Originally published on Living La Dolce Vita Wine Tours by Pat Thomson
Brunello 2016 outshines even the 5-star 2015 vintage
Last year, wine writers raved about the 2015 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino, including me. This year, we’re all shouting hosannas about 2016.
Both vintages were rated 5 stars by the Brunello Consortium. That’s exceedingly rare. Since 1945, it happened only once before: in 2006 and 2007. But the frequency of 5-star vintages is increasing, no doubt due to climate change. In the 40 years from 1945 to 1994, there were just nine vintages rated 5 stars. That compares to ten in the 25 years between 1995 to 2019 (the last vintage rated). Great for today’s Brunello drinkers, but not so great for the planet.
I can attest to the excellence of both vintages, thanks to a Wine Media Guild tasting of the 2016 Brunellos and 2015 Reserves. We had more or less 45 wines (a few bottles got stuck in transit).
Montalcino’s winemakers consider 2016 a “classic” vintage, whereas 2015 was a hot one. It’s a bit like the duel between 2000 and 2001, when the American press drooled over the hotter 2000 vintage, but winemakers back in Italy felt that 2001 was better — more classic and definitely more age-worthy. They proved right in the end.
When comparing the 2015 and 2016 vintages, Italian wine writer Daniele Cernilli called us Americans out on our tastes: “2015 has different characteristics that derive from weather conditions which make it more akin to Anglo-Saxon tastes [his emphasis], which include a more evolved bouquet, warmer fruit, and tends to privilege tannic opulence as a venue for complexity.
I think we can dismiss Cernilli’s comment, since American wine critics were united in praising the 2016 Brunellos. Across the board, these wines show a finesse and vibrancy that was pretty darned thrilling. The year’s exceptional weather — a mild winter with early budbreak, just enough rain in a cool spring, a warm but not excessively hot summer, and a picture-perfect September with low humidity and large diurnal temperature swings — created grapes that were fragrant, ripe, and in perfect balance. You can feel that in the wines.
I came prepared with a list of critics’ top picks, plus some wineries I know and love from our tours. Happily, they often intersect.
I first made a beeline for Le Chiuse’s 2016 Brunello di Montalcino, since Wine Enthusiast gave it a perfect 100 points. (I didn’t want to find the bottle drained dry by my fellow WMG members.) Plus, I like the owners, having visited the winery on our hikes down the north side of Montalcino’s towering hill. The Magnelli family is related to Ferruccio Biondi Santi, considered the father of Brunello, on the wife’s side, Simonetta Valiani. Their property used to grow grapes for Biondi Santi’s Brunello Reserves, but at a certain point, the two farms split up. The Magnellis first started making their own wine in 1993.
This 2016 was a beauty. It opened with aromas of violet typical of Le Chiuse, followed by crushed wild berries with savory undertones. The refined tannins and bright acidity will allow this one to be a keeper.
Close by is La Mannella, also in the north subzone towards the top of the hill. (For more on subzones in Montalcino, see my article “Brunello Basics.”) I haven’t been there in years, and that’s shame, because I was quite impressed with their Brunello 2016. That high altitude brings cooler temperatures, especially at night, which allows the vines to rest. That gives a brighter acidity to the wines compared to the lower, hotter subzones, and greater finesse. Owner Tommaso Cortonesi sticks with a traditional approach, using large Slavonian oak casks. I need get back to this estate ASAP.
La Gerla was new to me. Still in the north subzone, it too was once a Biondi Santi property. Businessman Sergio Rossi bought the land in 1976, then created the brand in 1978. Following his death in 2011, wife Donatella Monforte took over. La Gerla Brunello 2016 comes largely from vines planted in 1976, and it shows. The wine is packed with ripe blackberry fruit and shows whiffs of baking spice and worked leather. The texture is velvety, the acidity present but not sharp, and the finish long and mesmerizing.
Another favorite of mine came from Castello Tricerchi, located just below the DOCG’s northern border. I first discovered this winery in 2016 at a Benvenuto Brunello tasting. Though new to me, the Tricerchi family is old, dating back to the 1200s when it was part of the medieval oligarchy in Siena. Their fortified castle is every bit as impressive as the Montalcino fortress itself. In 1800, the property passed to an ancestor of the current owner, Tommaso Squarcia. In 2013, he and his uncle stopped selling grapes to the cooperative and kickstarted the winery under its present guise.
Whatever they’re doing, they should keep on doing it. I loved their 2016 Brunello A.D. 1441, a special selection from two vineyards. (Its name comes from the founding date of their castle.) It had plush, concentrated blackberry fruit; hints of spice; and a warm, enveloping nature. Unfortunately, they make only 2,000 bottles of this special Brunello.
I always find Castello Romitorio’s wines top notch, and their 2016 Brunello di Montalcino was no exception. Again, this vintage showed concentrated flavors (cherry compote, dried flower, leather), firm tannins that will grant long life, and an endless finish.
Here we’re west of town, in the Bosco subzone. This is another visually spectacular winery, not just because the main building was once a 12th century hermitage, then a 15th century fortress. It’s also because it belongs to Sandro Chia, a famous and idiosyncratic artist who has his sculptures, artwork, and personal objets d’art strewn about the winery like a living museum. His son, Filippo Chia, works with him in the winery and is a talented photographer to boot, as his photos hanging in the winery demonstrate. Visit this winery if you can.
Other exceptional 2016 Brunellos came from Carpineto, Col d’Orcia, Il Poggione, La Magia, and Poggio Antico. But this vintage was excellent in all four corners of the Brunello DOCG zone. So snap it up before it disappears.