Brunello di Montalcino: The Vintage We Have Been Waiting For?
BY ERIC GUIDO | APRIL 07, 2020
Montalcino is in a constant state of flux. Recent years have brought scandal, a division between traditional and international styles, various efforts to organize and define vineyard sites and repeated battles to change the guidelines of the producers' consortium, all accompanied by a series of fair vintages consumers have often snubbed. You can imagine the happiness 2015 brought winemakers. But is it the vintage consumers have been waiting for?
This isn’t your usual Italian romance, where families that had
owned their lands for centuries, if not a millennium, founded a wine, style,
and name, which has maintained and gained prominence over all of this time. Montalcino
isn’t a region that built its reputation on marketing, branding, or a
projection of prestige that was never truly earned. No, this is about a
fortified city that housed the last remnants of Siena’s citizens when Florence
and Spain took control of their territory - and held their own while under
siege. A city, over-brimming in population, that then remained something of an
island unto itself for the next three hundred years, before Italy unified in
the 19th century.
This is a story about families, who in many cases descended
from sharecroppers (mezzadria). Of course, they had their heroes, such
as Clemente Santi, who pioneered not only their namesake but also one of their
most renowned vineyards. But that was just over 150 years ago, a blink of an
eye by Italian wine standards. And yes, there has been a large amount of
outside investment in previous decades, yet that doesn’t change the fact that
this is a story about hard-working families who take pride in their lands, in
their city, and in the grape that they hold high above all else.
This Story Is About Brunello di Montalcino
and the 2015 Vintage
Let’s take a step back because in the grand scheme of
things, Brunello di Montalcino hasn’t gotten its fair shake over the last
decade or so. Montalcino has been plagued with scandal (who doesn’t remember
Brunello-Gate?), which unfortunately hurt the entire region in the eyes of
consumers. I can attest to this because, as a longtime fan of Brunello, I remember that it was the main topic of conversation in every
wine shop I would visit at the time.
Now let’s consider the transition of taste that Montalcino
has witnessed, on the side of consumers and markets, suddenly adopting a
stance against Italian wine made in an “International Style.” Granted, we want
Sangiovese to taste like Sangiovese. However, a big misconception and
oversimplified view of Montalcino is that it is the oak in a Brunello
producer’s cellar that creates the dark, large-scaled, and dramatic wines that
many producers continue to release. The fact is that it’s more often the
location and the farming that is the culprit. Are there wineries that are using
French barrique to age their Brunello? Of course there are—yet you may be
surprised by how many of your favorite wines from the region are raised in
French oak, whether it be Barrique or Tonneaux—yet this is done in a way so
not to hurt the typicity of the wine.
What’s more, Montalcino plays host to so many diverse
terroirs, and as a result, many attempts to clarify and organize the region
have failed. However, you can at least say that the wines from higher altitudes
and cooler climates are capable of producing a great wine in a ripe vintage. What
you can’t say is that any one area within Montalcino drastically excels more
than another, especially in a vintage like 2015.
So let’s talk about the vintages, for which in the case of
Sangiovese, a very fickle grape (hence the reason that Chianti and
Montepulciano benefit from their ability to blend in other varietals) is very
sensitive to vintage. What does this translate into?
When we have a “great” Brunello vintage, everyone goes
When we have a “poor” Brunello vintage, everyone turns up
When we have a “GOOD” Brunello vintage… everyone seems to
just sit on their hands, save for a few restaurants that find them to be the
best glass pours.
When you do the math, you find that in the last fifteen years, only
four vintages have qualified as great vintages. In my book, they are 2004,
2006, 2007, and 2010. Before I go any further, 2015 does not rank among the
great vintages, but if that means that you stop reading now, that will be your
“The Vintage From God?”
