Vinitaly’s Wine Ambassador Course, the Sub-regions of Brunello, and Dr Who? #ItalianFWT

is this Brunello featuring a Dalek in disguise on the label?

Ring ring! Ring ring! Ring ring!
Your phone is ringing!
Pick it up!
Pick up your phone!
Ring ring!

If you do not pick up your phone
you will be exterminated!

If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you will instantly recognize this as a Dalek-voiced and scripted ring tone. My teen put it on my phone; the idea was that it would be HIS ring tone– the ring town I would hear when he called. And if I accidentally left my phone on during class when I was teaching, my students would laugh.

But right now it’s the only ring tone. And wouldn’t you know it, within moments of sitting down on the very first day of the Vinitaly Wine Ambassador Course, my phone rang.

The phone that I thought was in the car.

And I’d already arrived 30 minutes late due to a misunderstanding about when the class started.

After I found the phone and turned it off and class resumed, of course it rang again… so I put it on airplane mode to makes sure it didn’t happen again, and got back to trying to learn all there is to know about Italian wines in four days which included a lot about Italian viticulture, the theme of this month’s Italian Wine Food Travel Group which I am hosting. Read the invitation post here. Read the introduction to Italian Viticulture and the preview of people’s posts here.

As part of our training, we had to form groups of four and create a video where everyone in the group contributes to a discussion of the merits of sub-zoning in Brunello based on differences in history, soil, climate and topography in the following four areas:

  • Montalcino
  • Torrenieri + Bosco
  • Tavernelle + Camigliano
  • Castelnuovo dell’Abate

I thought it would be fun to include in our presentation a bottle of Brunello — and conclude our video with an invitation for listeners to call in! Our script is below and you can watch the video here; a discussion of the wine we used as a prop follows.

Hello! I’m Gwendolyn Alley and I’m here with Tom Riley and Anna Luchanskaya. We’re candidates to be Italian Wine Ambassadors, and today we want to tell you about a current controversy brewing about Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most expensive and well known wines.

Rome is marked on the map; Tuscany where Brunello di Montalcino is found, is in the middle of the country.

Made from 100% sangiovese grapes, Brunello is grown in the Tuscany wine region, located north of Rome and south of Florence. Production of Brunello is centered northeast of the medieval village of Montalcino in densely wooded hilly terrain nearly 2k feet above sea level where the highest peak in Tuscany, an extinct volcano, moderates climate and rainfall. While relatively small with only about 3,000 acres, vines are planted at various elevations and on various soils  including limestoneclayschist,volcanic, and a crumbly marl called galestro.

This diversity in terroir contributes to a wide range in quality and complexity for Brunello. While winemakers may combine the various areas for a unified blend, they may also focus on one or even a single vineyard.

To help consumers understand these differences, Italian Editor for Wine Enthusiast Kerin O’Keefe proposes labeling eight subzones. Does this have merit? In our discussion of the topic,

  • Anna will examine the Montalcino north and south sub-region.
  • Tom will tell you about the Torrenieri  subregion in the northeast as well as Bosco in the northwest.
  • And finally, I will investigate Castelnuovo dell’Abate in the southeast.

Find out what Anna and Tom have to say here.

Castelnuovo dell’Abate, located about six miles southeast of Montalcino, and named for a castle built on the site of a previous castle and populated since the Bronze Age in pre-Etruscan times, is the hottest subregion of Brunello in the hottest, most arid area of Tuscany.

Fortunately, this heat is mitigated by that high volcano as well as cooling from the Orcia river and the Montalcino ridge protects vineyards from hot maritime winds.

Acidity comes from altitude: vineyards are found from nearly 1000 feet to almost 1500 feet in elevation. Strategies to manage the heat includes planting vines so densely roots are deep and yields low and to avoid sunburn, rows may be planted at right angles. Wines here truly are being grown not made.

While single vineyard designates began in Brunello in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Mastrojanni released a wine which in English means the ‘donkey’s back.”

According to sources, these are powerful, yet graceful wines with layers of complexity from the multifaceted soils and with round, fine tannins that age well, thanks to moderate acidity generated by high altitudes. Climate and the soils make the wines from Castelnuovo darker, richer, and mouth-filling.

Because of the success of wines from this subregion, cereal fields and olive groves have been converted to vines with new plantings in the Castelnuovo dell’Abate area accounting for most of the almost doubled plantings in Montalcino from 1996 and 2007.

In conclusion, as we’ve shown, about one third of Brunello comes from the cooler north producing paler firm mouthwatering  wines, while the rest comes from the south, where warmer sites produce wines that are darker and fruitier but still savoury.

With one out of three Brunellos produced sold in the US, is it advantageous for Brunello producers to offer more information or use subzones?

Considering how confused many American consumers feel already about Italian wines, is it necessary to add another layer of complexity?

At this price point, consumers who care will do the research and discover the wines they want .

We’re ready to take your calls to discuss this further!

After we finished taping, I enjoyed a small glass of the wine with my lunch, Tom took a nice pour, and Tom and Anna generously allowed me to take the rest of the bottle home where I shared it with Sue, and took it to a lunch between pruning sessions at Clos des Amis.

2013 – Ciacci Piccolomini d’ Aragona – Brunello di Montalcino – 15% alcohol SRP $60
purchased at the legendary Silver Lake Wine

I figured if I was going to be buying a Brunello, I’d try to kill two birds with one stone and buy one that was organic or biodynamic so that I could use it for this month’s Italian Food Wine Travel Prompt which was originally about Italian biodynamic wines.  I had planned to go to the Wine House because the last time I was there, I learned they have quite a few Italian wines that are organic and biodynamic — but many of them aren’t certified so lack the Demeter logo on the label.

