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Brunello 2015: Less is More
By Michael Apstein
Mar 4, 2020
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The 2015 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino is being heralded as a 5-star vintage (the top rating) by the notoriously easy-grading Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the trade group that represents producers in Montalcino.  Retailers around the country have jumped onto the bandwagon with enthusiastic praise for the 2015 vintage.  And though the wines are pricey—after all, Brunello is one of Italy’s grandest wines—they are not subject to the 25 percent tariff that has made many French wines even more expensive.  I tasted many great wines when the Consorzio showed the 2015 vintage in New York City last month, and again this month in Montalcino.  Nevertheless, and while I don’t want to rain on the parade, I would urge caution in selecting these wines.  Unlike the spectacular and consistent 2010 vintage, which also received 5 stars from the Consorzio, 2015 is not a point and shoot vintage.  The hot and dry growing season presented challenges.

First, a little background about Brunello di Montalcino.  The wine comes exclusively from Sangiovese grown in the hilly area around Montalcino, a tiny mountaintop Tuscan village about two hours by car south of Florence.  Regulations require a minimum of two years of barrel aging, followed by bottle aging to soften what can be aggressive tannins of Sangiovese grown in this area.  The wine cannot be released for sale until January 1 of the fifth year following the harvest.  Hence, the 2015 is the current vintage. 

As grand wine areas go, Brunello is a “Johnny-come-lately,” being practically unknown even within Italy until the 1960s when there were only six families producing Brunello, according to Tom Maresca, a world authority on Italian wines.  (To be fair, Biondi-Santi, considered the pioneer of Brunello and still the region’s top producer, at least judging from the prices of their wines, released their first wine in the late 19th century.)  The uniqueness and quality of the wines became apparent quickly and the area received DOC recognition in 1968 and was among the first to receive DOCG recognition, Italy’s highest ranking, in 1980.  Even until the mid-1990s Brunello was a challenge to sell in the U.S., and was familiar to only a small percentage of connoisseurs, according to Lars Leicht, a veteran Brunello expert.  Leicht believes that the stellar 1990 vintage along with marketing efforts by large producers, such as Banfi, brought it into the mainstream.  Now the Consorzio lists 208 wineries that bottle Brunello. 

In this small area of about 5,000 acres (one-tenth the size of Napa Valley) most producers are small, bottling fewer than 4,000 12-bottle cases of Brunello annually.  Indeed, I counted only 10 producers who made more than 12,000 cases in 2015 (e-mail me for a list).  For comparison, the first growth Bordeaux chateau bottle about 20,000 cases annually, on average.  As a result, many Brunello producers fail to have national distribution in the U.S., and consumers could have difficulty finding their wines.  Nonetheless, the best of the 2015 Brunello are worth the needed search.

The character of the 2015 Brunello can be explained by the weather during the growing season.  It was a hot and dry year.  As a result, the wines are ripe, powerful and in many cases, approachable now because of their plushness.  Although conventional wisdom would predict 2015 would produce flabby wines because of corresponding low acidity in very ripe grapes (as all fruit ripens, acidity falls), many of the 2015 Brunello are surprisingly fresh.  That’s because many producers could not perform the usual malolactic fermentation since there was so little malic acid in the grapes.  (In normal years, malolactic fermentation converts harsher malic acid to creamier lactic acid and softens the acidity.)  What little malic acid was left in the grapes at harvest remained in the wine, imparting a tang to them.  Though too much malic acid makes a wine undrinkable, the small amounts found in many of the 2015 Brunello actually helped impart liveliness to many wines.

Producers told me that the potential danger in 2015 was over-ripeness of the grapes resulting in high alcohol wines.  Though most of the 2015 Brunello weighed in with a 14 or 14.5 percent stated alcohol, which is about average for Brunello these days, more than a few tipped the scales at 15 percent and above.  Producers also cautioned that extraction during fermentation needed to be performed gently to prevent over the top wines.  Not all adhered to that advice.

Much like other great wine growing areas, Brunello di Montalcino is not homogeneous, but has geologic and climatic variation, which means a potential for wonderful diversity among the wines.  Gabriele Gorelli, a Master of Wine candidate from Montalcino and a spokesperson for the Consorzio, explains that the Montalcino DOCG is roughly a pyramid, with the village itself at its pinnacle of 1850 feet (564 meters) above sea level.  There are dramatic variations in climate, soil and exposure among these four major subzones.  And even within an individual slope, substantial differences in terroir exist.  The vineyards of two excellent producers, Col d’Orcia and Castello Banfi, are near each other in the same zone, but their wines differ dramatically—Col d’Orcia’s being lighter and more elegant while Banfi’s are riper and more robust—reflecting either producer style, terroir differences within a zone, or a little bit of both. 

In a hot dry year like 2015, sites in the northern (cooler) segment of the DOCG and at higher elevations had a distinct advantage.  Sadly, it can be difficult to tell from the label the precise location of the vines.  Many producers have plots in different areas but opt to make one wine by blending grapes from different sites.  Even if consumers knew the location of the winery, there’s no assurance that all the grapes came from the same locale.