By now, everyone has heard about the five-star 2015 Brunello
vintage, and many of us have already taken the plunge, propelled by the
excitement of wineries, the Brunello Consortium, and the press. What’s not to
It’s a vintage of power and purity, the result of a long
growing season with no extreme events. One which was warmer than 2014 and with
much less rain, yet water reserves were high due to rains throughout the winter
months. Those reserves aided the vines through the dry, warm, and sunny summer
months, which were complemented by cool nighttime temperatures and just the
right amount of precipitation at the right time. What’s more, it was cool and
dry prior to harvest, which in turn presented a healthy crop of perfectly ripe
Andrea Mantengoli, of La Serena, called the 2015 vintage
"A vintage made by God." What he meant was that everything seemed to fall
into place, and all a producer had to do was sit back and practically watch the
vines fend for themselves. Yet, this is where many producers failed, and this
is the reason why I find the 2015 Brunello vintage to be a minefield of great
wines dispersed amongst a sea of pleasurable, but not especially remarkable, wines.
Mantengoli went on to explain that producers who didn't work
the vineyards throughout the season created the sunny-styled wines that some
people find to be too ripe or, dare I add, simple. He attributes his own
success to north-south exposures, patience, picking for ideal ripeness, and the
thirty-year-old vines, whose roots dig deep for nutrients and minerality—in
other words, that term we love so much: terroir. Giovanna Neri, of Col di Lamo
in Torrenieri, echoed his sentiments, believing that it was her “vine-by-vine”
approach that resulted in balanced fruit, as well as canopy management, keeping
the grapes shaded through the sunny summer months.
So, is that the whole answer?
While tasting through flights of 2015 Brunello, a few things
do become apparent. In my opinion, producers located immediately around the
town of Montalcino had the best chance to make excellent wines in 2015. These
are the Brunellos of purity and power, aided by elevation and a diverse mix of
soils, which added further layers of complexity. Canalicchio di Sopra (including
the first release of the single-vineyard La Casaccia), Fuligni and Valdicava are standouts. Le
Potazzine and Gianni Brunelli, both of which are blends from vineyards in the
north and south, are terrific. I also found excellence in some select spots around
Tavernelle, including Pieve Santa Restituta (Gaja), and Castello Romitorio. These
wines all make a strong argument for the vintage.
Moving to the south, I found more variability, but plenty of
compelling wines, including some of my top performers of the vintage. The
success rate may be lower in Castelnuovo dell'Abate and Sant'Angelo in Colle, but
the producers who succeeded did so in spades. Lisini, Poggio di Sotto Mastrojanni,
Il Poggione, and Uccelliera all turned out masterfully-crafted Brunellos in
However, it’s not just the top names that excelled in 2015. Remember
that this is a farmer’s vintage. I found a lot to like from smaller producers
who took advantage of their pockets of Montalcino terroir to turn out some
fantastic wines. The fact is, if you’re not looking past the top-scoring Brunellos
of the vintage, then you’re missing out on one of 2015’s best qualities: the
under-the-radar overperformers. In sum, 2015 is not the “Great Vintage” that we
may have wanted or hoped for, yet it’s one that many consumers will truly love.
You’ll notice many of my drinking windows start in 2020, and
this is due to the unmistakable sunny character (not to be mistaken with
over-ripeness), rounder tannins, and lower acidity found in a number of wines. The
best 2015 Brunellos will excel over the medium term in your cellar, but I also
found many to be far too simple for any serious evolution.
I for one am not skipping out on 2015; I’m just being
extremely selective because the fact is that there is an unprecedented amount
of pleasure to be taken from this vintage—you simply need to know where to
look. That said, after all of the high praise and build-up, as a whole, 2015
doesn’t measure up as expected. Do we dare look to 2016? That’s a story for
All of the wines in this article were tasted between
February and March at the Vinous office in New York and my home office.
You Might Also Enjoy
Montalcino: The Great 2015 Brunellos & More, Ian D'Agata, April 2020
The 2014 Brunello di Montalcino and 2013 Riservas: Opposites Attract, Ian D'Agata, March 2019
Le Potazzine Brunello di Montalcino 2001 – 2013, Ian D'Agata, October 2018
Brunello di Montalcino: Sleek, Pure 2013s & Surprising 2012 Riservas, Ian D'Agata, April 2018