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Italy Sees Red Over Wine Controversy : Wrangling Centers Around Whether High Cost Is Merited

February 20, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

A wine that seems to draw much consumer controversy is Italy's Biondi-Santi's Brunello di Montalcino. The reason is the cost of the Tuscan red, with prices that range from $25 for a very young vintage to more than $4,000 for the acclaimed 1891.

The wrangling centers not around the wine's quality, but rather whether the cost is merited. The myth is that an Italian wine, red or white, can't possibly be worth more than $25, hence Biondi-Santi's superb wines seldom achieve universal respect.

Recently, Bipin Desai's vertical tasting at Valentino restaurant in honor of Franco Biondi-Santi, the winery's proprietor, added fuel to the controversy. Some tasters attended more out of curiosity than out of any deep-seated appreciation. Seventeen vintages were tasted, starting with Riserva, 1975, along with the 1891, which exhibits the vigor of a young wine, outstanding flavor style, a lean robust structure and remarkably little loss of fruit. Very few such oldies on either side of the Atlantic would show as well.

'For People With Patience'

Durability is one of the winery's greatest virtues. Don't expect to buy a young bottle for immediate consumption as the best bottles of the tasting were generally at least 20 years old. Biondi-Santi minces no words about the longevity of his wines. "Our wines," he advises, "are for people with patience."

The wines are not for everyone. Early on they can be ponderous, high-acid, tannic wines that leave the palate stuttering. But when fully developed they can be so svelte that not a few present reckoned they were credentialed claret. Some of Rome's and Milan's better restaurants price Biondi-Santi's Burnello higher on wine lists than leading Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.

The tasting turned me into a strong believer. Unlike any other Brunello, there is a flinty, tar character in Biondi-Santi wine that is exemplified in the 1964 Riserva, together with a silky complexity that comes only with age. Most of the winery's finer bottles are designated as " riserva ," which according to Italy's DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) regulations require a minimum of five years of wood aging before bottling and release. Non- riserva vintages designated as annata need a minimum of four years. Until the wood aging is complete, the wine cannot be called Brunello.

Brunello is really a 20th-Century creation, cultivated principally by the Biondi-Santi family. The name initially appeared in a document in 1842 by the Montalcino Cannon Vincenzo Chiarini. He praised the wine of Brunello from Sangiovese, the widespread wine of Tuscany used to produce Chianti wine with three other grapes, Cannaiolo, Trebbiano and Malvasia. Geographically, Montalcino is a part of Chianti country.

Marriage in 19th Century

In the early decades of the 19th Century, the Santis joined by marriage to the Biondi clan and experimented with altering the traditional Tuscan Chianti wine-making process at the family farm Greppo. Working chiefly with the Sangiovese grape, they chose a specific clone, Sangiovese Grosso, and produced Brunello from that single variety.

Brunello means slightly brown, a name given to it by local growers because of its dark brown grape color, different from the same variety grown in other neighboring regions. Also, the Biondi-Santis discarded the traditional Chianti production method known as governo (making the wine ferment a second time, following the introduction of must from slightly dried grapes).

This new system of wine making, combined with the single use of this subvariety of Sangiovese, caused an instant revolution. The local citizenry objected to the robust style and favored lighter wines for earlier consumption. Moreover, to charge a high price was beyond their understanding. That is why early wine authorities outside of Italy more accustomed to the big style, took to it with greater appreciation and understanding. To say the least, Biondi-Santi's creation was not an overnight happenstance.

Besides the locals' indifference to a new wine, there were other obstacles, including the diminishing and destruction of vineyards by phylloxera during the 1930s. Biondi-Santi managed to survive, but it wasn't until 1950 that vineyards were properly re-established at Greppo and Brunello resurfaced as an important wine. The family bottled and vintaged its wine while other growers of Brunello grapes sold non-vintaged wine in demijohns. By 1963, the law of DOC conferred Brunello with top status, followed in 1982 with Italy's most prestigious rating, DOCG ( Denominazione di Origine Controllata y Garantita ) .

At Greppo it is the practice to select grapes late for maturity and alcohol. The best of the harvest is usually from the older vines used only for Biondi-Santi riservas , with the next best bottled as red wine. At other wineries the third best is still sold in demijohns. Brunello that does not otherwise qualify is bottled and labeled as "Vino Rosso dei Vigneti."

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