Today's Brunello di Montalcinos are gorgeously drinkable when young, but still mature beautifully if you can bear to wait. TOM MARESCA looks at the new style and provides a detailed guide to recent vintages

Today’s Brunello di Montalcinos are gorgeously drinkable when young, but still mature beautifully if you can bear to wait. TOM MARESCA looks at the new style and provides a detailed guide to recent vintages

BRUNELLO was originally the 19th century product of experiments by several winemakers in and around Montalcino, most notably the Biondi Santi family, but the modern Brunello era began about 25 years ago, with the arrival of American firm Banfi.

Under the guidance of the dynamic Ezio Rivella, then the most important oenologist in Italy, Banfi introduced advanced vineyard cultivation techniques and installed a completely modern winery on the ancient Castello di Poggio alle Mura estate. Subsequent clonal research made a major difference to the quality of the vines and grapes, and knowledge of the newest vinification techniques has now permeated the whole area, with the result that even those who make an old-style Brunello now do so by choice and with better control of the winemaking process.

Without exception, all Brunellos are now far more accessible and pleasurable to drink as young wines. Indeed, the usual division between traditionalists and modernists, regional loyalists and internationalists, becomes meaningless in Montalcino. Barriques are everywhere, yet few overuse them, so heavily oaked Brunello is not a major problem.

Fruitful experience

Nor is Brunello Cabernet-flavoured or Merlot-softened: it is Sangiovese in excelsis, pure but rarely simple. The greatest stylistic differences in Brunello are usually between somewhat austere, structured wines and richer, more fruit-first ones. That difference often results as much from vintage variation and vineyard location as it does from winemaking.

The ridge that runs diagonally through the Brunello zone, from northwest to southeast, divides it into roughly equal triangles. The southwestern one has a drier, hotter climate, more like that of the Maremma, while the northeastern section has a milder, wetter climate, more like that of Chianti Classico. In ‘normal’ years, the wines from the northeast turn out perfumed, medium-bodied, restrained and well-balanced, while those from the southwest are bigger, softer, fruitier and more immediately expressive.

The old hard, forbidding tannins that took years to soften have all but vanished from Brunello and some examples are positively voluptuous from the moment of their release, rather than five or ten years down the road.

Most, though, no matter how delightful and juicy when young, still reward cellaring. Attractive children, they undergo a year or so of awkward adolescence somewhere between seven and 10 years from harvest. Then they emerge with new, dark tones of tobacco, leather and even chocolate or coffee starting to blend with their now more subdued youthful fruitiness.

Eighteen months ago, a horizontal tasting of 1990 Brunellos proved universally disappointing, but most of the same wines, tasted in the last three months, are now glorious, deep and lively, yet years from their peak.

But there is still some trouble in paradise. There were about two dozen producers bottling Brunello 25 years ago; now there are nearly 150, without a proportionate increase in vineyard area. This means that in some places resources are stretched pretty thin, especially if, as often seems to be the case, every grower wants to produce a Rosso di Montalcino, a Brunello normale, a Brunello riserva and a cru Brunello every year. The big firms, such as Barbi, Banfi, Castelgiocondo and Caparzo, can manage that trick, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that smaller growers are going to have to start making some tough choices if the basic Brunello appellation is going to be maintained at full value.

For a small grower, every grape that goes into a riserva or a single-vineyard wine impoverishes the normal Brunello. One solution, of course, is to make a riserva only in truly exceptional years, as was the custom in the not-so-distant past. Another is to get rid of the riserva altogether, a step that now seems to be under cautious consideration.

That would, in effect, create within the Brunello appellation almost a Bordeaux-château policy: a single, prestige bottling, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, and a second label, Rosso di Montalcino DOC.

Whatever its other advantages or defects, that would certainly provide a nice simplification for the consumer. Until then, however, the reputation of the producer and the purchaser’s personal experience will provide the surest path to a successful purchase.

1980 **** Although the Brunello Consorzio gave this vintage four out of five stars, others rated it less highly. A dry, cool summer preceded an almost perfect autumn and the harvest of healthy grapes began in late October. The wines are now fully mature and should be consumed. Those from the northeastern tier are already a little lean, but those from the southwest are rounder and softer. Good examples are Argiano, Barbi, Biondi Santi and Il Poggione.

1981 *** Many Brunello connoisseurs preferred this vintage to the 1980, but it doesn’t appear to be holding up well and any remaining bottles should probably be consumed soon. The best are from reliable producers such as Barbi, Biondi Santi and Costanti.

1982 **** An extraordinary year almost everywhere. The weather was good but not spectacular, resulting in nicely concentrated wines with, initially, some pretty rough tannins. However, they are drinking beautifully now, still showing excellent Sangiovese fruit layered with coffee, black pepper and other mature flavours. Plenty of live acidity so drink now or keep for a few years. Good examples are Banfi, Barbi, Fontevino, Il Poggione and Lisini.

1983 **** Also rated four stars by the Consorzio, but given considerably less by other experts, this vintage causes some disagreement. Absolutely perfect harvest conditions almost compensated for a rainy spring and produced wines of rather small body but great tipicitá – not only exactly what one would expect from Brunello but embodying intense site-specificity. Most of the wines seem to be peaking now. Good examples are Barbi, Biondi Santi, Lisini and Valdicava.

1984 * Not quite what Orwell had in mind, but a dreadful season. Continuous rain from early September ruined the harvest and rotted the grapes. Little wine was made and probably little survives.

1985 ***** As compensation for the previous year, the elements gifted Brunello a real top vintage. A dry, warm summer extended into September and October, giving wines with concentration, power and elegance. They are drinking beautifully now – big, round, some a touch rustic, but with bitter chocolate-toned fruit – and have years in them. Good examples are Barbi, Biondi Santi, Camigliano, Col d’Orcia, Friggiali and Il Poggione.

1986 *** This year started like 1984, rainy and cool, and finished like 1985, dry and warm. The Consorzio only gave it three stars, but others thought better of it and time seems be proving the optimists right, though some of the wines are nearing their peak. The most traditional makers did best and good examples are Barbi, Biondi Santi, Costanti and Pertimali.

1987 *** The Consorzio issued a three-star rating, but the summer was mostly dry and rather hot, with the harvest spoiled by sporadic rains. The results were uneven, with most wines really never achieving balance. Don’t keep this vintage any longer.

1988 ***** For Brunello, this was a very satisfying year as rainfall was balanced and warm weather persisted to the end of the harvest. This yielded wines of noble concentration and balance. Lively and elegant, they show no signs of tiring and are good across the board, but especially fine from Altesino, Banfi, Barbi, Biondi Santi and Castelgiocondo.

1989 ** Rain and low temperatures in late spring and early summer, combined with poor harvest conditions, prevented uniform ripening of the grapes. Although not as disastrous as 1984, many producers used their grapes for Rosso di Montalcino. For immediate drinking.

Written by Tom Maresca