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Brunello di Montalcino 2013: The Virtue of Acidity
By Michael Apstein
Feb 27, 2018
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If there was ever any doubt,--and, of course, there shouldn’t be--that Brunello di Montalcino is one of the world’s great wines, a sad event last month should dispel it.  Thieves stole about 1,000 bottles of Brunello, including some prized single-vineyard Riserva, Poggio al Vento, worth about $125,000, from Col d’Orcia, one of the region’s top producers.  They took only Brunello, not Rosso di Montalcino or any other of Col d’Orcia’s wines.  When criminals target a wine--be it by blackmailing Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or by forging labels, you know the wine has hit the big time--though I’m sure that Francesco Marone Cinzano, owner of Col d’Orcia, would have preferred a different form of flattery.

The just-released 2013 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino reinforces the stature of the DOCG.  Riccardo Campinoti from Le Ragnaie, another of the area’s top producers, has difficulty containing his enthusiasm when he speaks of the vintage: “In time, they will be fantastic.”  He describes 2013 as, “An old-school Brunello vintage, like they used to be.” He goes on to warn that consumers might not be accustomed to a traditional vintage like 2013 because the two preceding ones, 2012 and 2011, produced Brunello wines that were far more approachable when young.

Cinzano describes the wines (or at least those from his subzone in the south) as having depth and concentration with no over ripeness, a subtle criticism of some of the Brunello wines from 2012.  He characterizes the growing season as, “very even, with no heat spikes.”  Despite his yields being down by 30%, he is enthusiastic and says with a broad smile, “For us, 2013 was better than 2012.”

I base my assessment of the vintage on my sampling of over 90 Brunello wines from 2013 at Brunello at Benvenuto Brunello, the recently concluded, annual event in Montalcino at which the Brunello producers show the new vintage.  I also tasted some 2013s at a smaller version that was held in New York City.  These tastings have convinced me that 2013 is a great vintage for Brunello di Montalcino.

The downside of the vintage is, not surprisingly, variability among producers.  Unlike 2010, which is what I call a “point and shoot” vintage, not all producers in 2013 were equally successful.  The wines reflect the overall coolness of the growing season, showing brightness and a lovely austerity and restraint, with no heaviness.  Stated alcohol levels are generally 13.5 or 14%, lower than in 2012.  Classically proportioned and structured, the 2013 Brunello are not, by and large, forward and opulent wines.  Flavors associated with red fruits, rather than the more opulent black fruits, are common.  Invigorating acidity gives them extraordinary life and verve.  The acidity of the vintage anchors even the bigger, more full-bodied wines, and those that some tasters might criticize for being too oaky.  For the most part, the firm tannins lend support without being aggressive.  Indeed, I found that the best wines, though youthful and vigorous, exhibit lovely balance. As Campinoti suggests, these wines need time--a decade or more--in the cellar.  I predict they will be worth the wait.

The growth of Brunello, from roughly 100,000 bottles in 1978, according to Cinzano, to about 9 million bottles currently, according to data from the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, is testimony to its popularity, especially in the United States, where we buy about 70% of the DOCG’s production.  Despite their increasing popularity, the prices for many remain quite reasonable.  In my list of two-dozen favorites below, four are less than $40 a bottle and six are less than $50. When Gaia Gaja travels the world with examples of their wines from Piedmont made from Nebbiolo, Bolgheri made from so-called “international varieties,” and their Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino, she says that consumers always prefer their Brunello. 

A combination of soil in Montalcino, the climate in this part of Tuscany and the Brunello clone of Sangiovese explain the unique character of Brunello di Montalcino.  Highlighting the importance of clone, Lars Leicht, spokesperson for Castello Banfi, a leading Brunello producer, points out that clones of Sangiovese planted in Montepulciano or Chianti Classico do not produce a wine with the characteristics of Brunello when it is when planted in Montalcino.

Brunello is a powerful, yet classy, wine.  It should deliver a distinctive core of bitter cherry and/or an earthy minerality.  The cherry-like fruitiness of Sangiovese is apparent, but Brunello should convey what I call a “not just fruit” element--an alluring, dark, pleasing, almost bitter aspect.   Around the core are firm, but polished, tannins and the bright acidity characteristic of Tuscan wines in general.  The best of the 2013s do all of that.

Brunello is distinct from all other Sangiovese-based wines, in part, because regulations prohibit blending.  Brunello di Montalcino must be 100% Sangiovese.  What Pinot Noir is to Burgundy or Nebbiolo is to Barolo, Brunello (the local name for Sangiovese) is to Montalcino.  These three grapes are “transparent,” meaning, they have the ability to transmit the essence of the site where the vines are planted.  Brunello di Montalcino stands alone as Italy’s only DOCG that requires the exclusive use of Sangiovese for the wine.  Blending in Brunello di Montalcino is prohibited because it would dilute and blur the unique expression of region, just as it would in Burgundy or Barolo. 

