2008 Brunello di Montalcino: A Consumer’s Vintage
By Antonio Galloni
2008 Brunello di Montalcino
Readers will find a set of mostly approachable, easygoing Brunellos in 2008. The vintage presented growers with many challenges, the severity of which varied from zone to zone. Depending on the estate, producers reported variable conditions ranging from irregular flowering, significant disease pressure in the spring, and devastating hail in August. The saving grace was a marked improvement in the weather in late September and early October. I have chosen to describe the conditions growers reported within the respective producer profiles, as this is a vintage in which generalizations are of little value. With a few notable exceptions, 2008 produced a crop of mid-weight wines that are best suited for near and medium-term drinking. Given that the market for Brunello di Montalcino is highly vintage sensitive, I imagine most of these wines will be very reasonably priced. Readers will be best served by focusing on the top estates and choosing bottles that can be enjoyed today while the 2006s and 2007 rest comfortably in cellars.
Above: Tasting from barrel at Pian dell’Orino
2007 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
I wish I could report otherwise, but the truth is that the 2007 Riservas are largely uninspiring. Readers will recall that 2007 was a precocious harvest of open, resonant wines built on ripe fruit. Those qualities served last year’s releases quite nicely. Although not obligated to do so, most producers give their Riservas additional time in oak, something that was very dangerous in 2007, as the wines were already forward. In general, I find the 2007 Riservas to be overly advanced and wilted, in many cases because the fruit did not have enough freshness to stand up to the extended barrel aging. With a handful of exceptions, my suggestion is to skip the 2007 Riservas and focus on the best straight bottlings of that year, the vast majority of which are better than their Riserva counterparts and sell for less money.
Above: The cramped cellars at Fuligni
A First Look at 2012
The 2012s are some of the most exciting young wines I have ever tasted in Montalcino. Growers reported off the charts dry extracts accompanied by equally high acidities, a rare combination that has never been seen to this degree. Clearly, the 2012s are just at the beginning of their lives, but the early results are very promising. Next to the cool, structured 2010s, the 2012s have more overt fruit and greater overall radiance. Looking a bit ahead, 2009 and 2011 are uneven years for Montalcino, with 2009 being the least promising among the group of unreleased vintages, while 2010 and 2012 are shaping up to be fabulous and possibly iconic.
-- Antonio Galloni
2009 Brunello di Montalcino: The Day of Reckoning
Readers will have to be highly selective with the 2009 Brunellos. An extremely challenging vintage pushed growers to the limit.
The 2009 Growing Season
The 2009 growing season in Montalcino will be remembered by the massive heat wave that arrived suddenly in August of that year. As it turns out, I was on vacation that summer in Tuscany with my family. I remember going to see vineyards in Montalcino one day and being shocked by the dramatic effects of the heat. Vines are incredibly adaptive plants but, like people, they don’t like sudden change. The intense August heat caused sugars to mount faster than phenolic ripeness could be achieved. In some places, it is obvious the heat caused plants to shut down, blocking ripeness. In other spots, yields were too high for plants to carry their fruit through to full maturity. For more context on 2009 and subsequent vintages, readers might want to revisit this short video I shot upon my return from Montalcino in February.
2009 Brunello di Montalcino: Every Vintage Can’t Be Epic
The 2009 Brunellos are some of the most uneven, problematic young wines I have ever tasted. As a group, the 2009s are forward, light in color and built for near-term drinking. Readers will see obvious signs of maturity in wines with advanced color and flavor profiles. In fact, many wines are already alarmingly evolved and mature. The 2009 Brunellos are generally medium in body, with none of the voluptuous texture or raciness of great riper years such as 2007. It is a vintage in which many wines that spent more than the required minimum of two years in barrel are excessively forward. The 2009 Rossos were gorgeous; they captured the early appeal of the vintage. When it comes to Brunello, though, things are quite different. Simply put, 2009 is the most inconsistent and difficult young vintage of Brunello I have tasted in many years. As always, there are a handful of overachieving estates and outstanding wines, but not more than that. This is a vintage that highlights the differences between terroirs and also very clearly separates the top growers from the rest of the pack.
The hype that is prevalent in today’s world often results in vintages being lumped into one of two camps; we either have yet another ‘vintage of the century’ or a total disaster. In Montalcino, 2009 is, in aggregate, a below average vintage. I believe the producers’ consortium, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, made a serious mistake in awarding the 2009 vintage four out of a possible five stars. Although readers find it shocking, the truth is that winemakers rarely taste in the cellars of their colleagues. If and when they do, producers tend to taste only the wines of their friends or those with whom they share philosophical views. There is very little openness in Montalcino. Instead, producers look to the Consorzio for guidance. The Consorzio’s four-star rating gave producers a misplaced sense of confidence about the vintage that was unwarranted. Most of this vintage should have been bottled as Rosso.
