Buckle Your Seatbelts: 2019 Brunello and 2021 Rosso di Montalcino


I’m happy to report that the current releases from Montalcino are an embarrassment of riches for collectors and fans of the appellation. My recent trip to the region included tastings of the newly minted and classic 2019 Brunellos, the high-energy and fruit-forward 2021 Rossos and a look back to many of the top 2016s, which I chose to include in this report for comparison to the 2019s. Placing these two fantastic years next to each other demonstrates that Montalcino continues to create world-class wines of the highest caliber and, in most cases, at reasonable price points.

Looking north from the high-elevation Uccelliera vineyards in Castelnuovo dell’Abate.

A Return to Classicism: 2019 Brunello di Montalcino

Producers and consumers have all been looking forward to the release of the 2019 vintage with great anticipation. For the past three years, I’ve been tasting the wines from barrel and watching their slow evolution with great satisfaction, especially as the wines from the arid 2017 and wet and warm 2018 vintages showed the challenges of their respective growing seasons. To be clear, both years had their high points and successful wines, but overall, the region suffered. That’s the first point in the corner of the 2019 vintage; this is a year where the entire region excelled, from southwest to east and northeast to west. Frankly stated, finding a 2019 that doesn’t show remarkable balance, vivid fruit and freshness is a difficult task. In my opinion, this is always a mark of a great year. The highs are exceptionally high, and the lows are few and far between. What’s more, this is a year where many lesser wines excelled, making picking out a 2019 Brunello a relatively easy affair.

Thinking back to those barrel tastings mentioned above puts the importance of this vintage into context. One of the pros of a wine like Brunello di Montalcino is its late release, meaning that each year I taste, analyze and compare at least four vintages while tasting with producers. Winemakers in Montalcino have been very excited about what's in barrel for the last few years. The 2019 vintage stood out to them immediately; this is the last genuinely balanced year in the previous seven vintages (more on that later). Then there’s 2020, an elegant year with massive concentration and high alcohol that produced wines that barely hold onto balance. Yet a few standouts succeed. Finally, 2021 presents a marriage of the previous two, with rich, intense fruit, elegance and balanced tannic structures. Frequently, in conversations, producers speculate as to which of these three vintages would ultimately produce the best wines, yet for me, there was never any doubt that while 2021 will be an exciting year to follow (just look at the Rosso’s included in this article) and 2020 will be suave and elegant, that 2019 comes out on top, for its utter harmony. In the end, 2019 provides a blending of power and elegance in a way seldom seen while maintaining a lovely balance of acidity and structure. 

Giacomo Bartolommei of Caprili stated, “The 2019 is crunchy. Everything was easy during this vintage, and we had no difficulties in the vineyards and the cellar.” Crunchy is a word I often hear associated with the 2019s, which I believe fits the wines perfectly. Vintage comparisons often get thrown around regarding 2019, with most producers relating it to a perfect combination of either 2015 and 2016 or 2010 and 2015. For me, the similarities to 2016 are clear as day, but what 2019 adds to the dark fruit and radiance of 2016 is energy and that crunchiness to the tannins mentioned above. I believe the magic is in their acidity because even as the wines firm up through the finish, they leave a freshness and mouth-watering quality that adds a crunchy sensation to the tannins. 

The cellar at Le Ragnaie.

Some producers go as far as relating the 2019 vintage to years going back even further. I’ve heard of comparisons to 1990 and 1993. Francesco Buffi at the Baricci winery on the Montosoli hillside in the northeast explained 2019 as “Exceptional, in terms of quality and quantity. A vintage that takes me at least 20 years back… harvesting top-quality bunches in October, with excellent yields.” Granted, one must consider that from the standpoint of temperature ranges in modern-day Montalcino, even a balanced vintage like 2019 is still a relatively warm year. The difference is in the details of how the 2019 Brunellos arrived at what most procedures consider a return to classicism. 

