New Releases from Montalcino

By Antonio Galloni

At a recent lunch I was reminded of Montalcino’s potential for greatness when a top producer’s Brunello from an excellent but not profound vintage outshone some of the most brilliant Burgundies ever produced, including those of what is arguably that region’s most storied domaine.

Montalcino is one of the most picturesque small towns in Italy. The weather was absolutely frigid when I last visited, in January of this year, but even still, the light was beautiful and the vistas breathtaking. Yet beneath all of its considerable natural beauty and potential, something is rotten in Montalcino. The ‘Brunello-gate’ scandal of two years ago caused long-simmering tensions among producers to boil to the surface. The sheer jealousy and cattiness Montalcino’s growers display towards each other is something I have seldom, if ever, seen in another region. Ask a producer in Piedmont, Veneto or Friuli about other growers in their region and you will get a response that is if not flattering, at least polite and that emphasizes the uniqueness of their respective regions. Even in neighboring Chianti Classico winemakers understand the importance of putting their territorio ahead of any philosophical differences that might exist. Not so in Montalcino, where so many producers are only too happy to tell visitors theirs is the only ‘true’ Brunello or how their wine was the best at such and such a tasting. Please. The Ilcinesi should be thrilled. At a time when so many wine-producing regions and countries are struggling to establish themselves with consumers and the trade, Tuscany and Montalcino boast a spectacular landscape, a rich fabric of history and wines that at their best offer a level of regional and varietal typicity matched by only a handful of other places in the world. When will Montalcino’s producers realize that their petty behavior is self-destructive and does incredible harm to the region as a whole?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the market for Brunello has literally fallen through the floor. The 2003s are slowly moving through the pipeline, but only with massive discounts, something consumers don’t really see, as so many wines have ended up as by-the-glass pours at restaurants. With the 2004s, a number of producers attempted to raise prices during the most several financial crisis the world has seen in 70-plus years. A number of people I spoke with told me that a full 50% of the highly-regarded (but uneven, in my view) 2004 Brunellos remain unsold, while others were of the opinion that the true number is quite a bit higher. The prospects for the 2005s, from a much weaker year on paper, appear rather bleak, especially as consumers and the trade are likely to wait for the 2006s, which are shaping up to be spectacular. As I wrote last year, demand for Brunello is highly vintage-sensitive. Producers should be alarmed when demand for generally well-received vintages is weak, but I am not sure many understand the gravity of the situation. Those who mistake signs of stabilization in the US economy for a recovery back to the levels of consumer spending last seen a few years ago are in for a very rude shock.

2005 Brunello di Montalcino

Trying to get a handle on the 2005 Brunellos is quite a task, as there are a number of dimensions to consider. First and foremost, the 2005 Brunellos are wines of incredible contrasts. The growing season, and the summer in particular, was on the cool side, especially during a harvest that was interrupted by rain. As a result, the fruit never achieved the level of phenolic ripeness seen in years such as 2001 and 2004. In 2005, as in 2004, the fruit ripened fully only in the best-exposed vineyards. As always, timing is everything. It is tempting to think that in a cool year the southern portions of Montalcino might be favored, but I also tasted a number of outstanding wines from the later-ripening northern zones which were able to recover after the favorable weather that followed the rains. The 2005 Brunellos are relatively small-scaled wines although the best examples possess gorgeous balance.

These are open, fruit-driven Brunellos that should offer pleasurable drinking pretty much upon release. I see 2005 as a great restaurant vintage and imagine many wines will end up being sold by the glass, much as happened with the 2003s. Only a handful of wines appear to have the stuffing to age for an extended period and most wines should be enjoyed on the young side. My drinking windows are fairly conservative for the 2005s, as I expect that as the baby fat drops off the acidities will become more pronounced and will ultimately dominate the balance in many wines. I have also come to believe that in Montalcino Sangiovese only develops its noblest tertiary aromas in the finest vintages and microclimates; while in lesser years Sangiovese can acquire more rustic, gamey notes that I personally don’t find attractive, although others may. Certainly many 2005s have enough freshness to last beyond my suggested drinking windows but whether they will be better or more complete wines is a different question entirely. Given the macro economic situation, it is a buyer’s market. Readers who are selective should have no problem picking up some gems.

