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Brunello di Montalcino 2014: Not as Bad as it Sounds
By Michael Apstein
Feb 26, 2019
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Despite the sour mood in Montalcino caused by the “difficult” 2014 vintage for Brunello (vintages are never poor, they’re just difficult), it is definitely a vintage that consumers should investigate closely because some producers made very good wine.  To be sure, the talk is all gloom and doom regarding the 2014 vintage in Tuscany, including Montalcino.  Even the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino’s rating--self-serving and among the most lenient in the world--awarded the vintage just three out of five stars.  In the last 40 years, only four vintages received a lower rating from them.  Objective evidence of the producers’ unhappiness with the vintage is easy to find.  Biondi-Santi, the most exalted producer in the area, made no 2014 Brunello.  Other leading producers made no “Selezione,” single vineyard, or Riserva bottlings, opting to include those better grapes into the regular bottling.  For example, Col d’Orcia decided against producing Poggio Al Vento Riserva, their flagship Brunello, in 2014.  Similarly, Caparzo did not bottle a Riserva or their famed single-vineyard La Casa.  Donatello Cinelli Colombini, another leading producer, used all the grapes that would have gone into making their Selezione, called “Prime Donna,” or their Riserva, for their normal Brunello, which, by the way, could be the wine of the vintage.

The problem, as is always the case in determining the quality of the wine, is the weather during the growing season.  In short, the growing season in 2014 was cold and rainy.  The ensuing humidity wreaked havoc on the vines, causing widespread rot and disease.  The lack of sun meant that the Sangiovese, the only grape allowed in Brunello di Montalcino, struggled to ripen.  

Despite the overall poor rating of the 2014 vintage for Brunello, consumers should be interested in at least some of the wines because, as is always the case with “difficult” vintages, talented producers defy the odds.  Indeed, it’s better to rely on and follow producers than it is to have a blind allegiance to a vintage. 

Those who succeeded when many failed followed the standard procedures for rescuing a harvest:  A severe selection and hard work in the vineyard.  Violante Gardini, from Donatella Cinelli Colombini, noted that, “You needed to respect the nature of the vintage.”  She felt that those who failed to adjust the amount of oak aging in response to the lighter wines Mother Nature delivered produced ones that were out of balance.  Gardini stressed that their team of harvesters was careful to discard diseased bunches of grapes and leave them in the vineyard.  To further eliminate less than perfect fruit, the team used a sorting table at the winery to be sure only healthy grapes made it to the fermenting vats.  As a result, Donatella Cinelli Colombini produced only half of their usual production in 2014. 

According to Lorenzo Barzanti, assistant export manager for Caparzo, their production was down by only about 15 percent, but they bottled no Riserva or Vigna La Casa, which helps explain why their 2014 Brunello was successful.  Barzanti observed that Caparzo has their 225 acres of vineyards spread over the entire region of Montalcino, the southern portion of which, always drier, escaped some of Mother Nature’s ravages.

Col d’Orcia, one the region’s best producers, made an easy-to-recommend Brunello in 2014 in part because of their location in the southwest sector of the region, where the weather was drier.  Still, they needed to do two passes through the vineyards during harvest, selecting only the healthiest bunches, avoiding ones harmed by the humidity, according to Santiago Marone, whose family owns the property.  Marone noted that many producers, including themselves, declassified what legally could have been bottled as Brunello to Rosso di Montalcino to maintain the quality of the Brunello.  Wine not fit for Rosso was further declassified to table wine or sold off in bulk.

Dottore Maurizio Saettini, who consults for a variety of Montalcino producers, explained that leaf removal and cutting away parts of grape bunches during the summer promoted air circulation among the vines.  He felt that these labor-intensive techniques in the vineyard limited disease and helped those producers who made excellent Brunello in 2014.

The 2014 vintage for Brunello is definitely not a “point and shoot” vintage, like 2010, in which it would be difficult for consumers to find a loser.  The 2014 vintage is what I call a “wine writer’s” vintage, because consumers need to read assessments of the wines from critics or retailers they trust before buying. 

