Letter from Tuscany
‘In 1968, Montalcino produced just 13,000 bottles...’
BruNELLO dI MONTALCINO is 50 years old. Festivities began in April under the banner of ‘Bravery and Pride’, and kicked off with a tasting of venerable bottles from the 1967 vintage, followed by a three-star Michelin charity dinner in the city’s old castle.
Surprisingly, there were very few journalists present. ‘You are the only one writing anything down here,’ the Valdicava producer Vincenzo Abbruzzese remarked to me as we gathered in the Teatro degli Astrusi. The atmosphere was jovial and intimate – more like a private party for the producers and winemakers. It was, he added, very different to how things began.
In the 1960s the founders of Brunello di Montalcino were the sharecropping farmers who bought land and then became growers. One was Nello Baricci, who sadly died just a few weeks before the event and was tearfully remembered. Others were Giuseppe Cencioni, Giovanni Colombini and the Pacenti brothers. They and fellow pioneers formed a tight band, deeply connected by the physical challenges of working Montalcino’s rocky soils. Colombini was a visionary farmer with an incredible depth of knowledge in viticulture. In 1974, he had the insight to write to the Italian Wine and Vineyard Academy expressing concern over the dangers of chemicals, which he claimed ‘…will never provide the soil with the organic matter it needs to feed and improve its structure’.
Equally, Montalcino has another soul, which has been no less crucial in its development, represented by the investors who arrived in the 1970s from other Italian regions, predominantly the more affluent north. Without the likes of Angelo Gaja, Gianfranco Soldera and Ezio rivella for the Mariani family (who invested $100 million in Montalcino), Brunello would not be in the celebrated position it is today.
Perhaps the biggest turning point in Montalcino’s global popularity came in 1995. Firstly, the outstanding 1990 vintage was released in that year, and it was also the year that saw a leap in American interest in red wines in general. Since then Brunello di Montalcino has never looked back.
But this year’s celebrations are largely about looking back and seeing just how far Brunello has travelled in the last half-century. Certainly, the numbers are revealing. In 1968, Montalcino produced just 13,000 bottles. Last year, production topped more than 9 million bottles. The change in vineyard land values has been no less extraordinary. When the Consorzio came into being, 1ha (hectare) of Brunello cost 1.8 million lira (roughly €930 today), and there was a paltry 115ha planted. Today, there are 2,100ha with an average price tag of €500,000 per hectare, and some are significantly more expensive than that.
Every year nearly 2 million wine lovers visit Montalcino to pay homage. Yet astonishingly, the place itself has just 5,000 entrepreneurial inhabitants. One in seven residents manages a business and the unemployment rate is almost zero. ‘Being one of the leading participants in the development of Montalcino is a powerful and inspiring feeling,’ comments Emilia Nardi, daughter of one of Brunello’s founding fathers, the great Silvio Nardi. Of course it would be inaccurate to say that this growth has been marked by a single-minded strategy of collective success. The history of Montalcino is made up of both of these differing souls, which define its complex character today.
What’s next for Brunello? The most obvious trend is the way in which the sub-regions are expressing their distinct and diverse terroirs. Moreover, a whole new, quality-focused generation is taking the reins in Montalcino. Hope lies in their inheritance of the pride, passion and curiosity of their forefathers. Truly, they have an extraordinary opportunity to make the future of Brunello even greater than its glorious past.
Aldo Fiordelli is a widely published journalist with a focus on food and wine, and is based in Florence