MS Tasting – 2004 Brunello di Montalcino

MS Brunello 1

The last Magnum tasting of the year, with a great line-up of 2004 Brunello’s.

Introduced once again by the extremely knowledgeable DB, I reproduce some of his excellent tasting notes here:

The Consorzio de Vino Brunello di Montalcino awarded itself 5 stars for the 2004 vintage. After a virtual write-off in 2002, and an extremely hot, low yielding 2003, everyone was in the mood for some good news. Today, with 13 years of hindsight, several highly respected writers (O’Keefe, Galloni, Belfrage et al) have lowered their assessment to 4 stars. Others, eg Bruce Sanderson from Wine Spectator and James Suckling, hold to their original vintage assessment of 97 points.

Everyone agrees that the weather couldn’t have been better. Ample sunshine right across the region and just enough heat with refreshing rains at just the right times did the trick. September and October featured warm days, cool nights, dry weather, and no pressure on harvest.

So, why do some now believe 2004 was less than great? It comes down to the same old issue – variability, but with a twist. Variability – strong sub-regional differences across Montalcino; the impact of human decisions…use of wood, house style, the different preferences of different markets; tradition versus modernity; and the twist of the scandal which was to hit Montalcino four years later.

But before we discuss all that, let’s go back a couple of years. Such was the reputation of 2004 in Tuscany that our Cellarmaster wisely acquired two sets. One was a set of Brunello which we are about to taste. The other was a set of various reds from the Chianti Classico region which we tasted in April 2015. Our findings at that tasting are relevant to the coming event.

At the 2015 tasting I emphasised that Chianti Classico has always been about blending on an at least 80% Sangiovese base. While there has been a move back to native Tuscan varieties as blending partners, several wineries have preferred to use Merlot, Cab Sav or Syrah. This use of French varieties often comes at the cost of the wine’s identity, and regional typicity. What can emerge, however is a new wine of fine quality eg Solaia and d’Alceo, although these wines bear no resemblance to Chianti Classico. But then they are not called that, and no one has any problems with it.

This is in complete contrast to the Brunello di Montalcino model which requires 100% Sangiovese, and there have been problems. If you want to blend, you can use the DOC San ‘Antimo, or the IGT Toscana. Problem….San ‘Antimo does not command the reputation nor price of Brunello. And the IGT market is overcrowded offering everything from Vino Rosso to the most expensive Super-Tuscans from anywhere in Tuscany including multi-site blends. Many of these wines have anonymous labels and providences, and variable quality, and prices. Some are stunning; several are ”boring” (O’Keefe, and me). Also, there has been a recent market shift away particularly from the monolithic examples as buyers are taking more interest in a wine’s purity of expression.

Brunello has remained the epitome of quality and the price definer in Montalcino. That is one reason why some producers have wanted to blend to beef up their slightly austere Sangiovese to make it more appealing at an earlier age, but they have also wanted access to Brunello’s label, pricing and marketability for what clearly would not be Brunello.

If Montalcino is such a blessed area, and the Brunello clones of Sangiovese are its ultimate expression, as we are told, then why such variability, and why would anyone want to blend in French varieties?

Several reasons. Firstly terroir. Montalcino is a very varied territory. High and rugged in the north and east, and lower, more open and rounded in the south and west. There is more rain in the hills and more Mediterranean influences in the South. Sea breezes in the west, not in the east. North and eastern wines are more Chianti Classico Riserva look-a-likes. Southern and western wines are riper, more rounded, and softer. Soils vary as do micro climates. In a colder year, when wines may be austere, a splash of Merlot would be tempting. In a year like 2004, it shouldn’t have been an issue.

Secondly, availability of land. In 1990, about 3.1 million bottles of Brunello were produced. In 1999 there were 3.5 million. In 2004 5.6 million, and in 2008 6.9 million. Plantings have expanded into all sorts of areas hitherto considered unsuitable and the Consorzio has been pressured to license those for Brunello production. Galloni asserts that really, only 25-33% of available land is suitable for first class Sangiovese. So, a lot of young Brunellos rushed to the market in 2004, coming from the new territories, with relatively low vine age and little acquired wisdom of the new sites’ viticultural requirements. Again, you could compensate for some of this if allowed.

Thirdly, human choices. Some companies are very focused on the American market, and the USA does take about 60% of each year’s total Brunello production. The American palate favours the south/west group of producers being riper, softer, richer. And new oak barrique flavours seem to attract further. Traditional makers prefer larger format, older oak, Slavonian by choice. The resulting two wine styles can be hugely different. In younger vineyards, overconfidence in the fruit’s strength can lead to overworking in wood and if there is any perception of unripeness, this can produce serious imbalance. Blending in up to 15% of licensed Brunello from other vintages is legal. In 2004, this facility anecdotally enabled several companies to quit some hard-to-sell, overripe, 2003 stocks which could be why some wines have been criticised for bakey notes.

