Do Not Miss the 2019 Brunellos!

Let me get straight to the point.  The 2019 vintage for Brunello di Montalcino is fabulous!  I make this assessment after tasting 35-plus examples of the recently bottled and released wines in New York City in November.  There wasn’t a loser in the bunch.  Sure, I preferred some over others, but overall, the consistency and quality were outstanding.  The high stated alcohols, some even up to 16 percent, might make you think the wines would be heavy and hot.  Surprisingly, they are not.  By and large, the alcohol does not show in these wines.  The 2019 Brunellos are a balanced delight of dark fruit and minerals with needed, but unobtrusive, structure.  I would rank the vintage on a par with 2010 and 2016, two other spectacular vintages.  So, if you missed Brunellos from those years, now is your chance to make up for it.

Indeed, if I were younger and buying young red wines to cellar, the 2019 Brunello would be high on my list.  Mind you, the 2019 Brunellos, like other great wines, will need cellaring to allow their beauty and complexity to shine.  I just had a bottle of the 2010 Il Poggione Brunello with a lamb ragu pasta.  At 13 years of age, it’s barely entering its drinking window.  The rather riper character of the 2019s suggests they may be enjoyable sooner, but I’d still plan on giving them a decade before pulling their corks.

The weather during the growing season and harvest makes or breaks a vintage.  And the weather in the Montalcino in 2019 was perfect, according to Mark Guillaudeu, MS, who led a seminar in New York in November on behalf of the Consorzio di Montalcino, the organization that represents the growers and producers of that DOCG.  Producers to whom I have spoken uniformly echo Guillaudeu’s description that it was “an easy vintage for winemakers.”  Lots of rain in May provided ample water for the vines throughout the growing season.  Normally disease accompanies wet weather, though luckily, May of 2019 was cool, so mildew and other humidity-enhanced problems did not take hold.

A dry summer without heat spikes allowed for slow and even ripening.  The harvest took place under mostly sunny skies with only occasional light rain, so waterlogging the grapes just before harvest was not a problem.  Guillaudeu felt that the evenness of the heat was responsible for the smooth tannins.  Whatever the explanation, the 2019 Brunello wines, as a group, displayed a glossy, suave texture, making them easy to taste even at this young age.

Without question, Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy’s greatest wines.  Regulators, realizing its stature, bestowed the first DOCG designation on Brunello di Montalcino in 1980.  It, and Rosso di Montalcino, its made-to-be-drunk-earlier baby brother, are the only DOCGs that require the exclusive use of Sangiovese.  Regulations also require five years of aging, two of which must be in barrel, before release, which explains why the 2019s will be hitting the market early in 2024.

Despite its small area—only about 5,000 acres under vine—roughly one-tenth the size of Napa Valley’s plantings, the heterogeneity of the region is enormous, which makes describing a style of Brunello difficult.  A hill rising some 1,500 feet above sea level dominates the DOCG area, so the elevation of the vineyards is one element that creates diversity.  Add to that, the different exposures created by all sides of the hill.  And third, the geologic mix of the soils is extraordinary.  The reason for the diversity of soils is beyond the scope of this article, but in her timeless book Kerin O’Keefe, a leading expert on Brunello, explains it succinctly, “the celebrated hill was formed in different geologic eras” (Kerin O’Keefe, Brunello di Montalcino, University of California Press, 2012).  So, like other of the world’s truly great wine areas, Brunello is not one wine, but many wines—a key to why it’s such an exciting DOCG.

Some experts broadly refer to the character of the wines from the four slopes of the hill while others, such as O’Keefe, describe seven subzones.  She argues that defining subzones is “crucial to the future of Brunello,” but admits that realistically it’s likely not going to happen any time soon—simply because many producers feel it would only create more confusion and a marketing nightmare.  While I find the generalizations regarding the slope and subzones helpful, the gorilla in the room remains the style imparted by the individual producer.  So, while everyone pretty much agrees that the southern part of Montalcino, with its more Mediterranean climate, is home to riper grapes and richer wines, vast differences between producers can trump that generalization.  For example, Col d’Orcia and Castello Banfi are located less than three miles from one another in the southern Sant’Angelo Scalo zone, but Col d’Orcia’s elegant profile is far different from the richer and more powerful Brunello wines coming from Banfi.

