Jekyll and Hyde: 2017 Brunello di Montalcino and 2016 Riservas
BY ERIC GUIDO | DECEMBER 09, 2021
There’s good news, bad news and some not-so-bad news out of Montalcino. Here we are with the release of the 2017 Brunellos only a month away, as collectors, speculators and lovers of Italy’s biggest name in pure Sangiovese prepare to either open their wallets or hold onto them tight. At this point, we’ve all heard the rumors that the 2017 vintage was challenging in Montalcino. There’s been talk of collectors' plans to entirely skip the vintage, and retailers reserving their budgets for the next best thing. Why not, right? Especially after stories about grapes shriveling and drying on the vines in the south, as well as frost further reducing yields in the north. Or about producers declassifying their entire production to Rosso, while others declassified their crus and Riserva juice to straight Brunello. Anyone that follows Montalcino has likely tasted the 2017 Rossos by now, with their savage yet opulent fruit profiles and unexpected tannic grip. While these wines are wildly enjoyable, it begs the question of how the region could produce classic Brunellos through more rigorous selection and further oak aging. It’s an interesting question, but way too broad.
Looking south across Sant'Angelo from the Argiano winery.
I think the first thing we all need to get past here is the word “Classic”. While every winemaking region around the world may have a certain style associated with what readers should expect from it year to year, it seems to be mainly in Italy, or, more precisely, Piedmont and Tuscany, where the mark of vintage can make or break the entire region. That’s not to say that a poor vintage in Bordeaux or Burgundy won’t affect the majority of producers, but that in those regions, consumers are much more loyal to the growers they love, and trusting that the best, most insightful and open-minded producers will still make great wines. The reality is that the 2017 vintage in Montalcino was torridly hot and dry through the entire summer, which interrupted the growth cycle, pushed sugar levels, thickened skins and prevented proper phenolic ripeness. In order to create a good, to possibly great, wine, producers needed to dig deeply into their bag of tricks. They needed to be in the vineyards working the soils, tending to leaf management and anticipating proper harvest times. They needed to be open to changing the techniques they use in their cellars, including, but not limited to, shorter macerations, lower temperatures in fermentations or drastically reducing the time that the wines spent in wood. Then of course there is the location, as the north slope varies from the south slope, and how Castelnuovo dell’Abate is quite different from Sant'Angelo in Colle. The actual variables are innumerable; and so, while one can say that 2017 was a tough vintage, skipping it entirely because the wines are not “Classic” Brunello would be a mistake.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are many wines from this vintage that simply shouldn’t have been raised into becoming Brunello di Montalcino. Unfortunately, it’s these wines, many of which would have been much better as Rosso di Montalcino, that hurt the region and the perception of the vintage. Whether this is the result of greedy producers that simply hoped they would still sell their wines on the “Brunello Brand” or their name alone, versus those that did all that they could and simply were unable to find balance in the finished wine, and a third category that simply can’t afford to skip a vintage, the unfortunate reality is by releasing wines that are sub-standard and priced in the $50 plus range, smears the name of Brunello di Montalcino.
Seeing Montalcino from North to South and Why It Matters
If only Montalcino as a whole was looking to define its terroir for consumers to better understand. In a vintage like 2017, location was extremely important. Not as much as the insightfulness of the grower and winemaker, yet still paramount to the success and style of the wines. The old logic is that most producers blend from vineyards throughout the region for balance, and while that’s still true for many top estates, the current trends of cru or vigne-designated wines, as well as the rise of smaller producers sourcing completely from vines around their estates has made the discussion of location very important.
A study of Montalcino terroir at Pian dell'Orino.
Consider that on the northern slope, we find many vineyards with northern exposures, ventilated at night with cooling air currents. Elevations range from around 300 to 400 meters, with soils that are predominantly calcareous clay and limestone mixed with rock fragments from the deterioration of the Montalcino hill. When we move east, vineyards are less steep, and elevations level out a bit, topping off around 330 meters, as the soils become thicker with a higher clay content and retain more water. Between the two, there is the Montosoli hill, a true Grand Cru of the region, with its own unique soils of rock, mineral-rich marls, loam, quartz, shale and limestone. Throughout this part of Montalcino, temperatures on average are naturally cooler, and harvests are later. It should come as no surprise that the onset of global warming has helped to add a bit more fruit and flesh to the wines from the north, yet also that they can excel in warmer vintages. In 2017, an early September rain shower in this area and the onset of cooler temperatures provided producers with what Francesco Ripaccioli, of Canalicchio di Sopra, detailed as “...the three weeks preceding the harvest were, in fact, those of a great vintage…”. His logic is that, although the fruit was heavily affected by the dry and warm conditions of the summer, it had ample time to regain balance over this time period. However, this same logic cannot be applied as we move south.
