Since the interview was recorded, Gabriele has become the first Italian Master of Wine, receiving his diploma in March 2021.
Where are you from?
I was one of the last babies to be born in Montalcino’s hospital, in 1984. Mine was the sort of childhood that doesn’t exist anymore nowadays, 35 years ago Montalcino was perched up on the hill and things weren’t as reachable as they are now – even though we’re not speaking of centuries ago – it was different to be growing up here.
You create firm relationships with people that are here, not just the ones that are your same age but everyone you see around town – they’re all here to stay. You can see it either as a small community or as a big family. My grandpa had a shop in the main square that had been in his family for generations, they sold textiles and other things, so I spent most of my time with them, and that’s how I got to know a lot of people in town. My grandparents on my father’s side had a winery up until 1998, when my grandfather Giancarlo retired. This allowed me to lead two tracks: the shop in town and the countryside.
Gabriele and his MW classmates
Gabriele in Australia
What led you towards the road to becoming a Master of Wine?
Well, incoscienza is the word in Italian [laughs] that suits it best. The Institute was actually organizing master classes in the countries it was less known in, such as Italy, France and Spain, so I attended one without thinking much about it and ended up liking the approach and tried to get the most out of it. I was going into it without being aware of the challenges this was going to bring into my life.
It came after a phase in which I felt like I couldn’t get much further with my wine education, WSET didn’t exist in Tuscany and wasn’t that know. I had done the AIS sommelier course, then the year after the degustatore ufficiale [official taster] exam in Turin. After that I didn’t know what to do… there wasn’t opportunity to grow unless one wanted to become an educator, which wasn’t what I was interested in.
I looked into the Master of Wine and then went to Valpolicella, where I found 47 other people who were interested like I was. Out of them, 9 or 10 were already in the second masterclass, they were the intermediate level whereas we were the introductory class. There were lots of people and lots of networking – which I love – so that was a good start. They conveyed a real sense of opportunity, of seeing things from different angles and applying your knowledge to decide which angle to go for. After 3 days we had a small exam, a scaled down version of what we were going to sit the following year. Two wines to taste blind and two essays to write. Out of the 47, 6 of us got through.
In that moment I understood that it wasn’t going to easy. A couple of months later the institute organized a symposium – something they do every 4 years – in Florence. This brought a lot of attention to the Masters of Wine Institute, which wasn’t well known in Italy yet, 190 Masters of Wine out of the 300 that existed at that moment came to Italy, it was a very big affair.
Seeing all those people gave me the strength to understand that it was quite sought after, and it helped me realize what I was going into. So I began preparing for the following year’s exam, in 2015. In January of 2015 the MW held a seminar in Rust, Austria, and it was the first year in which you had to give the exam right after the seminar. Before that the seminar used to be in January and the exam in June.
Armand de Brignac
There’s a lot of travel – as you mention – is that a part that you also love about the whole course?
Yes, the whole experience for me is about networking, once you’re part of the Institute, wherever in the world you go, you always have someone to call, someone to meet, someone to cheers with. Even in far away places like Australia you find people that host you, people you become friends with because of the feeling of being in the same boat. There’s a great sense of community that is very well accepted, especially within wineries abroad, which make the experience so much more fun and you get to learn a lot of things firsthand by seeing them. And when I see things I never forget them.
Gabriele presenting the 2015 Brunello di Montalcino vintage in New York City
Podere Le Ripi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011
You’ve studied so many different wine regions, and where would you position Montalcino in terms of prestige?
The way I learned to study wine regions is first by looking at their position in the world, geographically. Then you study the grapes and how they will express themselves and then you take another step back and ask yourself what the most important thing about the wines is. And that’s two things: style and what kind of style – because you can have wine from different regions and counties, from different continents, that are made in the same style – and the second in quality.
When you cross style with quality you are left with very few options, especially when you’re assessing a wine “blind”. The second time I sat my second year exam, having failed the first try, we had 12 red wines to taste blind. The first wine we had to taste was a Brunello di Montalcino. And that’s when I realized that one truly does have two brain systems. System one was incredibly quick in identifying it as a Brunello, system two then stopped me in my tracks by making me ponder the chances of it being a Châteuneuf-du-Pape or a Grenache blanc like Priorat. So at that point my mind began meandering “okay… but if you are in Italy, how would you position this wine? It is Brunello because of these reasons…” and so you discount Barolo and so on. But at the end of the day you just go for your first call – which you weren’t biased on – then you’ll be fine.
It was at that moment that I realized what Montalcino and Brunello are in the panorama of the world of wines: a wine that has the capacity of being distinctive as a style and secondly as a qualitative profile. The Brunello I had guessed was Lupi e Sirene Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2011, by Podere Le Ripi.
Image by Newsby
How many times do you taste a wine before you can recognise it blind?
