2003 Brunello di Montalcino

This year, there’s more Brunello action off the field than on it, and wine fanatics have been glued to the Internet to follow the activity in recent weeks. Here’s the short version of recent developments. Just before the massive VinItaly wine exhibition opened in Verona at the beginning of April, it was announced that that the highest judicial authority in Tuscany had suspended shipments of 2003 Brunello di Montalcino from several large producers while an investigation was made into whether their Brunellos included a small percentage of unlawful grapes (by law, Brunello di Montalcino must be 100% sangiovese). Initial names to surface included Banfi, Antinori, Frescobaldi and Argiano, but nearly a hundred additional wineries were subsequently placed under investigation. As if Brunello didn’t already have enough problems, the U.S. government, through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, subsequently threatened to block imports of Brunello as of late June unless the wines were accompanied by lab analysis certifying that they were made entirely from sangiovese. (As long-time readers of these pages are aware, the unusually deep color of some Brunello bottlings has caused many insiders to wonder if dribbles of cabernet, merlot, syrah or Montepulciano haven’t been finding their way into some of these wines.)

Events in the days just before the IWC went to press were moving quickly: more than one producer (e.g., Argiano) had decided to declassify its 2003 Brunello to IGT; some on the original list of 100 or so estates had been cleared of suspicion (such as Biondi-Santi and Antinori’s Pian delle Vigne), and other producers (for example, Salicutti and Pian dell’Orino) had officially withdrawn from the Brunello consortium. The Italian government had taken control of the case, while our own TTB backed off a bit, declaring that the U.S. would only require certification from the Italian government that Brunello shipped here was being made according to the rules. Stay tuned.

The upshot of the excitement in Montalcino is that many 2003 Brunellos that did not leave Italy before the end of March have yet to be shipped. It’s hard to believe that this situation will not be resolved soon, as the financial health of many estates is at risk. As to the 2003 vintage itself, it was the product of western Europe’s brutally hot summer. Vineyards on the north side of Montalcino and at higher altitude often escaped the worst effects of heat and did quite well, while those in normally hotter spots often produced tiny concentrated berries that were grilled by the sun before they achieved true phenolic ripeness. Winemaking was obviously a critical variable in 2003, with some estates cutting back on extraction during vinification, reducing their use of new barriques to avoid adding more tannins to their wines, or simply shortening the amount of time they left their wines in barrel.

Given these challenges, I found the 2003s to be something of a pleasant surprise: I tasted fewer pruney or roasted wines than I expected to find. But the extreme conditions of the growing season often manifested themselves in insidious ways. Many wines showed a hard edge of dry tannins that became more apparent as they opened in the glass. And even wines from vineyards in the coolest spots rarely show the ineffable floral tones and the sappy vinosity and grip of the best sangiovese from Montalcino. The heat has widely had the effect of lopping off the topnotes of these wines, with the result that only the exceptional 2003s display real aromatic class and thrust.

On the plus side for many drinkers, most of these wines can be approached immediately, even where the tannins are a bit out of whack, due to their sweetness of fruit and relatively fleshy textures. While the vintage’s best examples may still be in good shape in 2020, I’d err on the early side, as it’s quite likely that the fruit, not always fresh or primary in the early going, will be overwhelmed by the wines’ alcohol and tannins over the next several years. But I tasted plenty of very good 2003s that should give considerable pleasure, especially when they are slightly chilled to mute their alcohol and served with richer stews and grilled meats, which will absorb some of their tannic bite. Incidentally, the Brunello consortium has taken criticism, and justifiably, for rating this vintage four stars out of five—the same rating the group assigned to the much more classic 2001 and 1999 vintages. My own take is that 2003 rates 3 stars at best, while 2001 is a solid 4.5.

The following wines were all tasted in New York in June. Prior to my notes, I have included lists of additional 2003 Brunellos that I rated below 87 points.

Also recommended: Castiglion del Bosco (86), Le Chiuse (86), Col di Lanno (85), Cupano (86), Fanti (85), La Fiorita (85), Fornacina (85), Greppone Mazzi (86), Podere “Il Poggiolo” (86), Le Macioche (86), La Mannella (85), Poggio Salvi (86), Podere SanLorenzo (86), San Polino (85), Vitanza (85).

Other wines tasted (wines followed by an asterisk rated 83 or 84 points): Beato, Podere Bellarina, Podere Brizio, Casisano-Colombaio, Citille di Sopra, Corte Pavone, Croce di Mezzo, Da Vinci, Fattoi Ofelio & Figli*, Fattoria Scopone, Fontevecchio, Lazzeretti*, Molino di Sant’Antimo, Montecarbello, Guido Padelletti*, Podere Paganico, Palazzo Comunale*, Poggio dell’Aquila, Le Ragnaie, Rendola*, Renieri, Ridolfi*, S. Lucia*, Sasso di Sole*, Tenuta La Fuga*, Tenuta Oliveto*, Terra Rosa, Terre Nere, La Togata*, Tornesi, La Velona*, Val di Suga, Verbena*.