The baby gorilla in the room is knowing the origin of the grapes.  A producer may well own vineyards in zones apart from the location of its home and winery and blend the grapes.  Tenute Silvio Nardi, one of my favorite producers, is located in the cool, frost-prone northwest slope of the DOCG, but one of their most important vineyards, Vigneto Manachiara, lies far away in the south while another one, Vigneto Poggio Doria, does, in fact, lie in the northwest.  In addition to making stunning single vineyard Brunellos from each of these vineyards, their regular or main production Brunello bottling is a blend from at least those two zones.  So, knowing Nardi’s location does not really tell you anything about the style of their basic Brunello.  Tasting Nardi’s two single vineyard Brunello side-by-side does, however, show the dramatic and important differences between the zones.

Similarly, Val di Suga’s three single vineyard Brunello, made from its 125-plus acres of vineyards spread over three distinct zones, provides an equally convincing argument for identifying zones.  Val di Suga’s vineyards are divided roughly in thirds: In the north where their winery and prized Vigna del Lago lies, in the southwest side, the location of its equally prized Vigna Spuntali, and in the southeast part, where their third esteemed vineyard, Poggio al Granchio is located.  The contrast between the richer Spuntali, the tightly wound Vigna del Lago, and the minerally Poggio al Granchio is illuminating and proves, once again, the importance of zones when speaking of Brunello.

In this instance, the consumer would be correct in identifying Val di Suga’s fragrant, elegant, and firm style and assume it’s a function of the estate’s location north of Montalcino.  But that assumption would be incorrect because Val di Suga’s basic Brunello (which is not really “basic” at all) comes from a blend of grapes from diverse locales.  So, in this instance, the location of the estate predicts the style of the wine, but for the wrong reasons.  It’s Val di Suga’s talent in winemaking and blending—not the location of the vineyards—that accounts for its style.

So, my advice (unsurprisingly to those who know me) is producer, producer, producer.  With the 2019 Brunello, select your favorite producers and buy as much as your budget allows.  Here are a dozen or so, in no particular order, that caught my eye.  Where prices are not available for the 2019 vintage, I have listed the most recent price from Wine-Searcher just to give readers an approximation.

The fragrant Cortonesi “La Mannella” (which, by the way, is the name of the estate, not a single vineyard) is what you’d predict from a northern locale, elegant and perfumed with supporting by not intrusive tannins.  (95 pts., $50 for the 2018.)

The similarly perfumed Piaggone, a single vineyard bottling from, Salicutti, delivers great savory elements that accent its dark fruit quality.  (95 pts., $110 for the 2018.)

Argiano, whose vineyards hail from warmer, southern Montalcino, shows the riper, plusher side of the DOCG without going over the top.  Amazing elegance for its size.  (95 pts., $78.)

Col d’Orcia, though located barely 3 miles from Argiano, delivers a vastly differently styled Brunello and, once again, reinforces my mantra of producer, producer, producer.  Their elegant and stylish 2019 displays a presence without shouting.  (95 pts., $60.)  Speaking of Col d’Orcia, their spectacular 2016 single vineyard Brunello Riserva, Poggio al Vento, was included in the recent New York tasting.  I’ve had this wine several times in the past and this tasting just reinforced my impression.  It’s fabulous!  My advice—buy it if you can find it and afford it.  (97 pts., $180.)  It still needs at least a decade more of cellaring.

The floral and gorgeous Canalicchio di Sopra wows with its elegance and impresses with its stature.  (96 pts., $116 for the 2018.)  Even more stunning is their single vineyard, Vigna Montosoli, from one of Montalcino’s most revered sites.  It shows more power without losing any finesse.  (97 pts., $201 for the 2018.)

Similarly, Silvio Nardi’s striking single vineyard, Poggio Doria, dazzles with its silky suave texture and power.  (97 pts., $170 for the 2017.)

The floral and fleshy Il Poggione, from the area’s southeastern sector, is powerful yet not overdone.  (94 pts., $80.)

The stunning 2019 trio from Val di Suga, the lush Spuntali, (93 pts., $113 for the 2018), the floral Vigna del Lago (93 pts., $103 for the 2018), and the firm and elegant Poggio al Granchio (93 pts., $92 for the 2018), are a perfect way to explore the zones of Brunello.

Bright enlivening acidity and firm tannins offset the richer profile of La Gerla nicely.  (93 pts., $75 for the 2018.)

From a high altitude, 1,400 feet above sea level, the roughly 5-acre Vignavecchia vineyard is San Polo’s flagship Brunello.  Perfumed and classically proportioned with firm, not hard, tannins, the Vignavecchia displays a riveting complexity.  (95 pts., $303 for the 2016.)

So, there you have it.  In short, lay down the 2019 Brunellos if you have the funds to buy them and space to cellar them.

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March 20, 2024

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