The latest releases from Montalcino's cellars have had their first outing and they're a mixed bag. The 2008 Brunellos and 2007 riservas shown at the annual Benvenuto Brunello tasting ranged from outstanding to unpleasant, and the two vintages could pose serious challenges for Brunello fans.
The 2008 Brunellos fluctuate from lean and acidic, to over-ripe with very evident alcohol; sandwiched in between the two extremes are a number of lovely wines possessing Brunello’s quintessential density, intensity and finesse. The vintage’s marked inconsistencies result not only from the variable growing conditions among Montalcino’s unofficial sub-zones, but also from bouts of chilly weather and occasional precipitation during the maturation period. When exactly individual producers decided to harvest was critical in 2008, as was selection in both the vineyards and cellars.
Andrea Machetti, oenologist and managing director of top Montalcino estate Mastrojanni, explains that “2008 was very cool and somewhat wet during parts of the growing season, with rain and cool temperatures reoccurring throughout September. October was warm and dry, so we left grapes on the vine for much of the month and started harvesting on October 20th. The extra time on the vine allowed our grapes to reach optimum ripeness."
However, judging by the number of 2008 Brunellos with excessively ripe fruit sensations and hot palates, extending the hang time into mid- to late-October also pushed alcohol levels way up and acidity down, creating unbalanced wines.
At the opposite end of the 2008 spectrum are a number of Brunellos that show unripe fruit and are dominated by obvious acidity. This is likely because the crop was harvested too early, or because in parts of Montalcino’s large denomination grapes didn’t reach ideal phenolic ripeness – due to cool weather and intermittent rain leading up to the harvest. To compound the already capricious vintage, a massive hailstorm with fierce winds hit Montalcino’s southern-most slopes on August 15th.
Sant’Angelo, which has the driest, warmest weather in the growing zone, took the brunt of the storm, although the tempest also struck areas between Sant’Angelo and Castelnuovo dell’Abate. At the Col d’Orcia estate in Sant’Angelo, where vineyards took a direct hit, workers systematically removed damaged grapes and bunches, and this prompt intervention – combined with dry temperatures just after the storm – saved the crop from rot. As a result, Col d’Orcia made an excellent, well-balanced Brunello from ’08.
Fortunately, other producers have also made Brunellos of finesse and structure, and the best from the vintage are more elegant than powerful. The question of when to harvest was fundamental, but “selection was also crucial in 2008,” according to Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra, whose 2008 is superb.
“Besides our usual green harvest, we went through the vineyards again before the harvest to thin out the bunches and then carefully selected the grapes when we picked between September 25th and October 3rd," explains Ripaccioli. "We continued selection in the cellars, declassifying more Brunello to Rosso than we normally do. And because we didn’t make a Riserva in 2008, only the very best grapes went into Brunello.”
Other great 2008s include Biondi Santi, Costanti, Gianni Brunelli, Il Colle, Salvioni, Uccelliera, Il Marroneto, Caprili, Le Potazzine, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, La Fiorita, L’Aietta, La Gerla, Il Paradiso di Manfredi and Il Palazzone.
In contrast, 2007 was a scorching dry year and the extreme heat is reflected in many of the riservas presented. Commenting on the rising temperatures and alcohol levels in Montalcino, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, of the eponymously named estate, remarked: “Just 20 years ago, producers here had difficulty reaching 12 percent alcohol, but now we can almost never keep the alcohol under 14 percent."
A number of the 2007s have searing alcohol sensations and, unsurprisingly, some declare 15 percent alcohol on their labels. Many lack basic freshness and therefore don’t have the structure to support either the alcohol levels or the bracing tannins – resulting in many unbalanced wines.
Although there are some outstanding riservas of power and grace – most of which hail from the higher altitudes where temperatures cooled down at night or from vineyards with fresher, northern exposures – as a whole, 2007 is not an ideal vintage for Brunello riserva. Few possess the age-worthy structures or complexity that merit their higher price tags when compared to the straight Brunellos.
Estates that made impressive '07 Riservas include Canalicchio di Sopra, Le Chiuse, Biondi Santi, La Velona, Padelletti and Poggio Antico.
As with all the great winemaking areas in the world, the reputation of the producer is the real guarantee of quality in Montalcino – even more so in difficult vintages like 2008 and the excessively hot 2007.