On the south hill of Montalcino, elevations range higher, with most producers' vineyards averaging around 400 to 500 meters, yet some much higher, such as Le Ragnaie’s Passo del Lume Spento that tops off at 621 meters above sea level. These elevations are what producers look to help them in hot vintages, as the warm days are offset by much cooler nighttime temperatures. The soils here are also drastically different from those in the north, yet also variable from location to location. For the most part, you’ll find what many producers refer to as galestro (as they often show signs of not feeling fully confident in that statement). In the end, it’s close to the flaky and friable clay schist that Tuscany refers to as galestro; however, more a combination of clay, silt and limestone. Yet you’ll also find more calcareous areas, to the point of vineyard blocks that look almost white from a distance, as well as shales and sandstones. These soils are more free-draining; and so, while they aid the southern hill in warm yet rainier vintages (maybe 2018?), they don’t help as much in dryer years. Slightly west is Tavernelle, where elevations are lower, up to around 350 meters, and the terrain is much rockier. This area was made famous by the likes of Soldera - Case Basse and Gaja - Pieve Santa Restituta, but also some top, under-the-radar producers like Caprili.
When we move even further south to the fortified hilltop town of Castelnuovo dell’Abate, we find another completely different terroir where elevations can be as high as 450 or as low as 200 meters. However, while this can be considered a warmer location, it is shielded from the steamy currents of the sea to the west, yet also moderated by the Orcia River to the south. When you add in Monte Amiata to the mix, standing at 1740 meters and providing both protection from weather and further cooling influences, you have a region that is almost unrecognizable from the north. Here we find drastic elevation changes, well-forested bubble-shaped mountains and peaks separating vineyards in some of the most precarious locations. That said, this is still the warmer south. To put the drastic climatic differences into perspective, Luca Marrone, of the Poggio di Sotto winery, reported that their first harvest, to save fruit from shriveling, was on August 29th - a far cry from having the perfect three weeks that was reported around Canalicchio. However, when all is said and done, the best producers prevail, and I can assure you that there are many highly successful wines in the south.
Showing the diversity of soils from Val di Suga's vineyards throughout Montalcino.
Heading even further south and west, where the weather gets warmer and drier, vineyards get bigger yet less steep, and seem to cascade across undulating hills. The soils are more clay and silt, and the climate seems somewhere between desert and Mediterranean. When standing here and peering out across the vast vineyards of Banfi, it doesn't feel like Montalcino at all, yet what would this region be without these southern reaches, where the bulk percentage of its production comes from? Wineries like Argiano, Talenti, Il Poggione and Col d’Orcia continue to make some of its greatest wines. It is more common here to find emergency drip irrigation installed throughout vineyards, and I can assure you that it was likely used at times during the 2017 vintage.
With all of this said, and having tasted over 160 Brunellos from the 2017 vintage, organized by flights in the manner as I described above, there is a regional character that can be found from place to place. And beyond that, there are the smaller outskirts of Camigliano, Bosco and Torrenieri, which also have their own unique terroir, yet all of it is labeled plainly as Brunello di Montalcino. Hopefully, we will one day have a better system of classification. Until then, I will continue to add as much of this information as possible into the producer profiles, including if a producer blends from different areas, as well as doing my best to label the town or part of Montalcino that each winery is most closely associated with.