I can’t imagine there will be much of an interest for the 2009 Brunellos given the quality of the wines. Historically, the market for Brunello is either red-hot or dead in the water. It’s pretty easy to see the direction this vintage is headed in. Hopefully producers will price their 2009s attractively so the wines can flow through the system quickly. If not, the value of the 2009s will go to zero, as so many wines are already mature.
Tasting wines from barrel at Costanti
Tell Me Why
It is hardly surprising the 2009 Brunellos are on average quite weak. That much is obvious to anyone who has tasted them. It’s the Why that has kept me awake for so many nights since I first started tasting the 2009s from barrel a few years ago. Why? Why are the Brunellos so inferior to the rest of the wines from Tuscany in 2009? After all, the 2009s from central Tuscany, Chianti Classico in particular, and the Tuscan Coast are generally far more successful than the wines of Montalcino.
Yes, Montalcino is a relatively warm microclimate, but so are parts of Chianti Classico and the coast, so it’s more than just that. Broadly speaking, vineyards on the northern side of Montalcino do better in hot vintages, while sites on the southern side of the village are often favored in cooler years. Unfortunately, even that generally useful framework breaks down in 2009. The better 2009s aren’t found in any one place, rather they are scattered throughout the region. That brings us to a simple truth about Sangiovese in Montalcino.
Sangiovese and Montalcino: An Inconvenient Truth
By now, it is widely known that Sangiovese produces inconsistent results in Montalcino. This is precisely what led to the widespread use of other grapes to ‘improve’ the wines that culminated in the ‘Brunellopoli’ scandal of a few years back. Now that producers know they are going to be subjected to more frequent controls, fines and potential embarrassment if they are found to fudge a little, international grapes are largely gone and Sangiovese has been exposed for what it is in Montalcino: a spotty performer. Modest vintages such as 2009 and 2008 shine a bright light on the shortcomings of Montalcino’s lesser terroirs. Today, there can be little doubt that many of the best Sangioveses in Tuscany come from Chianti Classico and not Montalcino. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The cramped cellar at Salvioni
The Collapse of the Appellation System
Montalcino’s wineries are now paying the price for years of taking shortcuts. The Consorzio, the most powerful and organized group of its kind in Italy, has done an outstanding job of promoting Brunello di Montalcino through various initiatives, most notably the annual Benvenuto Brunello tasting in Montalcino and several similar tastings in the US and around the world. During the boom of the 1990s, the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG stamp of approval was enough to lift the reputation of virtually any producer. As a result, a number of estates rose with the tide. Along the way, some did not make the necessary investments in viticulture and winemaking. Those estates now find themselves lagging in quality precisely at the same time the market has become much more sophisticated and discerning. The current economic climate in Italy continues to be very challenging, which increases the temptation to cut corners.
Over in Chianti Classico, top producers have never had the support of a strong DOCG. Quite the opposite. The appellation’s reputation for producing oceans of undistinguished, cheap wines in straw covered bottles pushed ambitious, quality-minded producers to seek a new path. A much more difficult path. Producers like Sergio Manetti at Montevertine, Paolo DeMarchi at Isole e Olena, Luca Martini di Cigala at San Giusto a Rentennano, Giovanni Manetti at Fontodi and a handful of their peers chose to make their top wines outside the formal appellation system. Along the way, they worked diligently to improve viticulture and winemaking. The success of these wines - I am thinking about Pergole Torte, Cepparello, Percarlo, Flaccianello and others – built the reputations of those estates in a big way. Today, the best Sangioveses from Chianti Classico occupy a totally different level of quality from all but a handful or two of Brunellos. Those estates have established themselves exclusively on the merits of their wines and not on the back of a prestigious appellation.
What matters first and foremost is a winery’s reputation for quality, or ‘brand’ as much as I dislike the crass commercial connotation of that term. Like most megatrends in wine, Angelo Gaja spotted this one more than a decade before everyone else. But Gaja wanted to make wines in Barbaresco and Barolo that were decidedly outside the DOCG system, so his departure from those appellations for his top wines made sense. It’s a different story in Montalcino. When Montalcino’s most famous producer and ardent supporter of Sangiovese leaves the appellation it is a sign of serious trouble. Not because Gianfranco Soldera has vowed that all of his new releases will be sold as IGT Toscana Sangiovese, but because there are at least 10-12 high-quality producers who would make the same decision in an instant if they thought they could do so without harming their businesses. It doesn’t help that the powers that be in Italy have elevated wines including Frascati and Greco di Tufo to DOCG status. So, what is the value of DOCG? Nothing.
