I've just returned from a mammoth 2004 Brunello di Montalcino tasting in New York, and I can assure you that 2004 is going to be a superb vintage for Brunello. A large majority of the 2004 Brunellos I tasted were truly top-notch.
If ever a wine region needed a great vintage, it is Brunello di Montalcino.
Scandal (much of it yet unproven) rocked Montalcino last year during the rollout of its unfortunate 2003 vintage. Prosecutors in Siena accused some producers of using grapes other than Brunello (the local name for the region's Sangiovese grapes) in their 2003 Brunello di Montalcinos. Among other things, they discovered 'foreign' grapes growing in vineyards which were declared to be devoted to Sangiovese. Brunello di Montalcino is required by law to be made from 100% Brunello grapes.
Without going into too much legalese, many of us who follow the Italian wine scene were not shocked by the prosecutors' accusations. I've heard rumors for years (from reliable producers in the region) that some of their competitors were adding other grapes to Brunello di Montalcino, particularly in lesser vintages.
Why would Brunello producers take such risks? The Sangiovese grape, whether in Chianti, Brunello, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or any region in Italy (or California, for that matter), is a difficult, unreliable variety to grow. We're definitely not talking Cabernet Sauvignon here. Unless a producer selects grapes severely, and has very low yields--such as Soldera of Casse Basse, who then charges a fortune for his Brunellos--the producer cannot rely on an adequate crop of high-quality Sangiovese in many vintages. It is in fact legal to add as much as 20% other grapes (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other varieties) to Chianti, even Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, but not to Brunello di Montalcino.
Another reason a producer might be tempted to add other varieties to Brunello di Montalcino is to make the wine more palatable sooner. We are living in a time of instant gratification regarding wine consumption. Many wine drinkers are not inclined to lay away their young, just-released Brunellos; they want to drink them now, not in ten years! Brunello di Montalcino traditionally has been an austere, tannic wine when young, needing time to develop. Try drinking a young Biondi-Santi Brunello (a great, traditional Brunello that always requires time to mature), for example.
A little Merlot or some other variety in the blend would certainly make Brunello readier to drink sooner. In fact, no less a wine producer than Angelo Gaja--who owns a Brunello di Montalcino called La Pieve di Santa Restituta--recently proposed that two levels of Brunello be produced: one would be 100% Brunello, and the other, also to be called Brunello, could add other grape varieties. (This is in fact what Gaja is doing with his Barbaresco and Barolo wines in Piedmont, but he calls his 'other varieties added' wines Nebbiolo Langhe). Brunello producers quickly shot down Gaja's suggestion, and Brunello di Montalcino remains 100% Brunello, in theory at least.
But back to the 2003 vintage-- an exceedingly warm year in most European wine regions, including Montalcino. Not only was the weather warm, but the crop was also short. And so the circumstances of this vintage were such that if any vintage needed a little outside help from other varieties, it was this one. Ironically, 2003 was not really that bad in the Montalcino region; the preceding year, 2002, was much worse, prompting most producers to make no 2002 Brunello. But how many wineries can afford to pass up two vintages in a row? And so almost every Brunello producer made a 2003 Brunello. The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino generously awarded 4 stars (meaning 'Very Good') out of a possible 5 to 2003. Frankly, the 2003 vintage warranted no more than 3 stars, at best.
One of the amazing facts about vintages in the Brunello di Montalcino region is that for a long time--between 1955 and 1995--all of its great vintages occurred every five years (with the exception of the horrendous 1960, 1965, and 1980 vintages). It's an easy way to remember Brunello's great early vintages; they ended in a '5' or a '0' -- 1955, 1970, 1975, 1985, 1990, and 1995; with 1955 and 1975 classified as all-time greats. This string was broken by the glorious, if precocious 1997, followed by the very good 2001 and the probably even better 2004.
Will 2004 rank with the all-time great vintages, such as 1955 and 1975? It's really too soon to say, other than 'Possibly.' I talked with Dominic Nocerino, head of Vinifera Imports, one of the leading importers of Italian wines in the U.S. Nocerino thinks 2004 will be even better than those legendary older vintages because 'our technology is so much better today.' Likewise, Cristina Mariani-May, CEO of Banfi Vintners, thinks this is the best Brunello vintage that she can remember.
I'm hedging my bets with a 'possibly' answer only because the wines have just been released (Brunello is one of the few wines being made today that requires a four-year aging period before it's released; five years for Brunello Riservas). With time, a year or more, I will make a more definitive judgment. Right now, the 2004s seem to have all the trappings of a great vintage: most have great fruit, weight, depth, balance, extract, richness, and a long finish. They have plenty of sustaining tannin and acidity; in many cases, the tannins are rather soft (a nod to modern technology), suggesting that the wines will not need a decade or so before we can enjoy many of them. Brunello classically is one of the world's longest-lived red wines, and I would think that many 2004 Brunello di Montalcino wines have the structure to go the distance (50 years or more).
Not all Brunellos taste alike, for two main reasons:
1) Grapes ripen in different ways in different parts of the region. In the northern and eastern vineyards, grapes ripen more slowly because of north-facing hillsides, higher altitude, more rain, and/or cooler temperatures than in the southern and western part of the area. Brunellos from the northern/eastern areas, such as Biondi-Santi and Costanti, tend to be tougher when young, lighter-bodied, and more aromatic than Brunellos from the southern/western areas, such as Castelgiocondo and Col d'Orcia, which tend to be fuller-bodied, riper, and richer in flavor.
2) Traditionally-minded producers age their Brunellos for three years or more in large, old oak casks, producing more austere wines. Many of the avant-garde producers use small, French oak barrels (barriques), which lends more fruitiness and color to the wines.
I tasted over 30 of the 2004 Brunello di Montalcinos; some of the big guns--such as Biondi-Santi, Soldera, Ciacci Piccolomini, Altesino, Pertimali, and La Pieve di Santa Restituta--did not participate in the tasting, but many very good producers did present their wines. These were some of my favorites, which I list in alphabetical order:
Castello Banfi--The largest producer; for the last decade or so Banfi has had a wine in the top four or five Brunellos in each vintage. Its 2004 Poggio alla Mura is impressive, with depth and exquisite balance.
Fattoria dei Barbi--A traditional producer, still going strong. Its 2004 single-vineyard Vigna del Fiore is a knockout; simply fantastic Brunello.
Camigliano--Lovely 2004; should be ready to drink soon.
Canalicchio di Sopra--Its 2004 was one of the top wines of the tasting; truly a great Brunello; this traditional producer is always a favorite.
Capanna--My, oh, my! What depth! I never had a better Capanna.
Castelgiocondo--A perfect 2004! Castelgiocondo back in form.
Col d'Orcia--One of the stars. Look for its single-vineyard 2004 Poggio al Vento when it debuts.
Costanti--A truly great 2004, with lots of depth; this one will go 50 years.
Donatella Cinelli Colombini--Lovely, especially its 2004 Prime Donne.
Fattoria La Lecciaia--Traditional and austere; I loved it!
Lisini--Always lovely; it should be ready to drink soon.
Tenuta Friggiali--A lighter-styled 2004, but totally delicious.