2004 Brunello di Montalcino

Thus far, the coverage of Brunello di Montalcino I’ve seen elsewhere has generally fallen into two categories: 2004 is an outstanding vintage, worth the 5 stars awarded to it by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, or 2004 is an overrated vintage from a growing season that was too warm to make classic sangiovese wines. As usual, the truth lies somewhere between these two overgeneralizations.

First, I would not rate this vintage 5 stars out of 5. A rating of 4.5 or, better still, 4, seems to me more accurate after having tasted a majority of the 2004 Brunellos. That’s not to say that the vintage did not yield a large number of superb examples. But I marginally prefer the 2001 vintage (a solid 4.5 out of 5) for the greater precision, class and thrust of its best wines. (I should also note that insiders eagerly await the 2006s, which may similarly surpass 2004 for elegance.) As a general rule, I found relatively few 2004s with the floral high notes, aromatic complexity, vinosity and grip of the platonic Brunello.

The potential Achilles’ heel of the 2004 vintage was the warmth of the summer and, in some instances, above-average yields. But there were enough short cooler spells in July and August to invigorate the vines and keep the ripening process going, and the harvest took place during the second half of September and well into October. I tasted relatively few wines that I would describe as roasted, but the vintage had a tendency to produce somewhat chunky wines, many of which seem quite approachable already. I also experienced numerous examples with somewhat rustic, drying tannins. The same warmth that enabled fruit in the generally cooler Chianti region to ripen fully without losing its floral perfume was not as helpful in the hotter spots of the Brunello zone, particularly for vineyards at lower altitude and those with a southerly exposition.

One happy development is that I saw less in the way of suspiciously dark wines than in recent successful vintages. After the well-publicized scandal of 2008, in which nearly a hundred Brunellos were temporarily embargoed due to the suspicion that they included percentages of grapes other than sangiovese or that varieties other than sangiovese were planted in Brunello vineyards, the roughly 200 members of the Consorzio reaffirmed, by an open vote, that Brunello must be 100% sangiovese. (Some producers maintain that the result of the vote might have been different had it be done anonymously, but that’s another story.) Still, it must be noted that the 2004 Brunellos had already been bottled by the time this vote was taken, so the more sangiovese-typical red colors I found in the wines cannot be attributed to a sudden change of heart by former offenders in the face of tougher enforcement of appellation rules.

As I tasted through the 2004s, however, I did wonder if some estates topped up these wines with 2003 juice (DOCG regulations allow Brunello to include up to 17.64% sangiovese from another vintage). Normally, a Brunello producer would add some juice from a younger vintage to freshen up wines that sit so long in barrel, but adding some 2003 could have served the twin purposes of adding fat, sweetness and early appeal as well as creating an outlet for wine from a vintage the producers figured would be harder to sell. In a few cases, I thought that some of the dry tannins I found in 2004s could have been contributed by some 2003 juice. The earlier vintage, after all, was a hot drought year that widely produced tiny concentrated berries grilled by the sun. But dry tannins in the 2004s may also be attributable to excessive use of barriques, sometimes new; to less-than-stellar large, old casks; or simply to too much time in barrel.

Brunellos are generally expensive wines, and only the best of them merit their prices. There are plenty of very good ones in 2004, but there are still too many unexciting examples. There has been steady expansion of the delimited Brunello di Montalcino appellation since the early 1970s to areas not previously known for producing good wine, and thus it’s hardly surprising that up to half of the wines produced even in good years are not especially interesting—especially in light of their prices.

As a general rule, I try to score wines without regard to price and let consumers make their own buying decisions, but it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for 87- and 88-point bottles at the prices of today’s Brunello. Too many of the 2004s I tasted showed a dryness from oak, and many of the lesser examples display a distinct lack of generosity. Other wines were diffuse, lacking in verve and spine, or short on the aftertaste. I tasted relatively few wines that reminded me of classic Brunellos of 10 and 20 years ago, which impressed early with their class and definition but could be youthfully wound-up, even quite austere, in the early going. The majority of the 2004s seem surprisingly accessible already, and only the better wines have the tightly coiled spring to improve in bottle for 15 years or more. Alcohol levels in 2004 are higher than average, with virtually all wines showing 13.5% to 14.5% on the label (the minimum for the appellation is a much more moderate 12.5%). I have limited my full notes to my favorite wines of the vintage.

Also recommended: Argiano (86+?), Castello Romitorio (85), Castiglione del Bosco (85), Col di Lanno/Giovanni Neri (85), Collelceto (86), Fattoria dei Barbi (86), Fattoria La Lecciaia Vigna Manapetra (86), Palazzo Communale (86), Podere Brizio (86), Podere San Lorenzo Brumante (85), Poggio dell’Aquila (85), Ridolfi (86), Sasso di Sole (85), Tenuta Greppone Mazzi (86), Ugolforte (85).

Other wines tasted (wines followed by an asterisk rated 83 or 84 points): Beato, Belpoggio*, Brunelli (Luca), Casisano-Colombaio, Castello Tricerchi/Agricoltori del Geografico, Citille di Sopra, Clan Destino*, Corte Pavone, Croce di Mezzo*, Cupano*, Donna Olga, Fattoi, Fattoria La Lecciaia, Ferrero, La Fornace*, Fornacina*, Gianni Brunelli*, Il Mio (Rodolfi Cosini), Lazzeretti, Le Macioche, La Mannella*, Montecarbello, Pietranera, Podere Bellarina, Podere Paganico, Le Ragnaie*, Rendola, Renieri, San Carlo*, San Polino Helichrysum*, Tenuta Friggiali, Terra Rossa, Terralsole, Terre Nere*, Tornesi, La Velona, Vitanza*.