2011 Brunello di Montalcino: Terroir Matters
The 2011 Brunellos have a hard task, as they are nestled
between the superb 2010s and the highly promising 2012s. Readers need to be selective,
as 2011 is a vintage with a great deal of variability and widely diverging
highs and lows. The best 2011 Brunellos are racy, open-knit and seductive, all
qualities that make them well-suited for near to medium-term drinking.
The 2011 Growing
An unusually warm, dry winter led to budbreak that was several
weeks ahead of schedule and set the stage for a year where the calendar of the
vine was moved up dramatically. Flowering was also ahead of schedule. The
inversion of seasons continued during the early part of summer, which was unseasonably
cool and overcast. Some producers opened up canopies in order to promote better
air circulation and stave off disease pressure. Other growers, worried about
the ability of vines to ripen a full crop, started deleafing and dropping fruit.
Those decisions would turn out to have major ramifications
when a blast of dry heat arrived from Africa in mid-August. The blistering heat
cooked exposed fruit and caused considerable dehydration on the vine. According
to most growers, the heat spike only lasted a few days, but temperatures
remained high during that period, even at night, giving the plants no respite.
Vines, like people, don’t like shocks. The August heat spike would turn out to
leave a distinctive signature of ripe, roasted fruit in many wines. Sugars
continued to rise, but physiological ripeness, stunted by the heat, lagged
behind. Growers had to choose between picking early to preserve whatever
freshness could still be had, but risk hard, unripe tannins, or wait until
physiological ripeness had been achieved, but take their chances with elevated
sugars and alcohols. These are never easy choices to make.
Oliver, an esteemed
member of the Salvioni vineyard crew, seen during pruning
and Pelagrilli…Where Are You?
Because of the stressed conditions of the year, the 2011
Brunellos are highly uneven across the board. I place 2011 behind 2010, but
ahead of 2009, a year with which 2011 shares some similarities, the biggest
being the generally forward, advanced qualities that are found in many wines.
With a few exceptions, the 2011s are wines that will drink well with minimal
cellaring and that are likely to age at a faster pace than normal.
I tasted more than a few 2011 Brunellos with advanced,
bricked/orangeish tonalities of color and the accompanying developed flavors
that are much more typical of older wines. The vintage is much stronger on the
northern side of Montalcino, where temperatures are generally cooler than in
the south, and where a number of key vineyards sit at higher altitudes.
In particular, I tasted a number of gorgeous 2011s from the
three key macro-zones of the north; the Canalicchi di Sopra and di Sotto (upper
and lower respectively), Montosoli and Pelagrilli. Sadly, the producers’
Consorzio has resisted every attempt to map these zones so that consumers might
actually better understand the diversity of Montalcino’s myriad microclimates
and terroirs, but someone will come along and do it anyway, hopefully soon. So, the long and short of it is that the wines
from the north are, on average, more successful than the wines of the south, where
the normally dry, arid conditions influenced by nearby Maremma were taken to
nearly unbearable levels by the August heat spike.
The cellar at Costanti
The other, and equally important, issue with the 2011s is
time in barrel. Producers continue to show an almost obstinately inflexible
approach to aging their wines. In most other regions in the world, forward,
precocious vintages are bottled earlier than normal. But not in Montalcino. Although
Brunello must spend at least two years in oak, quite a few producers add
another year to that. With a few exceptions that prove the rule, extended time
in barrel was the kiss of death in 2011.
To be fair, some of that has to do with space limitations
and other practical considerations. Ten thousand bottles of wine in barrel
takes up a lot less space than it does once it has been bottled. To compound
matters, even if producers chose to bottle their Brunellos as soon as possible,
they are prohibited from selling those wines until the fifth year after the
vintage, which means they have to store all of that bottled wine for a
considerable amount of time. On the other hand, at the prices top Brunello now
routinely fetches, producers simply must have to have the right tools,
including space, if their aspiration is to make high-quality, world-class
Lastly, although the trend towards making single-parcel
other special selection Brunellos continues to grow, 2011 was without question
a vintage to bottle a single Brunello. There are exceptions, but they are few
and far between. There are only a few estates that plan on bottling a 2011
Riserva, including Salicutti, Poggio di Sotto and Le Potazzine.
Loreto, Castelnuovo dell’Abate
2010 Brunello di
This year also marks the release of the long-awaited 2010
Riservas. With a few exceptions, I am not a fan of Brunello Riservas. The
current crop of new releases has done nothing to change that view. As it turns
out, during my most recent trip to Montalcino I tasted a number of 2006
Brunello straight bottlings (known as Annata) and Brunello Riservas for a
forthcoming retrospective. Those wines only reinforced my long held views about
Riservas. Specifically; the trend to give what winemakers consider their ‘best’
fruit more time in barrel or more new/smaller oak often leads to Riservas aging
faster than Annata wines of the same vintage. Furthermore, Riservas are rarely
worth the price premium producers ask for. The vast majority of estates would
be far better off making a single Brunello in each vintage.
Tasting from cask,
Poggio di Sotto, Castelnuovo dell’Abate
Looking Ahead – 2012,
2013, 2014 & 2015
Vintage 2012 remains one of the most promising young
Brunello vintages I have tasted in the last few years. Unusually hot, dry
conditions persisted all year, but the vines adapted and self-regulated because
temperatures remained consistently high, with none of the shocks of 2011. The
grapes were small, with little juice, which resulted in rich, concentrated
wines. Yet the 2012s don’t have the textural opulence of ripe vintages such as
1997 or 2007, rather they tend to show more mid-weight structures. I remember
tasting the 2012s for the first time in February 2013 and being quite
impressed. I feel the same way today.
The cramped cellars at
Il Marroneto, Montalcino
Two thousand thirteen was a much cooler, later-ripening
vintage than 2012. The 2013s are fresh, vibrant and beautifully perfumed wines.
Two thousand fourteen was one of the most difficult vintages on record. Growers
describe the year as having had no summer. Cold, damp conditions resulted in
elevated disease pressure and rot, while the Suzukii fruit fly punctured
berries right around harvest. Crop losses are in the 30-50% range for most
estates. A number of wineries will make no Brunello at all, preferring to make
a good Rosso instead. On that subject, readers will begin to see hype about the
2014 Rossos that are made from declassified Brunello juice. With one or two
exceptions, these wines don’t live up the marketing. If producers could have
bottled Brunello, they would have done so. If, on the other hand, producers bottled
Brunello juice as Rosso, it is not because they wanted to do consumers a favor,
but rather because the wines were weak and they had no choice. With one or two
exceptions, readers are better off with Rossos from top vintages, not poor
From what I have tasted so far, 2015 has the potential to be
a very strong vintage for Montalcino, perhaps more. The 2015s are rich,
powerful and intense, a sort of 2012 with a little more of everything.
Lastly, I have to say I was quite encouraged this year by
what appears to be a meaningful shift in Montalcino. For years, Montalcino has
suffered from a lack of high quality accommodations and restaurants. That is
slowly beginning to change. At least three estates will soon open their own small
hotels. Some of these projects are more ambitious than others, but it is always
great to see producers investing in their own region.
You Might Also Enjoy
Vinous Event: 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, Antonio Galloni, December 2015
Canalicchio di Sopra: Brunello di Montalcino 1970-2008, Antonio Galloni, May 2015
Biondi-Santi: The Epic Vintages 1955-1975, Antonio Galloni, March 2015
2010 Brunello di Montalcino: A Promise Fulfilled, Antonio Galloni, February 2015
-- Antonio Galloni