Many producers do produce site-specific bottlings.  Monty Waldin, another world expert on Italian wines, estimated in 2015 that about 15 percent of Brunello were labeled with specific sites.  Col d’Orcia’s spectacular Poggio al Vento (always one of my favorite wines, year in and year out) comes from a high-elevation single 17-acre vineyard.  Mastrojanni’s Vigna Loreta is also consistently a winner, as is Caparzo’s Vigna La Casa, located in the cooler northern Montosoli area.  And the practice is spreading.  Donatello Cinelli Colombini, who already produces top-notch Brunello, is adding a single vineyard Brunello, Adita, to their portfolio. 

What’s really exciting to me is the practice by some producers to make single vineyard bottlings from the different sectors of the DOCG.  That way, consumers can see and taste the diversity of the site because the producers’ style and philosophy remain constant.  In contrast, if you taste the Brunello from Baricci, all of whose vines are located in Montosoli, side by side with, for example, the Brunello from Talenti, whose vineyards are located in the south, maybe you’re tasting the difference between the two zones but just as easily you could be tasting the difference between producers’ styles.  There’s no way to know.  That’s why I find the single vineyard bottlings from producers like Nardi and Val di Suga so enticing and appealing—the producer’s hand is constant and you are tasting the difference among the areas.

Andrea Lonardi, the director of Val di Suga, explains that even a cursory look at the landscape gives an insight into the differences in terroir.  In the north with its more continental climate, cypress trees reign, whereas in the southwest, olive trees and herbs like rosemary and thyme predominate in the more Mediterranean-like climate.  It should come as no surprise given these vast differences in vegetation that Val di Suga’s three single vineyard Brunellos, which lie in different parts of the DOCG, are different and distinctive.  Though all three show an elegance and persistence without being massive, reflecting the Val di Suga’s style, the wines are markedly different.  The difference between Nardi’s broad-shouldered Manichiara, from a vineyard in the northeastern sector, and their finely chiseled Poggio Doria bottling, coming from a vineyard in the southwestern part of the DOCG is similarly staggering. 

Many produces bottle a selezione, or selection, not from a single vineyard, but rather from what they consider their best batches.  Donatello Cinelli Colombini has one called Prime Donne, which is selected by a group of experienced female tasters.  I Cipressi calls theirs Zebra.  Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish a selezione from a single vineyard bottling.  For example, Fanti and Banfi, have what sounds like vineyard names on the label, Valocchio, or Poggio alle Mure, respectively, but in fact, represent a selection of wines from various vineyards.  In reality, for the average consumer it probably makes less difference since the most important piece on the label is the name of the producer. 

Still, I—for one—would like to see more specific bottles reflecting the locale of the vineyards, such as is the practice in Barolo or Burgundy.  One of the reasons acclaimed wine areas, like those two, are truly great is because of the uniqueness of the wines that comes from areas that revere site specificity.  Brunello would benefit from more focus on place and show consumers that Brunello di Montalcino is no different from Barolo or Burgundy in that regard.

Back to the specifics of the 2015s Brunello.  There’s a lot to like with this vintage, but consumers need to be selective because not all producers dealt equally well with the difficult conditions the climate produced.  Some handled the ripeness beautifully, but others did not, falling into the trap of too much extraction and too much oak aging especially for their selezione or even their single vineyard bottling.  For example, Talenti’s regular 2015 Brunello bottling was spectacular, one of my favorites.  In contrast, I found their Piero bottling to be overly extracted and out of balance with oaky flavors dominating.  To be fair, another critic (with whom I rarely agree) awarded Talenti’s 2015 Piero 100 points, showing there is variability among critics and well as among wines.  Similarly, I found the regular 2015 Brunello from I Cipressi to be better balanced than their 2015 Zebra.  Though there were exceptions, as you’ll see below, time and time again, producers’ special bottlings seemed out of balance at this stage and over the top with too much alcohol, ripeness and oak influences.  I believe that in 2015, less is more in Brunello.

My favorites are listed below.  Within each grouping, wines are listed alphabetically.  (All prices are taken from wine-searcher.com.  NYA = price not yet available):

Gianni Brunelli 96 ($61)
Mastrojanni “Vigna Loreto” 96 points (NYA)
Silvio Nardi “Vigneto Poggio Doria” 96 ($110)

Barbi “Vigna del Fiore” 95 ($70)
Le Macioche 95 ($99)
Silvio Nardi “Vigneto Manachiara” 95 ($110)
Val di Suga “Vigna Spuntali” 95 (NYA)
Talenti 95 ($46)

Donatella Cinelli Colombini “Prime Donne” 94 (NYA)
Fulgini 94 ($99)
Val di Suga, “Poggio al Granchio” 94 ($74)

Castello Romitorio “Filo di Seta” 93    ($108)
Le Ragnaie, “Casanovina Montosoli” 93 (NYA)
San Polo “Podernovi” 93 (NYA)
Val di Suga, “Vigna del Lago” 93 (NYA)

Castelgiocando 92 ($68)
Col d’Orcia: 92 ($52)
Donatella Cinelli Colombini 92 (NYA)
Mastrojanni 92 ($52)
Silvio Nardi 92 ($55)
Sesta di Sopra 92 ($76)
Val di Suga 92 (NYA)

Barbi 91 ($50)
Carpineto 91 (NYA)
Casisano 91 (NYA)
Castello Romitorio 91 ($60)
I Cipressi 91 (NYA)
Il Poggione 91 ($84)
Le Potazzine 91 (NYA)

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E-mail me your thoughts about Brunello at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein and on Instagram.

March 4, 2020