London’s Brunello 2019 tasting was an opportunity to assess just how good the latest Brunello di Montalcino vintage is and whether it compares to the classic 2016s. Justin Keay sums up the vintage as one which is approachable now but also has great potential to age, and picks 12 wines from the 46 producers that were showing wines this year. He also looks at some of the issues facing this Southern part of Tuscany and talks to event organiser Walter Speller about how the region needs to change to stay ahead of the game.
“While Brunello 2019 may not equal the stellar 2016, it is an exceptional vintage for Montalcino and large parts of Tuscany… the vintage is beguiling with its freshness and elegance and fine tannic structure,” says Walter Speller.
Where exactly does Brunello di Montalcino sit in the firmament of Italian wine these days?
Well, prices for top producers like Biondi-Santi, Sesti and others have never been higher for wines sold through La Place de Bordeaux or elsewhere; for many people Brunello is currently the Italian wine to be seen with, with the wine having a bling factor supported by these rising prices. The other factor is quality which, like that of Sangiovese generally in Tuscany, has never been higher.
“You have to remember that back in the 1970s and 1980s, Sangiovese was generally used as a blending variety, known for its tricky tannins. We’ve had 40 or so years to learn how to make really good, elegant wines from it,” said Andrea Cecchi at a recent Zoom tasting of his eponymous wines.
That’s not to say things have been plain sailing for the 220 Montalcino producers in this world-famous wine region, one of the first to be awarded DOCG status, back in 1980, with a renown in many ways out of proportion to its size. Just 2000 hectares are registered for the production of Brunello with just under 8 million bottles made of the 2019, which is a typical amount.
Climate change is making an impact in what has always been the warmest part of Tuscany with wines from the very warm south frequently tipping the scale at 15% abv despite most producers attempts to grapple it back down to 14.5%. The big Sangiovese Grosso grape used by producers is posing its own challenges and defying rather the translation of Brunello as the “little brown one’’.
Given the demand for Brunello is still rising and the DOCG so small, land prices have pretty much hit the roof with $1m a hectare for land with Brunello-producing rights the new reality. The new-found wealth is ironic given that 40 years ago you could barely give land away here.
The good news is that after a tricky 2018 vintage, Brunello 2019 looks set to be a great vintage, with near perfect weather conditions.
“The 2019 vintage shares characteristics with 2016; the season was cool and rainfall was evenly distributed. Although September began with rain, it turned dry, allowing late-harvest red grapes to mature progressively and achieve a well-balanced, highly concentrated profile,” says Nicolo d’Afflito, winemaker at Castelgiocondo, part of the Frescobaldi group.
Alessandro Marini, winemaker at Tenuta Luce, echoes this.
“The 2018 vintage was generally cooler, resulting in more delicate yet very elegant and immediate wines. From the 2019 vintage, we expect a year of great quality, with rich, elegant, and vibrant wines. I believe it will eventually be typical of the great vintages in Montalcino,” he says.
So how were the wines showing at the London en primeur tasting in late November?
This was a sneak-peak ahead of the official January 1, 2024 release of the 2019 vintage (and the 2018 Riservas, which require an extra year in bottle pre-release). The tasting was also the second to be held by the Hunt&Speller team after last year’s successful inaugural event,
Although there were fewer producers showing wines this year – 46 against last year’s 68 – many were presenting more than one wine, with single vineyard 2019 Brunellos and 2018 Riservas up for consideration alongside the regular Annata wines.
Speller says trade interest was considerable with over 200 attendees (including importers, sommeliers and press) at the seated, sommelier-served event which, from my vantage point in the press gallery, looked not unlike something out of a Wes Anderson movie.
“While 2019 may not equal the stellar 2016, it is an exceptional vintage for Montalcino and large parts of Tuscany… the vintage is beguiling with its freshness and elegance and fine tannic structure. Many tasters told us that it can be approached as soon as it is released in January 2024, but feel equally it will age well,” says Speller.
So which were my top dozen?
Banfi Vigna Marrucheto 2019
Castello Banfi is one of the DOCG’s largest and best-known producers and the Annata Brunello expresses this – forward and full, a multi-vineyard wine shouting with confidence at an audience it knows is secure. Nothing wrong with that but I much preferred this delicious, nuanced, single vineyard wine, grown from vines planted only 14 years ago but showing great character – meaty and forceful but with soft velvety tannins. Distributed in the UK by Louis Latour.
