Brunello di Montalcino 2007 and 2006 Riserva

The 2007 vintage for Brunello di Montalcino has intrigued me ever since the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino awarded its highest rating to this vintage in early 2008--this following a similar five-star rating for 2006.  Having spent the middle of that September in Piemonte, I was aware from the outset that the 2007 growing season had begun with a very early flowering and was generally quite warm.  So I wondered whether the typically rich and powerful version of sangiovese produced in the Montalcino zone would be able to retain its ineffable fruity, floral, earthy perfume.  Would the wines show the bracing acidity and firm tannic spine that make the best Brunellos so worthy of extended cellaring and so spectacular at the dinner table?

In the end, my worries were beside the point.  While the vintage is fleshier, fruitier, sweeter and less classic (i.e., less austere) than the outstanding, firmly structured 2006s, there are many glorious 2007 Brunellos with compelling sangiovese perfume and terrific depth of flavor.  Traditionalists may well view these wines with suspicion, as they often do very ripe vintages in Bordeaux and Burgundy, but it would be their loss.

The 2007 growing season and harvest. 
Two thousand seven was a warm growing season that began with early development of the vegetation following a dry, temperate winter.  The flowering was also well ahead of normal.  Some beneficial rains fell in early June and hot, dry spells in July were broken by periods with more moderate temperatures.  August was less hot, and well-timed rains aided the ripening process.  The harvest took place a little earlier than average, mostly during the second half of September.  Grape sugars were generous, there was good phenolic maturity and acidity levels were generally average.  Happily, unlike in 2003, there were no prolonged periods of extreme heat during the summer of 2007, and even during the warmer spells temperatures moderated enough at night to protect acidity levels in the grapes, especially during the period leading up to the harvest.

Compared to the firmer, more tightly coiled 2006s, the 2007s tend to be fleshier and rounder, even opulent wines with unusual early appeal for the category.  Many '07s I tasted seemed accessible already owing to their sweetness of fruit and pliant texture, even if they have the material and balance for at least medium-term aging.  Very few show the pronounced acid/tannin spine of the better 2006s.

Still, there are plenty of tannins in the wines and enough acidity to go around.  To my palate, the wines that fall short are those from fruit that got too ripe, or those that lack concentration and flavor authority owing to high yields or insufficient selection of the best grapes.  While there were perhaps fewer out-and-out failures than in any past Brunello vintage, I did run across numerous wines in which the most ethereal high notes of sangiovese seemed to be shaved off by overripeness.  A number of wines were distinctly high-toned.  Some producers with high-pH fruit may have had trouble keeping their wines pristine during barrel aging.  While low levels of volatile acidity can carry the aromas of a wine and make it exhilarating to taste at the outset, those bottlings without enough acid and tannin support--or concentration of material--are likely to evolve quickly.

The best wines, including those picked before the grapes lost too much acidity, and those from vineyards in cooler north-facing expositions and at higher altitude, show utterly captivating sangiovese perfume.  And there are more of these "best" wines than in any past vintage for the region.  Their baby fat makes most of them approachable today, but the top bottlings have plenty of concentration and structure, as well as the balance, to support
15 to 20 years of positive evolution in bottle, if not more.  The rule of thumb that Brunellos from successful vintages need a decade of aging for their tannins to soften and their various elements to come into harmony does not apply to the majority of the 2007s, although it's always possible that some of these wines will shut down for a period of years.

This year's treat:  the 2006 riserve.  In recent weeks, I also tasted numerous 2006 riserva releases, which hit the market at the same time as the 2007 classicos (January of this year). Ideally, riserva bottlings are made from fruit from the estate's best sites, or from selected lots of wine with the concentration and structure to support--and benefit from--longer barrel aging.  Most of these wines spend longer in barrel, and are also held back longer at the winery prior to release a year later than the classicos.  Two thousand six was certainly a vintage that supported this style of wine, but I also tasted examples that did not deliver the punch I look for in riserve.  Some of these wines lack verve, while others seem distinctly drier than the regular Brunello bottlings from the same producers.  The best of them are superb, but in relatively few cases do their price premiums make them compelling purchases.  The top standard-issue 2006s you bought last spring and summer will serve you well.

I had the opportunity to taste the 2007 and 2006 riserva releases from many producers side by side, and in most cases this comparison simply underscored why I still give the edge to the 2006 vintage.  These wines are more focused, more perfumed and more seriously structured for extended aging.  As a rule, they are more tightly coiled than the 2007s and have more energy and thrust.  They are more my style.   But the fleshiness and charm of the better 2007s will make these wines a better bet for collectors looking for earlier gratification, or unwilling or unable to cellar their wines for a decade or more.

I tasted all of the Brunellos reviewed in this article in May, June and early July in New York.  In addition to the Brunellos listed below, others that did not merit 87 points or higher are shown under the many estates covered in this article.

Also recommended
:  2007 Belpoggio (86), 2007 Cantina di Montalcino (85), 2006 Cantina di Montalcino Riserva (86), 2007 Citille di Sopra (85), 2007 Citille di Sopra Vigna Poggio Ronconi (86), 2006 Citille di Sopra Riserva (85), 2007 Lazzeretti (86), 2007 Padelletti (86), 2007 Ridolfi (85).  Other wines tasted:  2007 Castello Tricherchi Geographico, 2006 Lazzeretti Riserva, 2006 La Lecciaia Riserva, 2007 Montecarbello*, 2007 Tenuta Niccolai, 2006 Tenuta Niccolai Riserva, 2007 Pietroso*.