Montalcino: The Great 2015 Brunellos & More


Wine lovers everywhere are in for a real treat with Montalcino’s latest releases. The 2015 Brunellos are some of the best in recent memory, while the 2018 Rossos are wonderfully fresh and inviting. A handful of luscious Moscadellos round out the wines featured in this report.

With the tragic outbreak of COVID-19 taking place right now, the words “what a difference a year makes” never rang more true. On a much brighter note, those same words apply perfectly to the latest releases from Montalcino: a year really does make a big difference. Wines offered in early 2019 – such as the often alcoholically top-heavy and hot 2017 Rossos and the generally thinnish 2014 Brunellos – failed to generate much enthusiasm. Only some excellent 2013 Brunello Riservas were truly worth getting excited about. By contrast, in early 2020, winery owners and industry pros were ready to sound the trumpets, beat the drums and break out the bubbly. Without doubt, the much happier and more optimistic environment (at that point, the COVID-19 pandemic had not yet hit everyone hard) was brought about by the indisputable high quality of Montalcino’s new wines: the suave and deep 2015 Brunellos, the ultra-fresh and super-delicious 2018 Rossos, and even the occasional Moscadello, Montalcino’s sweet wine made from Moscato Bianco.

A late summer afternoon at the Salvioni farmhouse.

There is so much to say about Montalcino and its wines this year that it is easy to forget something. So I’ll keep it simple and give my point-by-point thoughts on Montalcino:

1. Simply put, 2015 is a great Brunello vintage, easily one of the top eight or ten Brunello vintages of all time. That statement is especially true if one believes the single most important parameter by which to judge a vintage is overall quality across the production zone. In that light, I simply do not recall ever tasting as many outstanding young Brunellos as I did this year. The real trump card of the 2015 Brunellos is their rather magical balance: there are very few thin, tart, angular, alcohol-heavy, fruit-challenged or unpleasantly tannic wines among them. Most of the 2015 Brunellos are characterized by suave, voluptuous mouthfeels, bordering on the opulent, but with very good, juicy acidities that nicely lift and carry the velvety ripe flavors. And while the 2015 Brunellos are not the most perfumed I have memory of, unlike other “hot” recent vintages they do offer (for the most part) enough of the precise, typical and lifted Sangiovese aromas usually associated with cooler years.

Andrea Costanti looking over his property.

2. Therefore, there are two specific parameters, perfume and acidity, that really contribute to uniqueness of these wines and set them apart from those of other recent well-regarded Brunello vintages. While admittedly not exceptionally perfumed (in particular, some wines from the slopes in the south of the appellation can show compressed aromatics), they differ from those of other similarly warm (or warmer) vintages (such as 1997, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2009) because almost all the 2015s, while initially slightly silent in the glass, tend to blossom with aeration to reveal above-average lift (something that was totally absent in the wines of 1997 or 2003, for example). In fact, the 2015 Brunellos really do benefit, even more so than other young Brunello vintages, from plenty of air in order to show all they have to offer (I suggest decanting them well ahead of serving). And despite the hot days of summer, readers will find there are neither too many wines marred by gritty tannins (as was the case in 1997, 2003 and 2007) nor too many overly soft, acid-challenged wines (such as some 2004s and many 2009s).

3. As mentioned earlier, an important point relative to the quality level of 2015 Brunellos is that it is a year of generally all-around great wines with very few disappointments. If there is only one small negative to the greatness of 2015 in Montalcino, it is the relative lack of truly superlative, once-in-a-lifetime wines in the mix. There is undoubtedly a plethora of outstanding wines, such as I have never seen before from Montalcino; but at the cost of seeming insatiable or needlessly hypercritical, after each and every one of my estate visits this year, I found myself wondering if the wines could and should not have been even better. It is for this very reason that I currently believe the 2016 Brunello vintage to be superior to 2015 because the former offers many more truly exceptional wines than does 2015. At the same time, caveat emptor, for there are far more disappointing wines in 2016 as well. Undoubtedly, the 2015s are more approachable at a very early stage in life (many are good to go right now, though an appropriate amount of cellaring will only help them show even better) and will prove easier to enjoy because of their rounder, richer personalities; but in 10 years’ time, I think the greater refinement and complexity of the 2016s will let them come out ahead – maybe just by a nose, but ahead. Admittedly, when all is said and done, which Brunello vintage you prefer, 2015 or 2016, will depend on what you personally value. It will take noteworthy skill to buy a bad 2015 Brunello.

Jan Erbach and Caroline Pobitzer at their Pian dell'Orino estate.

4. The 2015 Brunello vintage is significant for several other reasons. First, many estates added a new wine to their portfolio, usually a new single-vineyard Brunello bottling. Unfortunately, at some estates, what seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be a double-edged sword. In fact, while some of these new wines are extremely exciting and actually some of the best new efforts I have tasted from Italy in the last 12 months, the regular 2015 Brunellos at many estates ended up suffering. It is altogether likely that, in order to make a new, top-of-the-line bottling, the best fruit was reserved for the new Brunello. Not surprisingly, then, I found that some normally very fine regular Brunellos were stripped, to varying degrees, of their normal oomph and power. A second, and very interesting, turn of events is that more and more Brunello producers are looking to grow grapes in, or buy them from, higher-altitude vineyards. Where 20 years ago nobody in Montalcino ever talked of north-facing exposures or of vineyards at 500 meters above sea level, these climate-change-challenged times have brought about quite a shift in mentality and outlook.

