Brunello Contenders: Poggio di Sotto 2006 vs Cerbaiona 2004

The ´06 Poggio di Sotto to the left and the ´04 Cerbaiona on the right hand side.

The Italian wine Brunello from the small village of Montalcino in sunny Tuscany was Frederik’s first encounter with high quality wines and where he got his first true brunello wine kick from a ’03 Cerbaiona, but there have been several disappointments a few years now with lots of oak and a general drop in quality.Andreas have had several disappointing encounters with Brunello wines too and is looking hard for some magic.

After several trips to Piedmont and Burgundy, Frederik is now planning a revisit to Montalcino. There is truly something special about the Brunello grape (a clone of Sangiovese called grosso) and the vineyards in the village of Montalcino. It is hotter than other regions like the nearby Chianti and Montepulciano and hadn’t it been for the cooling breeze from the sea in the west during nights and the mist from the Orcia river, Brunello wouldn’t have had a chance to develop any fresh acidity and reach poly phenolic maturity. Thus it would probably just been known as a dry and sweet wine with a lot of alcohol with no ageing potential. In addition, the Amiata mountains protects it from hailstorms and cloudburst too. Furthermore, it normally receives less rain (about 700 mm per year) than Chianti (typically 900 mm), but the soil stores water well. This was particularly obvious in the unusually hot year of 2012, were it practically didn’t rain at all after spring until harvest, but magically still, even though lower yields, manage to produce very good quality grapes.

So we decided to have a show down between two giants of brunello that truly set the standard back in the ´80:s and lately has caused a lot of buzz among critics and tastings. On the left hand side in the upper picture the Piere Palmucci’s Poggio di Sotto and the Molinari’s Cerbaiona. Both makes Brunellos using traditional methods, i.e. long maceration, large Slavonian barrels (botti) and no new oak. However, the style is totally different; Poggio is more fruit-driven feminine whereas Molinari is clearly masculine.

Another obvious choice would have been the legendary producer Biondi-Santi, who way back in 1888 is said to have produced probably the first Brunello di Montalcino, but even though the wine still is traditional and elegant, lately his “Greppo” has lost some of its former glory and mystics. We where looking (as always..) for high quality, elegant wines and a positive wine kick with clear, uncompromising focus on terroir and quality. This excluded numerous producers hijacked by the American markets that prefers super-fruity, excessively full-bodied, fruit-exploding wines and a lot of new french oak. The latter is alarming, considering the brunello grape is a very fragile and delicate grape whose aromas and terroir characteristics and expression are easily suppressed or worse destroyed by new oak. Except for some Californian wine critics, who is really interested in drinking wines that has no personality nor expresses its origins but rather artificially all tastes the same?

So let us start with a short introduction to the producers.

Poggio di Sotto

Piero Palmucci appears to have been constantly improving everything in the whole process of high quality wine making – especially in the vineyards – with the help of the legendary enologist and viticulture expert Giulio Gambelli, who sadly passed away in January, 2012, at the age of 86.

Piero bought several vineyards in 1989 and produced his first bottle in 1991 and he has been a rising star for several years now and his efforts was truly recognised in 2001 by several wine critics around the world. For some strange reason, his riserva this year was dis-classified by the authorities and sold as “Il Decennale”. Now the 2006 is considered magical. However, Piero appears to have sold the estate to Claudio Tipa from Bolgheri in 2011. The estate seems to continue Piero´s work with hard pruning, low yields (max 35 hl per ha), extreme selection of grapes, use large 30 hl Slavonian barrels (botti) and sometime let the brunello riserva stay in barrel for as much as five years. In contrast to others, his rosso is from the same grapes and vineyards, so it is a bargain for its price-level. The bottles that Piero Palmucci have produced are marked with his name if you want to be sure and his last was the vintage 2006. The vineyards for brunello add up to about 12 ha of land and are located in Castenuovo dell’Abate south of Montalcino and face south. In the lower parts, 200 m above sea-level, the soil is made up of rocks, schist and gravel with a lot of calcareous clay. Closer to the top of the hills, 400 m above sea-level, the hill is very steep and the soil is sandy clay. This way they have the opportunity to produce a well balanced combination of elegance, structure and power by blending parts depending on the vintage. The oldest roots in the best parts are 50 years old.


