The extended ageing of Brunello means that when Chianti producers are unveiling their 2004s, Montalcino’s finest are only just uncorking the 2001s. stephen brook gives his verdict on the latest releases from the two Tuscan giants

Tuscany is large and varied. Many miles separate, for example, the Chianti zone and Montalcino further south, which explains why the flavour and structure of Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino can vary enormously even in the same vintage.

Winemaking practices mean that one has to wait, of course, to taste the same vintage side by side. But back to geography. Within Chianti Classico, not only are there differences between the northern areas near Florence and the southern ones near Siena, but differences in altitude can also be significant. Meanwhile, areas such as Montepulciano and Montalcino are normally much warmer than Chianti Classico, which enabled their vines to survive the extreme heat of 2000 and 2003.

The equatorial heat that afflicted France in the summer of 2003 extended south into Italy, too. This was bad news for young vines, without root systems to haul up moisture from the subsoil, but older vines suffered too. The main problem was that phenolic ripeness did not keep up with sugar development, leading to unbalanced wines.

CHIANTI

The Chianti Classico consorzio’s oenologist, Daniele Rosselini, admits: ‘Those who waited for phenolic ripeness ended up with abnormally high alcohol; those who picked early had green tannins. Elevation, a deciding factor in some vintages, made little difference in 2003.’

Stress also led to lower volumes. Wise growers decided not to pull leaves, but those who followed what has become standard practice ended up with cooked fruit. Most wines are low in acidity and lack aroma. Winemakers usually opted for short macerations, so as not to extract harsh tannins, but nonetheless there are wines that taste too extracted and even bitter. Clay sites such as Rocca delle Macie’s Sant’Alfonso performed much better than some stonier sites, where the vines were too stressed.

The bizarre climatic conditions resulted in wines that, in many cases, have cooked or raisined aromas, harsh tannins, a hollow structure and little length. 2003 Riservas, now coming onto the market, often show those characteristics in exaggerated forms. This makes them hard to recommend, especially when tasted alongside the mostly fresh, classic 2004s.

Ripening got off to a late start in 2004. After a hot June, the temperature dropped, giving a relatively cool summer. Leaf removal was essential to ensure the bunches could benefit as much as possible from what sunshine there was. September, however, saw high temperatures and the grapes began to attain maturation. All in all, growing conditions were excellent, with a generous crop, no frost, slow ripening, no heat spikes, and a fine September with a little rain and cool nights to preserve freshness. Nor did the weather deteriorate during harvest, pressuring growers to pick fast. Some compare it to 1998: a good crop of well-balanced wines.

Emanuela Stucchi of Badia e Coltibuono finds the vintage excellent, except for a handful of overripe wines. Sean O’Callaghan of Riecine describes ‘an old-style vintage, with high acidity that gives some initial leanness but also a fine structure that will allow the wines to age for a long time.’

MONTALCINO

The new releases of Brunello di Montalcino are the 2001 vintage and the 2000 riservas. In 2000, the climatic conditions were rather mixed. After a cool, wet July, temperatures warmed up in August, and it stayed hot into the first half of September, when showers helped revive the flagging vines. Sugar levels soared, but sometimes phenolic maturation lagged behind, resulting in wines with overripe flavours, high alcohol and rather assertive tannins. Growers often compare the year to the very good 1998s. In short, this vintage is not as stellar or consistent as 1997 or 1999, but it is nonetheless of very good quality. In style, the wines are very rich and ripe, but solid, and in some cases lacking in elegance.

2001 Brunello is revealing itself to be of very high quality, better overall than 2000 but perhaps not as great as the run from 1997 to 1999. Giuseppe Sesti of the eponymous estate recalls that a spring frost diminished the crop. After a rainy spring the summer was hot, especially so during July, but there was sufficient rain to prevent any hydric stress. Acidity levels were normal. Quality was very consistent throughout the Montalcino subregions, with few of the variations sometimes seen between the northern and southern zones. ‘In my view,’ he says, ‘2001 is better than 1996 or 1998. But it doesn’t have the depth of 1999.’

My initial impressions of the vintage are even more positive. The overall quality level seems very high, with few signs of excessive extraction, herbaceousness or serious imbalance at good properties. Styles vary enormously, with intensely perfumed elegant wines at one end of the spectrum, and extremely rich, profound, well-structured wines at the other. Some wines seem almost ready to drink, but their balance seems good enough to ensure a good future at least in the medium term. The 2000 riservas tend to be more massive, with power rather than elegance, and a very long life ahead of them.