2009 Brunello di Montalcino: The Day of
Readers will have to be highly selective
with the 2009 Brunellos. An extremely challenging vintage pushed growers to the
The 2009 Growing Season
The 2009 growing season in
Montalcino will be remembered by the massive heat wave that arrived suddenly in
August of that year. As it turns out, I was on vacation that summer in Tuscany
with my family. I remember going to see vineyards in Montalcino one day and
being shocked by the dramatic effects of the heat. Vines are incredibly adaptive plants but, like people, they don’t like sudden change.
The intense August heat caused sugars to mount faster than phenolic ripeness
could be achieved. In some places, it is obvious the heat caused plants
to shut down, blocking ripeness. In other spots, yields were too high for plants
to carry their fruit through to full maturity. For more context on 2009 and
subsequent vintages, readers might want to revisit this short
video I shot upon my return from Montalcino in February.
2009 Brunello di Montalcino: Every Vintage Can’t Be Epic
The 2009 Brunellos are some of the
most uneven, problematic young wines I have ever tasted. As a group, the 2009s
are forward, light in color and built for near-term drinking. Readers will see
obvious signs of maturity in wines with advanced color and flavor profiles. In
fact, many wines are already alarmingly evolved and mature. The 2009 Brunellos
are generally medium in body, with none of the voluptuous texture or raciness
of great riper years such as 2007. It is a vintage in which many wines that
spent more than the required minimum of two years in barrel are excessively
forward. The 2009 Rossos were gorgeous; they captured the early appeal of the
vintage. When it comes to Brunello, though, things are quite different. Simply put, 2009 is the most inconsistent and
difficult young vintage of Brunello I have tasted in many years. As always, there are a handful of overachieving estates and
outstanding wines, but not more than that. This is a vintage that highlights the
differences between terroirs and also very clearly separates the top growers
from the rest of the pack.
The hype that is prevalent in
today’s world often results in vintages being lumped into one of two camps; we
either have yet another ‘vintage of the century’ or a total disaster. In
Montalcino, 2009 is, in aggregate, a below average vintage. I
believe the producers’ consortium, the Consorzio
del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, made
a serious mistake in awarding the 2009 vintage four out of a possible five stars.
Although readers find it shocking, the truth is that winemakers rarely taste in
the cellars of their colleagues. If and when they do, producers tend to taste
only the wines of their friends or those with whom they share philosophical views.
There is very little openness in Montalcino. Instead, producers look to the
Consorzio for guidance. The Consorzio’s four-star rating gave producers a
misplaced sense of confidence about the vintage that was unwarranted. Most of this
vintage should have been bottled as Rosso.
I can’t imagine there will be much
of an interest for the 2009 Brunellos given the quality of the wines.
Historically, the market for Brunello is either red-hot or dead in the water.
It’s pretty easy to see the direction this vintage is headed in. Hopefully
producers will price their 2009s attractively so the wines can flow through the
system quickly. If not, the value of the 2009s will go to zero, as so many wines are already mature.
wines from barrel at Costanti
Tell Me Why
It is hardly surprising the 2009
Brunellos are on average quite weak. That much is obvious to anyone who has tasted
them. It’s the Why that has kept me awake for so many nights since I first
started tasting the 2009s from barrel a few years ago. Why? Why are the
Brunellos so inferior to the rest of the wines from Tuscany in 2009? After all,
the 2009s from central Tuscany, Chianti Classico in particular, and the Tuscan
Coast are generally far more successful than the wines of Montalcino.
Yes, Montalcino is a relatively
warm microclimate, but so are parts of Chianti Classico and the coast, so it’s
more than just that. Broadly speaking, vineyards on the northern side of Montalcino
do better in hot vintages, while sites on the southern side of the village are
often favored in cooler years. Unfortunately, even that generally useful
framework breaks down in 2009. The better 2009s aren’t found in any one place,
rather they are scattered throughout the region. That brings us to a simple truth
about Sangiovese in Montalcino.
Sangiovese and Montalcino: An Inconvenient Truth
By now, it is widely known that
Sangiovese produces inconsistent results in Montalcino. This is precisely what
led to the widespread use of other grapes to ‘improve’ the wines that
culminated in the ‘Brunellopoli’ scandal of a few years back. Now that
producers know they are going to be subjected to more frequent controls, fines
and potential embarrassment if they are found to fudge a little, international
grapes are largely gone and Sangiovese has been exposed for what it is in
Montalcino: a spotty performer. Modest vintages such as 2009 and 2008 shine a bright
light on the shortcomings of Montalcino’s lesser terroirs. Today, there can be
little doubt that many of the best Sangioveses in Tuscany come from Chianti
Classico and not Montalcino. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The cramped cellar at Salvioni
The Collapse of the Appellation System
Montalcino’s wineries are now paying the price for years of taking shortcuts. The Consorzio, the most powerful and organized group
of its kind in Italy, has done an outstanding job of promoting Brunello di
Montalcino through various initiatives, most notably the annual Benvenuto
Brunello tasting in Montalcino and several similar tastings in the US and
around the world. During the boom of the 1990s, the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
stamp of approval was enough to lift the reputation of virtually any producer.
