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  • Friday 1 August 2003

TOM MARESCA tastes his way through the new vintage releases in Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino

TOM MARESCA tastes his way through the new vintage releases in Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino

This year's presentations of Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino new releases took place in Florence and Montalcino within the same frigid week in early spring. The two wine zones lie not far apart in similarly hilly and beautiful swathes of central Tuscany. Both zones and their wines are built on the central pillar of Sangiovese, Tuscany's hallmark grape variety. Much the same vintages appeared at both presentations, in similar proportions. Nevertheless, despite all the similarities, marked differences between the two zones showed clearly.

Chianti Classico

The Chianti Classico consortium represents nearly 300 producers, whose vineyards range in size from little more than a hectare to almost industrial-sized estates. Nearly two thirds of the official Chianti Classico DOCG vineyard area is operated by consortium members. Not all of them, happily, sent wine to the tasting sessions, or none of us would have escaped alive to tell the tale. But many did, making for a varied range of vintages: advance samples of 2002, as well as new releases of 2001, 2000 and 1999 Chianti Classico; plus Chianti Classico Riservas from 2000, 1999, 1998, and even a few 1997s.

1997, of course, was a year of wonders in Chianti Classico, and inevitably the harvests that followed it have not enjoyed as much attention. Yet most of the vintages since then have been fine. '2000 is a very good vintage from a very warm summer – hotter than 1997,' says Emanuela Stucchi of Badia a Coltibuono, president of the Chianti Classico Consortium. Francesco Mazzei of Fonterutoli, adds: '2001 is a great vintage. The wines are still young and aggressive, but they have a splendid future.' Both agree that 1999 was also very good, with many young vineyards coming of age.

These seemingly generous evaluations are confirmed by my own tasting notes. The 1999 Riserva wines were uniformly fine, with a consistent level of quality. The 2001 basic Chianti Classico was similarly consistent at a very good level. 2000 wines showed more unevenly, with some excellent wines and a few conspicuous disappointments at both the normal and riserva level. But it has to be noted that, overall, the quality of Chianti Classico production is continuing its steady rise.

There is a tremendous amount of top-quality talent at work in this zone. As Stucchi remarks: 'Quality consciousness has risen dramatically in the past 10 years. Until the 1980s, wine in Italy was [about] food, and rural cultural traditions still dominated wine production. In Chianti Classico, we have re-oriented ourselves to make wines for a new category of quality-minded consumers.'

Against such a bullish backdrop, then, there was more than a little irony in the clamour of speculation and the haste to taste and rate this year's new releases. Unfortunately, after one of the wettest summers and autumns in Tuscan memory, followed by a harsh winter, conversation tended to veer away from the majority of the wines being presented, to dwell on the probable fate of 2002, which shadowed the proceedings like Banquo's ghost.

So: just to get that out of the way: yes, 2002 was a poor vintage in Chianti Classico. The Consortium ranking of two stars is, in my opinion, a generous rating. A handful of estates made a small quantity of simple, drinkable wine. But there will be no 2002 riserva in Chianti Classico.

As a matter of personal opinion, I believe Chianti Classico growers would be better advised to de-classify the vintage than to bottle it as Chianti Classico and lower their prices – and their reputation – to a level commensurate with the vintage's quality. Their worst possible option is to behave alla bordelese and bottle 2002 as Chianti Classico but not lower prices significantly

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO

The roster of Brunello growers has grown to more than 200, at least 150 of whom bottle wine under their own label. The vast majority belong to the consortium, and most of those – 120 – sent one or more samples to the tasting.

Vintages shown ran from the 2001 Rosso di Montalcino to the normal and single-vineyard 1998 Brunello and 1997 Brunello Riserva – not a bad battery of harvests, with welcome levels of alcohol and warm, summery flavours that were much appreciated in the quasi-arctic conditions of a barely heated tasting tent. Here again, a pervading presence was the vintage that wasn't there: 2002. Like Chianti Classico, the Brunello zone enjoyed a series of fine harvests until last year.

The area around Montalcino is normally hotter and drier than Chianti Classico. Because of the ridge that divides the DOCG zone into rough triangles, the southwestern half of the area usually sees greater extremes of temperature and/or drought than the northeastern half. Those conditions held in 2002, and so the harvest wasn't as bad as in the north of Siena. It won't be earth-shattering, but there is some decent wine, and a few ery demanding producers – Roberto Fuligni, for instance – think they might even bottle a riserva. More typical is the opinion of Rudi Buratti, oenologist at Castello Banfi: '2002 will be a wine best appreciated in the freshness of its youth rather than for long-term cellaring.

Of the vintages present that were bottled, the growers voiced unanimous praise – bordering on awe – for 1997. Fuligni's opinion is representative: '1997 was simply the best vintage of the century, and the zone was lucky enough to be prepared for it. If it had happened 20 years earlier, it couldn't have attained the same level of excellence.'

