2004 Brunello di Montalcino: A Vintage Full of Surprises

by Antonio Galloni

The much-anticipated 2004 Brunellos are now in the market and the moment of truth has arrived. Do the wines justify the hype or not? Like all things that involve Brunello di Montalcino, the answer is not a simple one. My first impression of the wines from bottle was not particularly positive as I encountered a number of disappointing wines from well-known producers. Then an interesting thing happened. I tasted Brunello after Brunello from lesser-known properties that were in many cases outstanding. The underperformance of several benchmark properties and the surprising number of terrific wines from less well-known estates is a major theme in 2004 Brunello. The second major theme in 2004 is the continuing emergence of the differences between Montalcino’s various terrains and microclimates. Overall 2004 is a much stronger vintage in the southern part of the zone – specifically Sant’Angelo in Colle and Castelnuovo dell’Abate – than it is in Montalcino itself. Simply put – despite a number of truly monumental Brunellos – 2004 is unfortunately not a profound vintage across the board, as it probably could have been and should have been.

The reasons why certain wines are disappointing is frankly perplexing. Some of it might be explained by the enormous differences by the diverse microclimates of the northern and southern slopes of Montalcino as noted above. Ripening can vary by as much as a few weeks and up to a month between the cooler, high altitude vineyards in the north and the more Mediterraean influenced microclimates in south. In the torrid 2003, it was the higher altitude parts of Montalcino near the center of town that were the most favored. In 2004, a vintage with much cooler and balanced weather, it was the southern part of the region where the fruit ripened most evenly.

Like many parts of Italy, 2004 was an abundant vintage in Montalcino, as plants unleashed the energy they had held in reserve from the previous year. Growers had to exercise quite a bit of discipline to lower yields through green harvesting, something not everyone was prepared to do after a disastrous, virtually non-existent 2002 and a 2003 where the extreme heat concentrated the juice, therefore naturally lowering production levels significantly. The vineyards in the south were perhaps more forgiving to plants carrying more generous loads of fruit. Where producers worked their vineyards with care, the wines are often very delicious, but I also found quite a few Brunellos that show elements of dilution.

Another explanation might be that some producers are holding back their best lots for 2004 Riservas that might command even higher prices than the normal bottlings when they are released next year. All of these seem quite plausible. A more cynical, oft-heard view is that producers, afraid of increased inspections, have scaled back and/or eliminated the use of international varieties they may have used in the past to give the wines a little more stuffing. Still, even with those caveats, the vintage offers a large number of truly beautiful wines that are highly recommended.

2007 Rosso di Montalcino

Lost in all the hype surrounding the 2004 Brunellos is that the 2007 Rossos are incredibly delicious! Of course Rosso di Montalcino is made in various styles; from wines meant for casual, everyday drinking, to more serious bottles that are essentially mini-Brunellos. Sangiovese vineyards in Montalcino are designated for either Rosso or Brunello, and clearly those producers with the highest quality vineyards who make a Rosso from Brunello-designated plots are capable of making wines at the Rosso level that can equal, and sometimes surpass, many Brunellos. The best 2007 Rossos offer plenty of fruit, expressive aromatics and generous, open personalities. These probably won’t be especially long-lived wines, but that is rarely a concern with Rosso di Montalcino. Simply put, the best Rossos in 2007 are exceptional and well worth seeking out.

A Thumbnail Sketch of Montalcino

Unfortunately political infighting and bickering has prevented the Brunello producers’ Consortium from formalizing the differences between Montalcino’s different production zones, which makes it very difficult for the trade and consumers to get a handle on the wines. Burgundy has the Côtes de Beaune and the Côtes de Nuits, Bordeaux has the Left Bank and the Right Bank, in Piedmont it is Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero. Of course, within those regions each of the villages is its own microcosm of diversity manifesting unique qualities which have been studied for decades and centuries. But in Montalcino, we are still stuck with one broad appellation that is in reality home to a wide range of microclimates and terrains, about which little is formally known. What follows is a brief description of the three main sub-zones within Montalcino. Even within Montalcino itself, the variety of terroirs and producer styles varies to such a great extent that generalizations are fraught with many, many exceptions. Still, a starting point is better than no point of reference at all.

