2016 Brunello di Montalcino: Radiance Personified
BY ERIC GUIDO | NOVEMBER 24, 2020
Let’s consider how long we’ve all been looking forward to Montalcino’s next great vintage. I’m thinking back to the release of the 2010s, walking the aisles of Benvenuto Brunello and tasting from table to table. Aromatically, the wines made your eyes roll back in your head, followed by an assault on the palate of intense and complex primary fruit, which was quickly clenched and held firm by aggressive tannins. When the reviews finally hit, it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Suddenly, every retailer in the country was pumping out email after email to feed the unquenchable thirst that consumers had for Montalcino’s next great vintage.
However, after the dust settled, and 2011 arrived, people seemed to be satisfied. The 2011s were ripe and juicy, and consumers were happy to allow them to fill restaurant wine lists instead of their cellars. Next was 2012, just as warm as 2011, yet prettier and more balanced; but it still didn’t move the needle. Two thousand thirteen had some potential and quickened our pulses for a time, yet it wasn’t the next 2010. At this point, we all started to feel the hunger - when would Montalcino have its next great vintage? However, it was just around this time that the 2016 Rosso di Montalcinos began to arrive, giving us a peek into what producers were calling a perfect vintage. The wines were dark and effusive in how they excited the senses, full of energy yet also dense in their fruit profiles, and with structure that was unexpected from the Rosso category. Suddenly, there came a glimmer of hope; and since that time, we have all been waiting for 2016 Brunello di Montalcino.
But now the big question is: Do the 2016s live up to our expectations? Oh, yes; they certainly do.
North to south and east to west, Montalcino shines bright in 2016.
It’s Montalcino’s Time to Shine
If I had to think of one way to universally describe the majority of wines from the 2016 vintage, I would offer that they are like a well-muscled black stallion in its prime. They are dark yet radiant, expressive, nearly explosive at times, yet pure, poised and structured. These are wines that capture your imagination; and no matter how youthfully tense they are today, you simply can’t help but revisit a glass over and over again; because in many cases, the aromatics alone are intoxicating. I frankly cannot remember the last time I tasted young wines from Montalcino that possessed such symmetry from start to finish. The best part is that this success was widely spread throughout the region; and while there was a mix of the bad, the good and the otherworldly, finding a solidly performing bottle of 2016 Brunello di Montalcino won’t be difficult for any consumer.
I also can’t think of a better vintage to discover many of the new cru bottlings that have been released by producers throughout the region because one of the best attributes of the 2016s is their transparency. Unfortunately, this same attribute works against the producer whose style is overbearing or leaning more on winemaking wizardry than farming and purity of fruit. There is no greater shame when tasting through such a range of Brunello than encountering a wine that has the pedigree to deliver greatness, yet instead serves up a healthy dose of toasty oak.
What’s more, even in a “perfect vintage”, there will always be overperformers and underperformers. For one thing, over time I’ve come to find that some producers have a tendency to get lazy when it seems like a vintage will do all of the work for them. This reminds me of 2015, a year I referred to as a farmer’s vintage, where the most successful wines weren’t necessarily from one location or another, but more about making sacrifices and spending time working in the vineyards. The same can be said for 2016.
Not every Riserva is created equal, yet there's a great deal of pleasure to be found; you simply need to know where to look.
Is There Really Any Such Thing as a Perfect Vintage?
Many producers throughout Montalcino would say that there is, and the example that they would give you would be the 2016 vintage. To quote Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra in the northern eastern part of Montalcino, “...if we could control the climate of a vintage artificially, I believe that I would program it to be just like the year 2016.” I heard many quotes like this one during the course of my conversations with producers. So much so that further prying was necessary to gleam any information regarding the challenges of the year, which did exist. An excellent example came up during my discussion with Luca Marrone, enologist of both Poggio di Sotto and Tenuta San Giorgio in Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Marrone told a bit of a different story, explaining that 2016 was “a challenging vintage up to mid-August because of the frequent rains.” This wet weather, coupled with the warm days of the summer, prompted him and his team to drop less fruit during green harvests, which allowed the grapes to more evenly distribute the extra water built up in the soils. Also a big help to them was the naturally dry and windy microclimate of their vineyards, which aided in avoiding any issues with mold. My favorite quote from Marrone was when he explained that they were “both bold and lucky.” A very honest assessment from one of the most highly regarded winemakers in the region.
That said, it’s very important to remember that Montalcino is extremely diverse from North to South and East to West. While one estate might pride themselves on higher elevations, such as Poggio Antico's vineyards at an average of 480 meters, others, such as Podere Le Ripi, succeed with their parcels of terroir around 180 meters. Some depend on thick forests and elevations to maintain balance, while others can view the Tyrrhenian Sea off in the distance while benefiting from the cooling currants from Mount Amiata. However, one thing that nearly every winemaker seems to agree upon is that global warming has Montalcino producers looking to higher elevations; and the Consorzio has taken notice, updating the disciplinare to remove its maximum elevation restriction of 600 meters.
