Brunello di Montalcino 2008 and 2007 Riserva

Rich, complex and refined, Brunello di Montalcino is the product of just one grape variety, sangiovese, which is capable--much like pinot noir and nebbiolo--of delivering wonderful site specificity.  Better still, Brunello di Montalcino offers a rare combination of food-friendliness (because sangiovese is blessed with very high natural acidity and mouth-cleansing tannins) and potentially outstanding ageworthiness.  Many bottles from the past century are still in amazing shape.

Since last year's Brunello coverage in the IWC, it has been a busy year for Montalcino and its wines.  Good news for all those who love Brunello and Montalcino is the recent re-election, by a landslide, of formerly interim President Fabrizio Bindocci, the general director of Il Poggione.  Bindocci has been working for the same estate since 1976 and he understands Montalcino as few others do.  This is important in dealing with the complex reality of Montalcino, an area that is made up of large estates, very small domains run by down-to-earth farmers, and many recently arrived moneyed foreigners.

Bindocci, whom I have known for the better part of 20 years, is an accommodating and likable person, an articulate speaker and a consensus-builder.  During his term, Bindocci hopes to start the complex process of zoning Montalcino's different areas, a step that he believes needs to be carried out officially.  Such action can only help promote the diversity that is Montalcino and help people gain a better appreciation of Brunello.  Clearly, the goal would not be to determine which sites are better, but to characterize what each can give; after all, Pauillac and Margaux couldn't be any more different, but both produce outstanding, if different, wines.  For the moment, there appears to be no push to change the guidelines for making Brunello, which by law is a pure 100% sangiovese wine. 

Last year also saw the sale of Poggio Landi, owned by the Cinelli Colombini family (the property was separate from the Fattoria dei Barbi) to an Argentinian entrepreneur. Also, Tenuta Oliveto, owned by the Machetti family, was sold to the Soleya International Corporation of Panama.  And Saiagricola, owner of La Poderina, has announced plans to increase investments and holdings in Montalcino.  On a slightly more negative note, due to the tough economic times, more Brunello than ever is being sold at lower prices to bottlers, who then create their own label or make up new ones.  I caution readers that new labels of Brunello need to be addressed with care:  sticking to the tried-and-true names is still your best bet for getting an outstanding and distinctive bottle of wine.

The best news for wine lovers is that Brunello has never been better.  Today, most Brunellos are beautifully pale ruby-red in color (gone are the ridiculously inky wines of the past), characterized by perfumed aromas and flavors of sour red cherry, redcurrant, violet, tea leaf, flint and underbrush, and buttressed by harmonious acidity and refreshing tannins.  The song remains the same with the wines of the two newly released sets of wines, the 2008s and 2007 riservas.  The two vintages are polar opposites, and so this year Brunello di Montalcino offers something for everyone:  the perfumed and vibrant 2008s, or the creamy, almost sweet wines of 2007.  Ultimately, picking favorites will be a case of different strokes for different folks.

The 2008 and 2007 growing seasons. The 2008 growing season was preceded by a very rainy though not excessively cold winter, and the rain continued right into the spring.  In fact, 2008 will be remembered as one of the wettest years of the last few decades in Montalcino.  It was also cool, and rain and strong winds hampered the fruit set, resulting in sangiovese bunches carrying fewer grapes than usual.  This rather dire beginning to the growing season was followed by a generally uneventful summer, with plenty of bright sunlight and warm (but not hot) temperatures in July and August allowing the vine's growth cycle to catch up.

The harvest occurred in good weather conditions, with only one day of significant rainfall.  The lack of  summer rainfall subjected the vines to some minor water stress, which proved beneficial as it helped coax more concentration into the berries .  Overall, the year was much less warm than 2007 and will always be remembered as a cool-weather vintage.

The 2007 growing season was generally quite warm.  Following a dry, mild winter, the flowering was also well ahead of normal, and hot, dry spells alternated with more moderate periods throughout June and July.  August was less hot, with a few beneficial showers coming to the rescue and helping the grapes ripen properly.  The harvest took place in the second half of September, slightly earlier than usual.  Most important, unlike scorching summers such as 2003, when the nights were almost as hot as the days, there were no prolonged periods of extreme heat during the summer of 2007, and nighttime temperatures were in the normal range.

