When we switch on the radio in our rental car at Florence’s Peretola airport, we invariably tune into RTL 102.5 and get hit every few minutes with a bizarre radio jingle – Cento due cinque! Very normal people! This would be a strange proclamation anywhere, but completely incongruous in the Tuscany of Michelangelo and Puccini, or alternatively Ferragamo and Ferrari as my son suggests, helpfully. These are of course anything but “normal” people, and presumably their passion and creativity has something to do with their beautiful land. Poetry is normally wasted on me, but as we drove into the stunning Val d’Orcia, a quote from Verdi came to mind. Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’toscana a me – you may have the universe if you leave me Tuscany. This is a trade I would do anytime, I told myself, particularly after they built a championship golf course minutes from Montalcino.
To truly challenge one’s notion of normality, the saga of the sangiovese grosso (aka brunello) grape is worth examining. This story has all the ingredients of a Verdi opera – passion, vendetta, comedy, intrigue, gratuitous violence, hedonism and poetry, everything with the possible exception of fat ladies singing. Sangiovese is the defining grape of Italy, and while neighboring Chianti and Montepulciano produce fine sangiovese based wines, the brunello varietal indigenous to the Commune di Montalcino is at the heart of everything that is idiosyncratic and wonderful about Tuscan wines. “No grape brings more joy or more pain. It demands the best man and nature can give and that’s what makes it so exceptional,” says local winemaker Carlo Ferrini. The culmination of an accomplished vintner’s effort can be a wine which the locals call vini di medazione or wines for meditation – immersive wines that beguile you and make you ponder the complex flavors and aromas. If that sounds like pretentious bullshit from a wine snob, try the stunning 2004 Cerretalto Brunello from Casanova di Neri, ideally with the succulent local cinta senese black pig. Six days on, I’m still pondering. But for a winemaker, getting it right is hardly a trivial exercise, particularly since local rules dictate that for a wine to be classified as Brunello di Montalcino, it must be 100% sangiovese; blending is absolutely forbidden. Like every self-respecting wine lover who has seen Sideways, I am firmly in the “I’m not drinking fucking merlot” camp. However, after a few tastings I must concede that a blend of sangiovese and merlot works rather well. The Fonterutoli Siepi from Chianti is an excellent example, the merlot providing a softening touch to what might otherwise be a somewhat austere wine.
Unfortunately, the dons of Montalcino have zero tolerance for these short cuts. The Godfather of the Brunello family, until his recent death in April, was Franco Biondi Sandi. The always impeccable attired Il Dottore, as he was known locally, lived to be 91, and once walled off his cellars to keep his prize riservas hidden from the Nazis. “They would have drunk them or stolen them”, he said, “neither of which was acceptable”. His steadfast refusal to adapt century old family winemaking protocols led to a family feud, with son Jacopo breaking away to produce his own “modern” Brunello. Ageing his wine in smaller French oak barriques rather than large format Slavonic oak barrels, Jacopo, like many of his contemporaries, produced a Brunello that was less austere and tannic, but by the same token lacked the complexity and supreme ageing potential that is the hallmark of Biondi Santi Brunellos. Thankfully, following his father’s sad demise, the prodigal son has returned to Il Greppo, the family’s medieval villa approached through a narrow corridor of majestic cypress trees. While Il Dottore sleeps with the fishes, future vintages will continue to be in the traditional style favored by four generations of Biondi Santis; ancestral harmony has been restored.
The strict rules notwithstanding, this is the country of Cosa Nostra and Silvio Berlusconi, and playing it straight is not exactly second nature. In 2008, sleepy Toscana was rocked by the “Brunellogate” scandal. Some of the biggest names in the business were implicated on charges of compromising the purity of their Brunello by blending with other grapes, perhaps in response to the tastes of American consumers (their biggest export market) where smooth fruit bombs are de rigueur. An international incident developed, with the US Department of Trade weighing in, banning Brunello imports until complete assurances as to the integrity of the product were provided. While the storm passed and the industry reaffirmed its commitment to convention, a recent shocking incident suggests the shadows linger.
Winemaker Gianfranco Soldera produces a €300 Brunello with a cult following; a fan described the 1988 vintage as “French lace panties and poetry”. The 75-year old Gianfranco’s commitment to tradition is evangelical, and he has been an outspoken critic of all accused in the Brunellogate scandal, with many identifying him as the “deep throat” source for the investigators. In December 2012, in a mindless act of vandalism evocative of the gruesome beheaded horse scene from the The Godfather, the venerable Signor Soldera woke up to find 60,000 litres of his labor of love poured down the drain in his cellar. There was talk of retribution. Some blamed the Mafia, as one does in Italy, while others pointed a finger at the Germans, the new face of villainy following the Euro crisis. The reality is likely far more prosaic. Soldera was an abrasive man who made enemies easily; he once told a visiting American wine journalist that “California is only good for growing potatoes”. The perpetrator of this heinous crime could have been one of any number of people with ruffled feathers. Meanwhile, the investigation is ongoing and a man with wine-stained jeans in his possession has been arrested. Oenophiles have been summoned to identify the stain as coming from a Soldera Brunello. Presumably, they will be sniffing the man’s laundry looking for an aroma of French lace panties.
Tinkering with blends or maturation techniques is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what vintners will do to transform their crush into nettare degli dei or nectar of the gods. Take artist Sandro Chia, an Andy Warhol disciple whose work is displayed prominently at the MoMA in New York. Chia owns Castello Romitorio, a spectacular 12th century hilltop fortress with a winery in its gardens. The estate produces a fine Brunello, but in my tasting the wine that really stood out was the Sant’Antimo Rosso a lovely Super Tuscan blend with great ageing potential at an enticing €20 price point. It’s in the cellar that things get really interesting. In addition to a wall mural, barrels are flanked by voluptuous female nude bronze sculptures interspersed with armed mythological gods – presumably a formula for a luscious, full-bodied vino divino. Other winemakers like Sesti need no gimmick other than the picture perfect idyllic setting of their Castello d’Argiano to produce sensational wines, including the very appropriately named Phenomena Brunello Riserva. As far as winemakers who are “off the wall” in their technique go, the prize must surely go to Giancarlo Cignozzi and his Paradiso di Frassina winery. Cignozzi believes that sound waves have a positive effect on the vine’s root system, leaves and flowers, and a repellent effect on parasites and predators of wine grapes. Presumably, he heard this through the grapevine? His Il Vino di Mozart vineyard is lined with unobtrusive Bose speakers playing soft strains of Mozart around the clock, if nothing else enhancing an already serene setting. When I asked him about his choice of composer, Giancarlo, with the barest hint of a smile, responded that he occasionally plays James Brown when he feels his wines need an extra “oomph”.
I’m looking forward to the drive to Rome tomorrow, with the radio blasting the rather addictive beat of Italian rapper Fabri Fibra’s latest hit Panico. It’s a nice feeling setting off on a long journey in a foreign land with no fear of getting lost, since all roads lead to Rome. But before that, tonight is La Notta di San Lorenzo , a magical and mystical midsummer night of shooting stars when you wish upon a star and all your dreams come true. Screw Bill Gross, this is a new normal we could all use.