There is less unanimity about 1998. Giacomo Neri of Casanova di Neri thinks the 1998s will last only about five years: they are to drink now, he says. Pablo Harri, winemaker at Col d'Orcia, thinks better of them: 'They are similar to 1995 or 1990 [both very good Brunello vintages]. Certainly the 1998s will last longer than 1994 or 1996.' Buratti agrees: 'Although it risks being overshadowed by 1997 and 1999 in terms of power and elegance, 1998 shouldn't be underestimated. It has forward fruit and youthful vigour to make it enjoyable now, but it also has a balanced tannin structure that will let it evolve well. And a four-star vintage between two five-star vintages is not a bad thing… '

The optimistic view

I find myself agreeing with the optimists about 1998. It doesn't instantly bowl one over the way the 1997 Brunellos tend to – but it is a much more welcoming vintage, with typical Brunello dark aromas and flavours of coffee, chocolate and tobacco overlaying and underlying a sweet/sour cherry core. In some ways, 1998 is actually a more classic – perhaps more traditional – Brunello vintage than either 1997 or 1999, which although wonderful are also slightly eccentric.

2001, while considerably better than 2002, doesn't seem in the same league as its immediate predecessors, despite the Consortium's official grading of four stars. I found most of the Rosso of that vintage simple and drinkable – well-made wines for the most part, but without very much nuance. Perhaps time will flesh out the vintage's Brunellos: we won't be tasting those for several years yet.

The good news for both growers and consumers is that there remains a lot of excellent wine in the pipeline. A great deal of enjoyable drinking awaits us – more than enough to see the thirstiest of us through the 2002 break in Tuscany's string of remarkable vintages.

Pick of the new releases

Note that most 2000 and 2001 wines tasted were barrel samples.

CHIANTI CLASSICO * * * * *

Badia a Coltibuono Riserva 2000 As persuasive a barrel sample as I've ever tasted, with great depth of aroma and flavour

nCastellare Riserva 1999 Cherries and black pepper from aroma to finish, with firm, smooth tannins

Castello di Verrazzano Riserva 1999, An aroma of fresh earth and mushrooms leads to a big, elegant mouthful of black fruit and tobacco

La Massa Giorgio Primo 2000 A polished, supple wine with great fruit/acid/tannin equilibrium

CHIANTI CLASSICO * * * *

Carpineto Riserva 1999 Spicy and peppery on the nose, with black fruits on the palate

nCasa Sola 2000 Rich, plummy fruit and a delicious mouthfeel

Casa Sola Riserva 1999 Supple, rich, black fruits, lithe

Castello di Bossi, Berardo 2000 A spice and cherry-scented barrel sample, supple and long finishing

nCastello di Cacchiano 2000 Black pepper and black cherry, supple, muscular yet restrained

Castello di Fonterutoli, Riserva 2000 A big, leathery, grapey barrel sample, with lots of evolution ahead of it

Castello di Verrazzano 2001 Big and round, with the muscle to develop very well

Fontodi 2001 Another big, impressive barrel sample

Il Vescovino, Vigna Piccola 2000 Mushroom nose, with excellent fruit and lovely, large-scale balance

La Madonnina, La Palaia 2000 Cherries and leather from nose to finish

Le Corti, Don Tommaso 2000 Huge, earthy aroma, slightly mute but evidently enormous

Melini, La Selvanella Riserva 1999 A medley of black pepper, wild mushroom, and intense fruit

Rocca di Montegrossi 2001 Earth and fresh grapes on the nose, black cherry and black pepper on the palate

San Felice 2001 Similar in flavour to the Rocca di Montegrossi, but smaller in scale, a touch more elegant

San Felice, Poggio Rosso Riserva 1999 A supple, nicely fruity wine with some elegance

Villa Cerna 2001 A polished middleweight with a pleasing, nutty finish

CHIANTI CLASSICO * * *

Badia a Coltibuono 2001 Soft and round, with a pleasing tannic finish >br>

Carpineto 2001 Accessible soft tannins, opens well

Castellare 2001 Lean and muscular, with a nice black pepper finish

Castellare 2002 Very good for the vintage, still grapey and acid, but pleasing

Castello di Bossi 2002 Pleasing, with a bit of darkness and depth Castello di Fonterutoli Imposing tannic structure opens to generous fruit

Castello di Querceto 2000 Fruit just starting to emerge

Castello di Verrazzano 2000 Round, with abundant sweet, soft tannin and plenty of underlying fruit

Castello di Verrazzano 2002 High acid and a bit grassy, but with recognisable Sangiovese character

Castello di Vicchiomaggio San Jacopo 2001 Lean, with more international wood tones than most

Fontodi 2002 Grapey and light, a reasonable, small-scale Chianti

La Madonnina, Riserva 2000 Black cherries, leather, black pepper, and lots of future development

Le Corti 2001 Muscular and immature, with a drying finish

San Felice, Il Grigio Riserva 2000 Sweet fruit swimming in vanilla; international style but good of its kind