Many winemakers refer to the season as easy, something I have rarely heard from Montalcino in recent years. Alessandro Bindocci of Il Poggione called it “an ideal vintage from a weather standpoint.” Also from the southwest, Francesco Marone Cinzano of Col D’Orcia stated, “Every so often, you have a particular year when quality and quantity strike a perfect balance that delivers elegant and harmonious wines. The 2019 vintage is one of them.” This further illustrates the year's success across Montalcino, and even harvest dates between north and south are more in line with the traditional averages. In the south, the harvest mostly started between September 18th and 22nd, compared to the north, where the average start date was 26th to 28th. But no matter the harvest dates, one thing remained constant: there was very little stress regarding fruit quality and technical and physiological ripeness.

Following the rainy 2018 vintage, the winter of 2019 was relatively cold, with moderate precipitation. Rainy conditions and below-average temperatures prevailed throughout April and May, which slowed the vegetative process, disturbed flowering to a degree and reduced the size of the clusters. However, these same rains built up water supplies in the soils, which paved the way for a successful warm and dry start to the summer. The highest temperatures reached during the season never exceeded 35° Celsius (95° Fahrenheit), nearly unheard of in modern-day Montalcino. Moreover, the temperature swings between day and night were drastic (15-20 degrees). These conditions were ideal for both a healthy flowering and little in the way of disease pressure. The rest of summer, while warm, was balanced and perfectly offset by refreshing rains at the end of July, the third week of August and the beginning of September. Favorable conditions continued leading up to harvest, sunny and dry, with one last rainstorm on the 22nd and 23rd of September, without any damage to the ripe berries on the vine. 

This is a vintage of radiance and appeal without any sensation of over-ripeness or lack of complexity. The wines are aromatically intense and full of dimension, with translucent color, fruit typicity and the ability to communicate a sense of place. They are structured and built for cellaring, often showing their best after being open for over two days in bottle. The terms classic, racy, cool-toned, crunchy and sleek litter my tasting notes, and while many 2019s display an inviting personality today, they are balanced for the cellar and sure to mature beautifully over the next ten to fifteen years, if not more. This is the vintage we’ve all been waiting for. 

The Biondi-Santi Estate just south of the town of Montalcino.

Falling on Deaf Ears: 2018 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

I recall tasting and writing about the 2018s last year. The most amazing thing for me was how no producer could agree on the season's conditions. Whenever a problematic year comes around, it’s not uncommon that I regularly hear a “buy line,” as if all of the producers were pooled together and given a set of marching orders on how best to present the vintage to the press and consumers. I vividly recall the number of times that I heard that 2017 was “a happy surprise.” It took about one day in Montalcino before I started to feel like I was in some sort of reality TV show but that the joke was on me. However, with the 2018 vintage, there was no buy line, just static. One producer would explain that it was a rainy year, while another would swear it wasn’t. Another winemaker would say it was a cool vintage, and then the next would talk about how warm it was. The 2018 Riserva campaign seems to be following suit, where most wineries decided not to bottle any wines due to it being a poor vintage, while others hold onto their belief that it was a classic, throwback year that will create wines with amazing staying power. 

Last year, in my article, The Rise of Rosso di Montalcino, I wrote, “The 2018 vintage will show many consumers how extended wood aging can strip a remarkably pretty and exotic vintage of some of its charms. Just like 2017, I believe we’ll see Rossos that show better than Brunellos within the same portfolio.” I echoed these thoughts when the 2018 Brunellos arrived, and now I think about it again when tasting the 2018 Riservas. The fact is that the character of the average 2018 is one of freshness, lifted fruit profiles and angular tannins, which created Rossos that performed beautifully but Brunellos that don’t offer another dimension that would warrant their price tags. In the end, only thirty-six wines from the 2018 vintage arrived for review, and of those, only twenty-seven were classified as Riserva. A trend toward shorter oak aging with Riservas has helped to some degree with many of these wines (technically, a producer can bottle a Riserva after just two years and then just hold it in bottle until release). However, the unfortunate reality is that most of the Riserva-level wines released from 2018 don’t show any better than the Brunello Annata released last year.

The very small library collection at Poggio di Sotto.

