In part two of our buyers’ debate on premium Italian wine in partnership with Banfi we turn the focus on two of Italy’s stars of its famous fine wines: Brunello and Super Tuscans. Just where do these bastions of wine styles now sit in the minds of buyers looking for fruit forward, fresh, approachable wines? What styes of Brunello are buyers looking to list? Are Super Tuscans enjoying a new lease of life as other fine wine styles price themselves off wine lists? Richard Siddle hosts and writes up the second part of our in-depth report.
To help analyse the latest trends in Italian premium wine The Buyer would like to thank its panel of leading buyers including: Melody Wong, head sommelier at Carlton Tower Jumeirah; Diana Rollan, group head of beverages at at D&D London; Matt Paice, operations manager Enoteca da Luca; Donald Edwards, head sommelier at La Trompette, Chiswick; Nacho Camopos, wine manager at Hawskmoor Guildhall; and representing Banfi, was its regional manager for Europe, Jgor Marini.
(You can watch the full recording of the The Buyer/ Banfi UK wine buyers’ debate here)
Brunello’s reputation as a big, strong wine, packed with tannin and texture is good news for all those who love that kind of wine, but more of a challenge for wine buyers and sommeliers keen to offer customers more food friendly, fruit forward wines that are a little easier on the palate.
Igor Marini says it is a balancing act that Banfi is very much aware of. It is, he adds, constantly innovating and looking at ways it can soften its style of Brunello (better canopy management in the vineyards) to meet more of the market’s needs, whilst also keeping to the traditions of what makes Brunello world famous. “No acidity and no tannins means no Brunello,” he stresses. It is the tannins that make Brunello such a great food wine as it helps “clean your palate and what you have in your mouth.”
Banfi can lay claim to being the first producer in the region to divide its vineyards into zones so that making the wine is much of a blending exercise where the skill comes in matching and bringing together the right plots of and sub sites to create an overall balanced wine.
It goes as far as fermenting, separately, each parcel of wine so that it is building up a patchwork of tastes and flavours based on the growing cycle of those vines and grapes. It also introduced the idea, says Marini, of bringing together parcels of wine from stainless steel and oak and fermenting them together in vats.
It means it can also better understand the impact of different types of weather on the finished wine and has proved particularly successful in difficult vintages where it can isolate vines that may have been more adversely affected by bad weather. Like in 2014 where Montalcino was hit by hard rains, or in a very hot year such as 2017.
Any parcels that don’t reach Banfi’s quality expectations can be declassified to make a non-Brunello wine, he adds.
It is also trialling different ageing methods, to put less emphasis on wood, and more on stainless steel to help bring out a softer style of Brunello whilst managing the acidity better. All of which helps make a wine that can be drunk on release rather than expecting the customer to wait 10 years.
(Click here for Banfi’s Jgor Marini on how it has modernised how it makes Brunello)
The end result should be a “traditional wine with big colour, high acidity, very high tannins, but very clean and pure Brunelllo,” says Marini. A wine that is easier to match with food – “even with fish” – and is more approachable to taste but has the right structure and balance between elegance and tannin. “It’s making Brunello more affordable and for every day as well,” he adds. “People don’t want to buy Brunello and then have to keep it for 10 years. We have to invest to make sure people can afford it as well.”
Diana Rollan at D&D London says Brunello is one of Italy’s most “classy choices” and “if you have an Italian restaurant, you need to have Brunello on the menu”. She calls the Banfi Brunello a “text book” style. “It has plenty of freshness and fleshiness, dry tobacco and a slight bitter end, but also very textured tannins”.
The issue she sees for Brunello is where it sits in the premium on-trade “where it is competing side-by-side with Super Tuscans”. That said she sees Brunello as “a must list” providing you can find ones that are ready to drink now “when it is ready to be enjoyed” which can be a challenge.
Paice says Brunello “has always been a staple” and “the heart of its premium wine offering”. He was actually surprised by the depth of the Banfi 2015 and he particularly liked its “sweet spice and balsamic” notes and how the “ripeness of the fruit comes through”.
(Click here for Cartlon Tower Jumeirah’ Melody Wong on challenges for ‘must list’ Brunello for wine buyers)
Melody Wong is no doubt: “Brunello is a must, especially if you have an Italian wine list.” But she stresses it is also competing for space and attention with other great Tuscan wines – up to the Super Tuscans, and even if it is well priced at around £120 to £150 on a list, it is having to fight more for its market share. For if customers are prepared to spend that much, they will often want to pay more and trade up to something with a more “famous name”.
She welcomes the different styles of Brunello, but it does also mean her guests don’t always know what they are getting between the big, strong classic wines and the more modern, softer Brunellos. The Brunellos at the Carlton Tower Jumeirah in London range in price between £130 to £380 to give customers different options, she says.
