Brunello di Montalcino and Other Red Wines of Tuscany...

An exhausting two-week trip to Italy in April to cover Montalcino, the intense VinItaly fair in Verona, and numerous Barolo and Barbaresco estates further convinces me that Italy finest wine regions are entering a period of quality production unrivalled in history.

This report focuses on Tuscan wines arriving in the U.S. market this year and in early 1999, including 1996 Rosso di Montalcino and 1993 Brunello di Montalcino, 1996 Chianti and 1995 Chianti Riserva, 1995 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and numerous vini da tavola from Tuscany. There are more well-made wines than ever from the 1993 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino, an above-average year for these wines. 1996 yielded extremely likeable, forward wines from both Chianti Classico and the popular Rosso di Montalcino denominations, while 1995 is an excellent year comparable to 1988 or 1990 for Chianti Classico Riserva and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. 1995 was also, in general, a fine year for new-wave vini da tavola (VdT), though I must say that there are some surprising disappointments (see following reviews). And my early look at several '97s of various DOCG regions confirms early reports of a possibly outstanding, certainly excellent vintage, unfortunately featuring smaller yields. These wines will surely force prices up when they begin to arrive in the market one to three years from now. Editor's note due to space constraints, Butler's early notes on '96 and '97 Brunellos, wines that cannot be released until 2001 and 2002, respectively, have been omitted from this article.]

Recent vintages in Tuscany. My primary focus this year was on the 1993 Brunelli di Montalcino. Montalcino, 15 miles southwest of the southern border of the Chianti Classico district, escaped some of the rainfall that plagued all of Tuscany at the end of June. July and August were hot, helping to toughen the grape skins, but also causing some heat stress in many vineyards. But from the first of September, it rained for seven days, causing rot in some spots but also refreshing parched vineyards. From September 8 to October 15, the weather was warm and sunny; many growers waited until the first week of October to harvest.

The dry conditions enabled most producers to harvest healthy, fairly concentrated fruit that had already developed thick skins and normal sugar levels during the August-September period. What dilution resulted from the rain reveals itself in some attenuated flavors and less buffered finishing tannins. As in other parts of Tuscany, strict selection was necessary. But, overall, this is the best young vintage of released Brunelli I have tasted to date in terms of consistent quality, clean flavors, and balance. There are only a handful of really outstanding wines, but many good to very good ones, and that consistency is a breakthrough for the region. Better vineyard management and yield control, combined with better tannin management and temperature control in the winery, are the primary reasons for the overall quality of the vintage.

Two of the subsequent four vintages are excellent to superb (1995 and 1997), while two (1994 and 1996) are merely average to slightly above average. The 1994s will be released next year; like the 1994 Chianti Classici, the 1994 Brunelli are quite forward and fairly soft, with floral aromas and modest depth. They may be juicier than the 1993s, but they lack structure and weight. Nineteen ninety-six is similar, as the Rossi di Montalcino from this vintage already suggest. There is fleshiness, but also some dilution from late rains (beginning September 20) that sapped strength and structure from the wines. Until then, the weather overall was quite favorable, and growers were optimistic, though the crop size was fairly large. Ultimately, it was a vintage that favored those who were careful not to overextract by too long a maceration. Indeed, it may be that the Rossi are better balanced wines than the Brunelli. 1996 is a very nice year for Chianti Classico normale these will be wines to drink sooner rather than later, and ideal for restaurants.

The more serious years of 1995 and 1997 are two peas in a pod: excellent vintages that produced powerful, ripe wines, yet somewhat different in their makeup. 1995 was characterized by a warm summer, even very hot at times throughout Tuscany, especially in Montalcino and southern Chianti Classico. The end-of-August rain refreshed the vineyards, particularly those on lighter soils where drought stress was causing some vines to shut down. This rain continued sporadically, and fortunately not heavily, until mid-September. The weather then turned fine until the end of October, making for an ideal harvest season. The warmth of summer, coupled with a dry harvest, created small, very thick-skinned berries, with 20% less juice volume than an average year, according to Sandro Sderci at Il Palazzino in Gaiole. The ripeness was almost at the level of 1990, says Francesco Martini di Cigala of San Giusto a Rentennano, with the same kind of intense fruit, "carne nella polpa" (literally, meat in the juice), or fleshiness, yet ultimately with less intensity than 1990, especially in the finish. On the other hand, as he and others point out, 1995 also has finer perfume, and far fewer wines taste overripe or stewed, as many 1990s do. But there is also less of the roasted character that distinguishes the 1997s. Overall, 1995 is a very fine vintage for the top DOCG districtsyet one in which care was needed, especially with fermentation temperatures, to avoid obtaining an inky flavor and dominating tannins.

Which brings us to the annus mirabilis of 1997. The mild winter weather resulted in the vines budding as much as three weeks ahead of normal. I was in Italy at the end of March '97, and the vineyards were already sporting a healthy green trim of fresh shoots. Growers were amazed; few had seen anything like it for decades. And they were worried, justifiably, as the night of April 22nd saw temperatures plummet below 23 degrees, as an Arctic air mass moved over Italy, killing off the buds and reducing the crop by 25% to 50%. May and early June were warm and fairly dry, with temperatures in the 80s. But July and August were damp, cool, and generally atypical; producers began to worry about getting the grapes ripe, and repeatedly sprayed sulphur to ward off mildew. Yet the low crop level allowed for slow but continued maturation and was the salvation of the vintage.

The fact that there was adequate moisture in the soil allowed the vines to capitalize on the unbelievable run of gorgeous weather through September and October, with nary a drop of rain and temperatures in the high 70s to mid-80s. Strong, steady, dry winds brought a dehydration of the berries, further concentrating them, yet without the usual raisining (since the soils were still quite moist, unlike in 1995). Extract levels were very high. This was a perfect vendemmia, with growers harvesting fruit from the end of September until the early part of October, almost two weeks ahead of normal. My early tastings of a few properties' wines reflect terrific weight, richness and silky-sweet tannins under a wealth of ripe berry fruit. These are plusher wines than 1995, yet with finesse. Still, some wines show the effects of the dehydrating winds, especially in Montalcino, where alcohols approaching 15% were not uncommon, and the wines may not have the focus of the best 1995s. This is the reason my friend Daniel Thomases, an American who lives in Florence and writes about Italian wines for various publications, suggests that 1997 is not the vintage of the century. One should be cautious, he suggests. I believe the best wines are truly extraordinary, but high quality is not universal. Another year in barrel will provide a clearer picture.

A note on the rating scale. I do not use the 100-point scoring system, particularly with wines not "officially" bottled. Rather, I prefer a to system to indicate relative quality. I believe it is more important to convey a sense of wine character and flavor intensity than to establish a pecking order. My marks roughly correspond, however, to the 100-point scale, as follows: = 80-85; = 86-90; = 90+. Wines rated less than are simply listed at the end of the relevant sections. At the other extreme, those rated are, to paraphrase the Michelin guides, "worth a detour."

Evaluating young Tuscan wines has less to do with aromas than with weight, structure, body, and overall balance. With sangiovese-based wines, as well as Piedmontese wines, if the wine doesn't show an early balance of tannins, acids and extract, it is unlikely to age gracefully. The hardness or austerity of Tuscan wines, a problem for decades, shows signs of finally being ameliorated by a number of producers. Still, it remains a problem for winemakers who lack adequate equipment to control fermentation temperatures or to treat the grapes more gently at the crusher, as well as for those whose cooperage is too old or tainted.