Brunello di Montalcino 2009 and 2008 Riserva

Brunello di Montalcino is indisputably one of the world's greatest wines.  And despite what you may read elsewhere, most of these wines have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years.  Even chronic underachieving estates are now producing what are, at the very least, acceptable to very good wines that speak of sangiovese as a unique expression of Montalcino and its varied terroirs.  Outside of finite favored areas of Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina, there is simply no better place in the world  to grow sangiovese than Montalcino.

In fact, many positive things have happened in Montalcino since 2008, when the Brunellopoli scandal broke out [a few suspiciously dark wines were questioned for not being 100% sangiovese, as the law requires]. Today there are many new faces in the Brunello di Montalcino Consortium, and it's exciting to hear about their goals and ideas.  Current President Fabrizio Bindocci, current director Giampiero Pazzaglia (who worked for more than 30 years at Argiano) and Francesco Ripaccioli (whose family owns the outstanding Canalicchio di Sopra estate) are just a few of the new people now on the board who bring a fresh outlook and years of experience to the table.  The recent presentation of groundbreaking scientific research on sangiovese's anthocyanins (the pigments present in grape skins and, to a lesser extent, pulp) is but one example.  The landmark study by Arapitsas et al. (2012) has offered insight into sangiovese's world as never before, illustrating the comparatively greater anthocyanin endowment of sangiovese grapes grown in the Montalcino zone.

Applying science to wine tasting elevates it to more than just an art form and will inevitably allow for a better understanding of the grape variety, its interaction with specific terroirs, and how best to express the unique potential of the Montalcino production zone.  In this light, as I have already documented in last year's Brunello report, Bindocci believes a zonation study of Montalcino's complex terroir is also necessary, and he looks forward to implementing one in the future.  He understands that cru systems are hard to put in place in as complex a viticultural zone as Montalcino's, made up as it is of many different altitudes, exposures, rootstocks, soils, water regimens, slopes, ventilation gradients and solar radiation angles.  For example, unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy, Montalcino's vineyards are located at very different altitudes (from roughly 250 to 500 meters above sea level), and in the area's potentially cool climate even a 50-meter variation makes a huge difference.  In comparison, the average altitude in Pauillac is only 15 meters above sea level. 

Furthermore, there are estates in Montalcino that make their Brunello by blending grapes from very different sites, which complicates recognition of site-specificity in the glass (when not making it downright impossible!). Identifying sub-areas within Montalcino that produce wines that are relatively different from others made within the production zone requires the integration of that tasting data with precise soil analysis of the vineyards where the grapes were grown (for example: mineral contents, AWC or available water capacity, granulometry, depth, percentage of calcium carbonate), rootstocks, pruning and canopy choices, exposures, slope gradients and more.  The goal shouldn't be to issue a qualitative hierarchy, but rather a characterization of a territory and the different wines it produces. Though some wine writers seem to think that just tasting wines for a few years is good enough to allow drawing up of his or her favorite sites or crus, that view is simplistic at best.

I believe that Brunello di Montalcino has never been better than it is today.  Essentially gone are the many truly defective wines of decades ago, plagued by problems such as bad oak, dirty oak, over-extraction or fruit deficiency.  Many wines were simply tired and already drying upon release, but this is rarely the case nowadays, even if some laggards remain.  The general improvement in Montalcino's wines is also highlighted by the many wonderful examples of Rosso di Montalcino (Brunello's lighter-styled, more accessible and faster-maturing little brother) now being made.  But as good as many Rossos are (the improvement of which I have written about before in the IWC), even the best of them (e.g., Poggio di Sotto, Le Potazzine) rarely reach the complexity or depth of most Brunellos.

The 2009 weather and growth cycle. There were two distinct phases to the 2009 growing season.  In the first half of the year, torrential downpours allowed for buildup of water reserves but also brought disease pressure.  The rainfall was already heavy in the winter months: in fact, it was Montalcino's rainiest winter of the previous ten years.  Unusually for Montalcino, this protracted rainy spell lasted into mid-July.

Conditions changed dramatically in the second part of the season, with a very hot and dry August (not unlike 2003) that caused noteworthy stress in younger vines as well as in those planted on sand-rich soils.  But it's necessary to note that the water reserves built up during the winter and spring months allowed even young vines to withstand the scorching August temperatures better than in other dry, hot years, a key factor in explaining why many, though not all, of the 2009s have turned out better than expected.

A sunny harvest season led to potentially very good to outstanding wines with generally fairly high alcohol and noteworthy tannins and polyphenol counts, although untimely September rains made it a very difficult harvest.  Most producers had to pick grapes between the rains, and in general those who picked most of their grapes before September 22 had greater success. The difficult growing season led to lower production volumes--for example, Canalicchio di Sopra made only 18,000 bottles of Brunello instead of the usual 40,000, and the estate didn't make a Brunello Riserva at all (normally, this riserva accounts for another 8,000 bottles).

