To hear four top Italian producers and Wine Spectator senior editor James Suckling tell it, Brunello di Montalcino is a love affair, not a beverage. The eight pure Sangiovese wines poured at the Saturday tasting were variously described as beautiful women (Sharon Stone in particular), a hunky guy and a cause for jealousy in a girlfriend.
Perhaps it’s the place—a medieval town on a mountain, with vineyards running down its sides—that evokes such emotion. Perhaps it’s the grape’s rare affinity for that particular spot: Few great Sangioveses come from outside of Italy. Perhaps the passion sprung from tasting two of the greatest vintages of the past 15 years side by side. To showcase Montalcino’s evolution, the panelists poured the “great modern vintage” of 2004 and the benchmark 1997, “the vintage that really taught Italians what modern winemaking was about,” said Suckling.
When Suckling first visited Montalcino in 1983, he said, there were 30 to 40 producers, the vineyards were still overproducing and the winemaking had yet to change much from traditional methods. Today, about 200 producers make more than 500,000 cases a year from around 5,000 acres of vineyards. Much else has changed: Producers have invested in new cellars and are using new clones of Sangiovese, higher-density planting, better canopy management and crop-thinning in their vineyards. “They’re doing it all, and the grapes are coming out wonderfully,” Suckling said.
“The wines are pure and beautiful—and also they are darker in color,” added Suckling. Referring to the Italian government’s recent investigation into the authenticity of some Brunellos, he commented, “Some people say that Sangiovese can’t have color. I disagree with that. If people keep their yields down, if they make the wine properly, they can maintain the color.”
The four 2004s, served first, shared the vintage characteristics of exceptional balance, silky tannins and beautiful perfumes. But each also showed differences due to their site. “Sangiovese is a very transparent variety; it tells you exactly what it is,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, introducing the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo 2004 (95 points, $65). Distinguished by aromas of exotic woods, the wine comes partly from the Castelgiocondo estate’s older plantings and partly from plantings done in the 1990s with tighter spacing than in the 1970s. Lamberto compared it to “a beautiful woman who enters the room, and you don’t see her right away, but when you see her, you can’t take your eyes off her.”
“I definitely do not consider my wine a beautiful woman,” joked Cristina Mariani-May, the only woman on the panel, to cheers. "Mine is a hunky guy." A little richer and more velvety than the Castelgiocondo, the Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio alle Mura 2004 (94, $82) comes from a slightly warmer area in Montalcino’s southwest corner. Castello Banfi and its American owners, the Mariani family, have played a crucial role in Montalcino’s success with their extensive research into which clones of Sangiovese work best in the area. Montalcino has 29 different types of soil, Mariani-May explained, and they narrowed their plantings down to 15 clones that represent typical Brunello characteristics such as the cherry color, violet nose, astringency and soft tannins.
Lamberto Frescobaldi of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi.
The Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova 2004 (96, $81), from an area with slightly different soils than the Poggio alle Mura estate, was notable for its aromas of fresh flowers and mint. Giacomo Neri, who earned Wine of the Year in 2006 for his 2001 Tenuta Nuova, remarked that he particularly likes the exceptional balance and fine tannins of 2004. While it’s wonderful now, he said, with some age “it will be much, much better.”
Not to be outdone in his passion for wine (or women), Vincenzo Abbruzzese of Valdicava spoke emotionally about the strong connection among the land, the wines and the people in Montalcino and his efforts to work in balance with nature. (He doesn’t use chemicals in the vineyard, preferring to keep yields low by letting the grasses compete with the vines.) Following up on his 100-point 2001 Brunello, his Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino 2004 (95, $119) was rich and full-bodied, with beautiful dark fruit. The 2004 represents a new type of Brunello, Abbruzzese said—a more immediately approachable one with a new balance between the unique character of the first generation and the fruit of the second generation. But he emphasized that they were staying true to themselves: “First we produce our wines, then we look for customers that like our wines; when we find people that like it, we are proud. Otherwise we look for other consumers”—at this, the crowd laughed heartily—“without changing our wines.”
All over Italy, people are debating whether the lighter, traditional style or richer, modern style of wine is better, Suckling noted, but “What I think is important is whether the wines are excellent or not.”
Giacomo Neri of Casanova di Neri.
Moving on to the four 1997s, Suckling said, “the wines are holding on beautifully.” In 1997, the crop was naturally low, down 30 to 40 percent, and that reinforced to Italian producers that they could make truly great wines by sticking to low yields. It was also a late harvest, good for the late-ripening Sangiovese, which retains its acidity well as the sugars rise.
The 1997 Castelgiocondo (96, $62 on release, $105 current auction) was very concentrated, full of chocolate and cherry, and Lamberto compared it to a younger Sharon Stone. Looking at the changes between the vintages, he said that these days all the fruit is sorted by hand and destemmed, and the tanks are smaller for better temperature control. “But these are small things, not a revolution.”
Suckling noted that Sangiovese opens up with age and gets fuller, and Mariani-May agreed that “the [1997s] just keep getting better and better. But now our wines are showing better a little sooner.” The 1997 Poggio alle Mura (95, $70 on release, $110 current auction) had aromas of cedar and leather but still had good fruit. Castello Banfi has been using French barriques, she noted, but had to fine-tune that. In 2004, they used a hybrid of stainless steel and oak for fermentation, resulting in wines that are “more natural.”
Vincenzo Abbruzzese of Valdicava.
Calling his rich, dense 1997 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova (94, $65 on release) “a patient wine,” Neri remarked on the incredible nose, complexity and length seven years after release. “ is one of the best vintages of my day,” said Neri. “A pleasure. It was not so difficult to produce this wine.” When Suckling asked him if he could make better wine with the same grapes today, he responded, “No, I’ve changed, but not so much.”
When Suckling introduced the final wine, the 1997 Valdicava (92, $80 on release), he revealed that Abbruzzese had sent the last six cases of the wine from his cellar for this tasting. He had none left. After a moment of surprised silence, the crowd of about 1,000 stood to applaud. The wine was very open, with intense cherry and plum fruit and a silky texture. “My family and I put our heart and soul into these bottles,” Abbruzzese said. “Our mission is to respect to the ultimate the spirit of the place”—a statement that applied equally well to all the wines.