What the producers say.  "A vintage like 2008 couldn't have come at a better time," said Lamberto Frescobaldi, whose family owns both Castelgiocondo and Luce della Vite.  "It sits in the middle of a string of very warm years that have delivered very big, rich wines, and some of our customers prefer more perfumed, minerally Brunellos," he added.  Francesco Leanza of Salicutti actually likes his 2008 better than wines from recent and perhaps more famous vintages. "I think 2008 embodies everything great Brunello and sangiovese are all about:  nervous but harmonious acidity, penetrating aromas and flavors, and great capacity for aging."  Over at Il Marroneto, Alessandro Mori was also very upbeat.  "The best wines of the vintage are balanced and graceful, and showcase the perfumed side of sangiovese at its best."

Milena Danei, the in-house winemaker at Gaja's beautiful Pieve di Santa Restituta estate, summed it up well when she told me:  " It's the same old thing:  after two great years like 2006 and 2007, a vintage perceived as being weaker gets hammered, but I think 2008 is underrated.  At times, though, it really seemed like the vintage was being complained about even before anyone had tasted the wines."  Alessia Salvioni of the La Cerbaiola/Salvioni estate takes a similarly tough stance.  "Listen, clearly 2008 is not at the level of 2001 or even 2004, but the fact is that most people just don't have the experience to judge Brunello fairly when tasting the wines in February during the Benvenuto Brunello week [Montalcino's version of Bordeaux's Primeurs], when these wines are tough, tannic, and anything but ready.  In my view, the 2008s are a lot like the wines of 2005--fresh and perfumed."

My view of the 2008 and 2007 Riserva wines.  The best 2008 Brunellos display wonderfully pure perfume and crisp red fruit, with a minerality that really sings, particularly in the northern, cooler sites within the appellation.  The wines are less creamy and rich than those of the warmer 2007 vintage, but the better examples will repay extended cellaring.  Less successful 2008 Brunellos are marred by vegetal and green notes or astringent tannins, and will come across as thin and tart.  But I was truly amazed at how few truly bad wines were made.  Don't believe those experts who denigrate the vintage:  rating sangiovese through cabernet- or merlot-colored glasses is an exercise in futility and very misleading.  True, the vast majority of the 2008 Brunellos will not be fleshy or especially rich wines, but they will hold immense appeal for those who prefer their Brunellos graceful and refined.  Better still, the best of the lot have the mesmerizingly penetrating perfume, bracing acidity and firm tannins that have made Brunello famous.
At the same time the 2008s were released, the 2007 riserva wines also hit the shelves.  (Brunello riserva wines are usually made from an estate's best vineyards and best fruit, but can also be blends of the best barrels.)  Since the riserva wines are released a year later and spend longer in oak and in the cellar prior to release, they are wines that must have both the structure and depth of fruit to stand up to the extra time spent in wood, or they run the risk of coming out tired and dry.  Many of the 2007 riservas were certainly big enough wines to stand up to the oak, but some lack verve and a few are just hopelessly overripe.  Furthermore, I had the distinct impression that sugar levels in the grapes got so high that more than a few producers pulled the trigger on the harvest early, and then resorted to leaving a little extra residual sugar to try to buffer the green, astringent tannins that resulted from incomplete physiological ripeness due to the water stress. 

Some of the riserva wines are also marked by strong aromatic herb, underbrush and tar notes that are not my cup of sangiovese--and that I personally think are not typical of the grape variety or of young Brunellos in general.  That said, the best wines of 2007 are memorable, delivering a mouthful of rich, ripe creamy fruit that I don't usually associate with sangiovese.  But you'll have to be accepting of slightly high alcohol levels (14.5% is the norm in the 2007 riservas, and many wines clocked in at over 15%).  This is not my favorite style of Brunello, but I'll admit that the best wines are simply irresistible in their velvety, opulent charm, and I'll be the first to stock up my cellar with them.  In the end, it all boils down to personal preferences.  Those with traditional tastes will have a field day with the best 2008s, while those who like sweeter, fleshier wines will undoubtedly pick the 2007 riserva wines every time.

I tasted all of the Brunellos reviewed in this article in May and early June in Rome and in Montalcino, most of them at least twice, but I had begun tasting the same wines earlier in the year.  Some of the wines I tasted in Montalcino were courtesy of the Consorzio's tasting room, while I tasted others in the presence of the producers during winery visits. I also bought a number of wines outright from stores in Montalcino and Rome, either when something didn't seem quite right with the samples I had previously tasted or when I wanted to be sure of my first and second impressions.  (I have also tasted all the 2011 Rosso di Montalcino wines and some 2010s, and plan to provide tasting notes as a special bonus feature later this summer.  Since a good number of Rossos are not especially expensive, and many are outstanding, I urge readers not to forget about these wines, many of which are in fact baby Brunellos.)