Final Words on 2017
This is not a vintage to skip, nor is it one to go deep on. As a lover and collector of Brunello, I would be doing myself a disservice by missing out on some of the exotic and wildly successful wines of this unique vintage. The worst of the 2017s open with seductive and soaring aromatics, but then combine a massive concentration of tarry primary grape matter and green tannins that frankly hurt after the first sip and will likely never come fully into balance. However, in the middle, we find pretty and alluring wines that are juicy and fun, with gripping tannins that pucker the cheeks, yet also enough acidity to maintain freshness. These won’t have the longest life spans, but they will make for interesting and pleasurable study over the next five to seven years. Then there’s the best of them, the wines that transcend everything that we’ve learned about the 2017 vintage, from producers who, through a combination of terroir and expertise, have created some of the most beautiful exotic beasts I’ve ever seen in Montalcino. While we can generalize that the north hill fared better than the south, there are still a number of top wines from Castelnuovo Dell'abate and Sant'angelo in Colle. Not to mention the rugged northwest, where Castello Romitorio and Castiglion del Bosco are transcending expectations. In the end, read the notes and producer profiles. Make informed decisions, but don’t make the mistake of missing out on some of the magic that the 2017 vintage has created.
Looking toward Mount Amiata from Salicutti.
2016 Brunello Riservas: Radiance Personified Redux
The 2016 and 2017 vintages couldn’t be more different, and while I didn’t find a single producer that intended to make a 2017 Riserva (unless Le Potazzine pulls a fast one), the 2016 vintage provided the perfect conditions to do so. In my last article on the 2016 vintage, in November of 2020, I described the wines as “...dark yet radiant, expressive, nearly explosive at times, yet pure, poised and structured. These are wines that capture your imagination; and no matter how youthfully tense they are today, you simply can’t help but revisit a glass over and over again; because in many cases, the aromatics alone are intoxicating. I frankly cannot remember the last time I tasted young wines from Montalcino that possessed such symmetry from start to finish.” One thing that continued to go through my mind, while tasting the freshly released 2016s, was just how adept they might be when the rules that govern the Riserva category were applied. I’m happy to report that they most certainly are. There’s frankly so much pent-up energy and brilliance of fruit within 2016 Brunellos, that the extended aging process has only finely tuned these already-souped-up roadsters.
However, it’s about more than just vintage conditions, as there was a time when the Riserva category would be considered to hold less value over the annatas. They were seen as small-production, high-priced, yet often dried out and overly structured wines that robbed the Sangiovese within of its typicity and energetic personality. This brings up the topic of wood aging times in Montalcino. During the maturation time prior to release, DOCG regulations require a full two years in wood barrels; the rest can be in tank or bottle. What’s unknown to many consumers is that this is the same required time for a Riserva, just with another year of time spent in the winery before release. So, while many producers are choosing to reduce the amount of time that their Brunello is spending in barrel, there are also quite a few who are now doing the same with their Riserva. Plainly stated, in some cases you are buying a wine that is from either the producer’s top selection in the vineyard, or choice barrels in the cellar, and is aged only as long, or slightly longer, than the estate Brunello; simply released later. When taking this into consideration, the Riserva category starts to look much more valuable than it ever did before. That’s not to say that hardliners of extended wood aging aren’t making great Riservas; it’s just that the success of those wines is far more vintage-dependent, as they need to possess fruit that can stand up to the process and mature evenly over time.
In the end, this report covers a large number of extremely successful wines from 2016 that often excel beyond that annata tasted last year, or at least run neck and neck with them, by providing a unique expression or one that is likely to provide a longer evolution in the cellar. That said, there are also a few that might garner higher scores as they mature.
The Riserva Catagory is alive and well in Montaclino.
The 2017 Vintage Breakdown
The 2017 vintage started cold and dry through the winter months. Abundant rains arrived in April, along with warmer temperatures through the first few weeks, but then a drastic drop. In many parts of the cooler north, this resulted in a frost that damaged vines and reduced the crop.
May continued with wild ups and downs in temperatures, along with a small amount of precipitation. Things appeared to be relatively on track until June, as the temperatures continued to increase, but without the aid of rain. In the more well-draining areas to the south, drought conditions began to appear; while in the heavier clay of the north, the built-up water reserves, and minor rain events, helped to maintain balance. The dry and extremely warm conditions continued through the summer, shriveling fruit on the vines and pushing ripeness levels in the vineyards. In the south, some producers reported a pre-harvest, or start of harvest, as early as the end of August, as well as drastically reduced yields, some up to 50%. September brought what many see as the saving grace of 2017, rain and cooler temperatures. In well-ventilated areas, these were ideal conditions to help regain lost ground, yet the vintage had left its mark.
The wines in this article were tasted both in Montalcino in July of 2021 and in our offices in New York City in November of 2021. All of the 2017s that were tasted in Montalcino were again revisited in our offices in New York.
© 2021, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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