Montalcino : Montalcino itself can be divided into at least two major areas. The road that leads up the hill and into the town center from Buonconvento passes through a number of well-known vineyards including the famed Montosoli. This is the part of Montalcino where fruit is generally the last to ripen. Top producers in this portion of Montalcino include Valdicava, Altesino, Val di Suga, La Gerla, Fuligni, Siro Pacenti and Pertimali. A number of first-rate properties are located closer to the center of town, including Cerbaiona, Salvioni, Costanti and Biondi-Santi. In places, the terrain here is similar to the galestro found in Chianti Classico, which yields firm, long-lived wines. Past the town center and moving south towards Sant’Angelo in Colle and Castelnuovo dell’Abate, the soils and exposures begin to change. The wines of producers such as La Poderina, Gaja and Soldera take on more of the richness and power that is typical of the southern parts of the region. Torrenieri to the northeast and Camigliano and Tavernelle, both to the west, are considered part of Montalcino, although they should be viewed separately.

Castelnuovo dell’Abate: The vineyards in this southern village yield well-balanced, ripe wines that generally drink well upon release with a minimum of cellaring. In very hot vintages, Castelnuovo can present challenging conditions for growers, as the heat can be excessive. Top estates include Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Poggio di Sotto, Agostina Pieri, Uccelliera and Sesta di Sopra.

Sant’Angelo in Colle: This southerly region contains soils similar to those in Castelnuovo and the same caveats apply in very hot years. Top producers include Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia, Lisini and Talenti. Where the vines are old, the plants are able to withstand the heat and yield wines of exceptional balance and ageability.

Sant’Antimo: This appellation, located just beyond the southern boundary of the Brunello-producing region of Montalcino, is home to large plantings of international varieties that inform the numerous Sant’Antimo bottlings that have come onto the market in recent years.

And Now a Word on Pricing

Many producers chose to raise prices with their 2004 Brunellos based on the quality of the vintage, something that on paper is certainly understandable considering that both 2002 and 2003 were difficult vintages from a commercial standpoint. Of course, the timing for increases could not have been worse given the massive destruction of wealth that has occurred around the world. Today’s economic malaise has spared no country, which makes it very difficult for producers to find any market that is particularly healthy. Look at what has happened in Piedmont. Barolo is a wine that typically enjoys far more consistent demand from year to year, yet the 2004 Barolos – from a much stronger vintage across the board – have already been heavily discounted to the final consumer in the US. The vast majority of the wines will be available for some time, and in all but a handful of cases, patience will be rewarded.

What Does the Future Hold for Montalcino?

It hasn’t been easy to be a fan of Brunello di Montalcino over the last year or so. Montalcino spent most of 2008 mired in the “Brunellopoli” scandal in which a number of properties were investigated for allegedly planting international varieties in Brunello-designated vineyards and blending the juice from those plots into their wines, an episode that left the region shell-shocked and paralyzed. When I visited Montalcino last year producers looked wearied and beaten down by the steady flow of bad news that resulted in a handful of Brunellos from well-known estates being sequestered as lengthy analyses were conducted to ascertain whether the wines were 100% Sangiovese or not. Fast forward to today, and much seems to have been swept under the rug, with little real closure. Sadly, Montalcino’s dirty laundry has been aired and the damage has been done, but more on that below.

It is no secret Montalcino faces big challenges. Brunello is a wine that only generates buzz and excitement in the most acclaimed vintages. In anything but highly regarded years, demand slackens and there is an alarming amount of Brunello that is quietly sold at fire-sale prices, something threatens to destabilize the entire region. Unfortunately producers have few options to move wine in an appellation where average production has increased dramatically. Consider that during the decade of the 1990s an average of 3.1 million bottles of Brunello were produced, but by 2004 that number had increased an eye-popping 80% to 5.6 million bottles. For the 2008 vintage the number of bottles of Brunello is estimated by the producers’ Consortium to reach an astonishing 6.8 million bottles.

The use of international varieties is by far the most hotly debated topic in Montalcino. Understandably there has been much rhetoric back and forth, but little dialogue that seems rational and detached from emotion. These are the facts. In confidence, producers estimate that the percentage of acreage in Montalcino that is truly suited to producing first-class Sangiovese is between 25-33%. Oenologists frequently speak of Sangiovese needing “help” in all but the most extraordinary vintages. Many openly advocate (pardon the pun) relaxing of the Brunello laws to allow for a percentage of international grapes. The problem with that approach of course is that Brunello is a wine whose fame is based on the supposedly special qualities of the Sangiovese Grosso clone (and its modern-day descendents) that is found only in Montalcino. Allowing for the use of other grapes is a (not so) tacit admission that perhaps Sangiovese from Montalcino was never all that special in the first place and/or that the grape has been planted in an exorbitant number of places to which it is fundamentally ill-suited.

