Brunello 2016 Report: Finesse, Longevity and the Elephant in the Room | Wine Enthusiast
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Brunello 2016 Report: Finesse, Longevity and the Elephant in the Room

After the incredible success of the 2016 Barolos that debuted last year, the clamor surrounding the just-released 2016 Brunellos has been almost deafening.

So, do the 2016 Brunellos live up to the intense hype? Overall, yes.

These wines are far superior to the 2015s, the product of an extremely hot year that was erratic and didn’t live up to its own hype. The 2016s are even better than the highly acclaimed 2010s and are in line with classic vintages like 2004 and 2001.

I tasted 199 of these new releases between December and January, and I gave three of them 100 points. It’s the first time I’ve ever given three wines from the same denomination a perfect score in a single vintage.

For the most part, 2016 is a Brunello lover’s dream, full of vibrant, structured wines with elegance, energy and longevity. When made with expert hands that carefully tend the vineyards, as opposed to relying on invasive cellar practices, distinct areas within Montalcino’s multifaceted growing zone shine with pristine precision in 2016. This trait was also clearly seen in the ever-increasing number of single-vineyard Brunello bottlings.

However, there are also challenges facing the denomination. Given the near-perfect climatic conditions, the amount of monolithic wines with soaring alcohol levels and dense concentration surprised me. These are usually a result of much hotter, drier years.

Vintage and subzones

It’s always difficult to generalize vintages in Montalcino. Vineyard altitudes range from 320 to 2,165 feet above sea level, and average summer temperatures and rainfall vary significantly from north to south.

Having said that, 2016 was a great year throughout the denomination.

“It was an ideal year for Sangiovese; it rained at the right times and had abundant sun and warm temperatures but no heat spikes during the growing season,” says Gigliola Gianetti, owner of Le Potazzine. “Rain in mid-September made us nervous but this was followed by dry, breezy weather that allowed for uniform ripening and healthy grapes at harvest.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever given three wines from the same denomination a perfect score in a single vintage.

The stars aligned in terms of weather, starting with a cold winter that disinfected the vines and plenty of rain in January and February that replenished water reserves, crucial after the scorching 2015. A cool, rainy spring was a return to classic years.

By flowering in May, plants were in excellent health. July and August were warm and dry while August boasted marked day and night temperature ranges. Rain in September was compensated by good ventilation and marked diurnal temperature changes that kept grapes healthy.

Thanks to the optimal weather patterns, wine lovers will find a number of excellent 2016 Brunellos that combine fruit richness, tannic power, finesse and freshness. The best are radiant, delicious and full of nervous tension. They have the structure to age well for 20–30 years at least.

The elephant in the room

Of the nearly 200 wines I tasted from the vintage, more than 10% of them listed their abv (alcohol by volume) at 15%, and one was 15.5%. Given the half point of flexibility allowed on Italian labels, these are potentially closer to 15.5% and 16%, respectively.

A few of these high-octane Brunellos showed class and aging potential, but most were clunky and one-dimensional, with notes of stewed fruit and the heat of evident alcohol. Unlike hotter vintages in Montalcino, during which low-lying areas in the south suffer more, these overblown 2016s hailed from throughout Montalcino and depended not on location, but on producer experience and what growers did or didn’t do in the vineyards.

Brunello di Montalcino grapes

Giacomo Bartolommei, winemaker at his family’s Caprili estate, which is located in one of the hottest, driest areas of Montalcino, says his team prioritizes balance and finesse after several years of making concentrated, high-alcohol Brunellos.

“Between 2008 and 2012, alcohol levels got away from us, so we started focusing more on vineyard management to create balance,” says Bartolommei. “Now we defoliate much later, just a week before harvest. We also thin out the bunches later, about two weeks before the harvest to avoid over-maturation of the grapes that results in higher sugars and alcohol.”

Some producers continue to defoliate too early, however, or perform exasperated crop thinning and leave grapes on the vines too long in the quest for perfect phenolic maturation.

“Phenolic maturation is important, but with climate change, to achieve it you often lose other parameters, like fresh acidity,” says Giacomo. “We’re looking for overall balance and to make more elegant, ageworthy wines.”

If producers across Montalcino used to have difficulty reaching 13% abv, keeping wines below 15% is the current challenge.

Enologist Paolo Vagaggini, who works with a number of top Montalcino estates, says rising temperatures aren’t the only culprit.

“More than high temperatures, increased sunlight is causing more intense photosynthesis that in turn is leading to more sugar accumulating in the grapes,” says Vagaggini. This higher sugar content translates into higher alcohol levels after fermentation.

Another factor in these brawny Brunellos is the increased plant density in modern vineyards. Many were planted just before climate change became a known threat and back when consumers favored densely concentrated wines. “What people don’t realize when they plant a vineyard is that it’s supposed to last 100 years,” says Vagaggini.

The wines to try

Even in years like 2016, the golden rule when choosing Brunello is that producer reputation and consistency are the best guarantee. This will be even more important next year when the 2017s are released from what was one of the hottest years ever recorded.

Le Chiuse 2016 Brunello di Montalcino; $99, 100 points. This gorgeous wine opens with fragrant aromas of violet, wild berry, new leather, tilled earth and spice. Showing the estate’s hallmark elegance, structure and precision, the focused, full-bodied palate delivers cherry, crushed raspberry, star anise and tobacco before finishing on a note of black tea. Taut, refined tannins and bright acidity keep it vibrant and balanced. Drink 2024–2046. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd. Cellar Selection.

Il Marroneto 2016 Madonna delle Grazie (Brunello di Montalcino); $350, 100 points. This dazzling wine is for Sangiovese purists and fans of extreme finesse. Opening with tantalizing aromas of rose, violet, berry, tilled earth and new leather, it’s youthfully intense but already a classic. Focused, structured and radiant, the chiseled palate delivers cherry, raspberry, licorice and crushed mint before a tobacco close. Taut, refined tannins and bright acidity keep it perfectly balanced. Drink 2026–2046. LLS–Winebow. Cellar Selection.

Even in years like 2016, the golden rule when choosing Brunello is that producer reputation and consistency are the best guarantee.

Fuligni 2016 Brunello di Montalcino; $112, 99 points. Enticingly fragrant, this opens with heady aromas of rose, violet, new leather, truffle and balsamic whiffs of camphor. Vibrant and focused, the chiseled, elegant palate is all about finesse, delivering bright red cherry, orange zest, licorice and white pepper framed in taut, refined tannins. Bright acidity keeps it superbly balanced and fresh. It’s already drinking beautifully but hold for even more complexity. Drink 2024–2036. Empson USA Ltd. Cellar Selection.

Conti Costanti 2016 Brunello di Montalcino; $119, 99 points. This savory stunner has enticing scents of violet, rose and wild berry that gain complexity alongside notes of leather, camphor and sandalwood. The elegantly structured palate is all about precision, featuring juicy cherry, blood orange, star anise and tobacco framed in taut, refined tannins. Bright acidity keeps it energized. Drink 2024–2046. Empson USA Ltd. Cellar Selection.

Le Potazzine 2016 Brunello di Montalcino; $139, 99 points. Earthy aromas of blue flower, rose, underbrush and leather mingle together on this gorgeous, fragrant red. All about finesse and flavor, the medium-bodied palate is absolutely delicious, featuring juicy morello cherry, crushed raspberry, baking spice, star anise and the barest hint of game. It’s radiant and beautifully balanced thanks to taut, polished tannins and bright acidity. It’s already showing incredibly well but hold for even more complexity. Drink 2022–2036. Skurnik Wines, Inc. Cellar Selection.