The former Alitalia pilote Diego “Comandante” Molinari that became a wine-maker is a self-taught, stubborn man and has said he never had much help of an oenologist, but clearly Giulio Gambelli has been assisting here too. Diego and Nora bought the estate from the Guerrini family back in 1977 and have turned it into one of the most magical estates in the region. Fermentation takes place in cement vats and maceration is long with a few push-downs a day. The malo is done in stainless steel. Oak barrels of 20 hl are used for ageing over a minimum period of three years. This estate is true to tradition and terroir.

Most of the vineyards are planted in 1977, but some parts are as old as 1922 and alive and well. Their 3.2 ha of lands are situated in the very east of Montalcino having Salvioni, who used to work at the estate, as neighbor. Production is small. Only about 8,000 bottles of brunello are made and 5,000 bottles of the rosso a year. Their soil has a top layer of galestro marl, whereas the deeper contains mostly rock and very much lime and practically no clay at all which somewhat explains the character of their wines. Diego’s careful, organic handcraft, his short-pruning for low yields, and hands-off, somewhat straight-forward approach in the very traditional cellar produces a very individual wine showing both the variety and complex terroir of Montalcino. Contrary to Piero, he only produces one brunello which happens to be a “riserva” but doesn’t seem to care to mark this on the bottle. His brunello has been praised by several critics e.g. Antonio Galloni and Stephen Tanzer among others for probably making the best and most consistent high-quality brunello ever since 2001. However, sadly due to Diego´s deteriorating health, the couple is now selling off the estate.

Enough said, let’s move to the wine tasting shall we..

On this occasion, Frederik couldn’t plan ahead so his bottle of Cerbaiona was opened 30 minutes before he left his apartment and then it was brutally oxygen-raped with a “quick, aggressive decanting”. Andreas on the other hand opened his Poggio di Sotto at 16.00, 4 hours prior to the wine tasting. Please note that the wines are from two great different vintages; 2004 and 2006. The Poggio di Sotti of this tasting is not the Riserva, but we hope the characteristics and style will still be interesting in this competition.

And the results?

2006 Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio di Sotto

Nose: Balsamic, leather, a hint of eucalyptus, a hint of something chemical, notes of tar, incredibly fresh, seductive perfumes, some red flowers, hints of roses and some salt stained, airy breeze.

Taste: Full bodied but lacks concentration and some depth. The mid palate shows hints of chocolate, eucalyptus, ginger, small red berries and black cherries. Very seductive but not sweet and expresses even more feminine characteristics than expected. Very long and well balanced.

Points: Andreas: 95 and Sir Galahad: 95

Nose: Leather, earthy, lots of minerals, under vegetation, herbs, tobacco, some tar, black tea, dark fruit and a hint of crushed water-on-stone. Very subtle indeed.

Taste: Several layers, fantastic depth, very complex, impressive concentration and very low levels of sugar. The mid palate presents magnesium (?), plenty of stony minerals, mushrooms, some eucalyptus, very dark fruit, hints of dark chocolate, some herbs like rosemary, espresso and black tea. This reminded us of the famous appellations in Burgundy; Clos de la Roche with its typical traits of water on stone and hints of Bonnes mare’s creamy, deep black fruit and masculine characteristics. AL: Long, concentrated and tannic driven. FB: The only minor disappointment with the wine is the length in this vintage, but besides this minor remark, a fantastic, impressive and very complete wine.

Points: Andreas 97p/100, Sir Galahad: 97p/100.

To sum it up, two very different wines. The winner we both agree is the Cerbaiona, even though a fair competition would of course have been the Poggio’s Riserva and both bottles of the same vintage. The Poggio is a really elegant charmer, full of fine red fruit, very long and generously full-bodied, but surprisingly lacks some depth and concentration. This makes us interested in an older riserva, due to our expectations.

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