1997 Brunello di Montalcino

by Edward Beltrami

The eagerly awaited 1997 vintage in Montalcino does not disappoint. I initially approached the Brunellos of this harvest with some caution given the uneven quality found among some wines of 1997 from other parts of Italy, as well as from
Tuscany in general. However, after tasting extensively in Montalcino earlier this year and again in New York over the last few months, I'm impressed by the deep colors, stunning aromas, plush textures and, most of all, the overall depth and balance of the 1997 Brunellos. To be sure, some estates did better than others, but the overall level of quality is remarkably high.

The 1997 growing season. A period of frost in mid-April reduced yields and no doubt led to greater concentration of the final crop. Sufficient and evenly distributed rainfall during the first half of summer provided a reserve for the hottest period of the growing season. Remarkably, the months of July and August, though warm, were not excessively hot, and occasional showers ensured a gradual and even maturation of the fruit right up through veraison. There was none of the drought stress that handicapped the '98 vintage, nor any of the drenching rains of '96 that diluted the harvest. September and October were hot and dry, and the harvest was earlier than usual, beginning in the middle of September. The grapes were physiologically mature, and although sugar levels were high (alcohol levels are generally between 13.5% and 14% in the finished wines), these were matched by elevated phenols and acids.

These favorable climatic conditions had their greatest positive impact on those properties located at higher elevations in the predominantly northern and eastern sloping vineyards near the towns of Montalcino and Torrenieri. In other vintages, these wines can appear to be a touch austere compared to those from vineyards with southerly exposures located around Sant'Angelo and Castelnuovo Abate. Indeed, in all parts of Montalcino the degree of ripeness is outstanding in 1997, and while there is an occasional wine that evidences overripe fruit, the majority are generously endowed, possessing well-focused flavors and combining strength and finesse. A few producers I spoke with suggested that 1999 may equal or surpass 1997, and at least one property owner thought that 1995 produced wines of greater concentration, but these are minority sentiments and, among the larger estates at least, this view may reflect the fact that some of the best lots are being held back for the riserva wines to be released in 2003. Most producers, in fact, are elated by their '97s. There is plenty of grip and concentration, with the ample, well-integrated tannins showing a degree of ripeness and suppleness that does not intrude on the fruit. The wines show noteworthy freshness due to the very sound acids of the vintage, and the flavors display great clarity in addition to a deep core. These Brunellos have the structure to last, and should drink well for decades even though they are already quite flattering to taste now. This crop of Brunellos is one of the great success stories for one of Italy greatest wines and must be considered a triumph of Italian winemaking.

A brief word about the sangiovese used to make Brunello. There are many clones of the sangiovese variety, and research carried out at Castello Banfi, in conjunction with the University of Milan, has established that the aromatic and structural profile of Brunello can vary significantly depending on the clonal material that is employed. Indeed, Castello Banfi has identified a handful of mutants which, depending on soil and exposure, are deemed especially favorable, and these, in various combinations, now constitute the core plantings for their Brunello.) The diversity of genetic variants available in the vineyards of Montalcino contributes as much to the differences in the wines tasted from this tiny winemaking enclave as do elevation and exposure.

Currently, 134 producers of Brunello bottle their wine. The reviews on the following pages cover most of the more significant properties. Conspicuously absent from this roster is Gianfranco Soldera, whose 1997 wines were still in cask during the time I conducted my tastings.