2006 Brunello: The Emperor’s New Clothes or Historic Vintage?

by Antonio Galloni

I can’t think of another region in the world that needs a great vintage more badly than Montalcino. Still reeling from the 2003 blending scandal, plummeting prices and a tarnished reputation, Montalcino desperately needs to get back on track, and the 2006 might just be the vintage that makes that happen. Interest in the 2006 Brunellos is by far the highest I have seen for any Italian wine since I joined The Wine Advocate, coincidentally that same year. Many of the 2006s were highly promising from the moment I began following them in barrel. Now that the wines are in bottle, it is clear most producers captured the full potential of this great harvest. While a sizeable number of the top wines are truly stunning, the vintage’s quality is best judged by looking at the second and third-tier producers, many of whom made wines that are above their historical standard. As always, there are a handful of underachievers. There are two possible explanations for disappointments in 2006; the vintage isn’t as great as it had been expected (or hyped) to be or, this is the ultimate proof that not all of Montalcino is suited to making wines of first-class pedigree. Increasingly it is obvious that it is the latter rather than the former that explains why some wines aren’t as exciting as they should be. At its best, though, 2006 is a benchmark vintage for Brunello di Montalcino. Readers will not want to miss these fabulous wines.

In general the best 2006s are big, powerful Brunelli with beautifully delineated aromatics, great concentration of fruit and plenty of structure. There are significant differences between the northern and southern parts of the zone, once again demonstrating that Montalcino really must be considered as a group of smaller appellations. The wines of the north are generally more linear, focused and aromatic, while the wines of the south tend to favor a riper, warmer expression of fruit.

As is typically the case, most of the very finest wines were made by Montalcino’s small, artisan growers, including Stella di Campalto, Pian dell’Orino, Costanti, Uccelliera, Fuligni, Salvioni, Poggio di Sotto, Soldera, Cerbaiona, Valdicava, Siro Pacenti and Casanova di Neri. These are Montalcino’s equivalents of Mugnier, Roumier, de Vogüé, Dugat, Dugat-Py, Rousseau, Dujac, Clair and Fourrier, to name a handful of Burgundy’s superstar producers.

The 2006 Growing Season

Vintage 2006 will be remembered for intense, rich wines. At the same time, the best Brunelli possess striking aromatics, plenty of nuance and the structure to develop positively for many years. The summer was hot, but temperatures did not reach the extremes of years such as 2003. Spells of rain in late August and early September refreshed the grapes and slowed down their maturation cycle, always a positive for Montalcino. Growers picked under gorgeous fall weather.

As noted above, many of the finest, most elegant wines come from the northern parts of Montalcino. These include Fuligni, Valdicava, Salvioni, Costanti, Cerbaiona and Casanova di Neri’s regular bottling, which is superb in 2006. The vintage is more irregular in the southern reaches of Montalcino. A number of wines from Castelnuovo dell’Abate and Sant’Angelo in Colle come across as excessively concentrated and dark, or even worse, totally anonymous, although Poggio di Sotto, Soldera and Stella di Campalto made thrilling wines of the highest level.

Looking Ahead: 2007-2010

Of the vintages currently aging in barrel, 2010 appears to be the most consistently outstanding. Rain during the flowering in late May/early June resulted in abnormally low yields. The rest of the year was less eventful. Cooler temperatures and rain delayed the harvest into October for many growers. The 2010 Brunelli are rich, dramatic, sweeping wines loaded with potential. This is going to be a fascinating vintage to follow over the next few years and decades. Vintages 2007, 2008 and 2009 are all less consistent than either 2006 or 2010. I tasted important, promising wines from all three vintages, but each of these years presents issues. The 2007s are ripe, forward and flashy, but don’t seem to have the visceral thrill of the 2006s or 2010s. Most growers I spoke with plan to release their top selections. The 2008s are decidedly mid-weight wines with excellent freshness but modest structure. A number of producers told me they would not bottle their highest-end selections. The 2009s are attractive for their fleshiness, but on average this appears to be a mid-weight vintage with limited potential for longevity. All that said, I nearly always choose producer over vintage, and encourage readers to break free of the conventional, vintage-centric approach to thinking about wine.

Don’t Forget About 2005

I tasted a number of 2005 Riservas that are surprisingly good. Cool weather Brunelli are rarely exciting or dramatic when young, but Montalcino itself is a relatively warm area, so a colder vintage actually balances some of the region’s tendency towards big, blowsy wines. Sangiovese is a grape that can age exquisitely, and I have little doubt that the best wines from this harvest will be terrific at age 15-20 and beyond. I tasted a number of older wines from small vintages on my recent trip to Montalcino and was very pleasantly surprised with how well those wines have aged. As always, readers should focus on the best growers. Given all of the attention the 2006s are receiving I have little doubt the 2005s will be offered at every favorable prices.

2009 Rosso di Montalcino

The 2009 Rossi are attractive, fleshy wines with pliant fruit and open personalities. I tasted a number of good to excellent wines, but frankly found very few examples that can match the superb 2006s and 2007s. Here, too, readers should be selective. I also tasted several late release 2008 Rossi that were spectacular, but it comes down to producer, producer, producer.

The Future of Montalcino

Montalcino is a complicated place, full of political intrigue and negotiations. During my trip earlier this year the producers’ Consorzio was scheduled to vote on a proposal that would have allowed the use of international grapes in Rosso di Montalcino. At first, it looked like the change would pass, but at the last moment a number of producers voiced opposition. Rather than risk the embarrassment of losing or winning by a slender margin, the Consorzio decided to delay the vote three months. Clearly the pro-change faction hoped to win approval for the measure just as the world’s journalists and major buyers were flocking to the town for the annual Benvenuto Brunello tasting, but things didn’t work out as expected. It is not easy to decide – much less gain consensus – about what needs to be done in Montalcino. At the high end, prices for Brunello have plummeted to about 6 euros a bottle, cannibalizing sales of Rosso di Montalcino, a category that is languishing. A top producer told me his US importer passed entirely on the Rosso this year. This particular wine costs more than most Brunelli, and the vast majority of consumers simply aren’t willing to pay for an expensive Rosso when they can drink Brunello. At the same time, the widely planted Sant’Antimo appellation is a flop. Sant’Antimo was the denomination drawn up for international varieties when they were in vogue, which of course now they aren’t. So, producers with holdings in all three appellations find themselves with a shrinking, fiercely competitive market for Brunello, little interest for Rosso and even less demand for Sant’Antimo. The proposed changes to the Rosso regulations would provide some outlet for the massive amounts of international varieties planted in Sant’Antimo, and might help producers make more consistent and less expensive Rossi from year to year, but it will also result in lower prices across the board. I am not sure those changes will do anything at all to address the main problem, which is the overproduction of Brunello. That will only happen when producers agree to limit yields and make less Brunello. At the end of the day, the market will recognize quality, despite the name of the appellation on a label. Given the vast array of choices at their disposal, today’s consumers are increasingly focused on wines that deliver true regional and varietal character. I sincerely hope producers in Montalcino get the message.