Also of note is the welcome rush of winemakers looking to better define the parcels within their vineyards. Across the entire region, we are now seeing Cru, or Vigna, designations on bottlings. This is something that you can expect to see a lot more of in the coming years as well. Many producers have begun to register names for single-vineyard wines. In an attempt to keep the quality of these wines in check, the Consorzio has lowered the maximum yield for these designations to seven tonnes per hectare, down from just short of nine tonnes for a straight Brunello. For me, the jury is still out; because even though I tasted quite a few Cru-designated wines that are fantastic, and that don’t negatively impact the quality of estates’ straight Brunellos, that is not the case everywhere. In my book any further exploration of terroir is welcome thing. I look forward to a day when an intelligible map of Montalcino is created, one that details each of its vineyards, exposures and elevations.
The 2016 Vintage in a Nutshell
Like dominos falling into place, the 2016 vintage started out with a large amount of precipitation from January through February, around 220 millimeters, which helped to build water reserves. March was cooler than normal, with budbreak starting around the middle of the month, leading into a temperate yet dry April. However, water reserves from the winter months maintained homogenous growth throughout. The end of April into May was rainy, with around 145 millimeters of further precipitation, followed by June, which continued to be wet yet more in line with an average year. Luckily, temperatures were cooler than usual, which slowed the growth of the vines. Combined with good ventilation (for both northern and southern producers), this mix kept the production of rot at bay. Ultimately, these conditions were the key to balancing the warm and dry summer months. Warm but never hot, 2016 is often described as having very even temperatures and no dramatic swings, other than the strong diurnal shifts between day and night, which helped in the healthy maturation of fruit. The autumn months and into harvest continued this theme, with temperate and dry conditions, save for a large rainstorm in the middle of September. Producers in warmer locales picked just prior to these rains, while others were able to comfortably wait for dry conditions to return. Reported harvest dates throughout the region spanned from early September to mid-October.
A Flashback to 2015
With all of the excitement over 2016, we certainly don’t want to forget about the 2015 Riservas. I ended my past article, 2015 Brunello di Montalcino: The Vintage We Have Been Waiting For?, with the words, “...there is an unprecedented amount of pleasure to be taken from this vintage - you simply need to know where to look.” - and I feel very much the same about the Riserva-level wines.
Two thousand fifteen was not a widely successful vintage across a broad range of producers or locations. Let’s keep in mind that the charm of the 2015s is in their primary power and exuberance. Many of the Brunellos released earlier this year are currently drinking beautifully; but with that said, I doubt those same wines will be showing anywhere near as well a decade from now. This leaves us with varying concepts of what Riserva is and what it should be. Some Riservas are made from parcels within a vineyard, others are made from their own distinct cru, while still others are barrel selections; but all are released later by definition of the DOCG. However, that time doesn’t necessarily need to be in wood. In fact, a Riserva can be bottled at the same time as a producer's Brunello; yet it needs to be held for another year at the winery prior to release. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation; and as a result, it’s nearly impossible to generalize. In some cases, the vibrant fruit of 2015 was dulled by extended wood aging; and in other cases, the extra time added more depth and structure. Individual vineyard selections were very interesting to taste, as were the wines from many of the top-performing producers, yet I think it’s worth mentioning that only one Riserva scored as well as the top straight Brunellos of the 2015 vintage. When you add the higher price tag to the equation…need I go on? All of that said, for fans of the estates and their styles, the Riservas of Sassetti Livio Pertimali, Baricci, Capanna, Il Poggione, Gianni Brunelli, Castello Romitorio and Canalicchio di Sopra are all worth checking out.
Having the ability to revisit young Brunello over the course of hours, or days, lends a unique insight into their structural balance and aging potential.
That’s All, for Now…
To wrap things up, I’ll leave you with this. I am a strong believer and lover of the wines of Montalcino. I’ve watched the region ebb and flow over the past fifteen years. At times, I shook my head in disappointment; and at others, I’ve stared deeply into a glass of wine in amazement. In some vintages, I’ve bought deeply; and others I’ve almost entirely skipped. All of that said, I’ve never seen this region as alive as it is today, fueled by a younger generation and the open-mindedness of an older generation which is slowly turning over responsibilities to them. Dare I say, a modern-day renaissance? What’s more, there is still remarkable value to be found in Brunello; and with a vintage like 2016 in front of us, consumers are in for a real treat.
I tasted all the wines for this article in New York City in October and November, often with producers in Zoom sessions, in what has become the norm for 2020.
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