It’s a vintage that produced lighter Brunello.  W. Blake Gray, a serious critic from San Francisco, called the wines “dainty,” not an adjective normally associated with Brunello, but a good description of the vintage.  Still, the best wines have the firmness and mineral aspect characteristic of Brunello, just without the tannic structure.  They still convey the lovely austerity of Sangiovese planted in this unique area.  Although the best of the 2014 Brunello are easy to drink and approachable, they are not Rosso di Montalcino because they still have the Brunello core.  They simply lack the usual tannic underpinning.  Some of the wines actually already show a hint of evolution, with a transition from fresh to dried cherry-like flavors.

Although I have a prejudice against high alcohol wines because the elevated alcohol can be a marker for over ripeness and impart a hot finish, I always taste the wines and avoid judging by the numbers.  It may have just been coincidence, but I found that, after tasting the 2014 Brunello last month in Montalcino, my favorites, with rare exceptions, weighed in with a stated alcohol of 13.5 percent, which is low in the current context of climate change.

The recommended 2014 Brunello below are especially well-suited for restaurants because they are approachable and will provide enjoyment over the next several years.  Consumers new to Brunello or those curious about the category should embrace the recommended wines for the same reasons.  They lack the usual substantial tannins and are ready to drink, in most cases by the time these wines will hit retailers’ shelves over the coming year. 

A major question is whether the wines will be priced to entice consumers and restaurant owners to give Brunello from an “off” vintage a try.  Of the recommended wines below, I could find only two available at the retail level in the U.S.  Both are priced at, or above prices for previous vintages, according to wine-searcher.com, which may present a problem in the marketplace.

Although your personal preferences may be for bigger wines from other vintages, I found wines from the year that I can recommend with strong enthusiasm based on my own critical criteria


Highly Recommended 2014 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG:

Donatella Cinelli Colombini:  Gorgeous, plush Brunello flavors without hard tannins.  Good introduction to the beauty of Brunello.  A candidate for wine of the vintage (94).

Gianni Brunelli:  A balance of fruit and minerals.  Firm, not hard, and fresh.  Charming and restrained ($65, 93).  They always succeed!

Mastrojanni:  Lovely balance, delicacy and elegance.  Forward yet firm, with a core that reminds you it’s Brunello (93).

Caparzo:  Floral, mineral-y and refined.  Firm, not hard tannins. Fresh, lively finish (93).

Col d’Orcia:  Delicate, restrained, but no question it’s Brunello--the core speaks.  Long, clean and refined (92).

Tenute Silvio Nardi:  Still restrained and balanced despite the 14 percent stated-alcohol. Brunello firmness and core, but floral and delicate.  Lovely (92).

Campogiovanni:  Good concentration and structure.  Engaging sweet/bitter finish.  Balanced! (92).

La Fornace:  Great floral, fruity engaging nose that sucks you in.  Ripe and clean with lovely balance and structure.  Nearly ready.  Brunello firmness and minerality without aggressive tannins (92).

Villa I Cipressi:  Minerals and fruit combined.  Firm structure, not hard or tannic.  Drink now.  Brunello without harsh tannin.  Long and fresh (92).

Franco Pacenti “Canalicchio:”  Long and fresh showing hints of maturity already.  Refined and approachable (91).

Castiglion del Bosco:  Evolution already in the nose.  Lovely purity and refinement.  Long.  Balanced (91).


Recommended:

Tenuta Le Potazzine Gorelli:  Delicate Brunello mineral nose; hint of dark cherries and minerals; lovely restraint; forward, eminently drinkable now.  Mild tannins.  Balanced; not overdone or overworked ($83, 90).

Tiezzi, “Poggio Cerrino:”  Gorgeous floral, mineral-infused nose; delicate, with firmness of Brunello, but approachable.  Sweet cherry-like fruit and firm minerals.  Drink now. long refreshing finish (90).

Argiano:  Light in concentration, but good character.  Delicate, firm and floral.  Drink now (90).

Bellaria:  Already slightly evolved.  Firm, not hard tannins.  Balanced (90).

Fanti:  Great combination of ripe fruit with firm structure.  Not hard.  Delicate.  Balanced (90).

Fulgini: Charming, but with the firmness of Brunello.  Fruity, minerals, and earth; nicely balanced (90).

Il Marroneto:  More fruit-focused than mineral-y, but still conveys enough dark Brunello quality.  Firm, not hard, tannins.  Lovely now.  Fresh, fruity, fine finish (90).

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

February 27, 2019