The 2017 Brunellos: Like Wagner’s Music-Not as Bad as It Sounds

In the two years of this pandemic, I’ve been reluctant to attend public tastings.  I’ve been to exactly two.  A group of maskless people—spitting—seems like a very high-risk activity.  The two tastings, assessing the 2016 and 2017 vintages of Brunello di Montalcino, indicate of the importance I attach to the wines of that tiny Tuscan town.  The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the trade group that represents wineries and growers of the DOCG, sponsored both tastings, held in New York City.  And, I must add, both were conducted under excellent sanitary conditions (proof of vaccination required, masked sommeliers pouring—thanks to Il Gattopardo’s Gianfranco Sorrentino—individual spit cups provided, and for me, mask off only when tasting).

I’ve written about the 2016 vintage of Brunello previously.  In summary, it’s fabulous, certainly the best since 2010 and one of what will likely be one of the legendary vintages from that DOCG.  The wines are balanced, elegant, and stunningly layered, with a combination of dark cherry-like fruit and minerality.  They show the stature of Brunello.  They will need additional bottle age—a decade or two—to show their full potential.  My advice, buy whatever 2016 Brunellos you can still find, and place them in your cellar.

The 2017 vintage is a different story in Tuscany.  It was, as winemakers like to say, “a difficult” vintage.  One prominent and well-regarded Chianti Classico producer told me as we were walking to dinner in Florence, “don’t bother with the 2017s.”  Those wide-sweeping generalizations don’t reflect reality, especially in Tuscany, where there’s an enormous diversity of weather and terroir.  What might be a “difficult” vintage in Chianti, may not be the case in Montalcino even though those DOCGs overlap geographically.  And even within Chianti Classico, some wines, such as Castellare di Castillina’s 2017 I Sodi di San Niccolò, to name just one, were spectacular.  The lesson here is that vintage proclamations are useful, but you really need to taste for yourself or rely on the judgement of people you trust.

Part of the region’s diverse weather can be explained by Mount Amiata (literally, the “friendly mountain”), an extinct volcanic that, at 1,900 feet above sea level, is the weather maker for all of Tuscany.  In Castellina in Chianti, the saying is that if the mountain is wearing its hat (a cloud cover) take an umbrella because it will rain.  By contrast, barely 30 miles away in Montalcino, the opposite is true—cloud cover on Mount Amiata means leave your umbrella at home.  The mountain also blocks warm winds from the south, mitigating what could otherwise scorching heat in Montalcino.

The 2017 vintage in Brunello was, indeed, “difficult.”  But no matter what nature throws at winemakers, the best of them will still produce exciting wines worthy of our attention, perhaps just less of them, as producers need to discard diseased grapes to maintain quality.  Without going into every detail, suffice it to say, it was a hot and dry year.  Lars Leicht, the Vice-President for Education for the Somm Journal and someone who has forgotten more about Brunello than most people know (since he lived and worked in Montalcino for years), told me that there was virtually no rain from May through August and there were scores of 95º+ days.  The heat and drought forced the vines to shut down, which at least had the benefit of preserving acidity, which gave the wines a surprising freshness.  Grapes faced the prospect of shriveling under the sunshine and lack of rain, which potentially could lead to heavy alcoholic wines.  Finally rain in September and a “perfect” October, according to Leicht, helped save the vintage.

Growers have weapons, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, against adverse weather conditions.  For example, they can retain leaves on the vines to shade the grapes.  Among other things, they can adjust fermentation to limit extraction.  Deciding when to harvest during a growing season like 2017 is a grower’s biggest dilemma and most critical decision.  Picking early preserves acidity, which translates into freshness and liveliness in the wine, and keeps sugar, and the wine’s resulting alcohol, lower.  But early harvest risks tannins that have not had time to ripen and soften, leading to wines with coarseness and astringency.  Harvesting late allows tannins to ripen and impart suaveness to the wines, but risks high sugar levels, which translate into alcoholic wines, and low acidity that makes wines heavy and flabby.  Indeed, many wines I tasted exhibited heat that I associate with high alcohols.  Growers were truly caught between a rock and a hard place.  Nonetheless, many Brunello producers clearly made the right decisions and wound up with fantastic wines.  Others were not so lucky.

So, unlike with the 2016s, which you can practically choose with your eyes closed, the 2017s need careful assessments.  The richness and fullness of the 2017s makes many of them candidates for early drinking, allowing enjoyment of the charms of fully ripe and succulent Sangiovese grown on this special terroir.

Unsurprisingly, many of my top 2017 Brunellos came from my favorite producers.

Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s combined lush darker cherry-like flavors with classic Montalcino minerality.  Their 2017 has good power without losing elegance couple with prominent, but very suave tannins.  Contrary to my advice of early drinkability, I’d cellar this one for at least five years.  (93 pts, $73).

Il Poggione opted not to produce their top wine, Paganelli Vineyard Brunello Riserva, in 2017.  Grapes from that vineyard wound up in their regular bottling, which may explain the splendid stature of their brooding, yet fresh, 2017.  Dark minerals and black cherry-like nuances are seamlessly interwoven.  A long and graceful finish keeps the smile on your face.  (93, $84).

From another perennial favorite, Talenti’s explosive 2017 displays graceful fresh cherry-like notes couple effortlessly with marvelous Montalcino minerality.  And all supported by lithe tannins.  (93; $64).

Val di Suga also opted to forego its single vineyard bottlings in 2017, which also explains the beauty of their stylish 2017 straight Brunello.  Perfumed and captivating, its mid-weight character belies its persistence and presence.  This is an elegantly styled Brunello that you’d never guess was the product of a hot and dry year.  (93, $63).

Unlike Il Poggione and Val di Suga, Altesino chose to bottle their iconic single vineyard Montosoli offering in 2017.  The cooler location of the roughly 13-acre Montosoli vineyard at about 1,400 feet above sea level undoubtedly helps explain the poise and refinement of the 2017 Montosoli.  It’s powerful, but not in a heavy or concentrated way.  Rather its presence makes you take notice.  An appealing mineral-like bitterness in the finish reminds you that the team at Altesino managed to avoid the over-ripeness that plagued the vintage.  (93, $125)

Fattoria dei Barbi’s mineral-laden 2017 Brunello was refreshingly refined, bolstered by supporting firmness.  Its excellent concentration, without a trace of jammy fruit, showed that the winemaking here clearly captured the elegance of Brunello.  (91, $70).

Banfi’s new single vineyard offering, Vigna Marruchetto, is an intense—but not overdone—wine whose harmonious balance of minerals and dark cherries is supported by polished tannins.  The barest hint of oak is beautifully integrated.  (91, $84).

The aromatic La Gerla brings together an impeccable balance of red cherry-like fruit and mid-weight minerals.  Lovely and long, it shows that some producers still found grace and elegance in their 2017s.  (90, $62).

The charming Caparzo may turn out to be the bargain of the vintage.  Its captivating floral elements lead you into a mid-weight combination of delicate minerality and refined red cherry-like fruitiness.  It grows in the glass and delivers amazing enjoyment now because its fine tannins provide structure without being intrusive.  (90, $50).

So, Brunello-lovers don’t despair.  There are many 2017 Brunello to enjoy while you wait for your 2016s to come around.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Brunello in general or the 2016 and 2017 vintages in specific at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

March 2, 2022