Brunello di Montalcino has been the darling of high-end wines imported to the United States from Italy for years. Yet, as the veil was pulled back on the amazing quality of Barolo and Barbaresco (outside of the classic names already known: Giacosa, Conterno & Mascarello) many people have kept quiet on Montalcino. I recently spent the past week visiting estates, tasting loads of wines to get a deeper picture of where the region stands today and what all the hype is about on the 2015 vintage. I was also able to barrel taste 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages from numerous estates to get a solid snapshot of what we will be seeing in the future from this unique region.
Unlike many other regions of Italy, Montalcino is relatively “new” having been “born” in 1868 when Clemente Santi (of Biondi-Santi fame) released the first “Brunello” to acclaim in the Paris wine show. Though winning gold medals warmed his heart and his family continued the tradition, it was not until the 1960’s that more families took up the mantel to produce a 100% Sangiovese wine aged for a minimum of 5 years before being released (and 6 years for Riserva). It was then not until the 1990’s that the likes of Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate began to really look at Montalcino as the serious wine region that it is. Estates such a Biondi-Santi, Case Basse (Gianfranco Soldera), Costani and others pushed the appellation to new heights and made wines of distinction and age-ability. Then the explosion took off and like other wine regions across the world massive investment and expansion happened, some good and some bad. This eventually led to the 2003 “Brunello-gate” scandal that found that many of the “top-rated” estates were blending in international varietals into their wines and not following the rules of production for producing 100% Sangiovese based wines. So, where does that leave us today? There are amazing wines in the region, yet there are many that have rested on their laurels and are making wines that are sound but without a soul. But before we jump into the estates that I am bullish on and those, I believe you should begin to follow, let’s talk vintage.
2015 (release date January 2020): This is a vintage that many critics are going gaga over. I get it, the wines are juicy, rich, full in bodied, lush…but they lack acidity. The wines are solid, and I recommend buying them BUT they are loud, brash and super forward. I think they are good for moderate-term cellaring and good to drink now, especially if you are fond of grilled meat. One critic gave 11 100-point scores…I’m skeptical of that. They are good…not great.
2016 (from barrel): YES! This is the real deal. This is the vintage that wine lovers and collectors need to jump on. The wines are fresh, vibrant, well balanced, great structure and just simply put, beautiful. Every estate I visited I was captivated by the 2016’s. If you find some Rosso di Montalcino from 2016 on the market BUY. They are amazing and will hold you over until the 2016’s Brunello is released. This is a near-perfect vintage.
2017 (from barrel): PLUSH, juicy yet with pretty fresh acidity. This was a super dry vintage. It basically did not rain in 2017 causing the wines to have very high berry to juice ration. So the wines are dark, extracted and pretty tannic. Of course, we will check them out again next year to see how they have evolved.
2018 (from barrel): These are of course babies, but I was quite smitten with these wines. It was a cooler vintage, so the acidities are higher than 2017 and the fruit tends towards high toned red fruit notes. The tannins are fine and structured. Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra feels this is a superior vintage and really allows one to see the unique differences across the territory. He is so keen on this vintage it will be the first release of his single-vineyard “Montosoli”.
My Top Picks for 2015
Le Ragnaie: The first time I had the wines from Le Ragnaie it was a jolt to the system. Their first vintage was in 2002 (a horrible year) and I was like, what the hell are these (in a good way). This is a small estate with a total of 15 hectares with the highest vineyard in Montalcino (621 m). The wines are made traditionally with fermentation in concrete and steel with native yeasts and then aged in large 25 to 30 hectoliter Slavonian oak barrels. Le Ragnaie makes four Brunello: 1 classic and 3 single vineyards. The classic is a perfect example of Brunello – taught, vibrant, fine and firm tannins with expressive Sangiovese fruit notes from nose to finish. The single vineyards are “Fornace”, “Vechia Vigne” (Old Vines) & “Montosoli”. Each is very expressive and shows its sense of place like any great Burgundy would. “Fronace” is from the most southern vineyards of the estate and like its name it is a furnce. The wine is rich, full in bodied and firm. The “V.V.” is elegant and fine (this is MY favorite). “Montosoli” is their newest vineyard and comes from the north side of Montalcino – it is light, expressive and full of life, truly pretty. Le Ragnaie should be in everyone’s cellar.
