John Szabo’s 2014 Benvenuto Brunello Report
2009 and 2008 Riserva; The Brunello Subzone Debate; Top Picks
& Other Fine 2010 Sangiovese
Benvenuto Brunello, the annual tasting held each February in Montalcino to introduce the latest vintage, went off this year under mainly clear skies and pleasant mid-teen temperatures. The event featured mainly the 2009s, with 2008 riservas and a smattering of earlier vintages also shown. I tasted and have full reviews on over 100 wines out of which I’ve selected the top 30 or so, as well as offer five more excellent sangioveses from outside of Montalcino.
The 2009 Brunello Vintage
The 2009 vintage in Montalcino can be summed up in a word: warm. Like most of the rest of Europe, 2009 delivered temperatures above the mean over a long, dry growing season, with some areas experiencing vine stress due to dehydration. September rains elsewhere in Tuscany lowered alcohols and rebalanced many vines, but little fell in the Montalcino area. Although most producers polled were bullish on the quality, overall I found the wines to be very inconsistent.
The least successful have soaring alcohols (15%+), baked and raisined fruit flavours and a lack of structure. The best managed to reel in ripeness and extract gently enough to lend structure without hardness or bitterness, making for charming, satisfying wines. All in all, the majority will be for short or mid-term cellaring, or enjoying now, with only a handful suited for long-term cellaring beyond a dozen years or so. As is often the case, the most successful wines hailed from generally older, more established vines able to weather the extreme conditions best, as well as properties farming organically/biodynamically (a growing number in the region), whose vineyards have found their own natural balance and have built up stronger resistance to variations.
All in all, the 2009s, along with the 2008s will provide drinking enjoyment as we wait for the much-anticipated 2010 vintage, as well as the powerful 2006s and 2007s to reach maturity.
Should Brunello di Montalcino be Divided into Subzones?
The debate about dividing the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG into subzones to reflect its varying internal growing conditions continues. There is still much discussion amongst producers and within the trade about whether, and how to proceed. But producers readily admit that wines hailing from different parts of the appellation show significant variation in style and composition.
The commune of Montalcino covers 24,000 hectares, of which 3500 are planted to vines and of these, 2100ha qualify for the production of Brunello di Montalcino. But even within the Brunello zone the appellation is hardly homogenous. Myriad soil types ranging from primary rock to alluvial, not to mention elevations ranging from a low-lying 100m a.s.l up to 700 m make for huge variations from zone to zone and even parcel to parcel. But this is precisely why the region could benefit from some sort of subzonal mapping.
I put the question to several growers, and although not unanimous, the prevailing mood also seems to favour it. “I am very much in favour of subdivision”, says Luca Belingardi of Poggio Salvi quite matter-of-factly. “To create several subzones could be of great use to both experts and the trade, but also for the consumer”, he continues. Laura Brunelli of Gianni Brunelli is likewise convinced that “we need to speak about the different expressions of different zones”.
From my perspective, subzones would go a long way to help sort out and understand what is otherwise a very complex region with greatly varying wine styles.
Laura Gray of Il Palazzone agrees, but with caution: “At first the concept of subzones seems obvious and of course there are successful paragons in Piedmont and France. As a producer with vineyards in three different areas of Montalcino and proof year-round of the differences and effects of micro and macroclimates, I would love to see Montalcino mapped properly.”
But the question for Gray, and for most others, however, is how to go about it – like creating an appellation in the first place, the question is complex and there are rarely straightforward answers.
In fact, a crude subdivision of Montalcino was already made back in the 1980s, when the region was divided in four quadrants representing each side of the hill of Montalcino – north, south, east and west. It was an effort to communicate the origins of different wines to journalists and Brunello lovers. But the divisions were never made official and are rarely seen on labels.
While it’s generally agreed that the northern side of Montalcino produces more elegant, perfumed sangiovese and the southern side yields more powerful and riper wines, it’s not that simple. As Pierre Jean Monnoyer of Casa Raia points out, “you can be in southern Montalcino but up at 600m, or as low as 200m. So a simple north-south division is not adequate”. My experience is similar. I’ve had wines from the southern end of the appellation like Stella di Campalto or Poggio di Sotto that are as fine and perfumed as any produced in the north.
