2001 Brunello Vintage

By Antonio Galloni

This year marks the release of the much-anticipated 2001 Brunellos from Montalcino. There is much to be excited about as the vintage offers an array of outstanding wines. The best 2001 Brunellos are characterized by rich aromatics and generous, ripe fruit, with excellent structure and fine, elegant tannins. Although many wines are clearly built to age I also tasted quite a few that are drinking beautifully right now. Readers should not ignore the 2004 Rossos, the best of which are also outstanding. There are many styles of Rosso, from wines meant for simple quaffing to more serious wines that can give some Brunellos a run for their money. Vintage 2004 is shaping up to be the next first-rate Brunello vintage and consumers can already get a sense of what those wines will be like by exploring the area’s top Rossos.

The 2001 vintage featured a wet winter and spring which allowed the plants to build water reserves. In mid-April a frost affected much of the zone, drastically reducing production for many estates. Throughout the summer the days were hot and the nights cool, providing the conditions Sangiovese needs mature slowly, without an accelerated accumulation of sugars. “2001 is a historic vintage for Brunello, second in its importance only to 1985,” says veteran oenologist Attilio Pagli who has been making wines in Montalcino since 1983. “Our summer was hot, although not as extreme as 2003.  Temperatures tended to cool off during the evenings and every few weeks we got a couple of days of rain which helped restore balance to the vines. If you were to ask me what the ideal conditions are for a great vintage, it would be exactly those we had in 2001.”

When I visited the region earlier this year producers were understandably in high spirits as the 2001 Brunellos had received favorable early press. The aggressive discounting by US retailers of recent vintages, including 2000 as well as the more highly regarded 1999, is clear sign that all is not well in Montalcino, however. The German market, which has traditionally been a large consumer of the wines, has still not fully recovered and the US is awash with great wines from all over the world. But by far the biggest challenge estates will face in the near future is the indiscriminate boom in production that has characterized recent years. In vintage 2001 a total of 4.6 million bottles of Brunello were produced, up sharply from the 1986-2000 average of 2.7 million bottles. By vintage 2004 that number will grow again to 5.6 million bottles although I have heard from several unofficial sources that the number will be closer to 10 million. All of this means that the 2001 Brunellos are in many cases being offered at very attractive prices. With the exception of a few trophy wines Montalcino is one of the few major winemaking regions in the world where the consumer is firmly in the driver’s seat. Put simply, today is a great time to be purchasing Brunello. 

Montalcino can be a tough appellation to get a handle on as it encompasses a variety of terrains, microclimates and sub-zones. The region is roughly square-shaped and encompasses 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) of land. The area can be thought of as a pyramid, with its highest altitude in the center and four descending slopes radiating outwards. Its borders are defined by the Asso, Ombrone and Orcia rivers. The climate is influenced by the warm breezes of nearby Maremma and the region is sheltered from inclement weather by the Monte Amiata mountain range which lies to the southeast. Although the town of Montalcino is surrounded by several hamlets including Torrenieri, Camigliano, Sant’Angelo in Colle and Castelnuovo dell’Abate, there is no formal system in place to make it easy for consumers to understand the attributes of the various sub-zones. In addition, producer styles clearly vary quite a bit, as do clonal selection, vineyard altitudes and a host of other factors.   

The differences between the microclimates in Montalcino can be quite surprising, with the harvest time in the northern zones taking place anywhere from a few weeks to as much as a month later than in the southern regions. Higher-altitude vineyards benefit from cooler temperatures, more rainfall and a greater presence of marl and limestone in the soils, all of which combine to produce structured, age-worthy wines. The lower-lying areas contain a higher percentage of alluvial deposits originating from the period in which these areas were under water. In the southern parts of the zone the combination of lower-altitude vineyards, a greater presence of clay in the soils and warmer temperatures often result in softer, riper wines that can be enjoyed sooner. 

Unlike the Sangiovese-based wines of Chianti, Brunello is made exclusively from Sangiovese, in this case the Sangiovese Grosso clone which is unique to the zone, although one always hears grumblings about the use of other varietals. Unfortunately it is hard to separate fact from fiction in Montalcino. Ask producers about the dark color of their wines and you are likely to hear talk of “special Sangiovese clones.” After speaking with quite a few producers I can only conclude that there must be many such clones planted. Another common theme of discussion is the number of wines that appear to be much younger than their labels suggest. Although the practice of blending vintages is allowed up to 15% there is often talk of wines that appear to have been more generously “refreshed,” to use the Italian expression. A far more serious claim is that bulk wines from outside the zone are being blended with Brunello to give the wines more color as well as softer, rounder textures.

Much has also been made of the use of small oak barrels in Montalcino and the desire of some producers to make wines that are more accessible. Ironically the tannins of inexpertly-used barriques are much more intrusive and bothersome than those of the fruit itself, but as with all such discussions it is ultimately the skill of the winemaker that counts rather than any specific tool used in the cellar. Lastly, the blending of wines from different vintages often results in wines that don’t live up to conventional wisdom about vintage characteristics. Thus, only unbiased producer-by-producer and wine-by-wine evaluations can yield true insights into the wines.

The following notes are the result of trips to Montalcino in March and September as well as extended tastings I did in New York. As is my practice the vast majority of these wines were tasted at least twice in a combination of blind and non-blind settings.