Salicutti: I first visited Salicutti in 2014 and this micro-estate has been in a MUST have on all my wine lists and in my personal cellar. 4 total hectares comprise this estate that was the first organically certified vineyard in Montalcino in 1996. If you are looking for expressive, vibrant and a wine that is so full of life it can recharge your soul…this is it. The wines leap out of the glass from the get-go with explosive aromas that tantalize. The palate is elegant and even in their youth the wines are like few other wines from the region. In 2016 the Eichbauer family of Munich took over the estate but they are 100% committed to the estate’s philosophy and style of wine and nothing has changed, except a new cellar. The estate ONLY produces Riservas in the best years: 2004, 2008, 2011 and 2015. The 2015 Riserva is the BEST wine of the region I have tried. Their Rosso di Montalcino is always a must. Find these wines at all costs.
Canalicchio di Sopra: If you love the purity of expression, vibrancy and sheer drinkability…then Canalicchio di Sopra is for you. The estate is primarily located on the northern edge of the appellation and produces wines with a fresh and elegant style that turns to pure beauty as the wines age. The 2015’s show the warmth of the vintage but true to its terroir has the elegance that great Sangiovese is known for. In 2015 the estate will release its first single-vineyard wine, the “Casaccia”. The vineyard is next to the cantina in the Canalicchio area of Montalcino and is darker and more brooding than their classic Brunello but the palate is lifted and so well structured this will continue to evolve for the better for over a decade, though I enjoyed the wine right at the table as well. As with my other favorites, the Rosso di Montalicno is a must for everyday drinking: fresh, clean, mouth-watering and better than 75% of the Brunello in the region.
Le Chiuse: If you know your Montalcino history you will know Le Chiuse is the other half of the Biondi-Santi family. Though much less famous than Biondi-Santi the wines are, in my opinion, better, much better. The man that made Bionid-Santi what it is, Tancredi Biondi-Santi once used this vineyard for the Riserva bottling of Biondi-Santi, and if you have ever had the Riservas from the 1960s and 1970’s you will rush to get these wines. Today Lorenzo Magnelli, the great-great-great-grandson of Tancredi is at the helm and making not just great Brunello but making world-class wine at the highest of caliber. This estate IS tradition and is small, 8 total hectares making roughly 30,000 bottles per year and each of them a gem. 2015 shows the vintage: dark, rich fruit notes and concentrated with firm tannins and power. This was my second favorite of the 2015 releases (after Salicutti). The most exciting wine was the 2010 Riserva. The estate has decided that it will hold back its Riservas 10 years before release, to ensure the wine is ready to drink but also has the providence to stay in your cellar for years to come. The 2010 Riserva is showing the secondary flavors that Sangiovese is so well known for dried flowers, dried cherries, dusty earth, and elegant and fine tannins. There is muscle but not just power.
Stella di Camplato: This is one of the most unique estates in the region. Biodynamic and all fermentations are in up-right wooden vats. The wines are wild, plush, elegant, soft and veer almost more to Pinot Noir than what is expected of Sangiovese. BUT, the purity and shine of these wines are like no other. The 2015’s are lush, fruit-forward, juicy and easy. They may be some of the most drinkable wines I have tried from Montalcino yet with a vitality that shows the finesse that Stella gets out of her vineyard.
Other estates to Buy (not listed in any particular order – the ones with * are good values)
- Pian dell Orino
- Poggio di Sotto
- Paradiso di Manfredi
- Col d’Orcia – especially the “Poggio al Vento” single vineyard
- La Torre*
- Estates to Follow
- Castello di Romitorio
- Il Poggione
- Cerbaia – under new owners
- Villa I Cipresi
- Le Manella
- Donatella Cinelli Colombini