Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino came back to San Francisco with the Benvenuto Brunello tasting series after a 6 year hiatus. On the 24th floor of the venerable Fairmont Hotel with a view worthy of a presidential visit, and on the wings of the much hyped 2010 Brunello di Montalcino vintage, this was a highly anticipated Italian event.
2010 has been a great great year for wine in the major regions of France and Italy. But as Brunello requires extended (5-year) aging before release, only now are they rolling on to the market, after most other regions. Given what we have seen from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Barolo, Chianti and Tuscany IGT, the recent "best ever Brunello vintage" declaration by James Suckling drove masses to this event, hoarding space at the tables and elbowing their room to spit buckets and cheese trays. (Is it too much to ask of the esteemed members of the trade the simple etiquette to get your pour and move out of the way?)
After tasting through three dozen or so wines, I am scratching my head. Whether you should be disappointed or excited really depends on your perspective here. For a lover of Brunello, this is an excellent vintage, that has depth, concentration, body, good acidity, typicity of flavors, velvety textures and fine tannins. In other words, very good, or excellent, or outstanding, or modern classic, or whatever terms people in the trade will use to hype it up. Of course, the bombastic James Suckling pronounced this a "greatest modern vintage... They represent a new paradigm for Tuscany’s unique Sangiovese-based red...Vintages like this don't come along very often." Or acccoding to K&L's Italian expert Greg St.Clair: "I’ve never had anything like it before, the wines are so good, so incredibly... well, they are just incredible. You’ll be experiencing something that has never been seen before..."
Based on this tasting, if you love and need more Brunello, there is quality and consistency across the board in 2010. But let me tell you, if you are not a devout fan of Brunello, this vintage is not going to turn you into one. Simple as that. While the wines are good, I am not sure they are better than 2006's or dramatically better than a string of several good vintages in Montalcino I have tasted in the past decade. If you already have plenty of Brunello in your cellar, I see no reason to over-stock on 2010. The possible incremental improvement in quality is just not enough, in my opinion, to make me want to back up the truck on this. Perhaps they are a touch more concentrated and darker (graphite, black cherry) than 2006's, more like 2007's but without the jamminess. Solid wines, but jaw-droppingly, amazingly thrilling? I think not. In my view, it's different from Burgundy, where in general I see less consistency between vintages and flavor profiles, and the highs and lows are insanely dramatic. The best thing about Brunello, in my opinion is - many are well-priced in around $40-60 range, and will provide enjoyable drinking over a number of years. They are easier to understand and probably more reliable (just like a California Cab) than Burgundy, Barolo, and Rioja, yet, with all due respect, will never provide the ethereal, haunting qualities those other regions are capable of. (Is it pretty clear where my personal preferences reside?)
While none blew me away, there were a couple of stand-outs at the tasting, and in addition, many very good wines that one cannot go wrong with. (Note: I tasted about 2/3 of the wines before palate exhaustion set it, so I may have missed some highlights). The following two wines with nearly opposite styles were my absolute favorites at the tasting, very different yet equally compelling.
2010 Villa le Prata Brunello - dark, juicy, black cherries, spice, tobacco. Taut, focused, well-sculpted wine that is muscular and luxurious at the same time. Delicious! I also tasted the 2009 Brunello and 2007 riservas. The 2009 was softer, more pliant and less focused, with more obvious tannins, but still nice. The 2007 Massimo Riserva was a big impressive wine, more powerful than the 2010, with leather, mint, stronger tannins, black cherry, tar, a bit less focused and chiseled than 2010, but very good too. Overall, a very memorable showing by this winery.
2010 La Poderina Brunello - cakey, yummy nose. Soft, airy, beautifully fluffy and elegant wine (no perceptible tannins, though at that point I had just snacked on some cheese, which may have neutralized the tannins), spicy strawberries, hints of leather. I also tried the 2009 Riserva Poggio Abate - tannic, but still soft texturally, with more pronounced leather component, pretty good.
and the rest of the memorable upper echelon:
2010 Le Ragnaie Brunello - spicy plum, hints of animal, tobacco / leather, focus, fine tannins, not bad! They also had two single vineyard bottlings: Vigna Vecchia (old vines) and Fornace. The Vigna Vecchia was similar to the previous wine, but with slightly more balance and tannin. Good! The Fornace was even more yummy - sweet, cakey, spicy. Strong showing by Le Ragnaie.
