Every year during harvest, people start talking again about the best growing sites, their slopes, and the quality of the vineyards. All of these things are related to the banal elements of terroir.
Yes, I call them banal. But gauging from what people write on the subject, it seems that most commentators, professional and otherwise, lack a true understanding of the elements of terroir.
But what really is terroir in Montalcino?
Montalcino is a pyramid, with an off-center capstone toward the west where the lowest parts lie at 200 meters a.s.l. and the subsoils are mostly clay. Rising up, they become sandy and at the highest point they are comprised of galestro.
Toward the east and the north, the situation is analogous, except the lowest zones are primarily fluvial deposits. Rainfall affects these areas differently because it follows the currents, thus forming the river valleys.
The northern part is naturally the coolest. Areas like Torrenieri, for example, have abundant rainfall while the central and western zones of the township have a much more dry climate.
The north wind (known as the tramontana in Italian or tramontane in English) is cold and dry. It helps to reduce rot and mildew but it can also dry the grapes too much. It tends to affect the east and the north while the scirocco, the hot wind from the south, mostly affects the hilltops and the west. During summer, the scirocco can be very harmful. The valley floor and the other parts of the appellations are sheltered from the effects of the winds.
Temperatures vary greatly from zone to zone. The lowlands to the east are warm and they are made humid by the Orcia and Ombrone rivers. Here, there is only modest diurnal temperature variation during summer months. The west is equally hot but with little humidity and greater temperature variation during summer.
The central-northern zone is cooler and has greater humidity thanks to the Ombrone river, rainfall, and diminished temperature variation during summer. The central-southern zone is dry, not as hot as the east or the west, and has strong temperature variation during summer.
The mid-level hills are essentially uniform in climate across the four sides of the pyramid. But they are less warm during summer and less cold during winter with respect to the other zones. Ventilation is strong, humidity is low, and there is healthy temperature variation. The highest-lying hills have a similar climate, although they are cooler and at times markedly so.
The repetition of these phenomena and soils creates a crescent-shaped strip ideal for the cultivation of Sangiovese. To the north, it become so narrow that it practically disappears. To the south, it is wider, stretching from 120 meters to more than 500 meters.
All of this changes however each year because during warm vintages, the “ideal crescent” shifts toward the top and during cooler vintages to the bottom. When there is abundant rainfall, the galestro-rich zones fare better. In drier vintages, the more humid zones perform better and so on.
Every year is different and there is no one zone best suited for all weather conditions.
Then you have to take into account the all-important human factor in the vineyard and in the cellar. Not all of the estates located in the crescent produce excellent Brunello just as not all of those outside the crescent produce lower-quality wines.
Ultimately, we need to add two other variables that complicate the equation. First, many estates have vines in many different areas and significant amounts of grapes and wine are bought and sold (legally). So it’s challenging and often impossible to know what zone you really have in the glass.
Moreover, as a result of producers’ natural pride for their own work and their limited understanding of the positive qualities of their neighbors’, nearly every Brunello producer has the best vineyard and grows grapes in the best suited area.
Winemakers are generally chatty, simpatico types. And they are mostly honest and open and most work in good faith. They are eager to tell anyone who will listen about how their excellent wines are the result of miraculous terroir even though truly great wine is really the fruit of exceptional work in the vineyard and in the cellar.
This is how legends of zones and subzones are born. They are like all of Montalcino’s legends: Fascinating but often misleading.
Who knows? Maybe we should do what Ulysses did when he passed by the Sirens and fill our ears with wax so that we can’t hear the songs that we talented, honest, capable, and absolutely duplicitous producers sing!
Let me conclude with a word of advice to our friends who love the wines of Montalcino. Not all that shines is gold. Don’t believe everything you read or hear (even from me!). Taste and decide for yourselves!
Stefano Cinelli Colombini