Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The influence of terroir on winemaking - Montalcino

The following article highlights the issue of assuming that all wines in an area will suffer the same outcomes due to the climatic influences of a particular vintage

Some thoughts on Brunello 2009
by Riccardo Viscardi 19-09-2014

Completing Doctor Wine’s ‘Essential Guide’ took a lot of effort but it was also very gratifying. I can now take advantage of some of the tasting we did for the guide to look at the area I love the most: Montalcino.
Last year, writing about 2008, I criticized the various doomsayers, especially foreign ones, who were too negative and fretful in their evaluations of vintage 2008. Some of the Brunello Riserva 2008 that have come out have confirmed that it was an interesting year, especially for a few ‘enclaves’ in the area. Vintage 2009 is another story because it was a truly difficult year and it is important to take certain factors into consideration. I totally agree with the opinion of Andrea Gabbrielli, who knows Montalcino well, that ‘’you cannot judge a territory by the weather’’, this also because when things get tough the best producers, the best vineyards and, above all, how they were managed made a big difference in the final product. This does not mean the weather is not important, on the contrary. Weather makes the difference between a great year and a minor one, the important thing is not to generalize. Another consideration is that Montalcino is a very complex area with a wide variety of soils, microclimates and water resources in the various zones and subzones (if which there at least eight) and this creates substantial differences which in poor years are amplified. In Montalcino, 2009 was complex due to two particular and unfavorable situations that came together. At the end of May there was too much rain which delayed the growth of the vines. Then a heatwave struck in July, August and September with average temperatures 2°C above the norm for the past decade. During this time the difference in day and nighttime temperatures were below normal. Making matters worse was that there was no rain during the hot months which stunted growth and caused many grapes to dry out. Furthermore, the best soils are those that drain well and so they did not retain the early rainfall. Obviously, the hottest and dries area suffered the most, especially in those vineyards where some producers continued to follow a local tradition and prune their leaves leaving the grape bunches exposed to the sun and scalding heat. The best bet was to leave the bunches as covered as possible and to work the soil in such a way as to retain any humidity. Some zones have a deep clay substrata that holds the moisture better and those vines with deeper roots, the older ones, probably suffered less if they benefitted from having sufficient covering by the leaves. (It is illegal to irrigate in Montalcino, an interesting question but not one for this article). Due to the delays these conditions caused, the harvest period came late yet some producers decided to harvest early due to the poor condition of their grapes and the results were dismal. Many others waited too long and got caught by the rains of late September, which were not much compared to the heavy rain that came in October and caused even more problems, although not for everyone. Nevertheless, there were produces who made the right choices and came out with wines that were a tribute to their intelligence, agricultural skill and economic sacrifice (with little Brunello made). Another determining factor was the possibility for some to make a careful selection of grapes, discarding the ones that had dried out due to the heat and those that had mold due to too much rain during harvest. Sorting tables were a big help in doing as were the automatic sorting machines.
Given that it was such a complex year, it was strange that nine million bottles of Brunello 2009 DOCG were produced, more than in good years like 2006 or 2007 and from the same number of vines. Is this Italian fluke? How was it possible?
I had expected a significant drop in production, also because those who made some excellent Brunello 2009 had a significant drop in yield. And then there were those like Pieve di S. Restituta, who did not even produce a Brunello because they did not think it could be good enough.
A friend finally explained it to me. In simple terms it was this: Brunello is a wine that demands the best price through the big distributors and so bottlers and others pay very well for Brunello even in poorer years, when it is easier to buy the wine to then re-sell it under another name with a DOCG label. Thus in difficult years a lot of wine, which nevertheless respects DOCG regulations, reaches the market through this channel and allows the winemakers to balance their budgets. I, personally, believe that this harms Brunello’s image also for consumers who may not buy it often but are large in number, especially over the long term. But that’s the way the world turns: one wants everything and right away without thinking of the consequences.
In the end, what we have are very few Brunello 2009 that are truly exceptional, while the number of good ones is on the rise despite the difficulties faced, an indication that a growing number of producers have clear ideas on how to deal with adversities both in the vineyard and in the winery. Unfortunately, there was also a lot of mediocre wine. It is amazing how three of the best Brunello 2009 came from the same area, a cru I consider to be the best in Montalcino: eastern Cerbaie. Here, three producers, two of whom are very famous and the other a rising star, gave us not only some excellent wines but also wines from that a cru that adequately demonstrated the difference the altitude of a vineyard can make. As for their names, you will have to wait for the guide.