Tasting 2013 Sangiovese tank by tank at Siro Pacenti
On a more positive note, Brunello lovers have much to look forward to. The 2010s are shaping up to be excellent, and perhaps more than that, as long as the wines in bottle capture the magic they have shown in barrel. I remain enthusiastic about the 2012s, wines from a warm, but even year, that are quite promising. The 2013s emerge from a much cooler, longer growing season. I very much like the best of what I have tasted thus far. Today, 2011 looks to be an irregular vintage that combines elements of both 2007 and 2009. My expectations here are a bit more muted.
Ceramic fermentation tanks at Cerbaiona
Other New Releases: 2012 Rosso di Montalcino and 2008 Brunello Riserva
The 2012 Rossos show the gorgeous wines Montalcino is capable of in top years. From a vintage with high dry extracts and unusually high acidities, the best 2012 Rossos are drop-dead gorgeous beauties. As a consumer, these are the Montalcino wines I am buying today. I find little to get excited about with the 2008 Riservas. Given the modest quality of that vintage across the board, most producers would have been better off blending their Riserva (and/or single-vineyard) juice into the straight bottlings.
The Way Forward
Montalcino, like most of Tuscany, is fairly insular and cut off from easy access to major cities and other regions. I see an alarming lack of intellectual curiosity about the world’s great wines among many of Montalcino’s producers. To be fair, this critique is not limited to growers in Montalcino, but also applies to producers in many other regions throughout Italy. How many winemakers truly love wine?
Montalcino also has to find a way to become more open to the world, and that includes building infrastructure and tourist accommodations, such as high-quality hotels and restaurants, that the town currently lacks to an alarming degree.
Producers need to pay more attention to viticulture and be more diligent about the use of oak, especially in vintages that can’t support extended aging in barrel. In today’s world regulations that force producers into minimal oak aging regimes are woefully antiquated.
Lastly, the Consorzio must engage in serious work to understand which areas in Montalcino can produce world-class Sangiovese. Those areas should be designated Brunello di Montalcino. The rest of the area’s vineyards should be either Rosso di Montalcino or a simple Montalcino appellation that would allow for the use of other grape varieties. The politics involved in establishing such designations are difficult to navigate and fraught with challenges, but I am also pretty sure Montalcino’s producers would prefer to undertake this project themselves rather than wait for someone else from the outside to do the job for them, something that becomes easier by the day considering advances in technology.
Lest readers think I am being too harsh, let me assure you that these observations about Montalcino – these self-evident truths – will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Montalcino and its wines and, perhaps most importantly, has the courage to speak up. Montalcino can produce great wines. I have been fortunate to drink many of them, including numerous older vintages from Biondi Santi, Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia and others that were made with none of the technology or knowledge that exists today. Those wines remain testaments to the exceptional quality Montalcino is capable of. At the same time, though, it is impossible to ignore that Montalcino has fallen behind the pace with respect to global peers. It’s time for Montalcino’s growers to make a serious commitment to quality and step it up.
-- Antonio Galloni
2012 Rosso di Montalcino
Rosso di Montalcino is undoubtedly one of Italy’s true wine success stories of the last decade. A wine I had all but given up on from the latter part of the ’90s to the early part of the 21st century, it has undergone a remarkable quality turnaround and is now one of Italy’s most interesting and dependable red wines.
Although it appears that the days in which Rosso was Brunello’s forgotten little brother are gone for good, it wasn't that long ago that producers were just going through the motions when making these considerably less expensive wines. Clearly, before the global economic crisis clamped down hard, interest was focused on the much more popular, prestigious and remunerative Brunello. Even worse, it seemed many producers had reduced their Rossos to being reservoirs for the poorest wine they had made in the vintage, and their lousiest barrels. And so, more often than not, Rossos were tough, angular, bitter, dry and downright unpleasant to drink: with few exceptions, the best were little more than palatable.
Not so anymore: due to a combination of the challenge of selling Brunello in today’s market, a new-found faith in the merits of sangiovese on the part of growers, and a generational shift at the helm of numerous Montalcino estates, Rossos have never been better than they are today. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that many Rosso di Montalcino wines can best some less-than-stellar Brunellos when tasted side by side and blind.
Rosso di Montalcino is viewed by some—a mistake, in my mind—as Brunello’s little brother because it is essentially born from the same vineyards, but the wines go through a much shorter period of élévage. Rossos can be released into the market on or after September 1 of the following vintage, and there is no minimum oak aging requirement. Just like Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is the product of 100% sangiovese grapes grown in the Montalcino territory, almost all of which is in my view rather perversely also allowed to make Brunello—another mistake, in my view. In fact, of Montalcino’s 3,500 hectares, 2,100 are allowed to make both Brunello and Rosso, and another 510 can produce only Rosso. The only difference between these two categories of Rosso production has to do with maximum allowable yields: 55 hectoliters per hectare for those Rossos made from land that is also allowed to make Brunello, and 62 for those Rossos made where Brunello cannot be produced.
