A few thoughts on Brunello subzones

Presenting the new 2014 Brunello vintage in New York this week gave me the opportunity to stop and ponder how best to think about the different subzones of Montalcino.

For a long time Montalcino has resisted having their wines understood in terms of subzones, not only because they did not want to create a hierarchy of better or lesser sites, but because, in very practical terms, many of the older wineries still have vineyards in very different parts of the appellation. In difficult years like 2014, this is a blessing for blending purposes, rather than having to rely on a single site.

But, many small new estates are popping up which are reliant on single sites. For that reason, it makes sense to at least try and understand the characters of the different subzones. This work has been nobly undertaken by Kerin O’Keefe and Walter Speller, among others. The notes below are cribbed from Kerin O’Keefe’s wonderful Brunello book and confirmed by my tastings this week.

  • Montalcino South: immediately around the town to the south. This is the most historic part of the appellation and contains many leading producers. High altitude (up to 500m), thin soils, big diurnal shifts ensures slow ripening. Elegant, complex, mid-weight, perfumed wines. [Leading producers: Biondi-Santi, Conti Costanti, Barbi, Brunelli, Salicutti, Cerbaiona]

  • Montalcino North: down the northern slopes away from the town. Cooler region at slightly lower altitudes than those in Montalcino South (although there are a huge variety of altitudes and sites in this large area). Generally a more earthy style and often with considerable tannic structure (e.g. from around Canalicchio). Includes the top single site in Montalcino, Montosoli. From here the wines combine elegance and power. [Fuligni, Marroneto, Canalicchio (di Sopra), Le Chiuse, Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Pertimali Livio Sassetti, Capanna, Altesino, Val di Suga]

  • Tavernelle: south and west of the town at 300-350m with good diurnal variation. Rocky soils. Easier ripening than further upslope. Classic styles of Brunello are found here. [Case Basse-Soldera, Santa Restituta (Gaja), Caprili]

  • Camigliano: further west than Tavernelle.  Rather a low lying area, down as low as 130m.  Warmer and drier than higher up, ensuring good ripeness.  Lower acid, higher alcohol wines approachable upon release.  Includes CastelGiaconda which is second largest producer. [CastelGiaconda, Pian delle Vigne]

  • Castelnuovo dell’Abate: south east of town, around the abbey of Sant’Antimo.  200-450m, vineyards facing south and west - excellent growing conditions.  Cooler than Sant’Angelo to the west.  Wines are earthy, elegant, powerful but graceful, although this region is starting to warm and risks becoming too hot at lower altitudes.

  • Sant’Angelo: in south and south west of the zone, dominated by large wineries: Poggione, Argiano, Col d’Orcia and Banfi.  Up to 40% of all Brunello comes from here.  More Mediterranean conditions: lower rainfall and hotter temperatures than further north and upslope.  Faster ripening - crop harvested up to two weeks earlier, not helped by climate change.  But higher in the sub zone - around Sant’Angelo in Colle, excellent wines can be made (e.g. Lisini and Il Poggione and Col d’Orcia’s wonderful single vineyard, Poggio al Vento), which show depth and structure but with finesse.  From lower parts, the wines are often darker in color and higher in alcohol.

  • Bosco and Torrenieri: small regions.  Bosco is in far north west of the zone, a cool part; only two wineries [Silvio Nardi and Castiglion del Bosco]; generally less powerful wines.  Torrenieri is in far north east of the zone on clay soils.  Can be very tannic, but wines really improving and much more elegant now.  [SassodiSole, Innocenti].