Let­ter from Tus­cany

‘In 1968, Mon­tal­cino pro­duced just 13,000 bot­tles...’

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

Aldo Fiordelli

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

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