I remember when I was in the Italian village of Montalcino for the first time five years ago and was offered a 2003 brunello in a tasting. A short-lived and average vintage, yes, but I remember that it was the best wine I tasted on that trip. It was a Cerbaiona.
The former Alitalia pilote Diego “Comandante” Molinari that became a wine-maker is a determined, self-taught and stubborn man and has said he never had much help of an enologist, but clearly, the legendary enologist and viticulture expert and last-year deceased Giulio Gambelli has been given advice through the years. In recent years the younger Valerio Coltellini has been consulted at times. 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. 77 bottles were produced in the hailstormed year of 1980, which also was the year when Brunello di Montalcino was classified as DOCG. However, the first real brunello was produced in 1981 and later in the 80’s his 1982 brunello was recognized by a few international critics. The Brunello of Cerbaiona has been praised by several critics e.g. Antonio Galloni and Stephen Tanzer among others for probably making the best, honest and most consistent high-quality brunello ever at least since 2001. Moreover, Galloni appears to have been re-evaluating some of the old vintages and he now seems convinced that Cerbaiona is an underrated gem.
I met with Diego’s wife, Nora, a sunny Monday in May this year. On the road from Montalcino to Torrenieri you turn south on a very tiny, undulating road and at the very end of it you find the farmhouse of Cerbaiona in the very eastern part of Montalcino. Nora is a wonderful, warm and outgoing lady that loves her cats and the surroundings here in Montalcino as well as talking about wines and telling the story of Cerbaiona. We first enter their beautiful garden behind the house. In fact, Nora says they both fell in love with the farmhouse on the hill here directly, but they were actually considering another larger estate outside of Montepulciano at first. However, when it was sold to some body else, she says fate brought them here. And it is here, from the backyard, the visitor is offered a fantastic view of the east facing vineyards.
|Nora in her garden.|
When I ask how they got into winemaking, she explains that Diego had this dream of making wine long before retirement. He had no experience about wine-making, so he started from scratch by tasting several old vintages in the village, reading, studying what others did in his immediate surroundings and talked a lot with top producers at the time. He wanted to try wine making by himself and not just hire a wine maker. In addition to all he learned from Gambelli on growing brunello and vinification, Diego was very much inspired by the traditionalist and creator of brunello, Biondi-Santi, and became convinced and determined to follow this ultra-traditional philosophy but in the process find his own way step-by-step with an uncomprising target to produce a great brunello true to its terroir of Montalcino. With a smile, Nora talks about how Diego and Franco Biondi-Santi became friends and used to play chess over a bottle of old brunello. She makes it absolutely clear that her husband was determined to learn everything about wine-making himself, that he was very focused and stubborn to reach that goal.
|The Cerbaiona vineyard with olive trees|
Nora and Diego’s vineyards are located in a very sacred place in the eastern part of Montalcino. It gets enough sun, but not as much as in the southern or south-west parts, whose grapes sometimes needs to be picked earlier to avoid too much sugar and alcohol in very warm years. Even so, some people unaware of its potential may still wonder if it is not too hot in the Toscana inlands anyway for growing high-quality grapes, but Montalcino has been blessed by the cooling breeze from the sea in the west and the mist from the nearby Orcia river that enable the grapes to develop the so important acidity at nights. Hence, very good conditions for reaching perfect poly-phenolic maturity, i.e. the desired acid-sugar balance and ripe tannins of the resulting wine. Moreover, the Amiata mountains in the south protect Montalcino from cloudburst and most of the hailstorms.
Most of the vineyards are planted in 1977, but some parts have roots as old as 1922 and alive and well. Nora explains that the snow fall and cold of 1985 was the worst of all vintages for them and a lot of replanting were needed and done in 1988. Almost all olive trees died. Nevertheless, the 1985 vintage in the end was a good one, but low production. The size of their vineyards are 3.2 ha spanning from an altitude of 400 downhill to 350 m above sea-level and positioned in the very east of Montalcino having Salvioni as neighbor. Their soil has a top layer of primarily the region’s typical galestro marl (some alberese too), whereas the deeper contains mostly rock and very much lime and very little clay which somewhat explains the character of their wines. The plants are organized using the traditional cordone speronato (trellsing) method for getting an even outtake when harvesting. Roots find water and nutrition at two meters depth even in very dry years like for example 2012. They work organicly, prunes short, selects bunches and yields are low at max 35 hL per ha. Within the vineyards (3.2 ha) 1.6 ha is certified as brunello and 0.8 is rosso whereas the rest is a part planted with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and malvasia nero grapes that is used to make a very unusual, traditional-style “super-tuscan” wine (Toscana IGT).
