A stable patch in the roiling cauldron of Italian fine wine, Montalcino has maintained an outward sense of stability over the last decade, at least in terms of wine style. True, Italy’s overall shift away from ‘modernism’ is apparent with Brunello di Montalcino too, with wines generally lighter-framed, lighter-hued and less oak-driven. Conti Costanti – which was the first stop on my visit to the region this past summer – had typically been considered a bridge between the modern and traditional styles. The fact that barriques have been banished from the Brunello cellar and Andrea Costanti’s polestar of late has been ‘cleanliness and precision’, suggests the centre is skewing to the traditional.
On the other hand, the (tentative) embrace of intra-regional diversity has driven some wines in wildly different directions. This is perhaps clearest among newer producers, many based outside core Montalcino in areas like Torrenieri to the northeast and Tavernelle, Sant’Angelo and Castelnuovo dell’Abate to the south. Tasting the wines of Torrenieri’s Cordella and Tavernelle’s Máté, it’s almost a wonder they’re from the same DOCG. The differences also seem ‘genuine’ rather than driven by winemaking: while Cordella’s Annata has the cassis-toned heft and spice typical of modernist winemaking, its production is in some ways more ‘traditional’ than what takes place with the ethereal, light-footed Máté. Beyond sub-regionality, some producers have highlighted site-specific factors like altitude, a trend driven by stars like Le Ragnaie and Le Potazzine; Voliero, from Andrea Cortonesi of Uccelliera, is so named for its loftier vineyard sources.
Finally, the natural wine movement, beloved of successful newcomers across Italy, has less prominence here. Many of its favoured techniques like whole bunch and whole berry fermentation remain on the fringes (Tenuta Buon Tempo has dabbled in the latter, but mainly for an experimental wine). Still, other ‘minimal intervention’ techniques are much more common, like genuinely spontaneous fermentations, to which Gianni Pignattai of Pietroso says they have recently returned.
On the farming end, biodynamics and especially sustainability and organics have made more inroads. As of 2021, around 50% of Montalcino’s vineyards were certified organic (as are three of the wine estates on this list). The biodynamic Corte Pavone – like fellow adherent San Polino, where owner Katia Nussbaum dislikes the term ‘natural wine’ for its downplaying of human impact (‘we could sneeze in the vineyard and change the “native yeasts”’) – is making wines that are characterful and site-specific before they are ‘natural’. This feels very much of a piece with the spirit of Montalcino, even the new Montalcino, where quality comes before orthodoxy and few producers sit at the extremes.
Brunello di Montalcino wine estates to watch
Perhaps as a testament to how hard it is to ‘pop’ as a newcomer in this heritage-fond territory, Cordella is among the few producers mentioned here that started making wine after 2000. Carved out of the family’s larger Podere Meleto estate in Torrenieri in northeastern Montalcino, Cordella’s first five hectares were planted by the young Maddalena Cordella in 1998, with another four added in 2000. Only in 2006 did Maddalena and her father begin to vinify the grapes themselves and in 2010 the project finally got its own winery. Organic certification came in 2012, though from the beginning everything in the vineyard from shoot positioning to harvest had been meticulously executed by hand, even though comparatively gentle slopes might have permitted more mechanisation.
Cordella’s punchy, dark-hued style is mostly reflective of the Crete Senesi, Torrenieri’s heavier sandy clays that differ starkly from the limestone and marls found in the heart of Montalcino. Tasted blind, the wine feels distinctly international, with a blackcurrant pastille and black plum quality run through with menthol that almost resembles Cabernet Sauvignon and subtle cocoa notes that could be mistaken for new oak. In fact, from the start the wine has been aged exclusively in large oak vats, though some are made from the more aromatic Allier oak.
What sets the wine starkly apart from the inky, extracted Brunelli that triggered the 2008 Brunellogate scandal is the wine’s stylistic cohesiveness. Rather than a tell-tale dual personality, with both red and black fruit and too much sweet unctuousness for Sangiovese’s natural shape, this has a clarity to its fruit and a natural balance of darkness – both in terms of fruit and herbal, tonic bitterness – and light – with blazing, tenacious acidity. Though perhaps not textbook Brunello, the wine shows a different facet of what Sangiovese can do in this denomination.
Try this wine: Cordella Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Corte Pavone has been owned by members of the Loacker family (of wafer cookie fame) since 1996. Prior to this, Rainer Loacker had been a biodynamic and homeopathic wine producer in his native South Tyrol since 1979. With only about 4ha planted when it was purchased, the estate has grown substantially over the years to around 16ha. Vineyards were planted on freshly cleared land and sown with a sensitively chosen assortment of cover crops to help manage vigour, something that was much less common in Montalcino at the time than it is today. Classic biodynamic preparations as well as their own patented homeopathic treatments have been used to remedy soils that were low in organic matter.
The other fixation of winemaker Hayo Loacker (pictured), son of Rainer, has been parcellating the property, most of which sits at about 500m above sea level (asl). The tightly folded topography has made for very distinct aspects and inclines, justifying a fastidious approach that uses infrared sensors to delimit each plot. Inspired by Burgundy, Loacker came up with the notion of ‘dynamic crus’: sites from which grapes are carefully sub-selected each year according to vintage-specific parameters.
Intriguingly, the winemaking – though it takes place in a ‘bio-architectural’ facility that has been in use since the 2002 vintage – veers away from the anything-goes approach that one might expect from the terms ‘biodynamic’ and ‘homeopathic’. With tech sheets of almost Byzantine complexity, some of these wines even see a degree of new oak, usually unloved by the minimal intervention crowd; the Riserva Poggio Molino al Vento especially has a notable vanilla softness. However, the Annata as well as the Fior di Meliloto, with no new oak, present an intriguing vision of what natural-leaning Brunello could look like: mossy, resinous and medicinal but wonderfully clean and clear-eyed.
