2016 Brunello di Montalcino: Don’t Miss Them

The great success of the 2016 vintage throughout Tuscany suggested that the just-released 2016 Brunello would be memorable.  Is it ever! To my mind, it is, by far, the best vintage since 2010.  I certainly prefer the 2016s in general to the more powerful and overdone Brunello from the much-hyped 2015 vintage.  Many experienced critics, such as Kerin O’Keefe (whose book on Brunello remains the benchmark for the region) believe that the vintage ranks with the legendary 2004 and 2001 vintages.  The best 2016 Brunelli are sleek, racy, and, at times, explosive, yet not heavy or overdone.  They are balanced with super fine-grained tannins, which suggests that they should evolve beautifully with proper cellaring, though many are surprisingly easy to enjoy now.

In the past, in normal times, my assessment of the vintage would be based on the annual tasting in Montalcino in February and my discussions there with producers.  This year, Covid-19 prevented that annual trip, so my assessment of the 2016 vintage was limited to what turned out to be a beautifully organized tasting hosted by Gianfranco Sorrentino of Gattopardo, an excellent Italian restaurant in New York City.  Though fully vaccinated, I was still filled with trepidation since it was my first in-public tasting in over a year.  I armed myself with a Solo® cup personal spittoon and extra face masks just in case I forgot to remove it while tasting or spitting.  (I didn’t.)  Sorrentino had thought of everything.  Sixty 2016 Brunelli were available to taste in a socially-distanced setting.  Waitstaff poured the wines, which were on a single table.  Tasters pointed to the wine to taste, received a sample, and retreated to one of the small tables scattered around the large, seemingly well-ventilated room, allowing tasters to sit and taste without crowding.  Only 40 people, all masked, attended and remained masked unless tasting.  No producers were present.  My only insights from a producer came from a tasting with Count Marone Cinzano of Col d’Orcia via Zoom® conducted some weeks earlier.

With a broad smile, Cinzano described 2016 as a “classic year,” in the best sense of that term.  The growing season was perfect—not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet.  Importantly, he felt that the region was lucky to avoid the severe heat wave in 2016 that plagued them in 2015, adding that “a balanced year leads to a balanced wine.”

Much is rightly made of the diversity of the soil and climate within this small DOCG region, which consists of just over 5,000 acre acres.  Gabriele Gorelli, the newly minted MW (Master of Wine), explained the region’s diversity at a seminar last year.  He described the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG as a four-sided pyramid with the town at the pinnacle.  The vineyards are planted from just above sea-level to about 1,600 feet.  Although the overall climate is Mediterranean—warm summers and cool winters—he emphasized that it is not homogenous.  Each of the four main slopes has its own climate and pattern of precipitation.  Furthermore, the position of a vineyard on the slope plays an important role in the ripeness of the grapes and the character of the wine: the higher the vineyard is on the slope, the cooler the growing condition.  To complicate matters further, vast differences in soils, even over a small area, amplify the heterogeneity of the region.  Typically, the higher elevations represent the oldest soils with the greatest amount of limestone, by contrast to the more sedimentary or sandy soil near the base.  The hypothesis that wine style is affected by site location within the region is supported by my many tastings over the years of two of Silvio Nardi’s consistently alluring single vineyard Brunelli, Vigneto Manachiara—made from grapes grown in the clay-laden northeast sector—and Poggio Doria, from the gravely-northwest sector. These two wines show the wonderful diversity of wines from this DOCG.

Based on this tasting of 2016s, I could not identify a subzone that consistently excelled compared to other subzones in the DOCG.  Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to tell the locale of an individual producer’s grapes, since some producers own vineyards throughout the zone, not just adjacent to their winery, and make a Brunello that they consider representative of the DOCG.  Hence, knowing the location of the winery does not tell the whole story.  I found my favorites came from all over the entire region.  Indeed, two of my favorites, the 2016 Brunello from Col d’Orcia in the extreme southwestern section and from Castiglion del Bosco in the extreme northwest section, come from opposite ends of the DOCG.  Another favorite, the 2016 Brunello from Silvio Nardi, was made from a blend of grapes grown throughout the entire area.  I don’t find that surprising since I believe producers’ styles play as large a role in how the wines taste as does the origin of the grapes.

My advice is to buy as much of the 2016 Brunello as you can afford.  This is a great vintage that should develop beautifully over the next several decades.  Buy from producers you know and have liked in the past.  As with all wine regions, the vintage is important, but it’s still producer, producer, producer that is critical.  Due to Covid-19, my tastings this year and hence, my assessment of the vintage, was limited compared to previous years.  I did not have the opportunity to taste wines from producers that I consistently like, such as Canalicchio di Sopra, Gianni Brunelli, Il Marroneto, Mastrojanni, or Le Ragnaie.  That said, if I found them at reasonable prices, I would buy them without hesitation, even without tasting them.

The explosive yet graceful Le Chiuse (99 pts, $99) sits at the top of my list of 2016 Brunello.  The balanced Col d’Orcia (98, $44), perhaps their finest ever, is likely the bargain of the vintage.  Others I recommend highly are listed below.  The ones in bold represent great value.  Prices are from wine-searcher.com

CastelGiocando (97, $59)

Castiglion del Bosco (96, $63)
Corte Pavone (96, n/a)
Fanti, “Vallocchio” (96, $70)
Fulgini (96, $99)
La Poderina (96, $57)
Il Poggione (96, $79)
Talenti (96, $57)

Argiano (95, $57)
Campogiovanni (95, $55)

Capanna (95, $61)
Carparzo (95, $44)
Col di Lanio (95, n/a)
Donnatella Cinelli Colombini (95, $70)
La Fiorita (95, $85)
Silvio Nardi (95, $53)
Il Palazzone (95, $79)
Val di Suga “Vigna Spuntali” (95, $57)

Castello Banfi, “Poggio alle Mure” (94, $62)

Pian delle Vigne (93, $58)

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