5. Last but not least, it is impossible for me not to broach subjects such as the authenticity of native grapes in the wines they are supposedly made with, and the expression of those native grapes relative to specific terroirs in the glass. And so, with regard to the new single-vineyard wines that appeared on the scene with the 2015 vintage, it cannot be overlooked that Montalcino’s complete lack of interest in a precise zonation of its terroir is driven home with every passing year. On the one hand, it is good to see that at least two new Montosoli bottlings appeared with this vintage. This is perfectly fine, as the Montosoli hill in the northern sector is arguably Montalcino’s single greatest grand cru (and certainly its most famous), and so you understand why anyone owning vines in the general vicinity would want to label their wines with that lofty name. But I cannot help but point out that as usual, in an effort to make everyone happy, shortcuts were taken that in the end will do nothing to increase the value and standing of Montalcino and its wines. The real Montosoli site is a small one, and much of the land that is now legally called Montosoli is in fact not the true Montosoli. The real Montosoli is a mostly south-facing slope, while that part of the hill swerving westward is more accurately referred to as Le Gode di Montosoli. To be fair, the latter is also a great site and one of the best places to grow Sangiovese in all of Montalcino, but just like Batard-Montrachet is not quite Montrachet, and Cannubi Valletta is not the same as Cannubi, those parallels apply here (both soils and exposures vary, for example).

On the way to Poggio di Sotto and San Giorgio.

6. Given the coolish, rainy growing season, the 2018 Rossos are far better than anyone ever imagined or anticipated. Don’t miss out on them, as they represent outstanding examples of Sangioveses that will offer boatloads of drinking enjoyment over the near and medium term (in most cases, for five or seven years from the vintage). All the better 2018 Rossos are bright, fruit-forward, lively wines, brimming with early appeal and delicious to drink. Blessed with refreshing, harmonious acidities thanks to that fairly cool growing season, the best 2018 Rossos will prove very food-friendly and compatible with a wide range of dishes. The caveat here is that the unsuccessful 2018 Rossos are on the thin side, and at times downright green.

Alessandro Bindocci of Il Poggione.

7. Readers should keep in mind that there are always two very different styles of Rosso di Montalcino, depending on the source of the Sangiovese grapes used. While Rosso di Montalcino is, like Brunello, 100% Sangiovese, the vineyards used to make Rosso belong to two different categories: the vineyards that fall within the Brunello denomination (the grapes used to make Brunello), and those vineyards from where only Rosso can be made. Clearly, wines made with the former are essentially declassified Brunellos (and nicknamed “baby Brunellos”). They are much richer, more textured wines than those made with grapes coming from Rosso-designated vineyards only. But do not make the all too common mistake of automatically assuming that the baby Brunellos are the best of the two Rossos; these bigger wines can at times be fat and overly ripe, lacking the freshness and easy drinkability of the Rossos made with non-Brunello grapes. Conversely, Rosso di Montalcino made from Rosso vineyards usually shows more perfume but less body – the wines tend to be metallic and flinty, with little creaminess to speak of, so in cooler years they can taste a bit mean and shrill. In the end, it’s a mostly matter of individual preference. Just be aware that in a cool vintage like 2018, the differences between the two types of Rosso are very evident, so knowing which wine style you prefer will go a long way toward finding your personal Rosso di Montalcino happiness.

8. Centuries ago, Moscadello di Montalcino used to be Montalcino’s most famous and expensive wine. Made with Moscato Bianco, Moscadello is made in two different styles: a Moscato d’Asti–like lightly sparkling wine, and a luscious late-harvest or air-dried version. Both are excellent and worth seeking out.

Tasting at Le Chiuse.

A Tale of Two Vintages

The 2015 vintage is generally viewed as a warm year, although the growing season did not start out that way. A cold and rainy winter gave way to an irregular spring followed by a hot, dry summer. Two keys explaining 2015’s success relative to other hot Montalcino vintages are that small amounts of rainfall in July impeded the development of water stress, and that August had rather cool nights, which ensured very good diurnal temperature variation. The grapes were healthy, but small in size, with thick skins, but also with higher total acidity levels than are common in truly hot vintages.

Tasting through the 2015 Brunellos.

By contrast, 2018 was not an easy year in which to make wine, as it was too cold and rainy in many parts of the appellation. However, weather patterns varied greatly in different sectors of the Montalcino hill. For example, some spots received a deluge of 60 millimeters of rain in one event, while other places, even just one kilometer away, received basically none. Fortunately, the presence of a little tramontana (a wind blowing in from the north) during the harvest helped dry the grapes and avoid problems associated with typical vineyard diseases. And so, while 2018 is a year of very quaffable Sangioveses from Montalcino. Those producers who applied more elbow grease and have less moisture-retaining clay in their soils fared best.

The wines in this report were tasted in Rome in January, and during ten days of estate visits in February.

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