The grape that brought power to the people

In wine, the tendrils of power spread like well-nourished vines, wrapping around some surprising edifices.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Perhaps absolute power would corrupt absolutely – except that, fortunately, there is no such thing as absolute power. Even God would have a hard time claiming omnipotence in the face of a creation so wilful that we still can’t keep away from the forbidden fruit, much less follow a set of commandments that could, in my opinion, do with a spot of updating. After all, if covetousness is a sin, there probably isn’t a wine lover virtuous enough to cast the first cork and most of Bordeaux should surely be consigned to the flames.

In wine, the tendrils of power spread like well-nourished vines, wrapping around some surprising edifices. There are the powers of great terroir – wonderful soils – and skilful winemaking, to say nothing of the power of the soil owner who pays the winemaker’s salary. There is the power of exceptional wine to colour and perfume a moment, giving depth and finesse to your memory of it. The rich minerality of an Hatzidakis Assyrtiko takes me straight to the Greek island of Santorini and the pink-washed sea at sunset; the Fraser Gallop Cabernet Sauvignon delivers me instantly to a bar called Wino’s in the town of Margaret River in Australia, which had a wine list as good as its name was terrible. Some wines don’t travel but many, especially those drunk under intensely pleasurable conditions, do and that is a power with which no jet engine can compete.

But there are other facets to wine’s power, as I realised in Montalcino, the pretty Tuscan hillside town from which radiate the vineyards where the Sangiovese grape that becomes Brunello di Montalcino is grown. The wine comes only from this small patch of Tuscany, contains nothing but Sangiovese (once known here as Brunello) and cannot be released until five years after harvest. The current vintage is therefore 2010 and its quality, much hyped by the wine press, has piqued the curiosity of people who had never heard of Montalcino. Those readers’ palates will thank them even if their wallets do not, for Brunello 2010 – intensely perfumed, full of black fruit, violets and silky tannins – has a power all its own. Actually, it has more than one, because even before 2010, this was a region extraordinarily altered, in just a few decades, by a grape.

“Fifteen years ago, there was nothing for my generation here,” Alessandro, my 40-year-old driver, says. When the system of sharecropping (a form of indentured labour) ended in Tuscany in the 1960s, some of those freed peasants bought vines: the land was cheap. Bigger players, such as the Mariani family of Castello Banfi, did, too. Recently, the growing excitement around Brunello di Montalcino has brought about a curious levelling, in which the descendants of peasants, at vineyards such as Caprili, have at least as much prestige, if fewer vines, as wealthy, international types. Even those who don’t own precious parcels of land have a better life. Alessandro is still here, conducting wine tours and working in his family’s enoteca, and his home town now has little unemployment.

To have one grape in this tiny region is certainly keeping it simple – but the soils are various on this ocean floor, millions of years old (Banfi found a whale fossil in its vineyard in 2007), and the 250-odd wineries all have different ideas on how best to express their plot’s particular poetry. There is the light and charming Tenuta San Giorgio, the elegant Altesino and the delicious Brunello of Camigliano, reminiscent of a tarmac road where someone has run over a job lot of blackberries on a very hot day. Some are better than others but that’s individual expression for you – purest Montalcino, spoken in many different tongues, each liberated and enriched by a ruby wine of uncommon power.

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Free trial CSS