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The 2012 Brunello Vintage is a Return to Finesse

Defying the intense heat of the growing season, many 2012 Brunellos have the vibrancy usually found in cooler vintages. They boast juicy red berry, noble tannins and impeccable balance that will allow them to age well for years. Out of the 140 Brunello 2012s I’ve tasted so far, 88 wines were rated 90 points or higher, with 20 earning 94 points or above. This vintage marked a return to finesse, enticing aromas and generally lower alcohol levels when compared to other recent releases.

The 2012s even have more consistent quality across the denomination than the highly acclaimed 2010s. The latter were a mixed bag divided between majestic wines boasting structure and finesse, and subpar wines marred by low acidity, cooked fruit and alcohol of 15% abv or more.

Quality is more uniform in 2012, but in terms of weather, 2012 was an undeniably difficult year. Unstable conditions included a cold, wet winter and an extremely hot, dry summer marked by late rains. But the extended heat wave was gentler on the grapes than the turbulent temperature changes of other past vintages.

According to Andrea Costanti of the Conti Costanti estate, “Unlike 2011, when scorching temperatures came on suddenly in August and left the grapes defenseless to adjust to the extreme heat, in 2012 the entire summer was hot and dry, so the grapes had the whole growing season to adapt. Grape quality was outstanding, with small bunches and small berries, which are ideal for Sangiovese.”

Constanti continued, “2012 was a great vintage in this part of the growing zone, where high vineyard altitudes generated fresher temperatures,” adding that in order to retain fresh acidity, he harvested a bit earlier than usual, starting on September 20th. The estate, which only makes a riserva bottling in exceptional vintages, will be releasing a 2012 riserva next year.

Though quality is high, quantity isn’t. 2012 will be remembered as the smallest crop in the last ten years, a result of heat and intense drought that reduced yields. Overall production was down 14% compared to 2011, but many producers have told me their production was far lower. “I had about 30% less grapes than normal in 2012,” says Costanti.

Due to low yields, producers performed less grape thinning than normal—a major factor in the finesse and balance behind many of the 2012s. Over the last two decades in Montalcino and other parts of Italy, excessive grape thinning combined with the hotter summer temperatures has often resulted in wines with lower acidity and higher alcohol levels. Excessive hang time—letting the grapes stay on the vine too long to try to further increase polyphenolic ripening for concentration—is another practice that proved especially detrimental in 2012.

“2012 was definitely a grape grower’s vintage, because what you did or didn’t do in the vineyards made all the difference,” said Filippo Paoletti, the winemaker at leading estate Lisini. “The intense, prolonged heat and drought of 2003 caught us all off guard, but at least we learned and were better prepared in 2012. Leaf canopy management was crucial, as was working the soil to keep churning up the humidity below.

“And harvest time was critical for acidity levels. I actually did two separate harvests, seven days apart. The earliest one was to capture fresh acidity and the later one for phenolic ripeness, color and structure,”

Paoletti and other producers point out that younger vines whose roots couldn’t reach the moisture below the surface suffered the most.

Less suitable parts of the growing zone, especially vineyards in lower altitudes, also suffered in 2012. It’s no coincidence that almost all of the highest scoring wines come from estates with the highest altitude vineyards around the town of Montalcino and around Sant’Angelo in Colle, where evening breezes cooled the grapes.

Although some of the just released Brunellos reflect the torrid temperatures by displaying evident alcohol and lower acidity, they are fortunately a minority. Overall, 2012 is a Sangiovese lover’s vintage. Here are 20 of my top-rated selections to date:

2012 Brunello di Montalcino: 20 Top-Rated Wines
Il Marroneto Madonna delle Grazie (Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group); $200, 99 points, Cellar Selection
Conti Costanti (Empson USA); $95, 98 points, Cellar Selection
Altesino Montosoli (Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group); $125, 97 points, Cellar Selection
Baricci (K&L Wine Merchants); $50, 96 points, Cellar Selection
Biondi Santi; $NA, 96 points, Cellar Selection
Le Chiuse (Frederick Wildman & Sons); $65, 96 points, Cellar Selection
Le Potazzine (Skurnik Wines); $85, 96 points, Cellar Selection     
Abbadia Ardenga Vigna Piaggia (Peter Warren Selections); $65, 95 points, Editors’ Choice          
Armilla (Omniwines Distribution); $63, 95 points
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona (Indigenous Selections); $70, 95 points, Cellar Selection
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Vigna di Pianrosso (Indigenous Selections); $90, 95 points, Cellar Selection
Fuligni (Empson USA); $95, 95 points, Cellar Selection    
Il Marroneto (Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group); $80, 95 points, Cellar Selection
L’Aietta (Indie Wineries); $75, 95 points, Cellar Selection
Ridolfi Mercatale (Wine Wine Situation); $75, 95 points, Cellar Selection
Altesino (Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group); $65, 94 points
Gianni Brunelli (de Grazia Imports); $65, 94 points
Lisini (Soilair Selections); $80, 94 points
Poggio di Sotto (Domaine Select Wine & Spirits); $290, 94 points
Ruffino Greppone Mazzi (Constellation Brands); $80, 94 points, Cellar Selection