In my college days I once had to read a book called “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by this man named Lenin who had the seriously trimmed beard and bald head of a sommelier in a high-priced steak house. To co-opt his phrase for a more plausible contention, Brunello di Montalcino is the highest stage of the marvelous but capricious Sangiovese grape.
Italy is usually regarded as a red wine country. Of the dozens of red grape varieties in this, the most varietally entropic country on the planet, the two that usually get the most votes as “the best” are Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. The latter of these is the backbone of wines like Chianti and the proprietary “Super Tuscans” from various parts of Tuscany, but it is generally regarded as reaching its highest form of expression in wines from the hillside town of Montalcino in a wine called Brunello. Hence the full name of the wine, Brunello di Montalcino.
How is this possible? What are the factors that make Brunello one of the most sought after wines in the world? One of the premier Brunello producers, Castello Banfi, invited me to an event in town recently to which they brought their wine maker, Rudy Buratti. He has led the Banfi winemaking team since 1999 and been on the Banfi staff for 30 years. One of his projects that has had a lasting effect on the wine was a clonal selection program to find the best clones for Banfi’s Brunello. From a field of dozens of candidates he narrowed the final selection down to three, and a replanting program began in the 1980s to replace all vines with those clones.
He also participated in the development of hybrid fermentation tanks fabricated of both wood and steel. Steel is used on the ends where sludge collects and stainless steel’s easy clean properties prevent microbiological spoilage. Wood (neutral oak) is used on the sides where its slight permeability allows the benefits of tiny amounts of oxidation during the winemaking process.
Now he oversees a team of 9 managers and 50 cellar workers.
He led us through a tasting of 10 glasses in three flights designed to show us the difference between clones, and between locations. The first flight had three glasses marked “Janus 50”, “Janus 10” and “BF
The Three Sangiovese Clones Chosen by Banfi
30” all 2011. Those cryptic names refer to the name of the clone used to make each wine. All three had been grown in the same vineyard on the 7,100 acre Banfi estate.
We smelled and sniffed and tasted and spat each one, trying to discern its character and perceive the differences (it wasn’t hard! They were vastly different).
The next flight had four wines. Now the difference was a different vineyard for each wine, but each had been produced from all three clones, and in the same proportions (50% Janus 50, 30% BF 30, and 10% Janus 10). Despite the identical clonal selection, each wine was clearly distinct: different aromas and scents in the bouquet. Different tastes in the mouth. Different harshness/smoothness in the mouth feel, and a different finish (the sensory impression in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed). With the clonal mix fixed, this difference is down to multiple differences of place: the soil composition of each vineyard, its elevation, its aspect ratio and its slope (Brunello is a corrugated blanket of hills).
The final flight took away the varietal proportion constraint and presented three production wines. Here the blend was dictated not by the desire to demonstrate a point, but rather to make the best wine. These wines were made for sale from around the world, from Turin to Beijing to Austin.
First we had the 2008 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino. This is their “entry-level” Brunello. Then the 2007 Poggio Alle Mura, named to indicate that it is made from grapes grown around the walls of the castle from which the property gets its name. Third, was the single vineyard 2006 Poggio All ‘Oro.
So, what does one learn from all this formality and organization behind a tasting? First, the clonal differences highlighted in the first flight were huge. The Janus 50 had leather and earthiness in the nose but the Janus 10 was Gamay-like. The former was also stridently tannic but the latter much softer. The BF 30 had a flavor of raspberries but the Janus 10 the taste of cherries. These examples illustrate how diverse the results are between different clones of the same grape.
What about site? The second flight produced four distinct wines that ran the gamut from fruity to reserved, tannic to lush. One, the 2011 Podernuovo Vineyard blend, would have been shipped as is by many producers. It was a powerful wine with vanilla in the nose and a tannic backbone. However, Rudy cautioned that it would be a tiring wine after a few sips because of its angular reliance on a few exaggerated characteristics.
The third flight illustrated his point. Using the same three clones he had now altered the clonal proportions and other facets of the winemaking process to suit the site and the vintage. The result was that the jutting shoulders and exaggerated dimensions had been carved into a more rounded, flowing and sophisticated form.
I shot back to the first flight after tasting the commercial bottling. How much more the latter seemed to have acquired. It was hard to believe that these clones were the roots.
Look for the commercial bottlings in better wine stores around town. I especially recommend the two named site wines. The Poggio Alle Mura sells for $60 and up but I see that the wine critic James Suckling awarded it 96/100 points, or a “classic” rating. That makes it a bargain. It can be drunk now with, say, a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but I would keep it another four plus years for maximum enjoyment. The 2006 Poggio All ‘Oro is more expensive (just over $100) but also rated classic by Suckling. Nowadays, $100 for an exemplar of the best in the world seems tolerable.