Trying to reach Sangiovese’s true potential in Montalcino
Sangiovese, like Pinot Noir, is very much susceptible to over-cropping and in recent years has been used and abused by many winemakers to the detriment of its true varietal profile. Sangiovese has the potential to produce wines with the same textural brilliance as some of the world’s best Pinot Noir; it can also be as fragrant too. Its high acidity retention and tannin structure makes it a varietal of the highest quality level and the potential is huge. The tar and spice character, outlined by Walter Speller in the recent Brunello debate in London, is derived more from excessive extraction and maturation treatments than the variety itself. Today many producers are holding back on the extraction and the use of new wood, producing a more modern transparent style. Brunello with this subtle approach allows the effects of terroir to be better appreciated and leads to a better understanding of the different sub-zones of Montalcino and how the specific sub-zones affect the profile of each of the sub-zones.
The Brunello di Montalcino debate and tasting in London
It took to 2 years to get to this point, but last year nine of the top young producers from Montalcino gathered in London to discuss the current status of Brunello di Montalcino and its future. Despite its reputation as one of the finest wine regions in Italy, the style of Brunello di Montalcinio from producer to producer can be wildly different and therefore difficult to understand. The debate was an opportunity to identify the reasons why such variation in style existed and whether through the classification of sub zones the region can be more easily defined.
The nine producers and the wines on show were there to put this sub-zoning development to the test with each of the producers representing a region and style synonymous with the zone they are from. What became clear from the tasting however, was that, whilst sub-zones are a fact, in that there are very different climatic effects across the region (due to the effects of Mount Amiata and other hills in the area) as well as very different soil types, it became clear that other winemaking factors still remain a determining factor in producer style, at least in today’s tasting.
The variables: Altitude, Soil Types, Clones, and the winemaker’s techniques
Altitude is a strong determining character in Montalcino. This was very clear when visiting Romitorio last year who have some of the highest vineyards in the Montalcino region. In the past where these vineyards may have struggled to reach full ripeness in a less than perfect vintage, these days benefit hugely from climate change and the high diurnal variations in temperature from day and night are effective in retaining high acidity and freshness in these wines.
When we visited Poggio di Sotto in the summer this year, they too believed there are many factors (of which sub zone is one), that play a role in the overall producers style. Poggio di Sotto are particularly affected by Mount Amiata, having a huge local climatic effect particular to the vineyards in that sub-zone. But also clonal variation was a hugely important factor for them. Perhaps more importantly than that and arguably the overriding factor that defines their style is their very light extraction methods, producing very elegant Sangiovese almost unrecognisable to other producers in the same region.
Le Ripi believed it was their high density planting that has had the biggest effect in their style of Brunello rather than having wines defined by its sub zone. Similarly Casanova di Neri and Biondi Santi are located in the same region yet Casanova di Neri produces a very “modern” style of Brunello – rich, riper and I assume later picked, whereas Biondi Santi are producing a more rustic lighter “traditional” style.
Sub-zone wine regions of the world helps sell wine
Sub zones are another additional level of understanding that engaged wine enthusiasts will appreciate. However the importance of sub-zones, similarly to Burgundy, should not be overestimated. We all know for example that Clos Vougeot fromone producer to the next varies massively in style and quality. Whilst the individual vineyard mapping of Burgundy (and elsewhere) helps us determine some overriding characteristics of the individual climats, it could arguably be seen more effectively as Burgundy’s greatest marketing tool. I don’t mean this cynically since the different soil types, aspects and altitudes all play an important role in understanding a wine’s flavour profile, just not the only role. Single vineyard / climat mapping also help us (the wine drinker) get to grips with the region itself be departmentalising it, and that is why sub-zoning can be important in other regions too. We can enjoying exploring different vineyard sites and through our own tastings make comparisons.