On a more positive note, the dark colors of previous years seem largely a thing of the past. In general, this is a vintage with a lot of Sangiovese character. But the most important factor influencing quality is that a large number of producers elected not to bottle their top wine(s), and smartly used that fruit to reinforce their regular Brunello bottlings. As a result, a number of 2005s are equal to or better than their 2004 counterparts. Some of the single-vineyard selections that weren’t made in 2005 include Angelini’s Vigna Spuntali, Ciacci Piccolomini’s Pianrosso, Casanova di Neri’s Cerretalto, Caparzo’s La Casa and Mastrojanni’s Vigna Schiena d’Asino; while producers who did not make a Riserva include Biondi-Santi, Capanna, Caparzo, Caprili, Ciacci Piccolomini, Pertimali and Uccelliera. In all of these cases, the 2005s represent great buying opportunities as large segments of the market are likely to look past the vintage as a whole. A few estates intend to release a Riserva in the future, including Fattoria dei Barbi, Il Poggione, Poggio di Sotto and Soldera.

2004 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

This year’s crop of new releases includes a number of Riservas from the 2004 harvest. Readers may recall some of the issues of that year. The vintage itself was picture-perfect; with nearly ideal growing conditions and a cool late summer/early fall that permitted a leisurely harvest. It was also a vintage of naturally occurring high yields, which required growers to be especially diligent in their vineyards. After the very challenging 2002 and 2003 harvests, not all producers had the discipline to reduce their crop. Unlike 2001 (Montalcino’s last great vintage), when nature took care of things with a severe April frost, in 2004 it was solely up to individual growers to make the tough decisions. Many 2004 Brunellos showed elements of dilution when I reviewed them last year. That shortcoming is just as apparent in the Riservas. I tasted a number of wines that clearly do not have the intensity of fruit to stand up to the additional year of oak required by law. Many of those wines are already showing forward, oxidative aromas and flavors and don’t appear to be long-lived, much less be worthy of Riserva status. It is clear that in 2004 some producers compromised the quality of their regular 2004 bottling in order to make a Riserva, when they might have been better off making only a single Brunello. This is especially true of producers who were unwilling to lower yields. Those wineries essentially ended up with a sub-par regular bottling and an average Riserva when instead they could have had a great regular Brunello. On the other hand, I also tasted a number of fabulous 2004 Riservas that are the wines most likely to build the vintage’s reputation in the mind of consumers. Riservas from Pertimali, Il Poggione, Poggio di Sotto, Fuligni, Valdicava, Uccelliera and Ciacci Piccolomini more than live up to the lofty expectations consumers are likely to have for the wines. Of course, the Riservas are priced at a significant premium over the regular Brunello bottlings, and the reality is that only a few wines are worth that premium.

2008 Rosso di Montalcino

Usually I get excited about tasting through the latest Rossos, but not this year. Overall I found little of real interest. The year started off with much more humidity than is typical, which forced growers to treat the vines heavily or risk the health of their plants. The summer presented better conditions and led to relatively normal harvest. The wines themselves are soft, medium-bodied and accessible. The vintage may end up appealing to readers who enjoy a light, feminine style of Rosso, but even in the best of cases prices need to be lowered to match the average quality of the vintage. To be fair, a number of 2008 Rossos had not been bottled by the time we went to press, but so far I have found very few wines that come close to matching the heights of either 2006 or 2007. Even more importantly, a number of 2008 Rossos were flawed, and quite a few wines failed to cross the 85-point threshold needed to be included in this report. The best advice I can give readers is to first focus on the best 2006s and 2007s, then be especially selective when it comes to the 2008s. Let’s hope producers saved their best fruit in 2008 for the Brunellos.