By Paul O'Doherty. See our guide to 2012 wine book reviews.
Brunello di Montalcino
Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy's Greatest Wines
University of California Press
If you weren't fully up to speed on Brunello di Montalcino, the last few weeks have been salutory. It was reported (as in Soldera loses six vintages) that vandals had broken into the cellar of Gianfranco Soldera, and undid the taps on virtually his entire production of 2007 to 2012 vintages of Brunello di Montalcino. A disgruntled former employee and his wine-soaked trousers are now the centre of a police investigation. Bearing all this in mind, it could be said that this celebration of Brunello di Montalcino is timely, if it wasn't for the fact that it was published much earlier this year. Nevertheless, Kerin O'Keefe, who writes for Decanter and The World of Fine Wine, has compiled a fabulous read exploring what goes into making one of Italy's greatest wines.
O'Keefe begins by retelling the geography and history of the area from its numerous soil types to Biondi Santi, who did more than most to establish Brunello in the 19th century, although if there is a slight early criticism, it is that she fails to connect the history between 1981 (when the area's population had fallen as people left the land for the cities) and the mid 1980s when Montalcino, 'formerly the poorest commune in the Province of Siena, had become the richest municipality in the province, thanks to the area's liquid gold: Brunello'. O'Keefe goes on to discuss Sangiovese's temperament, its possible origins in Calabria, Tuscany or Sicily, the mystery surrounding the origins of its name, the arguments for and against differentiating Brunello from Sangiovese, and vineyard management and disease. From there, much more is made of the Biondi Santi family's influence on driving Brunello di Montalcino to its iconic status today, and the controversy over changing the laws that, for instance, reduced wood ageing, firstly from three and a half years to three, and then from three to two years. Outside this chopping and changing of regulations, from the late 1990s it had often also been suspected that some wines belonged on the far side of what is legal, and it wasn't the oak that was responsible. As the saying goes, 'if it's inky black it ain't Sangiovese', a reference to the suggestion that some producers were involved in illegal blending, adulterating what should be 100% Sangiovese with imported varieties, particularly Merlot. Those fears came to fruition in 2008 (see the Brunellogate tag) and are recorded by O'Keefe in her take on the Brunellogate scandal. It's a controversy that O'Keefe carefully retells, dodging many of the untruths and inaccuracies in what is still a legal minefield, bearing in mind there are powerful forces at play who wouldn't take kindly to been accused of fraud.
In the final part of section one, O'Keefe sums up the fallout from the controversy four years on while also outlining the various challenges that the region now faces, including: how to react to falling prices; the implementation of lower yields; the pressure from the bigger producers to allow other grapes to be blended with Sangiovese; and the need to regulate the boundaries and sub-zones for Brunello di Montalcino, bearing in mind that Sangiovese does not perform exceptionally in all parts of Montalcino.
In the second section, O'Keefe provides an overview of the leading producers, unofficial subzone by subzone. O'Keefe gives an overview of the principal producers, who they are and their importance to the region, along with contact details, website, production figures, the wines they make and tasting notes going back over their best vintages; in Franco Biondi Santi's case these tasting notes go back to 1945. In the final chapter O'Keefe adds her views on the ideal food match for Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino, while in the appendices there is a vintage guide along with a three-page 'Brunello at a Glance' with notes on ageing, production, labelling and estates to watch. Overall, it's a fascinating, well-written take on Brunello di Montalcino, and one of the books of the year.
The Making of an Italian Wine Phenomenon
Wine Appreciation Guild
Despite the rather misleadingly all-inclusive title, this is essentially a book about Sandro Boscaini, the president and managing director of Masi Agricola, and his family-run wine business in the Veneto. Singleton, a freelance writer, editor and translator, begins her story as one would a fairytale: 'Once upon a time, though not so very long ago, in the heart of Milan, there was a large smoky tavern in a little side street off the central Via Meravigli'. It's a lyrical hagiographical style that quickly becomes a major thread to the book. Masi's Amarone, for instance, is later referred to as The Gentle Giant. She goes on to recount the story of Campofiorin Ripasso, the innovation at Masi and the methanol scandal from 1986 before winding back time to tell us more about the region's history, geography and landscape. There is time too for an exploration of grape varieties, the evolutionary journey of Valpolicella and Amarone, the vinification process, and how the brand has developed over the years. All the time in the background the voice and views of Sandro Boscaini are rarely out of earshot. It must also be added that Sandro Boscaini provides a charming foreword at the beginning to his own story, so to speak. It could be accused of being monotopical, but it's still an interesting story that has its own charisma and appeal, particularly if you're interested in Sandro Boscaini or Masi Amarone.
Best Italian Wines Annuario
In a comprehensive guide (translated by Silvia Pallottino) that takes note of over 11,300 wines, Luca Maroni has a distinctive style of offering conclusive comments on a vineyard's wines after naming them individually. The notes are short, sharp and succinct. Here's what he has to say about those for Bibbiano in Tuscany: 'The fruit in the Bibbiano glass is becoming increasingly balanced and enveloping. These wines feature great consistency with a smoothly enveloping balsamic trait. Chianti Classico Montornello 2009 is powerful with its vanilla spices/ Chianti Classico 2009 is enveloping with its cherry pulp. The tasting glass is Chianti Classico Riserva Vigna del Capannino 2008: very neat oenological process, very dense and intricately woven fleshy tannic texture enveloping and balancing its dense and glycerinous softness'. This is a huge body of work, but there are also significant vineyards where, although their wines are mentioned, tasting notes are not included.
Although this book has a copyright dated 2007, the publisher assures us this is the first year it is available in English. Its author is Ove Boudin, who lives near Gothenburg in Sweden, and, as he admits himself, is a copy editor, commercial writer and grappa consultant, which all points to a decent curriculum vitae for someone publishing a book on Italy's grape-based spirit. What we get is a book divided into two sections, the first containing chapters on wine and grapes, distillation, ageing, the definition of grappa and how it can best be appreciated, among other topics. The second section records Boudin's journey around Italy researching his book and the various people he met.
What did I make of it? Well, looking at what's before me I'm not sure if I've encountered something that's a little 'lost in translation'. For instance, under a heading Now, how should grappa taste? the author says: 'There was a time when grappa was a challenge that made me hesitate. Then the challenge aroused my curiosity. Here was a drink that did not egg me on, saying drink me but was more contrary and unfavourably disposed towards me. This attitude felt liberating and I decided to like grappa. I realised pretty quickly that this cool attitude was only a way to hide a secret – like an entry test before getting into the club'. Mmm … yeah, I'm not sure what he's really saying either, and this confusion is a fundamental problem in the opening section.
That said, the book moves up a significant notch or two in the middle where the book gets more technical and starts to drill down into the detail. However, by the time we get to the last sections and Boudin's journey around northern Italy, one is back to the problems one has at the start: far too much incidental information that grinds the narrative rather than driving it. For instance: 'An older woman showed me a room, and began to haggle with herself. I explained there was nothing wrong with the price; it was the room I did not like. Then I thought, in fact I am at the famous Lake Garda and my accommodation needed some style. I continued to look for a hotel with almost a whole window and the second with nice facilities … Do you have anything cheaper? I decided to try Torbole, and I had not even made it to third gear before I was surrounded by bright hotel neon lights. I was tired and hungry and headed directly after check-in to a restaurant across the street, ordered a pizza and a carafe of red wine'. Know how you feel Ove, know how you feel ... Aside from all these translational problems, over-writing and occasional lapses into sketches that wouldn't be out of place in Monty Python, it's still a likeable enough book that, despite its limitations, captures much of the essence of grappa.