As a student of wine, I continue to be fascinated and drawn into the wines of Italy as the breadth of styles and varieties is mind boggling. Qualitatively the best wines are truly great, and there is a hierarchy established for me. The ‘Super Tuscan’ category is generally passé with the exception of a number of classics such as Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia. The best expression of the noble indigenous varieties grown in the best sites and regions has taken the top order, and their making is aligned with the philosophy behind any of the world’s great wines. Among these is Brunello di Montalcino, of which my experience is quite limited, so Kerin O’Keefe’s book ‘Brunello di Montalcino’, sub-titled ‘Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines’ looked ideal to further my knowledge.
I’ve come across Kerin O’Keefe’s work in the likes of ‘The World of Fine Wine’ and ‘Decanter’ and I’ve enjoyed her knowledge, expertise and style. She’s earned praise for this particular book, one on Biondi-Santi and Barolo and Barbaresco, and appears to be a go-to author for reading about top-end Italian wine. The wines of Tuscany and Brunello are especially close to her heart, as she tells of discovering them from sharing fine bottles of Italian wine from her in-laws’ cellar, being won over by their “combination of balance, power and grace [which] continues to hold me in thrall”. She visits Montalcino annually, walking the vineyards, visiting the cellars and talking with the winemakers and their families.
Passion for True Sangiovese Expression
The strongest impression I’ve got from the book is O’Keefe’s respect and desire for Sangiovese to express the Montalcino growing region with authenticity. She is unashamedly a traditionalist seeing the original Brunello di Montalcino wines created by the Santi family at the end of the 19th Century which featured classical wild cherry and earthy sensations, florals, minerality, elegance and finesse, with the ability to develop well with great complexity, as the prototypes evolving to the benchmarks today.
O’Keefe tells the story of the evolution of Brunello di Montalcino as a wine from the earliest times, describing the unique interaction of the temperamental Sangiovese grape with the Mantalcino region, its climate, geography and geology. The history in human, viticultural and regulatory (read political) terms, the growth of production, and Brunello’s rise to the status of DOCG and one of Italy’s most important wines is recounted wonderfully by O’Keefe, bringing all the subjects, which could be rather dry, to life.
O’Keefe doesn’t hide her disdain of the many instances, occurrences and forces that have subverted the expression of Brunello away from the classical path resulting in the loss of ‘tipicita’. And to her credit she tells the story with a great deal of objectivity, showing her understanding of human nature and global trends then and even now. Brunello di Montalcino is still finding its true place in the world, as the recent ‘Brunellogate’ scandal has shown. The larger producers continue to impose their internationally derived outlook, perceptions and standards on the regulations and rules for production in Montalcino on the much smaller growers and makers, many of which continue to make, or have made a return to making the classical and traditional style of Brunello de Montalcino. Her approach has won me over to her view in my search for what is great Brunello di Montalcino to taste and enjoy.
A Tour of Montalcino
Two-thirds of the book is devoted to O’Keefe’s profiles of nearly 60 leading producers of Brunello di Montalcino. She does this by grouping the profiles according to their geographical location, and in doing so raises the concept of subzones in Montalcino. She sees this as the next step in the evolution of Brunello to Montalcino which will aid the world’s understanding of the wine and the styles resulting from regional, site and terroir influences. As mentioned earlier, this is a world-wide phenomenon and the path in how fine wine is approached and enjoyed. Her differentiation by geography is based partly on accepted delineations, and others somewhat by convenience if the sub-zoning is not officially recognised.
For each subzone O’Keefe describes the climate, geography, topography and geology in straightforward terms, and how they impact on the expression of the resulting wines. Clearly some subzones are regarded better than others and one senses the hierarchy. As is always the case, there are high achievers and those who are not quite so. Her favourites are those making the classical style, rather than the international, over-ripened, over-extracted and over-oaked wines. The producer profiles discuss the people, their philosophies, vineyard sources and of course styles, with her description of the producers Brunellos, Riserva or single vineyard bottlings, and Rosso wines. For the most well-known producers, individual vintages are mentioned. I personally enjoy her tasting notes which covey a feel for the wines in a way I can relate to.
Throughout the book are black and white photos, taken by O’Keefe’s husband Paolo Tenti. There are maps for each of the sub-regions, these being somewhat plain and a bit of a let-down, The maps of Montalcino South and Montalcino North are incorrectly swapped.
The final and third part of the book describes Montalcino’s other wines, Rosso di Montalcino, Moscadello and Sant’Antimo. O’Keefe gives some thoughts on food pairing with the Brunello wines. The book concludes with appendices for vintage ratings and a summary of important facts and figures.
This is an excellent and very readable book, and lives up to its subtitle ‘Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines’. It has certainly explained much about the region, the Sangiovese grape and the styles of wine made. I’ve had a more than slight shift in perception about what constitutes great Brunello de Montalcino because of my reading it. I’ll be buying and reading her other books soon, and I’m already on the hunt for some interesting bottles of Brunello….
Brunello di Montalcino, By Kerin O’Keefe
University of California Press, Berkeley, California 2012 ISBN 978-0-520-26564-6