Máté, a newer arrival in the area of Santa Restituta in Tavernelle (home to the iconic Soldera and Gaja’s Pieve di Santa Restituta) has, until recently at least, been overshadowed by its famous neighbours. Even when the focus is on this property, it is often on its prominent owners, Hungarian-Canadian author Ferenc Máté and painter (and now winemaker) Candace Máté, his wife, whose rich tale detailing the acquisition and development of this abandoned 13th century friary and farmland and beautifully painted label designs have admittedly added greatly to the wine’s mystique.
It would be a shame though to overlook the wine itself. It is imbued with all the radiant loveliness of this Mediterranean-facing, Goldilocks zone, which at 320-420m asl, sits above the fog and frost lines but is still easily able to ripen the grapes. Tasted blind without all the storytelling to boost its appeal, the wine has a characteristic Sangiovese sheerness and clearly delineated flavour spectrum, from cedary pencil shavings through luminous red fruit to balsamic herbs and subtle tar. It seems to take some of the more effusive qualities of Soldera’s wines (the zone’s undisputed benchmark) and run with them.
This is clearly the result of great investment behind the scenes. The viticulture – organic of course, with minimal plowing and tilling (‘we’ve gone dirty,’ says Ferenc Máté) and even some vines trained as alberello bush vines – is managed by Giuliano Dragoni, formerly of Col d’Orcia, Tuscany’s largest organic winery. The winemaking is overseen by Tuscan consultant Carlo Ferrini, once (somewhat unfairly) known as Mr. Merlot but now increasingly known for a silkier, more transparent style of wine. Gentle, controlled fermentations, manual punch-downs, delestage and maturation in a judicious combination of tonneaux and conical French oak vats have produced a rounded, contiguous shape perhaps best described as ‘postmodern’.
Try this wine: Máté Brunello di Montalcino 2018
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Though certainly not a ‘newcomer’ by any normal metric, having been founded in the early 1970s before Brunello was a DOCG, Pietroso is a name that has been on ‘wineries to watch’ lists for at least a decade and now feels as if it has truly come into its own. Over that period, the style has remained largely consistent but the market seems to have come around to their point of view.
Current proprietor Gianni Pignattai – nephew of founder Domenico ‘Delfo’ Berni, who originally purchased a postage stamp of vineyard in the heart of Montalcino – notes that the only major winemaking change over the past decade has been a return to entirely spontaneous fermentations, which they did in the early ‘90s. In the interim, they had been using yeasts selected from Montalcino vineyards but found these were not able to comfortably complete fermentations above 14% abv, increasingly common as temperatures have warmed. The vineyards have seen more change: when it comes to the vines themselves, traditional spurred cordon have been replaced with Guyot cane pruning to raise yields per hectare and thereby moderate concentration, a move that would have raised eyebrows a decade ago.
Meanwhile, they have always taken a minimally invasive approach, using as few additives as possible to produce a wine expressive of its blue-chip sites. These offset considerable altitude (around 450m) and the cooling impact of surrounding forests with a bright western exposure and warming stony soils (hence the name of the winery, a derivative of the historic toponym ‘contrada el petroso’). Tonneaux barrels are used early in the process, their oxygen exposure helping create an aromatic openness and rounded front, but they aren’t new and thus don’t directly add any spice to the aromatic profile. Maturation continues in botti (small barriques) to keep plenty of energy in reserve, creating wines reasonably open now but very amenable to extended bottle ageing.
Try this wine: Pietroso Brunello di Montalcino 2018
While Montalcino’s drive towards site-specificity has accelerated over the past two decades, the focus has largely remained on specific subzones and/or individual sites. Voliero’s point of distinction isn’t that it represents a specific site, since in fact it is blended from multiple vineyard sources (which have also changed over time), but instead that it represents sites with a shared characteristic: elevated altitude.
Voliero came into being in 2006. Andrea Cortonesi (pictured) – owner of Castelnuovo dell’Abate’s prestigious Uccelliera since 1986, when he bought the land from the Ciacci Piccolomini family, his former employers – decided to start a tiny production second label that he envisioned mainly as a product for his elegant Il Casato restaurant in Siena. The grapes, offered to him by a local friend, came from Canalicchio, a prestigious site on the northern slope of Montalcino. It provided an interesting contrast to the 100% Castelnuovo Uccelliera, which had a strong, subzone-driven identity thanks to its warm site with well-drained, stony soils. Although Voliero is no longer being made with Canalicchio fruit but rather from two relatively high-altitude sites in the southern ‘subzones’ of Castelnuovo and Sant’Angelo in Colle, it maintains its lighter, more elegant identity.
The winemaking has been traditional-leaning from the start, with spontaneous fermentations and maturation in large oak botti (20-50hL). However, observed more carefully, the approach is hardly laissez-faire: fermentation temperatures are carefully controlled, starting from a cool pre-fermentation maceration at 10-12ºC (as is done for Uccelliera). Once it starts, fermentation is comparatively brief (20-25 days). Maturation times are also at the shorter end for Montalcino, sitting at about 30 months (though this is longer than Uccelliera, which is bottled after 24 months In oak). These details help explain why there is such a beautiful purity of expression here, with carefully preserved aromatics that whisper on the nose and sing on the palate.
Try this wine: Voliero Brunello di Montalcino 2018