The majority of the just-released 2017 Brunello di Montalcino wines reflect the scorching conditions of one of the hottest, driest years on record.
Of the 172 wines I blind tasted in my office in December 2021, most of the 2017 Brunellos were densely concentrated with evident alcohol. For Brunello connoisseurs, many have a worrying uniformity in terms of aroma, flavor and personality. As expected in such a hot year, except for some selections from top-performing estates, the 2017s generally show mature, stewed or dried black-skinned fruit and have brawny structures. They should be consumed within the next 5–7 years.
While abv (alcohol by volume) is ticking up across the globe due to climate change, 2017 marked a turning point in Montalcino. More than 20% of the 2017s I reviewed have an abv of 15% or more, with several clocking in at 15.5% and one at 16%. Given the permitted leeway of 0.5% between declared alcohol levels and actual amounts, this means wines in the latter group are likely closer to 15.5%, 16% and 16.5%, respectively.
Overall, the 2017s have more acidity than wines from other hot years because the plants shut down for a period as a defense against water stress, according to some producers. Others cite better vineyard management as the reason. Unfortunately, however, a number of the 2017s do remain unbalanced due to their heft and tannic backbones despite the acidity levels.
The heat and severe drought were responsible for about 20% less Brunello production overall with respect to 2016. Parts of the denomination were also hit by frost that April, mainly in the lower altitudes, resulting in a 5–15% loss of grapes for some producers. Due to the high temperatures and lack of water, grapes were smaller than usual and contained less liquid, increasing the concentration of the wines.
Know Your Producer
Despite the difficult conditions, some producers still managed to make stellar wines with the freshness and elegance that wine lovers expect from Brunello. These were mostly small estates that not only have higher-altitude vineyards that fare better in hot vintages, but whose skilled efforts pulled off nothing short of a miracle in 2017.
“I don’t decide when to harvest based on sugars and potential alcohol levels, but based on acidity,” says Francesco Mulinari, winemaker and owner of boutique winery L’Aietta.
With vineyard altitudes ranging from 1,280–1,640 feet above sea level, L’Aietta is one of Montalcino’s gems. Mulinari’s 2017 shows elegance and surprising energy for the vintage, thanks in part to his head-trained vines, called alberello in Italian, that are highly uncommon in Montalcino.
“My alberello vines withstand drought better than my Guyot-trained plants, because they retain more grape acidity,” says Mulinari.
He notes that it’s increasingly arduous to make wines with such elegance and vibrancy.
“I’ve been making Brunello for twenty years and every year my job is more difficult,” says Mulinari. “Between 2001 and 2010, I experienced one extremely hot, challenging vintage, 2003. But over the last decade this has increased to six tough vintages out of ten, with 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020 and 2021 all exceedingly hot and difficult.”
The vintage was challenging throughout the denomination, but those with vineyards in higher areas fared better.
“In 2017, I was terrified of making opulent wines,” says Lorenzo Magnelli, winemaker and co-owner of his family’s Le Chiuse estate. “With respect to other hot years like 2003, 2009 and 2011, 2017 was much drier. Because of the prolonged drought, the grape skins were much thicker than usual, and the berries were smaller, with less liquid than normal. To preserve freshness and elegance, I started harvesting earlier than ever, on the 6th and 7th of September.”
While higher altitudes and their cooler temperatures were important, Magnelli points out that soil also played a large role.
“Soil type was critical in 2017,” he says. “Clay that could retain moisture performed better than rockier, well-draining soils, but only if the grower consistently worked the soils to avoid that they hardened up.”
In the cellar, Magnelli did a shorter maceration, 18 days instead of 22 or 23. He aged the wines for two-and-a-half years in oak casks instead of the usual three to keep them from evolving too much and too fast, and gave the wines more time in the bottle.
“To preserve freshness, the largest grapes went into Brunello and the smallest into Rosso di Montalcino, just the opposite of what I normally do,” says Magnelli.
Thanks to these efforts, Le Chiuse’s 2017 Brunello has the firm’s renowned pedigree, finesse and freshness.
From some of the highest vineyards in Montalcino, Gigliola Giannetti, who co-owns Le Potazzine with her daughters, makes perfumed, vibrant wines, including her lovely 2017. But at one point, she had doubts about this vintage.
“In 2017, there was no rain for five and a half months and by mid-May, we already had high, summer-like temperatures,” says Giannetti. “By August, I was afraid we’d be making a wine more like Primitivo than Brunello, especially because we ferment with native yeasts and no temperature control.”
Besides not defoliating the leaf canopy at all, switching from the widely diffused spurred cordon to the Guyot training system has been key, she says, because “Guyot offers more choices in terms of managing hot years.” Widely present in the denomination until the 1970s and 1980s, Brunello producers renounced Guyot in favor of spurred cordon, not only because spurred cordon facilitates more mechanization in the vineyards, but also because it encourages Sangiovese to produce fewer and smaller bunches and smaller grapes with more polyphenols. Spurred cordon is still prevalent but, as a sign of the times, more Montalcino producers are converting to Guyot.
While producer reputation and consistency has always been the best guarantee for Brunello, it is absolutely essential for navigating the 2017s.
Last Updated: September 28, 2022