2001 Brunello di Montalcino

The 2001 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino has it all: healthy deep color; expressive, nuanced aromas; lovely fleshy sweetness and deep fruit; harmonious ripe acidity; and firm tannins that generally avoid coming off as hard or dry. Many of my favorite wines offer considerable early appeal owing to their sheer balance and ripe fruit, even if they possess the material and underlying structure to support at least eight to ten years or more of development in bottle.

And I had them all too: never before have I been able to taste a closely defined set of wines in such comprehensive fashion, thanks to the efforts of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, which for years has been one of the most professional and competent wine consortia in the world. This spring, the Consorzio shipped me samples of no fewer than 132 Brunellos from this standout vintage, and I was able to fill in a couple of additional key items locally.

The 2001 growing season began with a late spring frost that ultimately reduced production levels, especially in the northern part of the appellation. The rest of the growing season was nearly ideal, with some perfectly timed rains in August and a slightly later than average harvest. I have the feeling that the overall quality level of Brunello is higher today than ever before. Still, there are many underachievers among the appellation's 250 or so producers. The Brunello consortium currently rates 2001 as a four-star vintage, while it gives five-star status to 1995, 1997 and the not-yet-bottled 2004 vintage. While I have not yet tasted the 2004s, I would rate 2001 at least as high as '95 and '97.

Although I tasted many mediocre wines from the 2001 vintage, I also tasted more outstanding bottles than from any previous vintage. A pleasant surprise among the better wines was the even level of ripeness achieved in 2001. Relatively few wines showed roasted or stewy aromas, and even fewer were offputtingly green. Yes, there are a growing number of modern-style wines whose deep colors, darker fruit aromas and flowers, and more extractive textures and tannins make them more international in style and much less typical of sangiovese. (One or two of these wines were suspiciously dark. Reportedly, producers in Brunello, on the defensive against charges that they are blending other varieties into their wines, frequently explain the deeper colors of their wines by saying "it's my new clones." One hopes they are talking about sangiovese.) And I also found some wines whose rough tannins made me wonder if a goodly percentage of younger wine had been added (up to 15% is legal). Perhaps related to these two issues (less-frequent racking and earlier bottling might also be factors here), an unusually high percentage of the 2001s showed signs of reduction in my tastings. While this character generally dissipated with extended aeration, a few wines seemed quite stubbornly reduced and I marked them down accordingly.

But there are many glorious 2001s from which to choose—and in a range of styles reflecting the range of terroirs in the Brunello zone as well as varying approaches to vinification and élevage. All the wines below were tasted in June.