by Tim Atkin

Juel Mahoney’s take on 2006 Brunello di Montalcino vintage

There’s something reminiscent of Fashion Week about the Benvenuto Brunello event in Montalcino, with visitor passes, photographers, security guards and large tents. Amongst it all, this is where I tasted the latest vintage of 2006 Brunello di Montalcino.

Imagine tall, angular-boned models with chiselled cheekbones, wearing black and strutting down a catwalk. Then imagine the same models freshly-scrubbed, without heels and wearing absolutely no make-up. Some models will always look like goddesses, but some models in their natural state only leave you wondering about the ethics of the fashion industry. This is my first impression of the 2006 vintage of Brunello: some wines have always had the good basics, while others are struggling without the “make-up” of other grape varieties; which, inadvertently, raises questions about Brunello di Montalcino as a whole.

The 2006 vintage is the first year after the Brunello scandal and the suspected sofisticazione of the regulation 100% Sangiovese with the “make-up” of French or other varieties. Why would winemakers want to anything other than Sangiovese to their wines? Perhaps one reason is Sangiovese in Montalcino is as temperamental as Pinot Noir in Burgundy, if not more so for it is grown only in one small town. Traditionally it is a tender, light colour, which may come as a shock for wine drinkers more accustomed to forceful, full-bodied Shiraz or Cabernet. As in other regions dependent on a single grape variety, if there is a problem in the vineyard it cannot be blended away.

The sofisticazione did not happen everywhere, of course; some wineries have always made Brunello with 100% Sangiovese. But it does appear 2006 was the year when some winemakers were coming to terms with the ramifications of what was called, “Brunellogate”. Some of the wines, as Italian wine critic Franco Zilliani puts it, taste as if “a work in progress and a blatant effort to get back to basics, that is to the Sangiovese vineyards of Montalcino.”

In the previous 10-15 years, some wineries may have moved away from the traditional techniques suited for dealing with100% Sangiovese and, as a result, the wine in the glass seems to struggling with the outcomes of having to change their vinification practices in a relatively short period of time.

Whether the sofisticazione fall-out is the full reason or not, some 2006 Brunellos taste as though they have been picked too early, and taste green; some have too much French oak; and some have been picked too late and are too ripe leaving the impression they will age too quickly – a good drink-now wine but nothing to treasure in the years ahead. For those who love Brunello, if it can not be aged then this is a wasted investment. There is nothing better than aged Brunello, which really only comes alive after about the same amount of time it has been in barrel, around four to five years after release.

The good news — and there is good news! – I am thrilled to say the colour of the wines across the board has returned to that of classic 100% Sangiovese. In itself, this is a joy. Brunello is the affectionate name for Sangiovese in Montalcino and means “light brown” in Italian. Picture a highly-extracted, warm-climate, inky-purple Shiraz: now think the exact opposite. The best Brunello are clear ruby with brick tinges when young and some of the best Brunello of my life have been faded and delicate like pressed rose petals treasured inside a diary for years.

Overall, the general consensus at the Benvenuto Brunello tasting was that 2006 is a 4-star vintage (not a 5-star vintage as James Suckling and the Brunello Consorzio have predicted). The quality is high generally but there were very, very few magical (mythical?) 100-point wines. The 2006 Brunello are more approachable than 2004, which is a longer-term drinking prospect, but have better “bone structure” than 2005 which is a little flabbier, although drinking well.

Looking back over my notes some names jump out, most of them traditional Brunello producers: Salvioni, Altesino, Lisini, Mastrojanni, Sesti, Argiano, Poggione, La Fornace and Uccelliera. Top mention to Fuligni.

Piro Sacenti was looking very young and disjointed but I have faith it will come together in the long term to be a very attractive wine if the oak integrates a little more.

Wines I would like to mention for their distinct flair are: La Poderina, Canalicchio di Sopra and the very small winery of Querce Bettina.

Unlike the 2006 Brunello di Montalcino, the other wine released at the same time, 2009 Rosso di Montalcino, is a mixed bag: I did not taste them all but from the 26 wines I tasted, there was no line of style through the wines presented. Some wines tasted better than the Brunellos while others were just punk Sangiovese with a sense of nihilism about their actual existence. This is part of the problem which is currently being addressed by the Consorzio and winemakers in Montalcino. (I will write about this more in another article).

Rosso di Montalcinos of note: Agostina Pieri, Uccelliera, Salvioni, Talenti.

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