If you follow Italian wine, you’ve likely heard the buzz surrounding the just-released 2015 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino, with many pundits claiming it’s one of the best vintages ever. Coming on the heels of the washout 2014 vintage, unsurprisingly, a number of local wine makers have been touting the greatness of 2015 well before its official 2020 release.
Time for a reality check.
With few exceptions, vintages are almost never even across the board in Montalcino. Variations between altitudes, soils and microclimates, as well as producer experience and styles, make such sweeping acclaim almost impossible to apply to Brunello. But in all my years of tasting Brunello, never have I seen a vintage with such an erratic performance like 2015.
An overall hot and dry vintage, there are some drop-dead gorgeous 2015 Brunellos. But there’s also an unprecedented number of high alcohol wines clocking in at 15% alcohol by volume (abv), some even 15.5%, that lack freshness and balance. And while a minority, in between these two extremes are some lean wines with restrained alcohol, but unripe fruit.
Here’s your 2015 Brunello breakdown—the good, the bad and the ugly—to help you make sense of this “buyer beware” vintage.
The good news is that there are some stunning 2015 Brunellos, like Il Marroneto’s Madonna delle Grazie that earned one of my rare 100-point ratings. Loaded with finesse, it’s vibrant, impeccably balanced and one of the few from the vintage with serious aging potential.
Of the more than 200 wines reviewed, 18 bottlings scored 95 points or higher. Many of my top wines come from high-altitude vineyards that generally perform better in hot, dry vintages. Most hail from the denomination’s standout producers that have years, if not generations, of winemaking experience.
While the classic areas just south and north of the town of Montalcino did well overall, this vintage depended more on what producers did, or didn’t do, in the vineyards as opposed to specific subzones. Even some of the most renowned areas of the denomination had mixed results.
The year began with a dry winter that led into a rather dry spring, with temperatures that rose in June.
July was exceptionally hot, as temperatures reached over 40°C (104°F) mid-month and brought drought conditions. August also had little rainfall. Rain fell the first week of September and cooled things down, but temperatures rose again mid-month.
Harvest time is always a major factor. With fickle Sangiovese, when to pick in hot, dry years is pivotal.
“2015 wasn’t as hot as 2003 or 2011, but it was still consistently hot and dry, with intense, constant sunlight during the growing season. Picking at ideal maturation was critical because waiting even just three or four days more led to overripe grapes,” says Lorenzo Magnelli, co-owner/winemaker of the family-run Le Chiuse. “When grapes are overripe, you lose the elegance, precision and freshness of a quintessential Brunello.”
Magnelli, among the first to harvest in his area north of Montalcino, made a standout 2015.
Although some producers are understandably hyping up the 2015 vintage—the polar opposite of cool and wet 2014—it’s not one of the best vintages of all time for Brunello. The number of unbalanced wines with blistering alcohol and cooked fruit shows how Sangiovese suffers in hot, dry vintages, which has become the new normal. And this isn’t a question of personal preference. The majority of these high-octane wines don’t have the fruit and fresh acidity to balance them out. It makes them a chore to consume, and they lack aging potential.
If picking when grapes were overripe resulted in brawny, one-dimensional wines, producers that picked too early ended up with lean wines with raw fruit sensations.
“Sangiovese has difficulty defending itself in hot years,” says enologist Paolo Salvi. “Turning the soil to keep the ground moist, careful canopy management and not defoliating too much to avoid exposing grapes to the sun are crucial.”
Salvi, who tasted for years with the late Sangiovese maestro Giulio Gambelli, collaborates with various Tuscan estates like Le Potazzine in Montalcino.
“I recently tried about a hundred 2015 Brunellos and despite the heat, overall the year was better than I expected, thanks to the commitment of producers,” he says. “So while it ended up a good year, it’s not one to go crazy over.”
Thankfully, despite the challenges, some producers nailed it and made exceptional 2015 Brunellos with juicy fruit, freshness and balance. While some show good aging potential, most of the top wines will need just a few years to come around, but should maintain well for another eight to 10 years.
The 2016 vintage on the other hand (out in 2021), promises to be a truly outstanding year in Montalcino thanks to near perfect growing conditions for Sangiovese. Barrel tastings show 2016 has the potential for fragrant, structured and focused wines that boast finesse and serious longevity.
Il Marroneto Madonna delle Grazie (LLS-Winebow) $300, 100 points. Cellar Selection.
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Pianrosso (Indigenous Selections) $79, 98 points. Cellar Selection.
Conti Costanti (Empson USA Ltd) $150, 98 points.
Fuligni (Empson USA Ltd) $80, 98 points. Editors’ Choice.
Le Chiuse (Frederick Wildman & Sons) $110, 98 points.
Le Potazzine (Skurnik Wines, Inc.) $100, 97 points.
Armilla (Omniwines Distribution) $70, 96 points. Editors’ Choice.
