For the past two decades, the public’s idea of Brunello has increasingly been a modern wine, deeply colored, layered with oak, and delivering flavors not dissimilar to bold red wines from other regions and other countries.
But long before Modernism came to Montalcino, Brunello was second only to Barolo as Italy’s most revered wine precisely because it was unlike any other wine in the world—possessing a warm autumnal color, uniquely compelling forest-floor aromas and an opulent texture of pure velvet, unadorned by flavors of new wood.
The more we taste Brunello, the more we understand the wines most deserving of our reverence are those of a handful of surviving traditionalists who continue to make such wines, and to do so at the very highest level. One of the very greatest of these is Diego Molinari’s tiny Cerbaiona estate.
Diego was an Alitalia pilot for 25 years before retiring in the late 1970s to pursue his winemaking dreams. He and his dynamic wife, Nora, looked at several vineyards before discovering the bucolic Cerbaiona estate, located on a ridge just east of Montalcino.
When he arrived, Molinari had an abundance of enthusiasm, but needed practical knowledge. So he visited many of the region’s top estates, asking questions and trying to find his way. Diego was particularly inspired by Biondi-Santi, whose traditionally driven philosophy he was determined to follow.
Consequently, he and Nora soon set about rehabilitating Cerbaiona’s ancient farmhouse and planting a small vineyard—not surprisingly, with vine cuttings from the Biondi-Santi estate.
Though Diego was adapting his practices in both the vineyard and cellar, he was steadfast in his commitment to honor Montalcino’s winemaking traditions—based on magical old bottles he’d tasted.
Winemaking at Cerbaiona is straightforward. The grapes are harvested by hand and pressed in a vintage wood-sided press before fermenting in cement tanks. After a period of settling, the Brunello spends 4+ years in cask and at least 6 months in bottle before release. Nothing is added (no yeasts, no enzymes) and nothing is subtracted (no fining or filtration).
With winemaking this straightforward, the explanation for Cerbaiona’s excellence must lie with Diego’s tiny 3-ha vineyard. While much is written about the difference between northern and southern Montalcino wines, Cerbaiona lies in an intermediate zone. Consequently, the vineyard yields beautiful fruit which balances the south’s ripeness with the freshness and structure of the north.
Of course, none of this would matter without a forceful mind to guide the process. Diego’s careful, organic husbandry of his vineyard, his short-pruning for low yields, and his courage to let the wine express Montalcino’s evocative character without cosmetics are integral to Cerbaiona’s greatness.
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