Canaliccio di Sopra Vigna Montosoli 2019
Francesco Ripaccoli, the accomplished young winemaker at this estate, has made its wines so trendy that prices have risen sharply in recent years and little wonder when you taste something like this single vineyard wine, made in a tiny vineyard just 1.2 ha in size. This is just the second vintage of this SV Brunello but its spicy notes, length, dark berry fruit and velvety tannins make it a classic. Distributed in the UK by Vinexus
Caprili Brunello di Montalcino 2019
If you’re looking for a fruity, open and accessible Brunello you can’t go wrong with this. With vineyards first planted back in 1965, this organic producer consistently makes quality Brunellos and the 2019 is no exception – black cherry and forest fruits are detectable on the smooth velvety palate, with fennel and anise on the long finish. Distributed in the UK by Wine Society
Casisano Brunello di Montalcino 2019
The Tommasi family is of course best known for its Amarone and Valpolicella but the group has a presence in most Italian wine regions of note and the Casisano 2019 is a classic take on Brunello – and typically priced at around £35 is pretty good value. From the south-eastern part of the region, this is an open, accessible style with spicy notes and a velvety character. Also worth trying (though not shown here) is the Casisano Colombaiolo Riserva, a full-on, though well balanced, style if earlier vintages like the superb 2016 are anything to go by. Distributed in the UK by MMD
All the talk during this tasting was of how accessible Brunello 2019 seems to be, and this is a perfect example of this – quite chewy tannins but lots of spicy, herbal character and good body. At around 3.5 ha the Cerbaia vineyard is pretty tiny, but this joyful wine confirms the old adage that small can be beautiful. Distributed in the UK by Halo Wines
Corte Pavone – Loacker Wine Estates Poggio Molino al Vento Riserva 2018
The Corte Pavone estate was built by the Loacker family of biscuit fame and has long been committed to biodynamic farming. This single vineyard Riserva comes from a tiny 1.62 ha vineyard and is quite delicious, fruit forward but with firm, velvety tannins and good balance. Classy. Distributed in the UK by Carson & Carnevale
Giodo Brunello di Montalcino 2019
Winemaking legend Carlo Ferrini established Giodo over 20 years ago and it has since established a reputation for excellence, although production from the small vineyard is small, typically around 8000-10,000 bottles, so prices are high. This is a forward but elegant wine with black pepper, some liquorice, red cherry and velvety tannins. Distributed in the UK by Lea & Sandeman
Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2019
My first impression on tasting this was that it almost tasted like a new world Brunello, if such a thing were possible – broad, accessible, powerful, with 15% alcohol, spicy but also very well balanced. According to my notes, wine was first produced in the 60 ha vineyard precisely 100 years ago, making this one of the oldest Brunello producers, and naturally one of the founding members of the Consorzio. Distributed in the UK by Enotria & Coe
La Serena Brunello do Montalcino 2019 (BBR)/La Serena Gemini Riserva 2018
I liked both the wines shown by this relatively small, 9 ha estate which first started producing wine 35 years ago. The Brunello 2019 is accessible, direct and well made (also quite well priced, I discovered afterwards, at around £35) but the Gemini Riserva 2018 really shows well, with musky, spicy flavours and a long moreish finish. Recommended. Distributed in the UK by BBR
Pian della Vigne Ferrovia Riserva 2018
Antinori seldom lets you down and this forward, elegant Riserva – made in a 4.5 ha vineyard close by the main 70 ha one that produces PDV’s Annata Brunello – is very enjoyable, spicy with cherry and red berry fruit but characterful and nuanced. Distributed in the UK by Berkmann Wine Cellars
Sesti Phenomena Riserva 2018
It’s probably fair to say that it would be hard to write a Brunello review without mentioning the iconic Phenomena, quite delicious with all the spice, fruit and character of a good Brunello, even from a tricky vintage. Can I just describe it as um, Phenomenal? Distributed in the UK by Armit and others.
So what next for Brunello?
With detailed maps of this region rare, many are calling for clearer identification of producer location on bottles, so knowledgeable consumers can determine whether it hails from the cooler north or warmer south of the region, and therefore select a style that best corresponds to their taste.
Also, despite the squeeze on land, producer focus seems almost certain to shift towards single vineyard expression, mimicking what’s happened in Chianti Classico, not least because this is what consumers want, especially if they are forking out upwards of £45-50 a bottle.
“The UK trade sees fine wine as an expression of an exact location, and this is something Montalcino has to turn its attention towards,” agrees Speller.
But, in the meantime, we have the 2019 to enjoy – immediate drinkability as well as age-worthiness. And that’s pretty much all you can ask of a fine wine.