Just a few days after they harvested their grapes in 2004, producers of Brunello di Montalcino were speaking of a fantastic vintage. Many made comparisons to 1997, a benchmark year in Tuscany and one whose reds are still of excellent quality today.
Roberto Guerrini of Eredi Fuligni told me that he had never seen Sangiovese with such quality, with perhaps the exception of 1997. "The young wines already have amazingly dark colors, bright perfumes and rich tannins and fruit," he says. "I am extremely optimistic."
Now the 2004 Brunellos are arriving in the United States and lovers of Tuscan reds can judge for themselves. In my opinion, the vintage produced wonderfully perfumed and majestically refined Brunellos with an excellent balance of fruit and refined tannins. Many are beautiful to drink now but will be even better with two or three more years of bottle age. And they should improve for decades to come.
I have blind-tasted more than 100 of the wines in my office in Tuscany and have found dozens of outstanding bottles; in fact, about 75 percent received scores of 90 or more points. Prices range from about $40 up to more than $150 a bottle, about the same as or slightly less than those for 2003.
Andrea Cortonesi is the owner of Uccelliera, which made the best wine I have tasted so far (97 points). "The 2004 vintage was extraordinary, where you can see the strength of the territory and energy of Sangiovese," he says. "I would define it as most similar to 1990 [rated 98 points]. It's difficult to compare with 2001, which has more softness and elegance; 2004 is much richer and less ready now and better for aging. It is a vintage that will leave us with great surprises."
I love surprises like this, and I expect more of them as more 2004 Brunellos become available. I can't wait to taste the riservas when they are released next year. Many producers save their best wines for their reserve Brunellos, but what is already out there in the market is seriously good. Based on my tastings to date, I rate the vintage 97 points.
Brunello is diversifying and expanding, and many lesser-known and smaller estates are making high-scoring wines. Some of the best Brunellos this year are from vinters whose wares have rarely been available in the States. For example, Uccelliera (97 points), Poggio Il Castellare (96), San Filippo Le Lucére (96), Collemattoni (95), Corte Pavone (95), Il Marroneto Madonna delle Grazie (95) and Podere La Vigna (95) are some of my top wines.
Of course, many well-established names also excelled. Among them are Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova (96), Valdicava (95), Altesino Montosoli (95), Eredi Fuligni (95), Siro Pacenti (95) and Marchesi de' Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo (95).
"Experience counts," says Marcello Bucci, owner of Collemattoni, a small up-and-coming estate. "Certainly, paying more attention in the vineyard has helped to make better wine. All the work done in the past and continual improvement in the vineyard has contributed to the quality of 2004. It is all starting to pay off."
It's great to have an exciting new vintage of Brunello on the market after two difficult ones.
The 2003s (88 points for the vintage) are very good reds in general, but lack the structure and backbone of acidity usually found in outstanding Sangiovese from the area. The growing season was just too hot, causing many grapes to soar in sugar and fall in acidity. Many wines lack focus and freshness.
Meanwhile, the 2002s (78 points) were a washout because of intermittent rain during the summer as well at harvesttime. Some of the top names didn't even bottle Brunello in 2002.
The wine producers association of Brunello di Montalcino only gives the superb 2001 vintage a rating of four stars (out of a possible five), but I believe that the group underestimated the quality. Perhaps it rated the potential of the grapes at harvest, but the wines produced are some of the best Brunellos ever; I rate the vintage 98 points overall. Plus, I gave two perfect scores of 100 points to 2001 Brunellos—the Valdicava Madonna del Piano Riserva and the Casanova di Neri Cerretalto. Moreover, the 2001 Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova (97 points) was Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2006.
However the 2004 vintage stacks up against 2001, its growing season was much, much easier than that of either of its two predecessors. Most of the summer was warm and sunny. August was slightly cooler for most of the month. This delayed the harvest slightly, but it was clear and hot for September and October, allowing producers to pick grapes under mostly clear skies. The only problem with 2004 was that the vineyards had kicked into high gear after the hot and dry 2003. In 2004, most growers had to cut back a large part of their grape crop in June and July to compensate for nature's generosity.
"The season was exceptional, with excellent conditions," says Giacomo Neri, owner of Casanova di Neri. "The only problem was the grape yields were very high. It was out of the ordinary. We had to do three green harvests. Otherwise, we would not have got the quality that we were able to get in our wines."
Neri's observation underlines the fundamental truth of every year: Regardless of what Mother Nature gives them, serious Brunello producers now know how to work in their vineyards and cellars to get the best out of their wines. Poor vintages yield acceptable wines and great vintages make delicious ones. The excellent potential seen at a very early stage in 2004 is now clearly evident in the bottle.