"Nonetheless, I think the quality of the grapes was very high," says Patrizio Cencioni of Capanna, something that Cecilia Leoneschi, winemaker at Castiglion del Bosco, had initially worried might not be the case.  "When I think back to 2009," she told me, "the first thing I remember is just how incredibly rainy the winter and spring had been.  Of course, considering how hot it got later in the summer, those water reserves ended up being a real blessing.  In the end, I don't think water stress was the big problem it might have been otherwise."  Lionel Cousin of Cupano added that "Happily, sunlight hours in the fall were such that the tannins matured evenly and the wines are quite smooth."  Leoneschi noted that even though August was furnace-like and sugar levels accumulated quickly, the harvest at Castiglion del Bosco only started six days earlier than usual. 

Although some critics have panned the 2009 Brunellos, most producers were quite happy with their wines.  Stefano Marchetti of Fossacolle pointed out that "the 2009 vintage got a bad rap, but in fact the wines are much better than has generally been written.  Yes, they can be somewhat high in alcohol but most have sweet fruit and smooth tannins to buffer that alcohol."  Davide Landini, viticultural expert and winemaker at Val di Suga, likes the wines for their "charm and supple nature," and Fabio Ratto, general director and winemaker of Antinori's Pian delle Vigne, agrees.  Francesco Leanza of Salicutti describes the 2009s as "lovely, earlier-maturing wines," adding that "judiciously blending grapes from different sites made a big difference."   And while most people felt that the 2009 Brunellos are unlike any other recent vintage, Giampiero Pazzaglia said they reminded him of the better 1998s, finding them to be similarly structured and especially well-balanced wines.  He told me:  "I think that just as the 1998 Brunellos were sort of forgotten in between the '97s and '99s, the same has happened to the '09s, which have been sandwiched between the classic 2008s and the deep, extremely promising '10s."

My view of the wines.  Vintage characteristics are important in assessing Montalcino's wines.  Snow is not at all uncommon in the winter months, and autumns can be cold and rainy; but super-hot summers are not rare either (think of 1997 and 2003).  Therefore, just as in Burgundy, there can be poor to great vintages in Montalcino, and consequently a welcome range of drinking choices, from wines with plenty of early appeal to others that are hard as nails in their youth but that develop splendidly in bottle and offer uncommon ageworthiness.  The 2009 Brunellos are examples of the former style:  although wine quality is somewhat patchy, for the most part the 2009 Brunellos are well balanced, fleshy wines that offer real charm and early accessibility.  Wine lovers everywhere will be pleased to find a bevy of delightful 2009s that are ready to drink upon release and for the next decade, while their 2006s and 2001s mature in the cellar.  In fact, I can't remember the last time a Brunello vintage offered so many fleshy, ready-to-drink wines as 2009 does.

Typically, the better 2009 Brunellos exude aromas and flavors of red berries, licorice, violet and flint of very good and at times outstanding intensity.  The best examples offer a rare combination of perfumed, sweetly spicy aromas and fleshy, ripe, round mouthfeel, admittedly with generous alcohol levels.  For the most part, the wines are deeply colored, with beautiful sangiovese-accurate red color.

However, 2009 was not an easy vintage and there were some less-than-memorable wines made, even by some of the Denominazione's most famous names.  Some producers, such as Gaja, chose not to produce their top estate crus at all, and others won't be producing any Riservas.  Also, compared to truly great vintages such as 1975, 1990 and 2001, the best 2009s tend to lack the precision and depth that made the best wines from those vintages famous.  Less successful 2009 wines are marred by high alcohol, by lack of fruit definition, or by harsh, gritty tannins due to physiological blockage of phenolic maturity resulting from the extreme summer heat.

That said, it's hard to find a truly bad Brunello in 2009.  For the most part, both famous and up-and-coming estates performed admirably and true duds are rare.  Overall, this tasting report confirms 2009 as a good vintage of wines offering early accessibility across the production zone.  High notes were hit in all areas of Montalcino, though most of the better wines were made in the cooler northern reaches of the production area.  In my view, the 2009s Brunellos are wines to drink up within their first 10 years of life--or 15, in the case of a few specific wines--and the best will prove to be fantastic restaurant items.  As most wine lists are made up of relatively young vintages, the 2009 Brunellos will give restaurant-hopping wine lovers the opportunity to indulge in a big red wine that doesn't need years of cellaring to become drinkable. 

These very engaging and fleshy 2009 Brunellos are polar opposites to the 2008s, which are characterized by very high tannin and acid levels and tend to be quite austere today.  Depending on individual taste preferences, both vintages will have their fans.  The 2008 Brunello Riservas, also just released this year (and covered in this article) continue where the 2008 entry-level wines left off, offering high acidity and refined personalities but greater depth of fruit and complexity.  The best wines also show good to very good aging potential, and will generally appeal to those who prefer a more mineral, austere style of red wine.  Although 2008 is not a vintage in the same quality league as 1999 or 2001, it is, just like 2009, a good source of potentially outstanding wines, provided you know where to look.

Also recommended:  2009 Bolsignano (85), 2009 Ferrero (86), 2009 Pietranera/Centolani (86), 2009 Poggiotondo (86), 2009 Tenuta del Cero (86), 2008 Riserva La Poderina Poggio Abate (86?). Other wines tasted:  2009 Aldebredetti, 2009 Bellaria, 2009 Fanti, 2009 Olivare Scopone.