Fourthly, there is no clear definition about what “good” Brunello actually is. This is not unique to Montalcino but it underlines much of the ongoing differences between the traditional and modern makers. Ironically, in the Consorzio’s first attempt in defining the style in 1996, allowance was made for blending up to 15% of other black grape varieties, but that didn’t survive the final cut. In the most recent review, in late 2008, the Consorzio voted virtually unanimously to maintain strictly the 100% Sangiovese rule. So, the rules are crystal clear, but what defines “good”? Quality assessment has often been clouded by personal perceptions of what Brunello should be. There has been any amount of scope for debate with misunderstanding, bias, and commercial pressure playing their part. All give ample room for perceptions of “variability” year in, year out. One man’s prize stallion is another’s donkey.

With all the debate, suspicion, innuendo and gradual appearance of more and more darker, richer, Brunellos showing unusual (non- traditional) characteristics, plus the well- known existence throughout the region of 800ha of non Sangiovese red wine varieties (for use in IGT, VDT, etc), plus some “information received”, in 2008 the Italian authorities impounded several million litres of 2003 Brunello on suspicion of illegal blending. Nearly 100 companies were investigated including four of the biggest, most prominent. The issue was thoroughly stirred by several eminent writers and experts who publically opined along the lines of “I have long suspected this” and “I’ve been saying this for years.” In the end, there was no clear outcome. Substantial stocks were re-classified to IGT just to get the stuff out of embargo and on to the market (without prejudice to the makers’ cases that the wines were entirely legal.) The Consorzio, and authorities, received much needed lessons in record keeping, audits, and the ability to test for the presence of alien juice in the wines. All in all, the region was left shocked and paralyzed by the experience as the reputation of Brunello, rightly or wrongly, had been very severely damaged.

While the matter of the 2003s did eventually fade away, there remained a serious issue for the 2004s. Between 2003 and 2008 when the scandal broke, there had been the 2004,5,6, and 7 vintages, and the 2004s were all in their bottles. The argument went that if people had “clearly” cheated in 2003, and this had been long suspected for previous years as well, why wouldn’t they have continued cheating in 2004? A big cloud of suspicion descended on the 2004s and the investigation was expanded to include them. But by that time, the authorities had a much better idea of what the truth was. Several companies were investigated regarding their 2004s but to my knowledge, no wine was embargoed.

Even so, it took a long time for the conspiracy theorists to lie down and biases appeared in some reviews of the 2004s. A classic example is World of Fine Wine’s review of the 2004s in Issue 27, 2010. I give you only two quotes that amply serve to illustrate:

“…the influence of Bordeaux was apparent to all three tasters”

“There was ample evidence of grape varieties other than Sangiovese”

To give them credit, they tried to be positive throughout the tasting and a wine- by- wine check of the seven wines we shall be tasting showed them all to be in the top echelon.

Decanter in August 2009 focused on inconsistence and the arrival of new young-vine wines. There was only one hint at the scandal but the speaker was described as being cynical, and there it rested.

Wine Spectator has remained solidly of the view that 2004 is one of Montalcino’s greatest vintages and that everyone should be more patient. James Suckling agrees.

Another American, Ed McCarthy of Wine Review opined that while 2004 is a ‘top notch year’, it is too early to call it an ‘all-time great’. He discusses variability as a probable cause of the scandal.

Vinous Media expressed the view that 2004 falls into the camp of 4 to 4.5 stars; they marginally preferred 2001. They thought that the warmth of 2004 did not help vineyards in the lower southern region.

Interestingly, Antonio Galloni (who is Vinous) has said himself the South did better than the North in 2004. He picks on a theme of “the continuing emergence of the differences between Montalcino’s various terrains and microclimates.” He welcomed increased numbers of “new style” Brunellos, being more aromatic and expressive of Sangiovese but felt some others needed filling out. He concludes “a solid, classic vintage but I’m not convinced it’s a home run.”

Again, the individual wines we shall taste were all reported highly. I am sure we will be pleased with the seven in the flight:

Poggio Antico Brunello A farm turned vineyard/winery in the late 70s located about 6km south of Montalcino at about 450m facing southwest. Exposed to sea breezes. Calcareous soils, clay and rock. 33ha in mature vines at 3300vines/ha, and another 17ha planted 1997-2001 at 6000 vines/ha. Hand harvested. Yields 5T/ha, two passes over sorting tables. 16 days ferment in stainless steel. 36 months in large Slavonian oak 370-550lts in size. 12 months in bottle.

Lisini Brunello Lisini is about 8km due south of Montalcino at 300-350m, just to the northeast of Sant’Angelo down a dirt road through dense scrub. The soils are soft, sandy, volcanic with some stones and the site is exposed to sea breezes. 20ha under vine. Lisini is one of the district’s historical producers and remains one of the more traditional. The family have been farming here since the 16th century. Mainly massale selection with some vines up to 75 years old. There is one small block remaining of pre-phyloxera from the mid 19th century. Wines are aged in large 1100-4000lt Slavonian botti for up to 3 years.

Costanti Brunello 2km southeast of Montalcino, only walking distance from Fuligni ( see below). A very old family property which first exhibited its Brunello in 1870. Vineyards face southeast on quite a steep slope at 310-400m. 12ha under vine. Soils are blue-grey chalky marl. Costanti uses new BBS clones 5-25 years old. Wood ageing is mixed with 18 months in new and used 350-500lt French tonneaux, and 18 months in 3000lt Slavonian botti.

Fuligni Brunello 2km east of Montalcino on quite open rounded hills facing east-southeast at elevations 0f 380-450m. 11ha under vine. An old Tuscan family but making wine since only 1923. Tending towards a traditional style: aromatic, elegant, and subtle rather than fruit forward. Aged in 500lt French tonneaux for 4-5 months in an old convent on the property, then for 30 months in large Slavonian botti deep underneath the family’s 18th century palazzo in the centre of town.

Il Poggione Another one of Brunello’s pioneers of 100-120 years ago. This is a big estate (530ha total with 140ha in grapes). Located on the southern edge of Sant’Angelo in Colle with large blocks spreading down a long south facing slope right down to the Orcia river. They have made extensive use of new clones since the 1990s but also take cuttings off their oldest block Paganelli (see below). We have two wines from this estate:

Il Poggione Brunello A blend from the four main vineyards on the slope. Typically spends 3 years in 300-500lt French oak.

Il Poggione Riserva Vigna Paganelli A single vineyard wine from the oldest section (1964) of the property. 200m. More alluvial soils. This block relies on its own cuttings for replants. Usually spends 4 years in 300-500lt French oak before bottle ageing.

Argiano Brunello One of the most well-known and visited of Montalcino’s estates. A story-book palazzo built in 1581-1596 on a 120ha plateau in the southwest corner of the region. 50ha of Brunello certified vineyards at 300m. Substantial plantings of French varieties for its two super-tuscans for which it has a high reputation. Owned for some time by members of the Cinzano (drinks) family but sold in 2013 to Brazilian interests. Its first Brunello was 1888. Usually fermented in stainless steel, then a year in French barrique and tonneaux, then a year in large Slavonian botti, then stored in concrete tanks prior to bottling.

MS Brunello 2

And so to the wines:

2004 Costanti Brunello di Montalcino – Browning dark ruby colour. Sweet, floral and aromatic. Scents of pink roses, lanolin, richness, vegemite. I thought quite thinly fruited on the palate, almost skeletal. It improved 100% with supper, which helped ’fill in the corners’, but this wasn’t a balanced example to start. My least favoured wine. I scored this Bronze.

2004 Argiano Brunello di Montalcino – Dark ruby colour. Tainted? Dry, thin fruit on the nose. However, the wine revealed good fruit flavours, richness and smoothness on drinking. Primary fruit, strong tannins, a sour-ish spine. Long hot finish. Gold

2004 Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino – Darkest ruby colour, faded edges. Great fruit aromas, with intensity and complexity. Dark plums, prunes, herbs, a savoury character. Lovely balanced fruit and acid. Fine grained tannins. Moderate density with a fresh and long finish. A gorgeous wine, and my third wine of the evening. Gold.

2004 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino – Dark ruby colour, tending brown. Funky and developed, which tendered to smother the fruit aromas, so seemed ‘dumb’. Gorgeous fruit flavours, with a real burst of intensity and acid in the mouth. Pepper, herbal, sour cherries, fine tannins. Silver.

2004 Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino – Brilliant dark ruby colour. V attractive. Bright and elegant nose with engaging fruit aromas and finesse. Rich dark fruit flavours, again I noted finesse, great acid and breadth of fruit concentration, and a hot finish. My second wine of the night. Gold.

2004 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino – Dark ruby colour, tending brown. Started slightly repressed on the nose, but opened up on standing to reveal a very lovely bouquet – poised, with concentration, fleshy and succulent, fruit driven and still quite primary. Elegant texture in the mouth, fruit-rich flavours, brilliant beautiful and classy. Such a young wine still. My wine of the night (WOTN). Gold.

2004 Il Poggione Riserva Vigna Paganelli – Dark ruby colour. Funky and somewhat oxidative, thinning fruit and that vegemite character again, and licorice.  Intense acid texture to drink, bracing and sharp. Herbal with a varnich note. The wine balanced out with food, and I scored this Silver.

To my taste, a mixed bag this. Three great wines, one ok wine, and three that made up the numbers. Easy to see why the commentators who DB referred to wrote what they did about this vintage, and illuminated the wider issues with Brunello and variability.

That is the beauty of wine and terroir and the handmade nature of the finer examples I guess!

MS Brunello 3

Nice to take a few examples home to look at again at the kitchen table, and collect my thoughts.

Thanks to DB and Magnum for another fine and informative tasting. Thanks also for the delicious supper by TJ – a treat in itself!



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