2006 Brunello di Montalcino

The Brunellopoli scandal of 2008 appears to have had a salutary effect on Brunello di Montalcino.  As fans of Italian wine will recall, a number of producers, some of them quite large, were accused of fraudulently blending in other grape varieties with their sangiovese (i.e., international varieties, or deeply colored varieties from southern Italy), after numerous critics in recent years had voiced suspicions about their unusually dark, tannic and rather generically styled wines.  The outcome of this scandal was a vote in which the overwhelming majority of members of the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino agreed that Brunello must be made entirely of sangiovese.  Still, rumors continue to circulate that many producers would have liked nothing more than to change the rules to allow international varieties, but backed off due to fear of a backlash by the wine media.

In one sense, the end of the scandal was distinctly unsatisfying.  After all, from a legal standpoint nothing was really changed.  No producers admitted to any wrongdoing, although some chose to declassify part or all of their 2003 Brunello production.  And if any non-sangiovese vines were pulled out, it was done quietly, by night.  A study of the anthocyanin content of Brunello was undertaken, as if to prove that some Brunellos can in fact be very dark wines without the addition of other varieties, but critics believe that this was simply a smokescreen. 

A recent vote to turn Rosso di Montalcino into another international super-Tuscan wine by allowing the inclusion of other varieties was only narrowly defeated, this despite the fact that the super-Tuscan category has not exactly been a world-beater in recent years.

But the good news is that 2006, which after all was already in the barrel at the time of the scandal, was a brilliant sangiovese vintage.  It's clear that most producers did everything they could to preserve and present their wines' sangiovese character.  It's a charming, ripe vintage, a year that showcases the essence of sangiovese--or at least those clones of sangiovese (of which sangiovese grosso, the earlier-ripening, larger-berried, thick-skinned clone widely planted in Montalcino and once thought to be typical of the area is actually only one of many variants) that are planted in soils ideally suited to the variety.  The better 2006 Brunellos are complete wines, with lovely aromatic perfume; complex aromas and flavors of red fruits, dried flowers, soil and minerals; silky texture; medium to full body; sound acidity; and long, ripely tannic finishes.  While most of these wines will not reach their peak drinkability for another five to ten years, neither are they particularly austere today, thanks to the ripeness of the fruit and tannins.

There may have been past vintages that provided more ideal superb conditions, but no previous vintage has yielded as many outstanding examples of Brunello as 2006 has.  The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino rates the vintage 5 stars out of 5, and I concur.  (Long-time readers will recall that I rated the 2004 vintage 4 stars and 2001 4-1/2 stars.)  The best 2006s are exciting, perfumed wines with energy and character.  They should age splendidly over the next decade or two, and the best wines will be even longer-lived.

Other wines are simply less fresh and delineated, more chunky, drier on the aftertaste, less ripe (or too ripe).  Wines that lack mid-palate stuffing can come across as shrill with acidity or overly tannic.  Today, there's too much land allowed to produce Brunello, and some of it is simply not suited to making great wines.  FOr example, there are far too many clay-rich vineyards that do not appear capable of producing world-class sangiovese.  Yields are another issue separating the best wines from the rest.  And of course there are many new, young vineyard owners--or absentee owners--who rely on consultants to make their wines, and some of these enologists likely apply the same winemaking techniques to sangiovese as they do to very different varieties.

The 2006 growing season and harvest.  A rainy spring ensured good water reserves in the soil, which helped the ripening process during a hot and sunny July.  August then turned cooler and more changeable, with some well-timed rains.  The ripening process sped up again during hot, dry weather in early September, then the second half of the month brought a return to cooler temperatures and some intermittent rainfall.  The harvest then took place from the end of September through mid-October under favorable conditions.

Cooler, northerly sites could reach reach their full aromatic potential.  Indeed, many of these wines have atypical density with no loss of clarity or perfume.  At the other extreme, the warmer southerly vineyards, which can suffer in very hot years, produced some very rich wines, some as high as 15% alcohol on the label, but there are nonetheless some great successes from towns like Castelnuovo dell'Abate and Sant'Angelo in Colle.

All the wines in this article were tasted chez moi in June and early July.  Brunello prices, which to many were outrageously high as recently as five years ago, took a hit following the scandal of 2008.  Compared to other superb ageworthy reds in the marketplace today, many 2006 Brunellos now look like reasonable values.

In addition to the wines noted in full, here's a short list of additional 2006s I tasted: Also recommended:  Castiglione del Bosco (86), Giovanna Neri Col di Lano (86), Podere Brizio (85), Podere San Lorenzo Bramante (85), Poggio Nardone (85), Rendola (86), Renieri (86), Verbena (85). Other wines tasted (an asterisk indicates that the wine rated 83 or 84 points):  Agricultori del Chianti Geographico, Cupano, Ferrero, Fornacina*, Le Macioche*, La Ragnaie*, Tenuta Oliveto.