After relentlessly cool and rainy conditions in 2014, the 2015 vintage provided much needed relief for growers. ‘It was perfect during the summer,’ says Gianni Maccari, winemaker at Ridolfi. June through to September saw virtually uninterrupted warm sunny days, with temperatures spiking in July.
‘Fortunately there was sufficient rain in the previous winter and spring so we didn’t have problems with water stress,’ says Gianlorenzo Neri at Casanova di Neri. Moreover, a couple of refreshing showers in August and September provided soils with enough water to see the vines through until harvest.
Shrivelled or sunburnt berries were minimal according to Fabrizio Bindocci, oenologist at Il Poggione in the southern reaches of Montalcino. Vineyard management practices such as keeping enough vegetation to shade the grapes played a big part in this. ‘And the few berries that did suffer due to the sun and heat, we discarded,’ he adds.
The only mild complaint regarding weather conditions was that differences between day and nighttime temperatures were less marked than usual. ‘2015 was always warm so the wines are less perfumed,’ explains Alessia Salvioni at Azienda Salvioni, comparing them specifically to the cooler 2016 vintage.
Besides very healthy grapes, yields were also reasonably abundant. ‘2015 was a generous year in quantity and quality,’ asserts Nicolò Magnelli co-owner and agronomist at Le Chiuse. After a 50% reduction of Brunello in 2014, the estate produced about 15% above average in 2015.
But no vintage is truly void of challenge and in 2015 this was deciding when to harvest. A number of producers noted that they began slightly earlier than usual in order to preserve acidity (though it is difficult to say what current norms are).
At Caparzo, oenologist Massimo Bracalente explains that having parcels in diverse areas helped as ripeness times varied. Nevertheless, he says: ‘Choosing the right moment to harvest each caused us much tribulation.’ While technical maturity sprinted (meaning that sugars rose quickly and total acidity dropped suddenly), phenolic or tannin maturation progressed slowly.
After tasting over 130 Brunellos, I can say with much enthusiasm that the overall quality of the 2015 vintage is very high. However, at the risk of being a wet blanket, I certainly wouldn’t call it exceptional. Perhaps the biggest downfall of 2015 is that it was overhyped.
Of course, there is much to celebrate in 2015, including plentiful fruit, ripe and supple tannins, sumptuous textures and an immediate drinkability. While 2014 was also approachable out of the gate, the style of the two vintages diverges significantly. 2014 is vertical and slender, whereas 2015 is broad and round. Surprisingly, many successful 2015s also offer freshness of aromas and flavours, as well as succulent acidity. While a small handful of 2015s reach soaring, complex heights.
On the other hand, a number of wines reveal the vintage’s shortcomings. Some are unable to support their heady alcohol levels – particularly those approaching 15-15.5%. In others, drying tannins poked through. This speaks not just of the importance of picking times and vineyard management, but also variation in Montalcino’s terroir. In 2015, generally the warmest, lower-lying sites with south- and southwest-facing expositions, on soils with low moisture-retaining capacity, proved the most challenging.
Other issues are linked to vinification. In certain wines, the largeness of the vintage is accentuated by over-extraction and/or excessive oak influence. Furthermore, rather than cooked or stewed notes from over-ripeness, I detected slightly weary fruit in the vintage’s less successful wines. In these I suspect long ageing, especially in wood wasn’t necessary for the high ripeness of fruit. The tannins of today are much softer than the fierce tannins of the past.
When to drink
Overall, very few wines demand longer in bottle. Many will offer much drinking pleasure over the next 10 to 15 years and a select few perhaps 20. This sentiment was echoed by many producers. ‘Compared to 2014, the 2015s have more potential for ageing,’ notes Francesca Bindocci from Il Poggione, ‘but I’m not sure they will have the longevity of the best wines from the 1970s or 1980s.’ According to Riccardo Talenti of Talenti, good acidity levels will give endurance. ‘How long is a difficult question though,’ he admits.
Typically the riservas from the previous vintage are released with the new Brunello vintage. While a small handful of 2014 riservas were made, not a single one was on display at Benvenuto Brunello. This is unsurprising given the challenges of that vintage. In 2014, most producers prudently opted to select only their best grapes to craft just one single Brunello.
Conversely, 2016 was repeatedly referenced. It was hard for producers to contain their excitement about this vintage, and after tasting a few previews, I understand why. At the risk of setting expectations too high, next year’s Benvenuto Brunello promises to be an embarrassment of riches with the 2016 Brunello released alongside the 2015 riserva (and what is shaping up to be delectable 2019 rosso).
In the meantime, the 2015 Brunello are now hitting the market. There are plenty worth buying especially for those who aren’t looking to squirrel wines away for the long haul. They are ideal in a world of immediate gratification.
However, I do recommend keeping some money aside for next year’s releases as well.