Book Review: Brunello di Montalcino by Kerin O’Keefe

What wonderful timing. The University of California Press sent Kerin O’Keefe’s book on Brunello to review about two weeks before I was to set off to Montalcino. Her book is like others in this series—excellent writing about the region, the vineyards, and the making of the wine, followed by lengthy snapshots of key wineries. 

O’Keefe is the best English-language writer and critic on Brunello, and her book is a delight. Her depth of knowledge of the region, the issues, and the winemaking personalities shines through in her writing. The Montalcino region is a complex one with diverse sub-regions and distinct terroirs, artisanal as well as commercial wineries, and a fascinating wine history. The author helps the reader understand this complexity, including the historical context of the wine.

While there are no formally recognized sub-regions within Montalcino, O’Keefe organizes the book around what are seven logical divisions—the area around the town of Montalcino [the most traditional of the growing areas, located in the center of the appellation, and home to Biondi Santi, Conti Costanti, Fattoria dei Barbi, Le Chiuse, Altesino and many other outstanding wineries], Bosco [located to the northwest of the town with few wineries but including the superb Castiglion del Bosco]; Torrenieri [located to the northeast with dense clay soils not usually thought to be suitable for Brunello but with some excellent wineries nonetheless]; Tavernelle [a traditional growing area located west of the town]; Camigliano [still further west from the town, and home to Frescobaldi’s Castel Giocondo]; Sant’Angelo [a traditional growing area located in the southwest part the appellation and home to some of Montalcino’s excellent larger wineries like Col d’Orcia, Il Poggione, and Castello Banfi]; and Castelnuovo dell’Abate [a new growing area located in the southeast with superb growing conditions and some outstanding wineries like Mastrojanni, Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, and Uccelliera]. These sub-regional categories make sense, but, as the author shows, there are always exceptions to the generalizations about these sub-regions . How else does one explain the superb fruit Casanova di Neri gets from its low altitude Cerretalto vineyard in the far east, or the elegant, red-fruited wines made by Agostina Pieri from vineyards in the hot, dry south?

There is no other English language book that provides the rich detail and knowledge of Brunello di Montalcino that this one does. In short, it is an absolutely essential wine guide for the connoisseur wishing to learn about the wine or the wine traveler seeking advice on where to go and which wineries to visit. Having just completed an extensive trip organized by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, I can attest to the value of this book.

All more the pity then that O’Keefe spends so much time beating a dead horse. She laments the influence of New World wine critics (we all know who she means) on Brunello winemaking and the consequent over-use of new French barriques, resulting in internationally styled wines that lack the typicity of traditional Brunello. Unless one is a fan of wines that taste more of French oak than fruit, it’s difficult to argue with O’Keefe’s tastes. The problem is that it’s the exceptional Brunello that’s over-oaked today. Perhaps five or ten years ago it was different, but producers today are generally using new French oak for just a portion of the required 24 months barrel aging. The vast majority of wines—at least from the 2006 and 2007 vintages—taste exceptionally well-balanced with well integrated oak.

The issue of typicity is one the author devotes much attention to. And to O’Keefe typicity appears to mean the type of Brunello traditionally produced by Biondi-Santi and others near the town. These are elegant, nuanced, long-lived and absolutely delicious wines. The expansion of Brunello production in areas more distant from and with different growing conditions than the town itself has resulted in wines that are different but also express their terroirs. These wines may not be the same as the very traditional Brunello, but many of them retain the unique expression of Sangiovese that one finds in Montalcino.

In sum, Kerin O’Keefe has produced an excellent, well-written, and superbly researched volume on Brunello di Montalcino. Those interested in knowing more about this unique and special wine could do no better than to read this book. And for the wine traveler, the maps she provides in the book are indispensable.

Donald Winkler, Editor
April 2012

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