I strongly believe produces should be allowed to make the very best wines they possibly can. Otherwise they will be marginalized in today’s intensely competitive market. If that means using international varieties, so be it. Montalcino’s reputation was built at a time when fine Italian wine essentially meant Barolo, Barbaresco plus a handful of wines from Tuscany, Veneto and Campania. That is no longer the case. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to also understand that the emerging regions of the world are making better and better wines each year. With respect to Italy, the finest wines from the Center and South have already begun to surpass all but the most profound wines that emerge from Montalcino, a trend that will only continue to gain pace in the coming years under the current set-up of regulations. It makes no sense to handcuff producers with excessively stringent regulations.

That said, the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG should only belong to those wines made from 100% Sangiovese. A solution is to create a second, parallel Montalcino DOCG for wines that incorporate international varieties. This allows producers with land in Montalcino to leverage the name of their famous appellation but also recognizes those estates that make Brunello di Montalcino with 100% Sangiovese from vineyards that are well-suited to the variety. Ultimately consumers and the trade only care about the quality of what is in the bottle, but they rightly want producers to be honest about how they are labeling their wines. It is amazing to consider that a $1 quart of milk contains more information for the consumer than a $100 bottle of wine, which is ridiculous. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that a top-flight Brunello that today is made with a small percentage of Merlot that then becomes a Montalcino DOCG would lose prestige. To the contrary, one need only look at the high-end IGTs of Chianti Classico (Le Pergole Torge, Flaccianello, Percarlo, etc.) to see that these wines, based on their quality, have far surpassed the status and the associated pricing level of Chianti Classico, a DOCG under which they could all be bottled today. Angelo Gaja’s single-vineyard wines from Barolo and Barbaresco have not suffered one bit since he stopped using the DOCG for those wines. Ultimately quality pays, it is as simple as that. Of course, there will always be a number of producers who have little ambition and prefer to free-load off the image and reputation of their well-known region. In today’s globalized world, all sectors are under intense competitive pressure, and that will be the same here. Those producers who don’t aim to increase quality will increasingly be crowded out.

Ten Wines That Restored My Faith in the Greatness of Brunello di Montalcino

Montalcino is a region that tends to elicit widely differing points of view on the wines as ultimately one’s perception comes down to whether the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty. Those who look down on Montalcino certainly find no shortage of things to rightly criticize, including rampant over production, excessively high pricesin many cases, Riservas that don’t deliver the premium they should, and a number of far more serious issues discussed above that involve the alleged use of non-permitted varieties and in the most egregious cases, the blending in of wines from outside the region itself.

Still, this year I tasted a number of truly profound Brunellos that prove Montalcino is capable of producing extraordinary wines - perhaps not in its entirety - but in selected places and by passionate growers. The big houses might like to think they create the image and therefore demand for Brunello world-wide, and that may be the case amongst the general public, but these and other small production, handcrafted wines are truly the bottles that elevate the prestige of Brunello di Montalcino as a world-class wine. Discerning readers who seek the very finest examples of Sangiovese from Montalcino should do whatever they can to find these wines. In short, these are ten Brunellos that restored my faith in how great Brunello di Montalcino can be : Cerbaiona, Agostina Pieri, Poggio di Sotto, Il Poggione, Salicutti, Salvioni, Sesta di Sopra, Siro Pacenti, Stella di Campalto, Uccelliera and Valdicava Riserva Madonna del Piano. Readers will note that these Brunellos encompass a wide variety of styles, but they all possess the qualities that I consider essential in any fine, age-worthy wine, namely well-articulated aromas and flavors, balance between fruit, acidity and tannins, length on the palate, and the ability to develop even more nuance in bottle. Unfortunately few of these Brunellos are inexpensive, but for those who have the requisite discretionary income, the wines are must-haves. Lastly, nothing would give me more pleasure than to find myself obligated by the sheer quality of the wines to expand this list significantly when the 2004 Riservas are released next year or when Montalcino’s next important vintage comes along.