The challenge and future for Brunello di Montalcino, according to Gaja, is “parcelization” of the DOCG, analogous to the myriad subdivisions in Burgundy and vineyard-specific Barolo.  The DOCG, though small--only about 10,000 acres of vines--has an extraordinary diversity of soil and climates.  For example, the subzone south of the town of Montalcino itself, encompassing the villages of Sant’Angelo in Colle and Sant’Angelo Scalo, is noticeably warmer than the areas north of Montalcino.  As a result, the grapes from there are typically riper and the wines more robust.  Producers may own vineyards in one subzone or scattered throughout the entire DOCG.  The tradition in Montalcino, as it was in Barolo, has been to blend wines from the various subzones to make a more complete and complex Brunello.  But more and more producers vinify and bottle a Brunello from a single vineyard.  Col d’Orcia, for example, just introduced another single vineyard Brunello, Nastagio, which joins their Brunello blended from various sites and one from another single vineyard, their gorgeous Riserva, Poggio al Vento. 

Though I’ve said it before, it’s worth repeating:  “For those who want to learn more about Brunello, pick up a copy of Kerin O’Keefe’s book, Brunello di Montalcino:  Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines (University of California Press, 2012), which is the definitive guide to the region.  No other writer comes close to understanding the region and, more importantly, conveying that understanding in a wonderfully readable form.”

My favorite Brunello di Montalcino releases from the 2013 vintage appear below (listed prices are average ones from Wine-searcher.com; if no price is listed, the wine may not be in the market yet):

Le Ragnaie V.V. (Vigna Vecchia):  Importance of old vines shows.  More power, more tannins, more concentration, still energetic, far more youthful than their regular bottling. Burly.  Still wonderful acidity in the finish.  Long.  Great balance, long sour cherry finish. 97

Caparzo “Vigna la Casa”: 
$58.  More intensity than their regular bottling without losing balance or suaveness.  Lively and long.  Paradoxically delicate and powerful.  97

Col d’Orcia:
  $35. Delicate, elegant style.  Charms sneak up on you.  Not overt, graceful and long. A Lafite- rather than a Latour-like style of wine. 96

Tenute Silvio Nardi:
  $39.  Gorgeous nose and weight; pure and balanced. Long and lively. 96

$42.  Classically proportioned!  Refined and elegant.  Fresh and lively.  96

  $64.  Great energy and balance.   Explosive.  Savory.  Firm suave tannins. 96

Gianni Brunelli--Le Chiuse di Sotto:
  $68.  Gorgeous nose, good weight, elegant.  Long and balanced.  Savory with a core of minerals.  Dark finish.  Slightly bitter.  Classic Brunello.  96

Le Chiuse: 
Power and elegance.  Suave tannins, balanced and long.  Full-bodied in a nice way.  Sweet ripe fruit, lovely firmness, not hard, expressive Sangiovese firmness and dark core.  Fine tannins.  96

Banfi “Poggio alle Mura”: 
$90.  Suave texture, lovely firmness and power.  Good ripeness, but not overdone.  Bright.  95

Donatella Cinelli Colombini:
  They’ve reduced the oak aging over the years.  It shows.  Graceful, elegant, firm--not aggressive--tannins.  Alluring!  95

Pieve Santa Restituta “Sugarille”:
  Gaja’s single vineyard Brunello.  Lots of savory, herbal and mineral notes complement the dark fruitiness.  Great purity, refined tannins. Powerful wine but balanced.  95

Mastrojanni “Vigna Loreto”:
  Bold and concentrated, still nicely balanced.  Bright finish. Lovely sour cherries.  95

Il Palazzone: 
Lovely balance of density and verve.  Red and black fruits.  Long and fresh.  Mineral-y.  Fine tannins, gorgeous elegance.  Expressive.  95

Canalicchio di Sopra:
  $89.  Lifted, firm, lovely tannins and suave texture, but still firm structure.  Floral, gorgeous elegance and precision.  Oaky sweetness is present, but not overwhelming.  95

Le Ragnaie:
  Smoky oak, a little charred.  Nicely done.  Power and elegance, bright and vibrant finish.  Lively and energetic.  Pleasant ripe fruitiness buttressed by acidity.  Firm tannins, not aggressive or intrusive.  95

Le Ragnaie “Fornace”: 
Beautiful balance.  More oak, but nicely done.  Big and burly yet refined.  Dark sour cherries in finish.  95

Poggio di Sotto: 
Toasty oak, nicely done.  Balanced and elegant.  Firm tannins.  Not a powerhouse.  Elegant.  Long and delicate sour cherries.  95

Greppone Mazzi:
  Balanced.  Lovely austerity and restraint.  Firm and savory.  Pleasantly sweet fruit finish, without being sweet.  Savory notes throughout.  95

$39:  Earthy complement to cherry-like fruit.  Lifted and long.  94

  $33.  Lovely aromatics.  Enticing woodsy notes.  Elegant, charm sneaks up on you.  Balanced and fresh.  94

Castello Romitorio “File di Seta”:
  $97.  Great balance and life.  Long.  94 

Castiglion del Bosco: 
$47.  Firm and delicate, yet explosive.  Plenty of savory character.  Lively.  94

Citille di Sopra:
  Lovely aromatics, firm tannins, not hard or aggressive.  Long and pure. Lifted, fresh.  Alluring.  94

Tenuta di Sesta:  Lovely lively earthiness.  Hint of charming rusticity.  Bright.  94

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February 28, 2018

Email me your thoughts about Brunello di Montalcino at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein