Brunello di Montalcino has a certain mystique to it, and I was therefore quite flattered when Carlo Macchi called to ask if I wanted to come to a Brunello vertical he was organizing. Especially because Carlo was selecting the wines; and was going a ways back: The first wine was a 1982, and therefore predated much of the “innovation” that has swept though Montalcino and the rest of Italy since then. And what do I mean by “innovation?”
First of all, the use of barriques, the small (225 liter) French oak barrels that have a tremendous impact upon the wine they contain – in 1982 most everyone was still using botti, large oak casks that allow microxygenation through the pores in the staves, but have considerably less impact upon the wines. Second, the search for ripeness and concentration, the “gobs of fruit” one finds mentioned in glowing terms in certain publications that had (and have) a tremendous influence on winemakers, many of whom reworked their wines to make them more appealing to said publications.
None of that in 1982, as it was all in the future. Truth be told, there wasn't much of it by the early 1990s either (even in wineries that have changed greatly since then), and with the final wines (we finished with a 1999) Carlo selected producers less subject to the siren's call.
Bottom line, Carlo provided us with a beautiful look at Brunello as it used to be, and it was fascinating to see how the wines had developed. Because they did, very well, displaying a richness and depth that were in some cases simply extraordinary. And that more recent wines by the wineries that have since changed course, becoming softer, smoother and more approachable, simply lack.
San Filippo Brunello di Montalcino 1982
Pale brownish almandine with almandine rim. The bouquet is slightly off, alas, though leather and warm acidity do emerge, supported by leafiness. It must have been quite acidic in its youth, because the acidity carries quite well even now. On the palate it's tart, and quite dry, with sour berry fruit supported by clean leathery tannins that flow into a rather tart savory finish. It's like looking across a divide; though the bottle is a little off it does express an otherwordly quality and a generational divide. Interesting, and a window into the past.
Case Basse Brunello di Montalcino 1983
Lively almandine with brownish rim and reflections. The bouquet is elegant, with sour berry fruit and a fair amount of acidity supported by clean leathery accents and hints of leaf tobacco. Great depth, and there are also hints of eucalyptus and dried leaves. Quite elegant, and has a lot to say, a wine one can converse with though it does most of the talking. On the palate it's bright, with lively sour cherry fruit supported by lively acidity and by slightly bitter tannins that have a warm burr and flow into a clean rather dry tannic finish. Quite impressive,a nd displays a great deal of depth; it also has an otherworldly feel to it, and is one of those wines that will continue to mature indefinitely thanks to the acidity of its backbone. Goes on and on, and though it doesn't present unified front – a fellow taster says scomposto, which means disjointed – it has a great deal to say and is a wine that excites all the senses. Grandioso, and the imperfections make it even more so. With time continues to evolve, and does all sorts of interesting things, in particular intriguing hints of cumin emerge after a while, and it smooths very nicely on the palate. An eternal wine.
Argiano Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1985
Almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is decidedly mature, with wet leather, underbrush, menthol, which increases with time, savory accents, alcohol, and some sour berry fruit. Quite nice in a powerful, mature key, and it shows considerable polish. On the palate it's full, with rich sour cherry fruit supported by lively sour berry fruit acidity and is supported by smooth sweet tannins that have a velvety purr and flow into a clean bright cherry finish. Considerable grace and elegance in a considerably more polished key than the Soldera; a fellow taster says, and he's right, that it's very good but more obvious. And it is; there are fewer secrets to plumb. But very fine; it's like looking at a Caanova statue. Very pleasant on the palate too, and does increase in complexity with time.
Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino La Casa 1986
Fairly rich garnet with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is powerful, with spice and slight greenish accents mingled with leather and bitterness, and a fair amount of alcohol as well. Very fine, and there are also some animal notes. On the palate it's full, with rich sour berry fruit supported by lively sour cherry acidity and smooth sweet savory tannins that have a slightly leathery burr and flow into a clean bright sour finish with considerable underlying bitterness. Great elegance, and it is a wine that matches the Caparzo style, which has been remarkably consistent over the years, and takes many years to come out: The initial post-release impressions are usually not that good, but here we see what it can do given time. In short, Brunello begs patience, and the older styles of this kind even more. True to type, and impressive. It will age indefinitely.
Talenti Podere Pian di Conte Brunello di Montalcino 1987
Paler almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. It looks a little more mature than some of the other wines. The bouquet is fairly rich, with savory sea salt and some dried flowers, mingled with leaf tobacco and very slight animal tang. Nice balance and depth. On the palate it's bright, with lively sour berry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that have pleasant savory accents and a slightly leather tongue-drying finish that will make it very nice with succulent red meats. Elegant, and very pleasant though a touch lower than the others, and this is in part the vintage, which wasn't quite as rich as, say, the 1985.
Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino 1988
Corked, alas. What manages to escape the corkage suggests that a good bottle would have been very nice, and quite solid.
Casanova di Neri Brunello Riserva 1990
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim, paling to onionskin at the top. The bouquet is intense, with green leather and cut leaf tobacco, which is stronger here than it was in some of the other wines; quite elegant in a mature key, and though it's not as multifaceted as some of the other older wines, there is a monolithic beauty to it. With time leather and leaf tobacco become more intense. Quite harmonious, and one could swish and sniff for a long, long time. On the palate it's full and rich, with fairly bright cherry fruit supported by brisk slightly bitter acidity, and by smooth sweet silky tannins that are a touch dry in the very finish, and flow into a clean rather dry finish with savory accents and some sour berry fruit acidity. It's quite pleasant, and very much approachable, a wine that will work quite well with foods and will make a huge impression if broken out at a festive meal, but I found it a little more direct than I might have wanted – it's statuesque and beautiful, bit lacking in depth, and I attribute this to a relative lack of acidity – there is acidity sufficient to provide direction, but it's not really bright. The Italian word that comes to mind is Mastodontico, which means hulking.
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 1993
Black almandine with black reflections and almandine in the rim. The bouquet is intense, with hints of wood smoke and bitterness supported by leather and some leaf tobacco, also licorice root and with time mentholated and balsamic accents, while leather also increases. On the palate it's full, and bright, with clean sour cherry fruit supported by lively berry fruit acidity and by smooth sweet tannins that have some leafy underbrush bitterness and flow into a clean rather bitter sour berry fruit finish. Quite pleasant, and I found myself preferring it to the Casanova di Neri 1990 Riserva, because it is brighter and much more nimble on its toes than the Riserva. Both of the Casanova di Neri wines display a degree of savoriness that the Casanova di Neri of today lacks. Much has changed at Casanova di Neri since these wines were made, and I discuss some of the changes in another vertical, here.
Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino 1996
Black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is slightly off, and though others mutter about corks I find more menthol and cold coffee with some rather musty bitter orange peel and balsamic accents, and some savory accents too. On the palate it's fairly rich, though not too full, with sour cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins and deft sour berry fruit acidity that flows into a clean rather sour cherry finish. Quite pleasant, and graceful in a lesser vintage key; it's not quite as bright as some of the vintages but has a willowy grace to it that is very nice. A beautiful wine, and one that has a great deal to say, for those who want to take the time to listen to it.
Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino 1997
Deep almandine with black reflections and almandine rim; by comparison with many of the other wines the almandine is much younger looking. The bouquet is quite different with respect to the others, with mentholated notes and some spice, mingled with toasted wood and hints of cat pee, which become sweaty with time; a fellow taster talks about the scent of a burnt steak bone atop coals. It engenders considerable discussion. On the palate it's sour, with leathery sour accents and fairly intense minerality supported by bitter fruit bitter tannins that flow into a savory bitter finish. I found it more interesting on the plaate, where there is more to plum and think about than on the nose. The palate is bright, and has a fair amount to say, in a bright key, and is quite approachable; it will work very well with succulent red meats or similar, though I might not want to sip it far from the table.
Tenuta Col D'Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1998
Deep black almandine with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is intense, with cherry fruit supported by sour berry acidity and leathery accents mingled with alcohol and some peppery spice with slight berry fruit acidity as well, and hints of spice. Great depth and considerable harmony too. On the palate it's rich, with lively sour cherry fruit supported by sour cherry acidity that also has some red currant acidity, and is supported by smooth rather dry tannins that will do a fine job of supporting foods but are a bit too dry to work well sipping. A very fine wine that will drink well with foods, and still needs another few years to come into its own. Intriguing menthol on the nose that emerges with time. I was initially nonplussed by the 1998 vintage, but have begun to reevaluate it The 98s need time, and though not all are great many have improved considerably.
Collosorbo Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1999
Deep black almandine with black reflections and almandine rim. The bouquet is powerful, and a distinct change with respect to the other wines poured, with considerable mentholated spice mingled with berry fruit and cedar. It has a more international feel to it. On the palate it's ample, bright, and young, with rich sour cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins that flow into a clean bright berry fruit finish. Very young, in a fairly international key, and is quite approachable; by comparison with some of the others it is much less faceted, and offers much less to think about. But it will drink well with foods, and is a wine I would be happy to serve to friends who are more likely to pour, drink, and enjoy a wine than to spend time thinking about what's in their glass. It's more polished, and more ammiccante – giving a come-hither look -- than some of the others, and a world apart from Case Basse and some of the other older wines. Here we see the arrival of the more international style, and a conscious desire to make wines that are more approachable and easier to drink. And it certainly was more approachable in 2003, upon its release, but is less interesting now, and with time it will separate further from the more traditional, Brunelli.
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