“Melody hits the problem that Brunello has on a non-Italian wine list,” says Donald Edwards at La Trompette. “The available market for £150 plus Italian and Tuscan wines gets split between the Super Tuscans and Sassicaia takes a lot of that draw.”
He adds: “Brunello as a style is one you have to learn to love. They are complex wines, so if you have grown up sweet oak and ripeness, a more Bordeaux style then Brunello is not an obvious wine.” But equally there is also a strong fan base out there for Brunello who do understand its complications and quirks. “People will come in to the restaurant who know Brunello will happily drop £150 or £170 plus on a bottle.”
Nacho Campos at Hawskmoor also sees “the sweet spot for Brunello” at between £120 to £150 and it is the fresher styles he and his customers are looking for, not the “super muscular, thick and dark wine” that guests often think they are going to get. “The Brunellos I like the most have that paleness of colour, and that freshness to balance the tannins.”
He recommends serving Brunello by the glass as being a “big win, win for everyone”. “Customers will have a few glasses of Brunello if they don’t want to commit to a bottle. They will happily go and spend £20 on one glass. They will not think twice about it. It is very popular.”
Marini says he found the debate between the panellists fascinating and agrees with many of the points made. “Brunello opens up conversations,” he says. “It is not, like Diana says, a wine for beginners. It is hard to play the game against big appellations like Bordeaux.”
But where it can have the edge is in making very high quality wines that are more affordable, arguably half the price of premium Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The Super Tuscan debate
Marini was quick to stress the Super Tuscan category does not really exist as a formal classification, but more of a nick name that American critics gave a few classic examples of big, rich, powerful Tuscan wines which has stuck.
If you are going to categorise Super Tuscan then the closest you will get is a wine that is a blend usually of “Sangiovese and something else,” he says. But they are the best of the best a producer can make that is a true expression of Sangiovese from their property.
Banfi, for example, makes it Super Tuscan wine from the most premium parcels of vines across the 900 hectares it has in Montalcino. Its Super Tuscan is a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to add notes of blackcurrant, pepper, spice and toastiness, where the emphasis is all about a smooth, rounded, balanced wine with sweet tannins.
Super Tuscans are a key part of Melody Wong’s list at the Carlton Tower Jumeirah where her challenge is to find a wide range of wines from different back vintages. The whole process of ordering, serving, tasting and then drinking a Super Tuscan is very much the wine experience that her customers are looking for, she says. Even more so for those that really know the category and are looking for specific vintages.
They are also a nice alternative for those who are used to drinking premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or Bordeaux, says Wong. “Some will pretty much know what they are looking for whilst others will know a certain name and will drink it because it is a statement,” adds Wong.
Diana Rollan says she also seen a lot of demand from customers across D&D London’s estate of restaurants, who are looking for that “fuller, darker more concentrated” styles of wine. “You definitely have them on your list.”
The key for her is to have an ‘entry point’ Super Tuscan on the list to encourage people to trade up and then to have more expensive styles for those that really know the category. Having that “ladder” of prices helps give guests a choice of Super Tuscans they can afford.
Paice says Super Tuscans, Sassicaia and Ornellaia are all big ticks for his list at Enoteca da Luca. “They are all important for us,” he says and help push your wine list and your guests easily over the £100 barrier for wines that really deserve and deliver at that price point.
The Banfi Super Tuscan he found “incredibly appealing” with a “nose” that you could not fail to love as a red wine drinker. “For us this would be less than £100 on the list and would not be a difficult sell at all. The wine you are getting for that money would absolutely fulfill expectations from everyone who bought it.”
Campos says Super Tuscans are much more of a hand sell at Hawksmoor. “If people don’t recognise the name they don’t always feel comfortable going for it it. Once they get to £100 plus they want the familiarity they get more with French varieties. When it comes to the big names at higher prices, people who have tried them, and heard of it them will go for it as a statement.”
That said he thinks there is good value to be found with Super Tuscans, particularly those that blend Sangiovese with French varieties.
Edwards does not really see the tag of ‘Super Tuscan’ as being particularly helpful: “I see these wines being more a collection of very strong brands. People feel they have an attachment with a wine like Sassicaia then outside of that you are selling things on the basis of it is similar to something else you have heard of. But they do work and deliver that Tuscan flavour with body, oomph and power.”
Overall the panel was left very much on the front foot, re-assured that the quality they perceive from Italy is very much there, but also excited about the potential of re-engaging with classic wines from its most premium and well known wine regions. Confident it has the wines and styles to live up to the growing demand both from trade buyers and wine drinkers for quality wines that are fruit forward, ready to drink with the right balance of tannins and acidity to give classic Italy its rightful place on premium wine lists.