Breaking the Brunello Code

by Chuck Hayward

Breaking the Brunello Code

Post by Chuck Hayward | February 11th, 2011

Kicking it into high gear, the JJ Buckley wine staff just booked tickets to Europe for a slew of spring tastings. The plan is to delve into the 2009 vintage in Burgundy, followed by our annual visit to Bordeaux for en primeurs where we will get our first look at the 2010 vintage. Directly after, a few of the staff will jet over to Verona to attend VinItaly and take an extensive look at the newly released 2006 Brunelli.

Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino

Important tastings are also being scheduled here in the States. The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino recently arranged for about 40 wineries to showcase their '06s at an event in New York. In addition to the introduction of the new wines, there were an assortment of other new releases— Rossos and a smattering of riservas. The first opportunity for many Italian wine buyers to immerse themselves in the new vintage before the official release event in Italy, my co-worker Jeff Loo and I seized the opportunity and hopped a plane to the Big Apple.

Some 250 producers who are members of the Consorzio make wine from a delimited area of about 8700 acres. The region has been blessed with a product—structured and intensely flavored red wine made from a specific sangiovese clone that has great aging potential—which is easy to understand and market. The simplicity and focus that comes from producing just one wine has allowed the sales of Brunello to expand rapidly, gaining a significant share of the Italian export market. No question, the wines from the region are in high demand, especially in the United States. Interestingly, the American market accounted for 25% of total sales of Brunello in 2010.

However, Brunello has also made a name for itself for less positive reasons. A few producers were caught in a scandal where they were accused of violating Italy's strict wine laws by selling "adultered products" which included grapes other than sangiovese grosso in their Brunello releases. There was a fear that "Brunellogate" would seriously affect global wine sales and even impact other Italian winegrowing regions.

In addition, as more Brunelli enter the market and production increases to satisfy demand, consumers are being exposed to changing styles. Traditional wines which are subtle and understated sit next to more modern interpretations which are forward and juicy. The debate about what constitutes a "real Brunello" is becoming vigorous and will have interesting repercussions in the near term.

That's some old Brunello!
That's some old Brunello!

Judging from our experience at JJ Buckley, though, the scandal and emerging new styles have not had much of an impact on demand or sales. Thanks to the excellent 2004 vintage as well as the strong interest in the 2006s, Brunello is riding a strong wave of popularity that does not look to subside soon… especially with the Consorzio giving high marks to the upcoming releases from 2007. It seems that all publicity, whether good or bad, has helped keep the region at the forefront of consumer awareness.

With all this in mind, Jeff and I dove into sampling a variety of Italian wines the night before the big event. Our highlight came at Alto, one of New York's leading fine dining Italian restaurants, with Scott Conant at the helm. There we had a chance to sample some 1980 Col d'Orcia "Poggio al Vento" in magnum, and drinking this rare gem showed us how closely an old Brunello can resemble mature Bordeaux.

And that's a lot of new Brunello!

The tasting itself proved to be an intense experience, to say the least, as we made our way through the neighborhood of 125 wines. We jostled our way through the throngs of people to meet winery owners and sales representatives and attempted to get a handle on the 2006 vintage. While it was clear at the end of the event that the 2006s did offer a significant improvement in quality compared to the 2004s, Jeff and I came to a conclusion that proved to be a valuable insight into Brunello. While the influence of the vintage was noticeable, each winery's house style and winemaking approach proved to be an even more important factor in understanding the new releases. For consumers, then, it will be as vital to know each winery's style  as it is to be aware of each year's vintage conditions. Salute!