Brunello vs Chianti - the battle at Ross Bott

It is Thursday, March 5, 2009. Six Chiantis, two Brunello di Montalcino's. All from the great 1990 vintage in Italy. Unusually full Ross Bott gathering, not enough space at the tables, spilling over to the couch. Guess people are into Italian... Certainly me, lately. Same grape (Sangiovese), same vintage ('90), same region (Tuscany). Can the crowd of 20 tell Brunellos from the Chiantis?

From the mailer by Ross Bott, the organizer:
The 1990 vintage was a spectacular one in Tuscany, one of the best of the twentieth century. The summer was very hot, and the harvest began in the first week of September, one of the earliest on record. Yields were low, and the grapes were small and very concentrated. Wine Spectator's description of the Brunellos and Chiantis of this vintage was "Super structure; powerful and ripe yet balanced" and ranked it 98/100, their highest rating for any Tuscan vintage since they started their reviews.

Tonight we'll try six Chianti Riservas (including four single vineyard bottlings) and two Brunellos from this great vintage. The wines were initially powerful and concentrated, and many are just beginning to reach their peak now, 19 years after the harvest.

Ross Bott tasting format that I have described at length in the past, requires that you blindly rate and rank 8 wines in the order of preference (or quality?). I am still unsure actually which one - preference or quality, as each participant seems to have their own idea on that, which is part of the beauty of the colorful crowd that comes to Ross Bott events. The majority of folks seem to be in hi-tech - not sure if there is a correlation to wine or to SF/Palo Alto area -- I think both. Personally, I always aim to have the smallest deviation (aka "edit distance") from the average aggregate rating of the whole group, and anything less than 10 (for 8 wines) is generally good by my standard.

I wrote about Brunello di Montalcino before. It is the crème de la crème of the Sangiovese grape variety, the highest expression of Tuscan viticulture, and pride and joy of Montalcino. But does it last?


Here is the final group rank, from best to worst, with Ross Bott's commentary supplied ahead of the tasting, and my own rank:
1. 1990 Argiano "Riserva", Brunello di Montalcino (13.5%): "One of the biggest wines of this tasting, this should age for years to come. Full-bodied, with masses of fruit and tannins and flavors of berries, tobacco and cedar that go on and on. A monumental Brunello. Best after 2000." (95/100, Wine Spectator). My rank: 1. Nose: nice fruit. Taste: high acidity, black cherry, not much fruit, tannic.
2. 1990 Fornacina, Brunello di Montalcino (13%): Fornacina is Brunello-only specialist founded in 1981 just outside of the town of Montalcino. They have a total of 12.5 acres of vineyards and produce only 2000 cases of Brunello and Brunello Riserva. My rank: 2. Nose: sweet cooked plum. Taste: still bright, aggressive, tingly, plum.
3. 1990 Frescobaldi "Montesodi", Chianti Rufino (12.5%): "Big and powerful, with masses of fruit and tannins" (90/100, Wine Spectator) Montesodi is a separate vineyard that is part of the Frescobaldi estate vineyards, and produces by some experts views the darkest and richest Chianti in the whole appellation. Although it is sometimes mistaken for a Cabernet when young because of its color and structure, it is in fact 100% Sangiovese. My rank: 5.
4. 1990 San Leonino "Riserva", Chianti Classico (13.5%): San Leonino is located in Castellina in the Chianti Classico region. A relatively large estate (about 250 acres), it is planted primarily to Sangiovese, with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Canaiolo. Their 1990 Riserva was one of their best ever. My rank: 3.
5. 1990 Castello della Paneretta "Riserva", Chianti Classico (13.5%): Castello della Paneretta is a winery in a beautiful old castle. Built in the 1500s, it overlooks San Gimignano, and wine has been made there since at least 1596. There are a total of 27 acres of vineyards, planted mostly to Sangiovese. My rank: 7.
6. 1990 Dievole "Novecento", Chianti Classico (12.5%): "The 1990 Novecento Chianti Classico is a sweeter, richer, plumper style of Chianti than the 1988 Chianti Classico Riserva, with greater depth and more complexity. It possesses an excellent briary fruit character accompanied by vague components of cedar, tobacco, and new saddle leather, plenty of ripe fruit, suppleness, and medium to full body." (Robert Parker). My rank: 6.
7. 1990 Dievole "Dieulele", Chianti Classico (12.5%): Located in the small village of Dievole near Siena, this winery has always been an innovator. More in the modern style, they produce rich, structured, long-lived Chiantis. This Dieulele is a reserve bottling made from the best barrels from their Sessina, Columbaio and Massoni vineyards. It is made from 90% Sangiovese and 10% native Tuscan varietals. My rank: 4.
8. 1990 Rocca Di Castagnoli "Riserva - Poggio a' Frati", Chianti Classico (13.5%): "The muscular, full-bodied, tannic 1990 Chianti Classico Riserva Poggio a Frati reveals a dark garnet color with an amber edge, followed by sweet, earth, charcoal, gamey, cherry-like fruit interspersed with a whiff of cedar and tobacco. There is significant richness and extract in this old style, somewhat tannic, dense, medium to full-bodied wine, which could turn out to be outstanding if the tannin melts away and the fruit holds. It is a concentrated, traditionally made, serious, muscular, powerhouse Chianti designed to last 10-15+ years." (Robert Parker) My rank: 8. My note: clearly this was the worst wine of the line-up, although one person marked it as his #1! - as it was noticeably oxidized, but in his defense - not terrible.