Gray outlines the current challenges and some of the main points of debate: “Montalcino terroir is so diverse that almost every producer could make realistic claims to be in a separate subzone. The possible micro-terroirs that have been outlined still lump together some quite different areas and don’t fully consider the effects of altitude. And then there are the producers like us [Palazzone], and many others who blend wine from different subzones. So really the situation is more complex than it would seem at first. In the end, I am not sure that subzones on labels would be ultimately helpful for consumers or producers.”
Fabrizio Bindocci, President of the Consortium of Brunello Producers and General Manager of Il Poggione, is of the same opinion, believing that sub division is not necessary for either producers or consumers, and perhaps not realistically possible.
Bindocci uses the example of Il Poggione, in the southern part of the appellation, to make the point: “We have vineyards planted in parcels ranging from 200m to 400m, and we’ve seen that altitude is always the most important factor. In the warm years we take up to 50% of the blend from the higher elevation [cooler] vineyards and the other half from the middle vineyards. But in rainy years like 2013 we included only 20% of the blend from the highest vineyards. All of which is to say that subdivisions within a single azienda are complicated. So imagine trying to do it across 250 producers”.
But the fact that determining how to divide the region is complex is not a reason not to do it. Any successful map of subzones would clearly have to take soil and vineyard orientation, and perhaps most importantly altitude, into account, which is no mean feat. But there is precedence. The Howell Mountain AVA within the Napa Valley, to cite but one example, sets 430m as the minimum elevation to qualify for the designation. The Douro Valley has a far more complex grading system for vineyards that takes elevation, soil, orientation and many other parameters into account.
What’s also abundantly clear is that any eventual sub-appellation system in Montalcino would have to remain outside of any hierarchy of classification; such distinctions would have to be left up to the market. Any attempt to designate premiers or grands crus would scuttle the project before it even starts – the stakes are far too high.
From the marketing side, it’s true that a complex layer of subzones within Montalcino can cause confusion. But such a point of view ignores the reality of the premium wine market. Given the high level of education of most consumers of premium-priced wine like Brunello, such fine distinctions are both sought after and appreciated. And as we’ve seen in regions like Burgundy and Piedmont, they ultimately add value to the wines.
And for the consumers who don’t care as much for the nuanced and potentially confusing layers of subzone, and for those wines blended from different zones, well then, the wine can still be labeled as Brunello di Montalcino.
In any case, I hope to see some variation of subzones in Montalcino in the future, a system that will help consumers to better understand what is obviously one of Italy’s, and the world’s, great wine regions.
Benvenuto Brunello Comes to Toronto: March 10th
Delve into the debate yourself on March 10th when the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino will preview its four star 2009 vintage at Benvenuto Brunello at the Art Gallery of Ontario during two walk-around tastings, one reserved for the trade and the media in the afternoon, and a second evening tasting for consumers.
The event will be attended by 31 wineries showcasing their 2009 vintage along with their Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2008, Rosso di Montalcino 2012, Sant’Antimo and Moscadello di Montalcino.
Participating wineries include: Argiano, Banfi, Barbi, Canalicchio di Sopra, Capanna, Capanne Ricci, Caparzo, Caprili, Castello Romitorio, Cerbaia, Col d’Orcia, Collosorbo, Corte dei Venti, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, Fanti, Gianni Brunelli – Le Chiuse di Sotto, Il Poggione, La Fiorita, La Fornace, La Fortuna, La Magia, La Mannella, Le Chiuse, Loacker – Corte Pavone, Paradisone – Colle degli Angeli, San Polino, Tenuta San Giorgio, Tenute Friggiali e Pietranera, Tenute Silvio Nardi, Val di Suga, Villa Poggio Salvi.
For more information or to register for the event please contact: Lorena Stapff (305) 937-2488; firstname.lastname@example.org
Highly Recommended Wines
The following are my top picks from over one hundred wines tasted in February in Montalcino – click on each for the full review or use the link Benvenuto Brunello Report for a listing. For a complete list of Brunellos currently available in Canada with reviews and scores, simply set your wine search to “Brunello” in the WineAlign search engine.
Other Fine Tuscan Sangiovese
Editors Note: You can find John Szabo’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!