Brunello Di Montalcino 2007: A Worthy Successor to 2006

by Antonio Galloni

I have been visiting Montalcino since 1997. During the years I lived in Italy (2000-2003), I traveled to this picturesque hillside town several times a year. Today I meet with countless winemakers and visit numerous estates on a regular basis. And I have had the privilege to taste virtually all of the reference point wines made in Montalcino, both new and old. But none of that really matters. It was two totally unrelated incidents during my recent trip that spoke most eloquently to what Montalcino is really all about.

I arrived in Montalcino on Monday, February 13. The previous Friday, Montalcino had been hit with the second of two big snowstorms within a few days. It was the biggest snowfall since 1985. Many spots had a total of 50-75cm (20-30 inches) on the ground, which happens to be the range at which a number of vineyards are pruned, so the vines were basically completely covered with snow. By the time I got to Montalcino, the main roads in and out of town were pretty much clear, but the town center itself was a disaster. Steep, slippery roads weren’t cleared until the following Tuesday, but plowed snow clogged roads and basically ate up the few parking spots that exist until the snow finally started melting. Let’s get one thing clear. Montalcino exists for one thing and one thing only. Wine. Without wine there is nothing that distinguishes Montalcino from countless other pretty hillside Tuscan villages. So, one might reasonably think that under the burden Montalcino was clearly feeling from an abnormal weather event for which it was totally unprepared, its leading corporate citizens might chip in to help. A few of the big producers could have sent in their tractors and had roads in tip-top shape, or close to it, in a matter of hours. Fat chance. If this snowstorm had happened just two weeks later, the annual Benvenuto Brunello event would have been severely compromised.

Later that evening I had dinner at a local restaurant. A simple place. We ordered the 2009 Salvioni Rosso di Montalcino, a wine that never makes it to the US that I was curious to try. As soon as the wine was poured I could see there was a problem. But at that point I was too tired to make a fuss, and I knew it wouldn’t make a difference. Our waiter didn’t even notice we barely touched the wine. Of course not. That would be called service. And after all, what’s 35 euros ($46.00) between friends, right? As I looked around, I noticed there were no eggs or milk lying out on the counters. Those items were safely stored in the refrigerator. But wine? Well, that is different. There were countless bottles sitting on the shelves at room temperature. What is most alarming is that the Salvioni 2009 Rosso is a wine that was just released a few months ago. It was already shot. Italy experienced a massive heat wave in August 2011, and it is highly likely that wines that weren’t stored properly are now compromised. I was amused when a friend who is a frequent visitor to Montalcino told me that he was consistently disappointed by the wines of top producers in restaurants. Then he added, “Maybe the bottles I have been drinking haven't been stored properly.” You betcha.

So, as I sat and reflected on my first day in Montalcino, I could only conclude that there is an alarming amount of indifference here. Frankly, it is a miracle that good – much less great – wines are made in Montalcino at all. Those producers who make the sacrifices to produce world-class wines should be applauded and supported, because they are very much the minority, even in their own town.

Then there is the all-out warfare amongst producers worthy of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. When you come to Montalcino you are hit in the face with the hard, cold reality. It is street warfare here. Mano a mano combat with an acceptable – and at times seemingly desired – goal of mutual self-destruction. Producers still haven’t figured out that their competition is the world’s other winemaking regions rather than their neighbors.

2010 Rosso di Montalcino

As I wrote last year, 2010 is the next great vintage for Montalcino. The 2010 Rossi bear that out, as do the numerous 2010 Brunelli I tasted from cask. The year was characterized by a cold summer and a long, late harvest. The 2010 Rossi have great fruit, expressive aromatics and considerable structure to back it all up. The best 2010s are fabulous wines that deserve serious attention.

2007 Brunello di Montalcino

Vintage 2007 is a more than worthy follow-up to 2006. It’s hard to remember two consecutive vintages of this level in Montalcino. For most growers, 2007 was a warmer overall year than 2006. Temperatures remained above average pretty much the whole year, but never spiked dramatically as they did in 2003. Cooler temperatures and greater diurnal swings towards the end of the growing season helped the wines maintain acidity and develop their aromatics. Overall, the 2007s are soft, silky wines that are radiant, open and highly expressive today. My impression is that most of the wines will not shut down in bottle and that 2007 will be a great vintage to drink pretty much throughout its life. I tasted very few wines that were outright overripe or alcoholic. Many of the best 2007s come from the center of town, where the higher altitude of the vineyards was a critical factor in achieving balance. Overall, I rate 2007 just a notch below the more structured and age worthy 2006, but in exchange the 2007s will drink better earlier.

2006 Brunelli di Montalcino Riserva

Overall I am disappointed in the 2006 Riserve. There is no question 2006 is a fantastic vintage on paper. But there are just a few cases where the 2006 Riserve are better than the straight Brunelli released last year. Why? It is hard to say with certainty, but my impression is that too many wines are spending far too long in oak and are drying out in the process. With a few exceptions, my suggestion is to stick with the regular bottlings in 2006.

Looking Ahead: 2008-2011

I am also very optimistic about 2008. Consumers and the trade will focus on 2006 and 2007, which sets up the very real possibility 2008 will be completely overlooked. Based on what I tasted from barrel, it shouldn’t be. The 2008s are beautifully delineated, mid-weight wines that impress for their finesse and exceptional overall balance. My instincts tell me that a number of 2008s are going to turn out better than expected. I am less optimistic about 2009 because many of the wines lack the true sense of structure required for Brunello. Today 2009 is the most inconsistent recent vintage in Montalcino. As mentioned above, 2010 is shaping up to be a tremendous vintage for big, structured Brunelli of notable pedigree. I tasted a handful of 2011s from barrel and tank. Today the 2011s come across as jammy, hot and very ripe. Of course the 2011s are years from being released, so it is far too soon to have a clear idea of where this vintage is headed.