Focus on Brunello di Montalcino

Among the vinous highlights of my summer were a series of tastings of this year's Brunello di Montalcino releases, 1998 normale and 1997 riserva bottlings. Virtually all insiders rate 1998 Brunello di Montalcino as an average to very good vintage sandwiched between two excellent to outstanding years, and in this instance the insiders appear to be correct.

In many parts of the Brunello production zone south of Siena, the ripening process in 1998 was slowed down or even blocked during a very hot, dry August. Those who harvested ripe fruit before heavy rains fell in late September - as well as those who eliminated all but the best remaining fruit picked after the rains - could make very good wines with generally firm structures, good flavor definition and little sign of surmaturité. But sites that struggled to ripen often produced decidedly greener and sometimes hollow wines that betray pronounced herbaceousness and distinctly dry tannins; fruit from these vineyards never achieved full flavor development. And then, of course, rain-affected fruit could introduce an element of dilution into the wines. Many of the lesser '98s I tasted in recent months showed a pronounced underripe/overripe quality that to some extent reflects the difficulties of August as well as the need to harvest quickly whatever fruit was still hanging on the vines when the rains arrived.

As a rule, the 1998 Brunellos do not have the fleshy middles, depth of flavor, massive structure, or sweet tannins of the better '97s. But the best examples show lovely balance and vinosity while avoiding the alcoholic excesses and surmaturité of the 1997s. They are considerably cooler and more restrained in style, with brooding, pure aromas of dark berries, flowers and earth, and seem destined for mid-term aging: some wines are accessible already, but most should be at their best between 7 and 15 years after the vintage (2005 to 2013). Compared to neighboring Chianti, the Brunello zone generally produces sangiovese with more power and higher potential alcohol, often 14% or even more (technically speaking, most Brunellos are from the grosso clone of sangiovese). Alcohol levels were especially elevated in vintage 1997, a growing season that benefitted from near-ideal weather without heat stress, but that is not to say that all '97s are perfectly ripe. Actually, many '97s seem too ripe, at least for this taster, though some of these more extreme wines may prove to have enough sheer extract to enjoy extended life in bottle. Acidity levels in 1997 were often very low, and partly for this reason it's hard to find the sangiovese character in some examples from this vintage.

A word about riserva. The designation riserva under Italian wine law is a confusing term with limited meaning, at least when it refers to Brunello di Montalcino. In theory, an estate's riserva should be a special wine from a strong vintage - ideally a limited selection of the estate's best lots of wine, possibly but not necessarily aged longer in barrel. So a true riserva should be a more powerfully structured yet elegant Brunello, made from outstanding raw material with the structure to withstand, and benefit from, longer barrel aging. But in fact, riserva can mean virtually anything, and there is technically nothing in the regulations to prevent growers from simply holding back their regular bottling for another year and releasing it at a higher price.

A Brunello di Montalcino normale must spend at least three years in barrel, and cannot be released until the fifth January after the harvest (e.g., 1997 normale bottlings could legally be sold in January of 2002). Thus, the typical Brunello gets three years of time in wood and one in bottle. Riserva must also receive at least three years of aging in barrel but cannot be released until a year later than normale. In practice, what is actually bottled as riserva varies from estate to estate, and sometimes even from vintage to vintage for a given estate. Skeptics claim, with some justification, that most riserva bottlings do not merit their higher price tags.

Some riserva wines are made from fruit from a single favored vineyard, which may or may not be designated on the label, and which may or may not be superior to the producer's other Brunello fruit in a given vintage. Or, the decision of which fruit will go into an estate's riserva could have been made at harvest time, with the ripest or latest-picked grapes being reserved for a special bottling. But many regular '97 Brunellos are already at the upper limit of ripeness, some showing distinctly roasted or even raisiny notes. My fear, which was to some extent borne out by my recent tastings of 1997 riserva wines, is that some of these bottlings made from even riper fruit may sacrifice freshness and elegance in favor of sheer alcoholic clout. Some seem more exaggeratedly ripe than the normale releases of 1997, with stronger notes of surmaturité and even lower acidity levels.

Some estates simply earmark what they consider to be their strongest barrels (as opposed to single parcels or particularly ripe grapes) for longer wood aging and later release. This practice entails potential danger. When Brunellos were required to spend at least four years in barrel, as was the case in 1980 when Brunello was granted DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status, many growers complained that that treatment dried out their wines, especially in weaker vintages. Some adapted to this minimum aging requirement by using older, more neutral wood. Of course, this approach often meant dirtier barrels as well, and for years too many Brunellos have shown rustic oak notes or even manifestations of the spoilage yeast brettanomyces, which is far more likely to take hold, and more difficult to eliminate, when a cellar is filled with old cooperage. Even since the minimum barrel aging requirement was reduced to three years in 1991, the quality of wood used in the Montalcino area has varied tremendously from cellar to cellar; as a result, too many wines begin to oxidize or dry out before they are bottled. For riserva wines that spend longer in oak, the condition of the barrels is an even more critical issue.

Some Brunello estates did not even offer riserva bottlings from 1997. Many excellent producers sold nearly all of their 1997 Brunello as normale, to capitalize on the strong worldwide demand for these wines prior to their release at the beginning of 2002. After all, who know what worldwide economic conditions would be like a year later?

All this background on riserva is simply to explain that it's often difficult to make direct comparisons between an estate's 1997 normale and its riserva, as one is too often comparing apples and oranges.

I tasted all of the following wines in New York during the month of August. In addition to the Brunellos noted below, I sampled but cannot recommend the following wines: Agostino Pieri 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Fattoria Scopone 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Cantina di Montalcino 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Capanne Ricci 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Casanova delle Cerbaie 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Castiglion del Bosco 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Donatella Colombini 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and 1998 Brunello di Montalcino Prime Donne, Corte Pavone 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, La Colombina 1998 Brunello di Montalcino*, La Serena 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Le Macioche 1998 Brunello di Montalcino* and 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Podere La Vigna 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio Il Castellare 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio San Polo 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Sesti 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Enzo Tiezzi 1998 Brunello di Montalcino, Villa a Tolli 1998 Brunello di Montalcino and 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Visconti 1998 Brunello di Montalcino.