  I’m quite certain the favored producers don’t need that sort of accolade and it does nothing to further your argument.  It makes you look petty, jealous and closed minded. 


Like old slow hand said:  “It’s in the way that you use it.”

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