All wines were alive. My edit distance was 8 and I was happy. The 2 Brunellos maintained their power and vigor. All 8 had started turning from cherry to plum, some having a very obvious black tea component on both the nose and palate. It was clear that Brunellos and Chiantis could stand the test of time, though they all seemed to be past their peak years.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, it is true - the wines that were supposed to win, did! And the most expensive one came out on top. The cynics in the audience cringed. And I chuckled -- sometimes it is that simple - you get what you pay for.


Anonymous said…
What is your overall impression of the sangiovese grape compared to grapes like nebbiolo, pinot, cab and merlot? Do you see yourself buying those wines? Where do they fit at the table?

Interesting comment about not wanting to deviate from the group in your evaluation. What the #$%&! Can't understand the reasoning behind that. Maybe you could do two scorings: yours and a prediction of the group's.

My experience is that Italian wine of that period is rarely characteristic of recent wines, just as an '85 Special Select is completely different from current releases. They are from the pre-WS era.
Iron Chevsky said…
Good questions, Eric.
Still working on the sangiovese vs nebbiolo, but to me Italian wines and Sangiovese in particular have the zingy acidity that just begs pasta with red sauce, or osso-buco, or veal parmigiana and a slew of other italian cuisine. Though truth be told, I think most Italian reds (particularly not from the South) share that bright acidity. That tingly zinginess of the is what sets them apart for me from other wine countries of the world. Even Super-Tuscans have that, though they add a dimension and roundness of Cab/Merlot. Not sure about buying Brunellos at their high price points ($50+), after having tasted impressive barolos and barbarescos lately, as well as some unexpectedly delicious, deep, and round barberas. If I want something zingy to go with my mid-week italian meal, I am likely to reach for a $15-20 Chianti than a Brunello. I am looking forward to trying more Brunellos at wine dinners to refine my appreciation for them, and especially to pin them against great Barolos/Barbarescos and Barberas. Let's see if Hector and Krishna are up to the challenge!

Regarding not wanting to deviate from the group... I do score the wines the way I see, smell, and taste them. The group score helps me calibrate my palate retrospectively against other experienced people (many far more experienced than myself).

Hard to tell, all in all, whether those pre-WS era wines were "better" or "worse", since at 19 years of age, they are clearly ain't what they used to be. Would I look for these 1990 bottlings now - not really. As crazy as I am about aged Burgundies, Bordeaux, and Rieslings, these aged wines did not blow me away by any stretch of the imagination. Would I turn away, if offered at a dinner - no way - bring them on!
Anonymous said…
My personal insight (having spent all of four hours with Gary:)

He is crafting himself into a serious wine critic, and for that craft, being able to tell what other critics will like may be the most important skill of all!

As for myself, I enjoy vanilla and soft tannins so Parker and Rolland already have me pegged...and my favorite of this tasting was the San Leonino Chianti (much less expensive than either Brunello, if you could find ANY of these 1990s today, thank you Ross Bott)

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