I asked LA local Cat Stratton (who also distinguished herself by passing the test to become an Italian Wine Ambassador!) and she pointed out that the Wine House was in the wrong direction from where I was going and with traffic that night, I’d likely arrive right as they were closing — and I’d still have a bunch of traffic to deal with to get to where I was staying.

Cat pointed out that massive K and L was not too far out of my way, but then when she learned that what I really wanted was a biodynamic or organic wine, she steered me to Silver Lake Wine, a mecca for people interested in unusual and “green” wines, so I was on my way.

After parking in their lot (free!), I went in and was helped  — no bottle was left unturned trying to find one that was certified biodynamic or organic AND from Italy! (I mean that literally– we looked at the front and back labels of just about every Italian wine in the shop, whether Brunello or not).

While this wine is not certified as such, the very helpful sales clerk found information about the winery, and reminded me how very carefully Silver Lake Wines vets the products in the store, assuring me that it was indeed organic and biodynamically farmed.

By chance, it turns out this Brunello is from the region I studied and discussed in the video:

“The Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona estate is located on the south eastslope of the municipality of Montalcino, close to the medieval village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate and to the famous Romanesque Abbey of Sant’Antimo, which dates back to the 11th century,” says their website. “Set between Arna hill and the Orcia River to the south-east, it offers a unique panorama with the beautiful contour of Mount Amiata in the background. Wild animals, scents of flowers and plants and the typical farmhouses dotted around, create a peaceful and calm atmosphere in this area.”

As I mentioned above, Brunello is not its own separate grape but a biotype of Sangiovese, which means it’s genetically similar but still distinct. For their wines, they “selected the eldest vines of the estate characterized by straggly bunches and big berries with thick skin. It is a particularly representative kind of Sangiovese coming from Montalcino area, which gives quality even in difficult vintages.”

I scoured the website but nowhere did I find a mention that their wines are made from organic grapes or using biodynamic practices. So if they are, they are keeping this information a secret!

UPDATE: Monty Waldin saysORGANIC CERTIFICATION | 2017 Converted to organics, from IPM. / 2020 Full organic certification due for the first time.”

I tasted this wine over several days; every time I tasted the wine it was a bit different.  Sue and Sheila (who also passed the test) and I tasted the wine a week after it had been open, and Sheila thought it might be oxidized. I also brought it to the winery where Bruce Freeman and Gretel Compton tasted it with me; on that occasion, Bruce thought something was off but we didn’t pick anything up except that I expected a bit more for a $60 wine.

Color: Bright red on the burnt orange side, nicely translucent

Nose: Very light, not expressive

Palate: Nice minerals, rich, nice tannins, yesterday when Gwen tasted it with Bruce he felt that it was a bit flawed. Yesterday there was more cherry, Gwen felt that it was a wine that could evolve

Pairing: Loves parmesan cheese! Not surprisingly, it pairs well with steak and bolognese sauce.

Final Words: For $60 I want more out of a wine. Sheila felt it is a nicely balanced authentic wine expressing volcanic soils. I’m curious if, as Bruce says, this bottle is flawed. Seeing as how this wine got 95 points in Wine Enthusiast, I think he may be on to something; it’s not that it was clearly bad, it was just off– and remember I’ve been drinking a lot of Italian wine lately!

This Saturday, the Italian Food Wine Travel group of influential bloggers are investigating Italian Viticulture; we will post our blogs by 8am, and from 8-9am we’ll be discussing what we learned on twitter using the hashtag #ItalianFWT. Read the invitation post here. 


12 thoughts on “Vinitaly’s Wine Ambassador Course, the Sub-regions of Brunello, and Dr Who? #ItalianFWT

  1. I’ve always struggled with my favorite wine of Italy question but I truly love Sangiovese and Brunello gets me every time. Such beautiful wines! I think if you’re going to spend this much for a bottle understanding the land and knowing the differences between the northern and southern areas and what they produce is crucial.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Wines of Alois Lageder: Cultivating Nature as a Habitat of Life – The Swirling Dervish

  3. Wow, I just learned some of the finer points on Brunello! Sounds like your Italian Wine Ambassador journey will be fulfilling – I look forward to following along as you go. Thanks again for a thought-provoking and lively topic this month.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: La Maliosa Biodynamic Procanico and a Pasta Bar with Santa Barbara Uni and Mussels #ItalianWFT | wine predator

  5. It really was interesting to get into the sub-regions of Brunello and understanding why it would matter to break it up. One of the other people had two of the sub-regions and it was clear that one was worthy and the other was not. If you’re serious about Burnello, it’s good to know where the wine is coming from because all subregions are not created equal! And I certainly wouldn’t have learned about it if it hadn’t been an assignment to make a video but I’m so glad we did!


  6. I’ve had lighter style Brunello and fuller-bodied lusher styles. And some of the lighter didn’t hit that spot but critics gave high scores, go figure. Knowing which subregion is helpful but unless you dig in to know the differences like you did, it wouldn’t be apparent. What a great course and time you had!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very interesting event, and very detailed blog. Much over my head of course, but none the less appreciated. I found this quite interesting “Brunello is not its own separate grape but a biotype of Sangiovese.” So, not separate, but a ,Biotype”. Is that like a subsclassification?

    Liked by 1 person

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