Bevenuto Brunello

Tuscany – Italy generally – had a brutal winter, and Montalcino got some of the worst of it. By the time I arrived there in late February for Benvenuto Brunello, the annual showing of new releases, they told me it was warming: not so’s you’d notice, I thought. But the chill did make the wines very welcome, and the tasting job a lot easier.

The quality of the wines further helped that: This year the Consorzio was presenting three vintages – 2010 Rosso di Montalcino, 2007 Brunello di Montalcino, and 2006 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – all of which were rated five stars. In the past, I have thought some of the Consorzio’s vintage ratings inflated, but not this time: these three are first-rate vintages, and they were fun to taste – and I don’t often say that of the endurance contests that these marathon tastings can frequently be.

Tasters at work in a tented-over C14 cloister

The easiest to taste was the Rosso di Montalcino, a wine that is designed to be drinkable young and in this vintage expertly fulfilled that requirement. The 2010s did so, moreover, without losing any Sangiovese character: across the board, they showed the wonderful cherry-like fruit of the variety and at the same time hinted at (in some cases much more) the characteristic soils that distinguish the wines of Montalcino from all other Sangioveses. More than one producer told me that the 2010 harvest was the best that he or she had ever seen, and that quality was certainly reflected in the wines. It made me very keen to taste the ’10 Brunellos, but we’ll all have to wait a few more years for that.

2007 Brunello and 2006 Brunello Riserva showed really intense Brunello character – which is to say, neither offered itself immediately. Both made you come to them and pay attention. Both rewarded the effort handsomely, in their very different styles. Of the two, 2007 was relatively more accessible, and most of the samples I tasted got this vintage exactly right. They showed a combination of excellent Sangiovese fruit, with overtones of nuts and minerals and an occasional whiff of tobacco, and – most important of all – almost no wood interference. That package of flavors sat comfortably atop fine acid/tannin balances, so there is enough depth, character, and structure there to make this not only a soon-drinkable vintage but also a long-keeping one.

Foreground: Brunello grapes ripening last summer. Background: C12 abbey of Sant'Antimo

That last is the most immediately striking attribute of the 2006s: They seem built for the ages. Bigger, firmer wines than the ‘07s, like them they have plenty of fruit and minerality and earthy, mushroomy flavors, but they definitely need time to soften their still very firm tannins and to let that delicious fruit emerge. These wines want patience, and they deserve it. 2006 amounts to a classic Brunello vintage, in this taster’s opinion.

Here are the wines that I thought the best of a top-notch batch of Brunellos. Most are the basic 2007 Brunello, but I’ve also noted where Riservas or particular cru wines also deserve special attention – and I haven’t listed any 2010 Rosso di Montalcino because they are all so good it would make this list way too long. I didn’t taste all 141 samples of 2010 Rosso that were available, but I did taste more than half of them, and there wasn’t a bad wine in the lot. They ranged in my notes from Good through Very Good to Wonderful – and that doesn’t happen often. This list is in alphabetical order:

  • Banfi: the 2006 Riserva
  • Canalicchio di Sopra 2007
  • Caprili: the basic 2007 and the 2006 Riserva. A small estate producing consistently stylish, age-worthy Brunello
  • Castello Romitorio: 2007 and 2006 Riserva
  • Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona: the basic 2007, plus Brunello 2007 Pianrosso, 2006 Riserva di Pianrosso – wonderful wines from a mid-sized estate
  • Col d’Orcia: 2004 riserva Poggio al Vento (Col d’Orcia often releases wines late)
  • Donatella Cinelli Colombini: both the basic 2007 and vineyard selection Prime Donne showed well
  • Fuligni: strong again in 2007; a pace setter for the zone
  • Il Paradiso di Manfredi: 2007, and especially 2006 Riserva
  • Il Poggione: 2007 and 2006 Riserva Il Paganelli
  • La Poderina: 2006 Riserva
  • Le Chiuse: 2006 Riserva
  • Lisini 2007
  • Mastroianni 2007
  • Pacenti Franco-Canalicchio 2007
  • Poggio di Sotto: Brunello ’07, Brunello ’06, and Riserva ’06 – exquisite wines from a top-of-the-line small producer
  • Villa Poggio Salvi: basic 2007 and 2006 Riserva

Rolling fields of the Brunello zone seen from near the top of Montalcino hill

Back in the Chianti Classico half of this trip, I remarked on the frenetic news-and-rumor mill at work in Florence. That mill was no less busy in Montalcino, though here the focus wasn’t so much on right now as on just a while ago – that is, on what the Italian press called Brunellogate and the US press (even the US wine press) scarcely noticed. This involved accusations of widespread violation of Brunello’s 100% Sangiovese formula, though from the start it was next to impossible to come by specifics of the improprieties and their alleged perpetrators. Even though the vast majority of Brunello producers now regard that episode as thoroughly behind them – their relief and their enthusiasm to get on with their lives and their winemaking was palpable – nevertheless trickles of information continue to emerge from the labyrinth of the Italian legal system.

The Italian journalist Gian Luca Mazzelli called my attention to the fact that some individuals and firms had in fact been judged guilty of improprieties and that several significant plea bargains had been struck. These were lightly reported in the Italian press (not a conspiracy: Berlusconi was hogging the headlines, and any other corruption paled in comparison), and almost not at all in the American. This link goes to the English-language report Gian Carlo provided me.

As you will see, the events there reported are already more than two years old, so I am strongly inclined to let sleeping dogs lie: The solid vote of the Montalcino producers against putting anything but Sangiovese into their Rosso, plus the inescapable sense, from all the publicity, that Somebody Is Watching seem to me to have righted the situation very thoroughly. Certainly I didn’t see any wines at this year’s event that showed any suspiciously dark tinge, nor did I smell or taste anything that smacked of Merlot or Cabernet or Syrah. Obviously, I’m not infallible – but for my palate, Brunello is on the right track.

One Response to “Bevenuto Brunello”

  1. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    Nice report as usual and we agree on many of the same wines. It’s especially nice of you to single out Canalicchio di Sopra, who has really improved over the past few years, as well as Caprili, an excellent traditional producer that has being crafting excellent Brunello for more than a decade.

    Having tried many of the same wines at this tasting, I can happily confirm that very few of the wines were overwrought with wood. How nice to see that, especially after the onslaught of international styles of Brunello not that long ago.

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