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Brunello Should Avoid A Monty Python

The People's Front of Judea not to be confused with The Judean Popular People's Front or The Popular Front of Judea
© Archives du 7eme Art / PHOTO12 | The People's Front of Judea not to be confused with The Judean Popular People's Front or The Popular Front of Judea
A single Brunello di Montalcino and Hemel-en-Aarde ward would better serve each region, argues Tim Atkin MW.

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.

Many Montalcino producers blend different sub-zones to make the best wine
© Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino/Fotolia | Many Montalcino producers blend different sub-zones to make the best wine

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.

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  • Comments

    Alex wrote:
    08-Apr-2014 at 13:37:46 (GMT)

    I work in the wine business in Tuscany and I would like to see wines like Casanova di Neri, Banfi, Frescobaldi, etc. not being sold as Brunellos. I would challenge anyone to recognise them blind as a Brunello. There is nothing to be said about terroir in their wines, but only about the oenological product they use (when you are lucky). There is a distributor in Italy called Heres that is promoting wines with a not invasive wine making (though styles in my opinion are different) in three different key areas (geographically and geologically). Choices are based on a geological study from the University of Milan and careful producer selection. These are initiatives that help consumers to grasp the Montalicno reality and give a framework to better classify the efforts from the great historical producers (like the ones mentioned by Mr Mattia Hansen) all the way to small fine wineries such as Lambardi, Querce Bettina, etc

  • Mattias Hansen wrote:
    24-Mar-2014 at 20:24:31 (GMT)

    I would welcome a differentation of zones, or establishment of Cru in the interest of the growers, but not for me personally as a consumer. i know where the best wines come from, to my palate. Establishing cru or classico zone would differentiate the pricing more, which i would not like, but which ultimately is more fair to the serious producers. There is a ton of difference in the quality of the soil in the hilly area close to the town and in the flat fields further away from the centre. Right now, poor producers are capitalizing on the brand of Brunello by being allowed the same label as Biondi-Santi, Salvioni, Cerbaiona, Poggio di Sotto etc. even if they are producing worthless plonk. the DOCG system is not doing anything seriously to promote higher quality, quite the contrary.

  • Braden wrote:
    18-Mar-2014 at 19:30:57 (GMT)

    Great article. I think sometimes wine critics, enthusiasts, producers or even growers try too hard to geek out on oak programs, soil types, pick dates or any of the other characteristics that might change a wines outcome. Every once in a while its nice to just enjoy good wine from a good region.

  • Tom Colman wrote:
    14-Mar-2014 at 14:33:08 (GMT)

    Well, I thought Champagne had petit cru, premier cru and grand cru, which defines the grape price. If you're a grower, that's a big deal...

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