2010 Il Poggione Brunello - juicy, nice focus, spicy dark cherries, velvety texture, some tannins. Nice! (That's Alessandro Bindocci, the winemaker of Il Poggione, on the photo below.)
2010 Caprili Brunello - very focused, graphite, spice, tannin, black cherry and plum, smoke. Nice!
2010 Castello Banfi Brunello Poggio Alle Mura - soft, spicy, beef jerky, velvety, cake, soft tannins. Nice!
2010 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello - big structured wine, plums, black cherries, tobacco. Deeper, darker (as in graphite) and more concentrated than their 2006's, sleek and muscular, but I am not sure if I like it better.
2010 Uccelliera Brunello - leather, blood, spice, cream, very tasty!
2010 Col d'Orcia Brunello - plush, velvety, spicy cherry and spicy tomato, leather, tobacco. I also tasted the 2001 and 2007 Riserva Poggio al Vento. The 2007 riserva had slightly milky nose and palate, spicy, leathery cherry/plum, cured meat, smoke, quite nice. The 2001 riserva was yummy, with obviously some secondary development, bright with red cherries and strawberries, leather, spice, smoke, and still noticeable tannins. They also poured a fun 2010 Moscadello di Montalcino sweet white called Pascena, made from Moscato Bianco (white muscat).
2010 Lisini Brunello - nose: wood barrel, iron, spice. Palate: spice, raspberry tea, gentle tannins, quite silky. Not bad!
2010 Sasseti Livio Pertimali Brunello - nose: leather, spicy tomato, pepper, port. Palate: stronger tannins than others, borscht, spicy cherries and spicy tomato. Pretty interesting. Not bad!
Update: Canalicchio di Sopra and Valdicava
A few days later, a local wine shop conducted a more in-depth tasting of two of the coveted producers - Canalicchio di Sopra and Valdicava, who presented their 2010's side by side with the 2006's. This was a fantastic way to contrast the two exalted vintages. Tasting them together made it very obvious (to me) that comparing which vintage is "better" is kind of a futile exercise. Both vintages are excellent, the 2010 is darker with more graphite / tarry quality, and perhaps slightly silkier (less pronounced) tannins. 2010 didn't come across as more powerful or heavier by comparison. Both possess balance and precision. 2006 is showing redder fruit and more sweetness at the moment, I think partly due to some development from age. The alcohol levels are comparable. It was also interesting to note that Riserva's were indeed an obvious step up from the main bottlings. Not only are riservas aged longer, but also they are made from specially selected best grapes, and it shows in the finished wines.
Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra in the photo below was very confident about both the 2006 and 2010, as well as the "under the radar" 2008, which he believes will prove its worth over time as well. That said, there was no riserva in 2008 and 2009, which speaks for itself. While both the 2010 and 2006 Brunello were excellent, the 2006 Riserva is even better, a fantastic wine. He noted that he prefers his Brunello at around 20 years of age.
Vincenzo Abrusezzi of Valdicava (in the photo below) said the 2010 is a step up in quality for the winery, a vintage that according to him, has "everything" - and establishes a new standard. The 2010 was delicious and elegant. Dark, tarry, full of graphite, black cherry, hints of black pepper and mushroom. Powerful but at the same time not opulent, jammy or overdone. James suckling awarded it 99 points, while the 2006 Valdicava Brunello received 97. Interestingly, the 2006 has more pronounced tannins even now, which is a testament to the refinement of 2010, I suppose. The 2009 Madonna del Piano Riserva (white label) was also quite good, although less concentrated and focused than 2010 and 2006, and with more drying tannins. The 2006 Brunello Madonna del Piano Riserva was the best of the line-up - smoother and richer, but still supremely elegant and structured - it got 100 points from James Suckling. Excellent wines with great structure, focus, acidity and balance, slightly darker and silkier than Canalicchio di Sopra, and also costing 50-100% more. Vincenzo was somewhat dismissive of the Benvenuto Brunello event, and Tre Bicchieri / Gambero Rosso, for that matter. He considers Valdicava in an elite class, and doesn't want to get "bundled" with tons of other wineries at a big tasting. Regarding critics' influence, he mentioned that Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, and James Suckling have the power to "move the bottles", everyone else is "just talking" (I wonder if he just forgot Antonio Galloni). Vincenzo commented that he enjoys drinking Valdicava starting at 3 years from release up to 25. Beautiful packaging for Valdicava, by the way, both their regular and their riserva, very classy.