At harvest, fruit is picked by hand and 100% de-stemmed. A traditional wooden hydraulic wine-press is preferred over anything new at this estate. Fermentation takes place in cement vats, known for their natural breathing abilities and equally important temperature controlling qualifications that enable gentle and gradual fermentation. Nora, says that she remembers when Diego started using them that he told her to put her hand on the vat and feel when it was ready. Maceration is long, about 18-20 days, with a few push-downs a day. The malo is done in stainless steel. Big Slovenian oak barrels of 20 hl are used for ageing over a minimum period of three years, usually 4, for the brunello and 18 months for the rosso and the “super-tuscan”. After resting another 6-8 months in bottle, depending on vintage of course, the bottles are released on the market. Production is small. Only about 7,000-8,000 bottles of brunello are made and 5,000 bottles of the rosso a year.
|Only big neutral barrels are used|
Diego’s very straight-forward and hand-off approach in the cellar appears to be extreme in that sense that the whole process appears to be about preserving the best nature can offer. No matter the vintage, he selects only the best grapes without mercy, with as little intervention as possible and cuts no corners by making any compensation in the vinification process in tough years that even many of the very best producers in the world do. We are talking about no filtration, no clarification, no engineered enzyme-yeast combo, no osmosis when concentration is low, absolutely (thank god!) no new oak, or other technology that affects the characteristics of the delicate brunello grape. It is no secret that at this estate, new oak is deprecated and barrique is almost a swear-word. Hence, except for doing a lot of work in the vineyards and harvesting at exactly the right time, vinification becomes all about extracting and conveying what is already inside the naturally matured grapes from the vineyard. Obviously, this admirable approach depends more heavily on being lucky with weather of course, but nevertheless stays true and honest to its mission in good vintages by offering the delicate, complex aromas and unique terroir of the brunello grape as well as capture its very individual vintage and is simply extraordinary.
Recently and very sadly due to Diego´s deteriorating health, the couple is now selling off the estate. Gianfranco Soldera, Diego Molinari and Giulio Salvioni somewhat set the quality benchmark of Brunello di Montalcino back in the 80’s by building on a traditional platform provided by primarily Biondi-Santi and the importance of this is of course, except for making great wines, that they showed just how fantastic and incredibly complex these wines can really get. In bad years, these gentlemen and their estates hold their heads high and do what they can to protect the quality of the brunello trademark, by declassifying their wine, and more importantly they never ever back down to markets who prefers excessively full-bodied, fruit-exploding wines with a lot of new french oak. The pressure from the latter has been particularly strong in this region for several years now, especially from California and this is sad considering that brunello is a very fragile and delicate grape whose aromas and terroir characteristics is very easily suppressed or at worst completely lost by incautious use of new oak. I and other fans of Cerbaiona in the world now fear that selling out this estate might be one step to a closure of a very important era where a few producers have ensured that we can enjoy Brunello of outmost high-quality and who take pride in celebrating the terroir of Montalcino with such an honor and respect. Let’s hope the new owners are skilled and continue their successful work.
Contrary to many other producers, Cerbaiona only produces one brunello even in the best years. It is truly masculine and I see some resemblance to e.g. Laurent Ponsot’s Clos de la Roche in Burgundy with its typical water-on-stone, earthy minerals and dry blackberry jam characteristics but the Cerbaiona combines more lime stone. Even though, the wine has structure, Cerbaiona is more about depth, complexity and sheer elegance than power.
Is aged in neutral casks (botte) for about 4 years and 6 months in bottle. Great vintage but this brunello is way too young now and really, really needs air for a few hours. Costs about €110. Open 2017-2035.
An intense ruby color middle and light rust orange outer part with white edges.
It shows hints of dried red flowers, tobacco, graphite, leather, water on stone, plenty of earthy minerals, fresh herbs(rosemary?), balsamic, hints of wedged grass.
The mid palate shows layers of fresh black fruit, creamy dry jam, leather, hints of dark chocolate, eucalyptus, mushrooms, herbs, saline, packed with earthy minerals, espresso and black tea. Generously, mouth-filling with chewy tannins that are already quite polished and building its structure elegantly. A little saline acidity now, but this will integrate fine with the tannins in a decade so this promises a very long life. Long and with very promising freshness from the acidity.
A very complete wine with really impressive depth, fantastic balance, very good concentration and subtle complexity.
Its 18 months in cask is almost as long as the 24 months requirement for a brunello. This makes it perfect for having a first assessment of a new vintage’s character and this is absolutely true in this case, since 2010 is a great one, but we have to wait another two years for the brunello. Costs about €38. Open now but better 2015-2020.
Color is intensively ruby red.
Some tobacco, graphite, leather, water on stone, earthy minerals, balsamic notes, hints of wedged grass on the nose.
The mid palate shows layers of black fruit, leather, dark chocolate, eucalyptus, mushrooms, herbs, earthy minerals, espresso and black tea. There is some depth and concentration but lacks some of the complexity of its bigger brother. Generous and full-bodied with already fine, quite polished mouth-filling tannins, but acidity a little harsh now and needs to integrate. A very pleasant long lingering finish.
Very price worthy rosso indeed, but currently it is too young. As expected, this wine lacks the complexity and balance of its bigger brother, but it captures the terroir in the same fashion, has depth and is very generous. It is clearly a bargain for the money!
2009 Cerbaiona Toscana IGT
A more approachable wine with 60% brunello grapes and the rest is a mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and malvasia nero. Spends the same 18 months in neutral casks as the rosso. Costs about €28. Open now-2018.
Color is ruby color with white edges.
Floral notes, balsamic, eucalyptus, hints of wedged grass and some crushed stone on the nose.
On the palate it offers fresh red current, cherries, balsamic, leather and some earthy minerals. A quite long lingering finish, nice structure and with the typical individual characteristics recognized in a wine from Cerbaiona.
A younger, more approachable and charming wine that still captures its origins in a very pleasant way. It is really good value and far from other wines from this region having a more international blend of grapes, so make no mistake in expecting a typical super-tuscan here.
|I and Nora in their house from the 16th century|