Monty Python’s "Life of Brian" contains one of the best pieces of political satire ever written. The film features various similar but virulently opposed factions of the same anti-Roman liberation movement, called The People’s Front of Judea, The Judean Popular People’s Front and The Popular Front of Judea.
I was reminded of Monty Python on a recent trip to South Africa to attend the first Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration. If you’ve not heard of this cool climate area on the country’s Atlantic coast, you’re missing out on some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s not much in the way of volume, but the wines made here by the likes of Newton Johnson, Ataraxia, Crystallum, Creation, Sumaridge Estate and Hamilton Russell can be superb.
Until recently, this comparatively small valley sold its production under a single appellation, Hemel-en-Aarde. But then politics, marketing and some very strong personalities intervened, making a mockery of the region’s English translation, heaven on earth. Ludicrously, the area has now been split into three wards called the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.
There are subtle differences in soil, climate and altitude between the three wards, although winemaking, vine age, clones and virus-free plant material are arguably much more important. Tasting a range of Hemel-en-Aarde Pinots blind, it’s extremely difficult to tell one ward from another. Proponents of the split like to point to the differences between neighboring communes in Burgundy – Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-Saint-Denis, or Volnay and Pommard – but this seems far-fetched. As one local producer admitted: “It’s basically bullshit.”
Much stronger grounds for what Italians call zonazione (sub-zoning) exist in Montalcino. Tuscany’s most famous denominazione has only 2,100 hectares (5,189 acres) that are entitled to produce Brunello, its best wine, but these vineyards cover a wide variety of conditions in terms of soil, subsoil, aspect, sunshine hours, rainfall, altitude and average temperature. The difference between the cool northwestern part of the appellation and the much warmer, Mediterranean-influenced southwest are particularly marked. You only have to look at the surrounding vegetation – oak trees in the former, olive trees in the latter – to appreciate this.
Some wine writers (and a handful of producers) have launched an unofficial campaign to have sub-zones introduced in Montalcino, along the lines of the different Chianti regions. I can’t see it happening myself, for three main reasons. The first is that it’s very tricky to make neat dividing lines between the zones, or even to get wineries to agree on how many there should be. Should this be done climatically, or geologically? Neither solution is foolproof.
The second reason is that many of Montalcino’s best producers (Gianni Brunelli, Casanova di Neri, Caparzo, Altesino, Siro Pacenti, Le Potazzine and Pian dell’Orino, to name only a handful) have vines in more than one of the proposed sub-zones. More to the point, they appreciate the flexibility this gives them. In cooler years, wines from the southern zones add body and weight; in warmer years, wines from the northern zones bring freshness and balance.
Even when producers have vines in just one sub-zone, they may make contrasting styles of wine. Taste the Brunellos from Lisini and Uccelliera, or Canalicchio (Franco Pacenti) and Valdicava side by side and you’ll see what I mean: same sub-zones, but very different winemaking approaches.
The third reason is politics. If there were to be a superior “Classico” zone (the original hillsides around the town of Montalcino), people in the other zones would feel excluded. They might lose money. Wines from Chianti Classico sell for higher prices than those from Colli Fiorentini or Colline Pisane, and the same thing would surely happen in Montalcino. The fact that three of the region’s most powerful producers – Banfi, Frescobaldi (Castelgiocondo) and Antinori – are all based in lesser Brunello di Montalcino sub-zones (at least as far as growing Sangiovese goes) is also significant. They would vehemently oppose zonazione.
For all these reasons, sub-zones would be divisive – the last thing a region that has endured its share of recent scandals and court cases needs. It is surely to Montalcino’s advantage to promote a single unified brand image. It never did Champagne any harm.
By all means continue to use the names of individual vineyards to differentiate wines. But avoid sub-zones, at least on front labels. Instead, leave consumers to discover the many faces of Brunello for themselves, distinguishing (if they care to do so) between different brands. Unlike the warring factions of the Judean liberation movement, or those three competing Hemel-en-Aarde wards, Brunello should speak with one voice.