It’s never really the same. Although, from when I began to grasp wine knowledge on a more structured approach compared to a more holistic one, it is easier to notice what’s going on in the wine and you learn to classify those things. My friend and I actually worked on a project on how to decide what to state for your blind tasting. So that if you go for the wrong answer, you do it for the right reasons, so coming back to what I said during my Brunello blind tasting, by thinking that it could be a Priorat, I had all the right reasons for supporting that thesis: the high alcohol, high acidity, firm tannins, slightly oxidised profile and the darm colour – all these elements point you in a certain direction.
I can’t say that I’m able to recognise wines: it’s something you train for, you have all these boxes in your mind and with them you’re able to recognise the wine’s direction, then you understand how the wine was made by crossing those elements and slowly but surely get close to understanding which wine it is. Unless I’m tasting a Hunter Valley Sauvignon – which is extremely distinctive – I don’t immediately state what wine I’m tasting bling. Sangiovese is extremely difficult to detect because it is quite subtle.
Gabriele at Benvenuto Brunello in New York, 2020
What would you like to do after achieving the Master of Wine?
The personal achievement aspect is strong for me, I’ve always liked to study – for the sake of knowing things. I definitely didn’t do the MW to become an educator – although when the Consorzio del Brunello asked me to present the 2015 vintage in New York and San Francisco I had a lot of fun. I had a great time also thanks to the public I had, including one of the most important American journalists, so a group of people that know the subject well and are curious to see if you’re able to convey a message that’s different from the one tirelessly conveyed for years. The experience helped me realize that when you educate, you also learn, and that is very important. I won’t be teaching on a daily basis, but from time to time it’s a great way of refreshing my knowledge.
I founded an advertising agency 15 years ago and right after I began the MW program I founded a second company with a friend, focused on the other end of the wine business: selecting wines from all over Europe or creating new ones. The creation of new wines is the niche I want to focus on, I want to create something that feels new, filles the gap in the market and satisfies me. It’s a really interesting place for me to be.
What do you think about the world of wine hospitality? Montalcino, throughout the last years has developed a lot under that point of view, do you think it plays an important role and what do you think about having an especially international audience?
Wine tourism, especially in a place that has so much diversity in soil and climate within a contained area like Montalcino, changes the world. You let the images, views and imprint people have by simply sitting in your cellar guide the storytelling, because when you do something firsthand, as I was telling you before, you won’t forget it. And Montalcino has so many ambassadors around the world because most people that come here fall in love with the place, it’s impossible not to! It’s amazing to think about how much this area can give you as a tourist, there is such a wonderful story to be told.
Castelnuovo dell'Abate, image by Poggio di Sotto
There’s a very emotional attachment that a lot of people have to this place…
The day I submitted my thesis I went for a walk, from Canalicchio I came up to town, then turned towards Castiglion del Bosco all the way to Castel Giocondo – I felt like I was near the sea, with all the pine trees, slightly saline air… then I moved towards Tavernelle and Argiano, where it is still hot but more continental, you can really feel it. Then up towards Sant’Angelo in Colle to Castelnuovo dell’Abate, where everything changes once again, it feels almost more alpine. I would love to take some of the sportier Masters of Wine or big wine aficionados to do my tour, which I call the “Brunello Soils Tour” as you begin from the hilltop town and doing a round tour find all the soils that are available in the appellation, within a 20km stretch. An innovation in the world of wine – combining it with sport – to allow you to learn things firsthand.
A food question: where do you go when you want to have the best pinci or any traditional food?
…my grandma [laughs]. Yeah, you know, family is where you get imprinted your taste, so you cannot really replace it, unless those are objectively not edible, but my grandma does very good pinci. Here in Montalcino I like Osteria di Porta al Cassero because it is very homely and interesting. Often, when you eat those foods at home and outside, you get tired of them – but you shouldn’t. When I was going to London pretty often I realized that I was never going to find food as good as the one I was complaining about the day before.
Image by Edward Riddell
What’s your favourite season in Val d’Orcia?
Spring. Definitely spring. It’s a renaissance, you feel the colours starting to become more vivid. I feel the energy, the life forces of nature that are joining themselves to heal us. My least favorite isn’t a season but a month: November, during which you have less light and the wine’s don’t taste as good, making it a really oppressive month for me.
So why do you say that wines don’t taste as good in November?
It happened to me last year as well. We had sort of an anteprima of Brunello 15 in November with journalists and everything. I didn’t think the wines were on point, whilst after having tasted them again in January, they were very good, extremely good.
This often happens to me in November, wine’s evolution is a sort of sinusoidal curve, so for me, in November this curve goes down and down. You don’t feel the fruits, there’s a lack of intensity, and most of the time I find bitterness in high tannin wines as Brunello. Which probably goes away by January, as it is a cycle. I don’t know how to explain it scientifically, I realized it after several years.
One last question: what is your favourite scent out of all of the ones that exist in Val d’Orcia?
Propoli. I don’t know the English name for it. I often run by some fruits and plants and I perceive the balsamic, almost pungent, scent of propoli. It heals me, whenever I smell it I begin being in sync with the outside world again.