A flying visit to Harris and Lewis – Scotch whisky’s most remote Hebridean outpost.
‘Up there? Seriously?’ After 12km of following undulating paths through the bare, wintry vineyards, we’re closing in on our destination, the quintessentially Tuscan town of Montalcino.
The farm track we’ve been following has been taking an inexorably upward trajectory, and now, as we reach Montalcino’s outskirts, a ribbon of innumerable steps ascends steeply around the next bend and beyond. For walkers at least, the beauty of these Tuscan hilltop towns comes at a price, and that price has a name: gravity.
But we’re not complaining (you need to be able to breathe to do that). We’ve spent the past few hours zig-zagging our way from the village of Torrenieri towards Montalcino’s ever-visible outline, our walk punctuated by stops to sample the local fare. Fortified by soup, salami, ricotta, honey and the odd glass of red wine, we’re fully fuelled for the climb ahead.
Prized vineyards: But Brunello di Montalcino was once almost unheard-of in the wider world
This is the annual Brunello Crossing event, including our 13km walk, plus gruelling running races over distances of 13km, 23km and 44km. In that context, despite the climb ahead, we’ve taken the easy option.
The metaphor of an arduous ascent into the light is an apt one for what was once the poorest part of Tuscany, where sharecropping grape growers scratched a living by shipping Sangiovese north to the big wine companies in Chianti.
In those days, Brunello di Montalcino – for the few who had heard of it – was Italy’s Cahors, a forbidding, inkily powerful red wine that demanded the patience of decades in bottle to tame its wildness.
And now? It is, to quote one local producer, one of Italy’s ‘Killer Bs’, a premier league fine wine alongside Barolo and Bolgheri, with a roster of big-name wineries: Biondi-Santi, Altesino, Argiano, Soldera, Castelgiocondo.
If Montalcino’s transformational story is compelling, so is that of the region’s biggest producer, Banfi. Banfi is an incomer, an interloper, an American company whose Italian roots couldn’t allay the initial suspicion of the locals when it parachuted in during 1978.
Typically Tuscan: Montalcino is a quintessential Italian hilltop town
Banfi, owned by the Mariani family, came to Montalcino to make sweet wine (aiming to repeat the huge success story of its Riunite Lambrusco), but stayed to make Brunello when that didn’t work out, hastily ripping out much of its Moscadello vines in favour of Sangiovese.
Four decades on, Banfi isn’t simply the biggest producer of Brunello, and the one that has arguably done most to secure the wine’s global reputation – certainly in the US – but it is also a pioneer in research and innovation.
Its Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello bottling is the fruit of 20 years of studies that identified no fewer than 600 clonal variants of Sangiovese in Montalcino, narrowing this down to 15 and then three that are now thought to produce the finest and most complex wines.
In the vineyards, the diversity of soil types has spawned a painstaking, labour-intensive approach to viticulture: Sangiovese vines planted on more fertile soils use the more productive spur cordon trellising system; those on poorer ground are trained according to Banfi’s own alberello system of two spurs in a v-shape. Assessment is not made block by block, or even row by row – but vine by vine.
Spot the difference: Banfi uses a painstakingly precise vine trellising system
No doubt there’s still some lingering resentment about the fact that an American company owns fully 850 hectares of Montalcino vineyards, but more than 40 years of continuous investment, and the salaries paid to 350 full-time employees, have helped to soften those early doubts.
There’s a feeling sometimes in Scotland that the very idea of foreign acquisition of whisky distilleries and brands is wrong, that owners from France, Japan or the US – England, even – are somehow robbing the country of its natural resources, exporting revenues and profits that should never have been allowed to leave its borders.
But the best overseas owners create jobs and prosperity with their investment, and are a positive force for the collective good of Scotch whisky when they bring their own ideas and expertise with them, driving local producers to adapt and improve in order to compete.
In the simplest terms, they’re givers, not takers; like the vast majority of immigrants to every country, their presence enriches, rather than detracts. Look at the broad sweep of history, and whisky in Scotland, like wine in Montalcino, would be many times the poorer without them.
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