Wine

When La Gerla started four decades ago in northern Montalcino, there were only 30 Brunello producers. Photo: La Gerla
From left: Benito Cencioni (Patrizio Cencioni’s father), Patrizio Cencioni and his son Amedeo Cencioni. Photos: Capanna
Family-owned Capanna is in the Montosoli area in northern Montalcino. Photo: Christopher Lim
Poggio de Sotto never produces more than 30,000 bottles of wines a year. Photo: Poggio de Sotto
Le Macioche has only three hectares of vineyard and only produces a scant 18,000 bottles of Brunello a year. Photo: Le Macioche
Stefano Bambagioni, grandson of Fossacolle’s owner, Sergio Marchetti. In some ways, Fossacolle was started by the Marchetti family of sharecroppers who came to own the land they worked on. Photo: Christopher Lim
Palette of Artisanal Wines
Nothing is rushed when it comes to winemaking at Montalcino, home to a host of good-quality wines that tantalise the palate with their different tastes.

WINE producers come in all shapes and sizes, but some regions seem almost custom-made for small artisanal producers. These areas typically boast microclimates – areas with distinct weather and soil – that result in startlingly different wine being produced from vineyard plots a stone's throw from each other. France's Burgundy is a famous example. And then there's Montalcino, which is in Italy's Tuscany region, 40km south of Siena.

The fastest way to get there is to fly into Rome's Fiumicino Airport and drive north for two hours. Most of the area was under the sea and emerged in stages, resulting in diverse soil that varies most obviously with altitude, but often also manages to be a mixed bag even at the same elevation.

The most famous wine from Montalcino is Brunello di Montalcino. Its less famous cousin is Rosso di Montalcino, often produced from the very same plots that make Brunello, but kept in oak containers for a shorter period, and therefore easier to drink when young.

Brunello and Rosso are both made from the Sangiovese grape. By law, Brunello must be aged for at least two years in oak and at least four months in the bottle; six months in the case of Brunello Riserva. And Brunello can only be released five years from the harvest year; six years for Riserva.

That's a long ageing time before the wine can even be sold, and the extensive maturation in oak typically results in wine that has too much tannin to be enjoyed young. You typically buy new Brunello releases to cellar for years, and if you are looking for Brunello to drink now, you usually buy older vintages. Contrast this with Rosso, which doesn't have the oak-ageing requirements and can be released the September following the harvest year.

Although Brunello's history dates back to the late 19th century, it was only when it became a Denomination of Controlled Origin (DOC) in 1966, and then Italy's first Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin (DOCG) in 1980, that it really rose to prominence internationally. DOCG is Italy's top appellation of wine quality and there are only 74 of them in a country that was the world's biggest wine producer by volume in 2015.

There are 258 producers of Brunello di Montalcino, according to the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino. Collectively, these producers cultivate a total of 3,500 hectares of vineyards. In spite of seven times more land being devoted to Brunello production compared to Rosso, only twice as many bottles of actual Brunello wines are produced annually – nine million bottles of Brunello versus 4.5 million bottles of Rosso. About 70 per cent of total Brunello-area production is exported, which is why many wine lovers around the world know Brunello di Montalcino and are willing to pay a premium for it. But these production numbers are slightly skewed by bigger producers such as Camigliano, which exports 95 per cent of its production, mainly to the United States.

But for every Camigliano, which has more than 500ha of land - of which 20 per cent comprises vineyards - there are many small artisanal producers, some of whom literally grow grapes in their backyards, and whose wines rarely reach South-east Asia and Singapore. Many of these gems are family-owned, proudly obsessed with quality, and willing to sacrifice production quantity to achieve it.

One example is Le Macioche in southern Montalcino, which only has 3ha of vineyards, and only produces a scant 18,000 bottles of Brunello a year. In 2014, which was a challenging vintage for the area, the tiny winery didn't produce any Brunello at all, and instead only made Rosso.

That's one of the consequences of being a small producer with vineyard yields that aren't big enough to buffer poor vintages. Consulting oenologist Maurizio Castelli and agronomist Mery Ferrara brought organic methods to the winery in 2000, in partnership with resident winemaker Aleandro Monaci, so Le Macioche is in the process of pursuing organic certification, and has actually been organic for years.

Another exemplar of artisanal winemaking is family-owned Capanna, which is in the Montosoli area in northern Montalcino. It is headed by third-generation owner Patrizio Cencioni, who is also currently chairman of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.

When Capanna first started making wines as one of the pioneering modern Brunello producers, it only made a few thousand bottles a year, and even though total annual production is now about 60,000 bottles, Capanna's 20ha of vineyards could produce far more. As a winemaker, Patrizio has a light touch and his wines are fruit-forward even when they are full-bodied.

When La Gerla started four decades ago in northern Montalcino, there were only 30 Brunello producers and it was owned by the family of Brunello pioneer Franco Biondi Santi. One of Santi's sisters sold the estate to an advertising executive disillusioned with the rat race and looking to invest in wine.

There are only 12ha of vineyards, all of them certified for Brunello production, and all cultivated with sustainability in mind. In spite of its small amount of land, La Gerla achieves consistency year after year by blending the yields of different plots during good vintages, and separating plot yields during challenging years.

In some ways, Fossacolle came about in reaction to industrial-style winemaking. It was started by the Marchetti family of sharecroppers who came to own the land they worked on. Having seen how other people made wine, they decided to seize the opportunity to hold themselves to a higher standard.

This includes producing Rosso that can age, and Brunello Riserva that is vinified in concrete containers. Annual production is about 20,000 bottles, a third of which is Rosso. 97 per cent of the annual production is exported, mainly to the US.

Poggio di Sotto is located near the southernmost end of Montalcino, and became part of the ColleMassari Domaine family of estates in 2011. Poggio di Sotto has three vineyards at three different elevations, which are capable of collectively producing some 80,000 bottles of Brunello alone.

But it never produces more than 30,000 bottles per year in total, including Rosso. Nothing is rushed. No mechanical pumps are used. No filtration, fining or clarifying techniques are employed either.

Wine is simply allowed to sit with grape skins long enough to clarify and purify itself, because the winemakers have noticed that it's only in the last part of this so-called maceration process that wine really sheds its sediment. Oak and patience are the two key ingredients. Some might consider this sort of almost monastic asceticism mad. And yet, the proof is in the bottle. Because even the Rosso has a distinct poise and balance.

Little wonder then that even the Rosso goes for 50 euros (S$76.80) a bottle, which is more expensive than many Brunellos. Nobody said that patience comes cheap. Poggio di Sotto Brunello retails for 126 euros while Brunello Riserva is roughly double that.

But if you want to buy a Brunello that you can not only keep for years, but even drink today – a rarity when it comes to Brunello – then Poggio de Sotto has you covered with ethereal wines that are always light and remain silky even at their most tannic.

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