San Felice 2002 Soft fruit with abundant stemmy acidity

Villa Cerna, Riserva 2000 Black fruits with a touch of oak sweetness

MONTALCINO * * * * *

Fuligni Brunello 1999 A lovely stylish Brunello with aromas of espresso and a long tobacco-and-coffee finish

Mastrojanni Brunello 1998 Round, full, complete, with a lovely coffee-liqueur finish

Pian delle Vigne Brunello 1998

Elegant international style, with good depth Poggio Antico Brunello 1998 Round, smooth, and enjoyable, tasting of cherries in espresso

MONTALCINO * * * *

Banfi Brunello 1998 Beautifully sleek, with a heady aroma of coffee and liquorice

Banfi Brunello Riserva 1997 A wonderful wine that will probably get more stars as it matures

Banfi Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Medium bodied, balanced and enjoyable

Baricci Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Good fruit and body, old fashioned but enjoyable

Camigliano Brunello 1998 Smooth and elegant, with very soft tannins

Casanova di Neri Brunello 1998 Powerful and elegant, big and needing time

Caparzo Brunello 1998 Round, soft, deep, with a long walnut finish

Casanova di Neri Brunello Riserva 1997 Powerful and deep, with a long nut-and- coffee finish

Castelgiocondo Brunello 1998 This wine promises to develop beautifully

Castelgiocondo Brunello Riserva 1997 Walnuts and espresso throughout, elegant and deep

iacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Brunello Riserva 1997 A big, tannic, still-closed wine, promising a great future

Col d'Orcia Brunello 1998 Polished, elegant, pleasing and accessible

Donatella Cinelli Colombini Brunello Le Prime Donne 1998 Round, smooth and deep, with soft tannins and lovely balance

Costanti Brunello 1998 Medium bodied, deep chocolate and tobacco tones, needs time

Il Poggione Brunello Riserva 1997 A fine wine that will need a lot of time

Mastrojanni Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Juicy, vinous, and tannic; should settle down very quickly

Silvio Nardi Brunello 1998 Grapes, coffee and liquorice aromas on the nose, round, soft on the palate, with a long espresso finish

Valdicava Brunello 1998 Good body and balance to this wine, with dark fruit flavours. Has fine potential

MONTALCINO * * *

Argiano Brunello 1998 A good example of the international style

Campogiovanni Brunello 1998 Sweet fruit, dark coffee and bitter chocolate flavours

Casanova di Neri Rosso di Montalcino 2001 A straightforward Rosso, enjoyable and simple

Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Forward, round, very drinkable

La Poderina Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Grapes and spices with tannic accents

Lisini Brunello Riserva 1997 Lovely flavours, but lacks body, especially for the vintage

Silvio Nardi Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Vinous and tannic, needs a little time

Poggio Salvi Brunello 1998 Well made, but a bit too woody right now

Valdicava Rosso di Montalcino 2001 Smooth and modern, with subtle wood accents

Tom Maresca is a writer based in the US.

For vintage reports, visit www.decanter.com

VINTAGE GUIDE: BRUNELLO & CHIANTI CLASSICO

Chianti Classico:

2002 Truly terrible weather throughout the zone. Prolonged rains led to, at best, drinkable wines from even the best winemakers. A vintage for immediate consumption only.

2001 Very pretty wines, and seemingly quite consistent. Drink basic Chianti Classico up to about 2007, the riservas from then until 2015 – perhaps longer, as the structure seems sturdy enough.

2000 The year the zone's clonal research, field and cellar improvements paid off. Even the basic Chianti Classico is elegant and full. Not as grand as 1997 or 1999, but nevertheless a vintage to drink with pleasure for the next 5–10 years.

1999 Big wines in all aspects – fruit, tannin, acid and alcohol. Up to 5–6 years for the basic wine, another 10 for the riservas.

1998 A better-than-average vintage overshadowed by its neighbours. Nice, deep coloured and flavoured wines to drink up to 12 years (riservas).

1997 Widely heralded as the vintage of the century. The wines are big and well structured. Rich Sangiovese flavours. Up to 2015, especially for riservas.

Brunello di Montalcino:

2002 Terrible weather, but better than further north, and winemakers did everything they could to save as much of their crop as possible. The wines are too young to judge with any accuracy, but the odds are that they will be at best middling.

2001 These very young wines show signs of growing into classic Brunello: big, supple and long-lived. The Rosso is simple and very drinkable. Drink within a few years.

2000 Still ageing in the cellars, this promises very well, with good fruit and sturdy structure – similar in character and quality to 1998. The Rosso di Montalcino is relatively simple, straightforward and robust, good for the next 3–4 years.

1999 Another great year, for some even better than 1997. The wines are a bit closed now, but will soon open. They should make for good – in some case fabulous – drinking for 15–20 years.

1998 Round, well-structured wines of a classic Brunello character coupled with modern accessibility. Up to 10 years at least, more for the best estates.

1997 Ample fruit for immediate pleasure – though the wines should be even better in a year or two – and enough structure for the long haul. Up to, who knows, 2020 at least for the best riservas.

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