Elegance in the Extreme: 2021 Rosso di Montalcino

Tasting through a selection of 2021 Rosso di Montalcino in tandem with 2019 Brunello di Montalcino demonstrates that these two vintages couldn’t possibly be more different, but what they both share is balance. 

I often write about gauging a vintage from the Rossos of the same year. If this set of new releases is any indication, the 2021 vintage will provide rich and fruit-forward Brunellos that teeter on the edge of balance yet ultimately succeed through a core of zesty acidity and tannins that maintain a classic feel. What that translates into for the Rossos themselves are wines with charming, wildly aromatic, drink-me-now personalities that come across as energetic with sweet tannins. The best part is that, while these wines are born of a warm and dry vintage, they don’t tire the palate or become cloying, which I have found many of the 2020s often do. If 2020 was a slice of the richest cake you could hardly finish, then 2021 is the proverbial souffle that leaves you craving more after each bite. 

As mentioned earlier in this article, many producers are wildly excited about this vintage. Sofia Gorelli of Le Potazzine explained, “In 2021, we are producing Riserva, already this choice says how this vintage was for us.” It is hard for me to fault her logic, considering the success of their 2011 and 2015 Riservas, but this may be more of an example of location, with the bulk of their vineyards planted at 510 meters of elevation in the northwest. On the completely opposite side of the spectrum, another winery that touts the qualities of 2021 is Poggio di Sotto in the extreme southeast. Location matters.

Moreover, the reality is that producers in Montalcino are becoming much better at dealing with ongoing arid conditions. Some newer approaches included using cover crops instead of working soils, canopy management to shade the fruit, looking to higher elevations for new vineyards, fewer pump-overs, a move toward larger or more neutral barrels and, if possible, well-measured irrigation in emergency situations. Trust me, if more irrigation were possible, we would witness many more properties installing it. Nearly any Brunello producer will tell you that vines can adapt to the heat and make great wine, but they need water. 

In the end, 2021 was a very warm and dry vintage. Severe frost in April reduced quantities at some estates by up to 30%. That was followed by seven months of virtually no rain. Drought conditions set in by June and lasted through harvest for many properties in the south, while other areas benefitted from sporadic precipitation. The saving grace of the vintage came in the form of rain in the spring, prior to the frost building, and significant diurnal shifts at night that maintained freshness and cooler temperatures from late July through September. As many producers will explain, the last few weeks of the vintage decide its fate.

For my money, the 2021 Rossos are an excellent choice for collectors. With the 2019s still mellowing out in readers’ cellars and the 2020s providing a little too much of everything–except balance and another warm and dry year ahead of us in the form of 2022, the 2021s will provide open drinking windows and gobs of pleasure.

The La Magia vineyards open up to a valley facing Mount Amiata.

Lastly, One Point of Contention

Montalcino still needs the infrastructure and tools that nearly all other high-profile regions excel at, such as zoning and maps. This is a topic of hot debate within the region, which is spoken about frequently with producers yet remains a sticking point with the governing members of the Consorzio. Some say that it's all about politics and how several of the most powerful wineries in the region would suffer from any form of delimitation or ranking of territories. Others look at the diversity of Montalcino’s soils and unique terroirs and claim that it wouldn’t be possible to classify these areas correctly. In my opinion, coming from a collector's background, a retailer and now a journalist, this is the one thing holding Montalcino back as a whole. 

When I open a bottle of Bordeaux, Barolo, Burgundy or Napa Valley wine, I can find references to soil composition, exposure, vine age, surrounding vineyards and sometimes even a three-dimensional view of the vineyard. Considering the stark differences that location can create, how the northeast of Montalcino can overdeliver in the same vintage that the south might fail, or how a vineyard on the hillside of Montosoli creates a drastically different result than one just half a kilometer away in the Canalicchio area, demonstrates why this is so important. Montalcino, its fans and its consumers deserve better. 

Due to the release schedule of some producers, a small number of wines could not be included in this report. They will be added to our database in early 2024. The wines for this report were tasted in Montalcino in July 2023 and again at our offices in New York City in November 2023.

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