Rosso di Montalcino, previously known by various different names (another sure-fire sign the wine was long looking for a raison d’être), acquired its own definitive identity and official recognition when it became a DOC wine in 1983. In effect, it’s a rather unique entity in the world of Italian wine. This is because for the first time in Italy, producers were allowed to obtain two different DOC wines from the same vineyards: the ageworthy Brunello di Montalcino and the fresher Rosso di Montalcino, a wine of early appeal meant to be drunk sooner but, in typical Montalcino fashion, offering noteworthy structure nevertheless.
In the end, what Rosso you end up getting in the bottle depends very much on what the producer decides it should be. While the majority of Montalcino estates make their Rossos from younger sangiovese vines that could also make Brunello, others specifically set out to make Rosso di Montalcino from vineyards dedicated to this purpose. At some estates, Rosso is aged in oak, albeit for a much shorter time than Brunello (between six months and a year in most cases, compared to Brunello’s minimum two-year oak aging requirement). Therefore, some producers choose to make bigger Rossos than others, and they achieve this not just by giving the wines extra time in wood but often longer bottle aging as well, releasing them a year or more later.
At times, Rosso di Montalcino can end up being nothing more (or less) than a declassified Brunello: wines that the producer, after tasting them repeatedly from cask, doesn’t think will hold up to the prolonged oak aging that Italian law requires for Brunello. While it may seem that such baby-Brunellos ought to be the best examples of Rosso possible, this is not the case: in fact Rossos made with very little oak aging and from vineyards specifically planted to make Rosso can be remarkably fresh, food-friendly and affordable. Clearly, these juicy, medium-bodied wines are rarely as complex or as deep as the best Brunellos, but they are often a joy to drink and a real revelation for those who have never tried them before.
The Rosso vintage that is currently widely available in the market is 2012, a difficult year for Montalcino in which the harvest was roughly 14% smaller than that of the previous year and about 10% lower than the long-term average. The growing season was characterized by intense summer heat and drought, which came on the heels of a dry winter and spring. Mature vines can deal with prolonged water shortage thanks to their deeper root systems, which can enable them to find some moisture in the soil, but they invariably cut back on fruit production in order to guarantee their survival, by diverting all available nutrients and energy into preserving foliage, the photosynthetic and lifesaving machinery of plants. Young vines fare much worse. Furthermore, water stress leads to metabolic blockage, so that the polyphenols rarely reach full ripeness, a condition easily recognizable in finished wines marred by gritty tannins and unripe, green aromas and flavors.
That said, the remarkable thing about the 2012 Rosso di Montalcino wines is just how successful they are turning out to be. This may not end up being true, by the way, for the 2012 Brunellos, because the latter wines must weather a much longer period of oak aging without drying up in the process. But in my tastings I found many of the 2012 Rossos to be luscious and irresistible. “The harvest has given unexpectedly good results,” noted Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello Consortium. “Despite what everyone said, the hot year brought lots of polyphenols but also very high acidity levels, even 6.3 grams per liter, though I’m not sure why this is. I even called up friends and colleagues to see if they knew why, but they are just as dumbfounded as I am.
Most likely, timely September rains had a very positive effect. While picking began in the last days of August, off-and-on light showers kickstarted the vines’ metabolic machinery, and the diurnal temperature variations helped to preserve the freshness and aromatic intensity of the grapes. And in a very clear demonstration of why Montalcino is an outstanding area for quality wine production, rainfall amounted to just a few millimeters at a time in September, while on the same days in nearby Siena (roughly 30 minutes to the north by car), rain activity continued for several hours unabated.
Finally, 2012 is also a good vintage for Moscadello di Montalcino, the area’s sweet wine made from the moscato bianco variety (better known as the grape used to make Piedmont’s famous Asti and Moscato d’Asti). This notoriously delicate grape (its thin skins can quickly degrade in very rainy years) were able to ripen slowly but surely in the clement fall weather. The 2013 vintage has given even fresher, brighter Moscadello wines.
This report also includes a few late-release 2011 Rossos—another hot vintage but a year in which the onset of heat was more gradual than in 2012. Although the talented Francesco Leanza, owner of the highly regarded Salicutti estate, told me he loves the 2011 vintage, I find the wines to be more irregular than those of 2012. Unlike in 2012, temperatures in 2011 were hot during both day and night, which increased the onset of dehydration in the grapes and made for less perfumed and more angular wines.