Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chianti, Nobile, and Brunello: Vintage Considerations

I spent last week at the vintage presentations of Tuscany's three major appellations, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. As is always the case at these events, the number of wines presented was much greater than I could properly address in the time allotted, so in tasting I picked and chose, selecting some wines because I'm familiar with the winery and wanted to see what they've done this time, some because someone was whispering admiringly about them, and some because the name of the winery (or the wine) caught my eye.

Chianti Classico is an especially serious offender in this regard -- the table the sommeliers took their samples from looked to be about a hundred yards long, and it was solid bottles. On the other hand, Chianti Classico is a big appellation, and it was very nice to see the variety of wines available: 2006, 2005, 2004, and 2003 Chianti Classico D'Annata, and 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva, for a total of 316 wines. Actually doing something with all that variety in the 2 days we had is another matter, and I decided to concentrate on the vini d'Annata, or vintage wines, the wines that are, in theory, made to be set out and enjoyed upon release or shortly thereafter. Not quite quaffing wines, but certainly not the sort of thing one sets aside to return to and meditate over years later.

Unlike some appellations, which encourage producers to release their wines after a set time, Chianti Classico allows quite a bit of leeway, producers who prefer a younger, fresher style can release their wines the spring of the year following the vinification (2006 in this case), while those who prefer a more mature style can hold the wines longer -- many opt for 2 years (releasing 2005s this time) and some wait even longer.

I was pleasantly impressed by the 2006 vintage: it was a nice summer, and this translated well into the grapes, which produced wines that are quite drinkable, with nice balance and pleasant richness of fruit backed up by good structure. As a group they tend to be nimble on their feet, and even though some are rather tannic, they have sufficient fruit to balance the tannic richness, and are bolstered by bright acidities that again keep the wines on their toes. Quite nice, and I found myself scoring them highly; they'll also drink very well with foods, everything from hearty minestrone and ribollita through red sauced pasta dishes and on to grilled meats and light stews. In short, versatile, and if you have friends over don't be surprised if the bottle empties long before you get to dessert.

The rich frutiness of the 2006 also bodes well for the 2006 Chianti d'Annata that will be released next year, and the 2006 Riserve now in barrel and cask.

The 2005 Chianti D'Annata released this year didn't fare as well. Last year I summed up the vintage, which was wet and cold, with the word "tart," adding that many of the young wines had a certain brambly grace to them. Alas, many of the wines that spent another year awaiting release emerged considerably dulled, with the fruit faded in intensity and brightness, and the tannins clearly drawing from oak, which steps in to help the fruit along in a way that would be unnecessary in a better vintage. As is always the case there were some exceptions (brilliant ones, even) to this dreary picture, but when buying wines of the 2005 vintage you'll have to be much more careful than you will when buying the 2006 vintage.

There was also a fair number of bottles of the 2004 vintage; it was good last year (and 2 years ago) and continues to be quite nice now, with the bottles presented this year displaying considerable poise and grace. It was, and continues to be a vintage well worth looking out for, and I also greatly enjoyed the few Chianti Classico Riserva 2004 wines I tasted.

2005 Nobile di Montepulciano

Wednesday evening we all headed south, to spend the night in Chianciano Terme, and transferred to Montepulciano Thursday morning to discover the 2005 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Given my experience with the 2005 Chianti Classico I wasn't particularly optimistic, but that changed in a hurry with the wines: Montepulciano is warmer and drier than Chianti Classico, and it was drier enough and warmer enough (and probably sunnier enough) that the 2005 wines I tasted were much richer, with pleasing fruit and nice underlying structure bolstered bouquet good acidities that kept them from settling. Not quite as bright as the 2006 Chianti Classico, but more in that direction, albeit with more structure behind them

I do have to admit that my tasting was incomplete: There were a number of barrel samples, and since a barrel sample only gives a limited indication of what the wine will become -- many nuances develop in the bottle -- I decided to return to Montepulciano this fall to taste through everything when it is a bit readier. But the initial impression of the 2005 Nobile di Montepulciano was quite positive. I was less pleased by the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Selezione wines that were also presented; these are for the most part vineyard selections (many from 2004), and with respect to the basic 2005 Nobile they were all much more heavily oaked, and in many cases with much softer, riper fruit. Now it's true that oak will with time fold in, but the softness and the ripeness of the fruit seems to be going in a different direction than that followed by the 2005 wines, which are much more vibrant and (to me at least) interesting.

Last year I said there appeared to be two currents in Montepulciano, one that favored deft, vibrant tightly knit wines, and the other that sought greater concentration and ripeness, but was also much softer and laxer, and I see that continuing in the contrast between the 2005 Nobile and the Nobile Selezione wines.

2003 Brunello di Montalcino

2002 was probably the coldest, wettest, most difficult vintage in the past 20 years, but searing, parched 2003 vintage wasn't much if any easier, and given the disastrous experience I had with the 2003 Barolo this spring I approached it with considerable trepidation.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was pleasantly surprised, but the experience wasn't as bad as I had feared it would be. The wines were, taken as a group, big and alcoholic, and many have vibrantly green tannins of the sort that denote drought-related ripening problems (and led fellow journalist Kerin O'Keefe to say she thought the vintage was worse than 2002), but I didn't find many wines that were wildly overripe. There was plum, and there was prune, and sometimes candied fruit, but there were also many wines with the more normal berry fruit flavors one expects of a red wine.

The combination of ripe berry fruit and green tannins was a bit of a surprise, until I remembered that Italian wine law allows what is called a taglio migliorativo, in other words a "blend to improve:" the winemaker can add up to 15% of a different vintage of a given wine to the wine in question, and I would not be at all surprised if many winemakers took advantage of this provision to balance the overripeness of the 2003 wines. In other words, many 2003 Brunellos have a great deal of cellar in them. Many but not all; those whose vineyards are a little cooler (and therefore less good in normal vintages) made out better, as did those who correctly guessed what was in store early in the summer (it was already hot by late May) and planned their vineyard managements accordingly.

And what does this all mean for the consumer? To be frank, 2003 is not a good vintage -- on a scale from 1 to 5 I'd give it 2.5 -- and its timing was especially bad for producers coming off an equally difficult 2002 vintage; had 2002 been better I suspect many would have channeled most of their 2003 wine into Rosso di Montalcino, which would have been a more appropriate place for it. Because even the better Brunello from the 2003 vintage is atypical, lacking (with one or two exceptions) the easy grace and elegance coupled with power that is the hallmark of Brunello, and the reason it's the flagship of Tuscan, if not Italian wines. In purchasing 2003 Brunello select with care, keeping in mind that many of the best vineyards are also those that were hit hardest by the summer sun, and therefore some of the wineries one normally considers a sure bet won't be this time.

I'm sorry to come down hard on a second consecutive vintage, but a person unfamiliar with Brunello who buys a bottle of the 2003 vintage will likely come away with a distorted view of what Brunello is all about, and this is a shame considering that some of the older but still available vintages, for example 1999 and 2001, are developing beautifully and easily explain the comment made by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the man who developed the Chianti blend in the mid-1880s: When invited to lunch by Ferruccio Biondi Santi, the father of Brunello, he took a sip from his glass and said, "I can't make wine like that." 2004, to judge from 2004 Chianti Classico Riservas I have tasted, should be much, much closer to the mark, if not dead on.