Over the past decade or more there have been a few trends that have been relatively universal across the world of wine. One of the most pleasant to see has been the fall of prominence of the so-called “international style” of red wine. This was on my mind after a recent tasting of the releases from the latest Brunello di Montalcino vintage, 2018.
The issue with the international style was its homogeneous character. The wines were characterized by heavy extraction, higher alcohols, and pronounced new oak. There are places where this still holds; I was in Napa recently and definitely came across more than a few examples. It’s entirely reasonable to suggest that this approach “works” in some areas, Napa included (though there are alternatives, even there). But when it’s applied as a blanket approach, it has a blanket effect. We expect wines from different parts of the world to taste different, and as we’ve seen this heavy-handed winemaking was obscuring regional and even varietal differences.
Tuscany definitely jumped on the train. This is hardly surprising in places like the Bolgheri and Maremma, places largely planted to the “international” grape varieties that seemed most receptive to the “international style” treatment – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in particular. Sangiovese, given its tannins, pronounced acidity, and lighter color, seems less willing to go that route. It’s no accident that the Chiantis and Chianti Classico’s that worked in that style often included significant amounts of yes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Since Brunello di Montalcino must be 100% Sangiovese it’s not allowed that option, even though Brunello has proven more able than the other Sangiovese-based wines of Tuscany to provide the power that was often a piece of the international style package. In fact, the Brunellopoli (Italian for “Brunello-gate”) scandal that broke in 2008 centered on five producers who had been adding other varieties to the wine to achieve something more in keeping with the international style.
For Brunello di Montalcino the retreat from over-oaking and these other ills has been relatively orderly, with the only bump occurring in 2014, a vintage characterized by low temperatures and lots of rain. Producers who handled those conditions well released generous wines, ready to drink on release. In theory the low temperatures favored the elegance and restraint to which post-international style winemaking lends itself, but some producers seemed thrown; having been working against the high alcohol of hotter and hotter vintages, suddenly they had to try once more to coax ripeness from the grapes rather than hold it back. Some of the wines of that vintage were too tight and even rough at times.
Four years on and producers seem more prepared for a bumpy vintage. 2018 shared some similarities with 2014 in terms of rain and cool spells, though intervening warmer periods aided ripening. In any case, the wines I tasted were often restrained but never austere, expressing themselves with finesse rather than power, and were ready to drink in many cases. Many producers I typically associate with deeper, more powerful wines proved they could work in a more graceful mode without any awkward missteps. Those wines that were more structured nonetheless offered more fruit and seemed inclined to gracefully open up after a few years of cellaring. This should be a good “restaurant vintage,” offering wines that one can enjoy while out without dipping into the expensive, aged section of the list (should such a section exist). It’s an exciting time to see Brunello di Montalcino (and many other regions, for that matter), without the genericizing make-up of international style winemaking. 2018 is a vintage that doesn’t demand patience to do so.
One final note on the vintage: Brunello di Montalcino hits the shelves after January 1st of the fifth year after harvest – January 1, 2023, in this case. But for whatever reason, the Brunello di Montalcino Consorzio staged their tastings before that date this year, rather than in February, as has been the norm for some time. It’s a good vintage for such a move, since so many wines are showing well, but it leaves one wondering about the outliers, wines that didn’t seem quite ready. Having only recently been bottled, perhaps a bit more time would have done them some good. I wonder in particular about some of the single vineyard wines I tasted, a few of which seemed either inexpressive or disjointed. It may be that in a few months these wines will be worth returning to and ready to show their character more completely.
Here are some recommend wines from my tasting:
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Argiano Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Banfi Brunello di Montalcino “Poggio alle Mura” 2018
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino “Tenuta Nuova e Giovanni Neri” 2018
Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Donatella Cinelli Colombini Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Donatella Cinelli Colombini Brunello di Montalcino “Progetto Prime Donne” 2018
Maté Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Sesti Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Capanna Brunello di Montalcino 2018
Lambardi Brunello di Montalcino 2018