As a result, a number of estates rose with the tide. Along the way, some did
not make the necessary investments in viticulture and winemaking. Those estates
now find themselves lagging in quality precisely at the same time the market
has become much more sophisticated and discerning. The current economic climate
in Italy continues to be very challenging, which increases the temptation to
Over in Chianti Classico, top producers
have never had the support of a strong DOCG. Quite the opposite. The
appellation’s reputation for producing oceans of undistinguished, cheap wines
in straw covered bottles pushed ambitious, quality-minded producers to seek a
new path. A much more difficult path. Producers like Sergio Manetti at
Montevertine, Paolo DeMarchi at Isole e Olena, Luca Martini di Cigala at San
Giusto a Rentennano, Giovanni Manetti at Fontodi and a handful of their peers chose
to make their top wines outside the formal appellation system. Along the way,
they worked diligently to improve viticulture and winemaking. The success of
these wines - I am thinking about Pergole Torte, Cepparello, Percarlo,
Flaccianello and others – built the reputations of those estates in a big way. Today,
the best Sangioveses from Chianti Classico occupy a totally different level of
quality from all but a handful or two of Brunellos. Those estates have
established themselves exclusively on the merits of their wines and not on the
back of a prestigious appellation.
What matters first and
foremost is a winery’s reputation for quality, or ‘brand’ as much as I dislike
the crass commercial connotation of that term. Like most megatrends in wine,
Angelo Gaja spotted this one more than a decade before everyone else. But Gaja
wanted to make wines in Barbaresco and Barolo that were decidedly outside the DOCG
system, so his departure from those appellations for his top wines made sense.
It’s a different story in Montalcino. When Montalcino’s most famous producer
and ardent supporter of Sangiovese leaves the appellation it is a sign of serious
trouble. Not because Gianfranco Soldera has vowed that all of his new releases
will be sold as IGT Toscana Sangiovese, but because there are at least 10-12
high-quality producers who would make the same decision in an instant if they
thought they could do so without harming their businesses. It doesn’t help that
the powers that be in Italy have elevated wines including Frascati and Greco di
Tufo to DOCG status. So, what is the value of DOCG? Nothing.
2013 Sangiovese tank by tank at Siro Pacenti
On a more positive note, Brunello
lovers have much to look forward to. The 2010s are shaping up to be excellent,
and perhaps more than that, as long as the wines in bottle capture the magic
they have shown in barrel. I remain enthusiastic about the 2012s, wines from a
warm, but even year, that are quite promising. The 2013s emerge from a much
cooler, longer growing season. I very much like the best of what I have tasted
thus far. Today, 2011 looks to be an irregular vintage that combines elements
of both 2007 and 2009. My expectations here are a bit more muted.
Ceramic fermentation tanks at Cerbaiona
Other New Releases: 2012 Rosso di Montalcino and 2008 Brunello Riserva
The 2012 Rossos show the gorgeous
wines Montalcino is capable of in top years. From a vintage with high dry
extracts and unusually high acidities, the best 2012 Rossos are drop-dead
gorgeous beauties. As a consumer, these are the Montalcino wines I am buying
today. I find little to get excited about with the 2008 Riservas. Given the
modest quality of that vintage across the board, most producers would have been
better off blending their Riserva (and/or single-vineyard) juice into the
The Way Forward
Montalcino, like most of Tuscany,
is fairly insular and cut off from easy access to major cities and other
regions. I see an alarming lack of intellectual curiosity about the world’s
great wines among many of Montalcino’s producers. To be fair, this critique is
not limited to growers in Montalcino, but also applies to producers in many
other regions throughout Italy. How many winemakers truly love wine?
Montalcino also has to find a way
to become more open to the world, and that includes building infrastructure and
tourist accommodations, such as high-quality hotels and restaurants, that the
town currently lacks to an alarming degree.
Producers need to pay more
attention to viticulture and be more diligent about the use of oak, especially
in vintages that can’t support extended aging in barrel. In today’s world regulations
that force producers into minimal oak aging regimes are woefully antiquated.
Lastly, the Consorzio must engage
in serious work to understand which areas in Montalcino can produce world-class
Sangiovese. Those areas should be designated Brunello di Montalcino. The rest
of the area’s vineyards should be either Rosso di Montalcino or a simple
Montalcino appellation that would allow for the use of other grape varieties. The
politics involved in establishing such designations are difficult to navigate and
fraught with challenges, but I am also pretty sure Montalcino’s producers would
prefer to undertake this project themselves rather than wait for someone else
from the outside to do the job for them, something that becomes easier by the
day considering advances in technology.
Lest readers think I am being too
harsh, let me assure you that these observations about Montalcino – these
self-evident truths – will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Montalcino
and its wines and, perhaps most importantly, has the courage to speak up. Montalcino
can produce great wines. I have been fortunate to drink many of them, including
numerous older vintages from Biondi Santi, Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia and others
that were made with none of the technology or knowledge that exists today.
Those wines remain testaments to the exceptional quality Montalcino is capable
of. At the same time, though, it is impossible to ignore that Montalcino has
fallen behind the pace with respect to global peers. It’s time for Montalcino’s
growers to make a serious commitment to quality and step it up.
Stella di Campalto’s Vigna Curva
-- Antonio Galloni