Castelgiocondo (Shaw-Ross International Importers) $75, 96 points. Editors’ Choice.
Le Ragnaie Casanovina Montosoli (Vine Street Imports) $175, 96 points. Cellar Selection.
Talenti (Wolfpack Worldwide LLC) $50, 96 points. Editors’ Choice.
Energy and elegance are hallmarks of the 2013 Brunello vintage. These wines boast remarkable aging potential, and will greatly reward your patience.
By Kerin O’Keefe
If you want to experience the energy, elegance and ageworthy structure that first drew wine lovers and collectors to Brunello di Montalcino decades ago, then 2013 is your vintage.
A classic vintage, the best 2013s boast remarkable aging potential not seen in years. In a tasting of 181 of the just-released Brunellos, 112 wines were rated 90 points or higher, while 21 received 95 points or more. One even earned a perfect score of 100.
The top wines are stunning, with a radiance missed in many of the muscular, more approachable and higher alcohol Brunellos from recent vintages. The 2013s will require patience to reach their maximum potential.
Unlike the extremely warm, dry years that have become the norm in Montalcino since the mid-1990s (exceptions include 1998, 2002 and 2005), the 2013 vintage was a blast from the past. It was a cool year, with abundant rainfall in spring and the first part of the summer. Careful vineyard management was needed to keep the grapes free of disease.
The 2013 growing season proved incredibly long and slow. Cooler temperatures prevailed in September and the first half of October, and the grapes benefitted from ample sunshine and breezy conditions. It produced fragrant, medium-bodied wines loaded with finesse.
The best are impeccably balanced, with vibrant acidity and firm but noble tannins. Overall, alcohol levels also ring of the past, as many wines declare 13.5% and 14% abv. That’s a stark contrast to 14.5% and 15% levels that have become increasingly common since the start of the 2000s.
Lorenzo Magnelli, winemaker at his family’s Le Chiuse estate says that, “2013 is a classic vintage in every sense, and produced wines with intensity, elegance, energy and firm but well-integrated tannins.”
“Unlike other cooler vintages in recent memory, like 2005 and 2008 that had more rain, especially toward the end of the growing season,” he says. “In 2013, sunny weather in September and the first part of October significantly pushed back the harvest. We started picking our Sangiovese for Brunello on Oct. 18, about 20 days later than usual. Picking this late hasn’t happened since the 1980s.”
Located just north of Montalcino, the small estate of Le Chiuse has an impressive pedigree. Simonetta Valiani, Lorenzo’s mother, inherited the property from her mother, daughter to the legendary Tancredi Biondi Santi.
Le Chiuse used to supply grapes for Biondi Santi’s lauded Riservas before Lorenzo, along with his father and his mother, began to bottle their own wines in the early 1990s. The firm’s radiant 2013 is breathtakingly gorgeous.
Francesco Buffi, who runs the boutique Baricci winery along with his brother Federico and his parents, is also enthusiastic about the 2013 vintage.
“It’s a textbook Brunello, the kind of vintage we greet with open arms here at Baricci,” he says.
Founded in 1955 by Francesco’s grandfather, Nello Baricci, the tiny estate is located on the Montosoli hill, one of the most famous vineyard sites in Montalcino.
“When compared to warmer vintages, 2013 shows another side of Sangiovese that’s all about finesse, freshness and vibrancy, characteristics [seen less] due to climate change,” says Buffi.
While the vintage is superb, there were some underperformers. Some growers may have harvested before the grapes were fully ripened, which produced lean wines that showed raw fruit. Others apparently left the grapes on vine too long, which resulted in wines with sensations of stewed fruit and evident alcohol.
“[The 2013 vintage] was challenging and tested our nerves, especially when unsettled weather threatened toward the end of September,” Buffi says. “But those who didn’t panic and waited until the first week of October were rewarded.”
Alongside the 2013 Brunellos was the release of the 2012 Riservas, a number of which were outstanding, including two awarded 100 points.
2012 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Top-Rated Wines: 5 Top-Rated Wines
About 30 miles south of Siena and stretching to Monte Amiata, the spectacular, unspoiled countryside of Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, looks like it’s been lifted out of a Renaissance painting. Dotted with farms, cypress trees, olive groves and vineyards, the gently rolling hills and fields offer the quintessential Italian landscape. The area is home to Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most lauded wines, as well as the Orcia Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. On top of fantastic wines and scenery, the picturesque towns of Castiglione d’Orcia, Montalcino, Pienza, Radicofani and San Quirico d’Orcia boast artistic and cultural gems, making this destination a wine lover’s paradise. — Kerin O’Keefe
Where To Dine
Offering high-end cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients, Osteria Perillà in Rocca d’Orcia is a must. In scenic Bagno Vignoni, La Bottega di Cacio is perfect for a light lunch of local cheeses, cured meats and a glass of wine. Go to Vineria Le Potazzine in Montalcino for delicious, traditional Tuscan dishes and an extensive wine list of approximately 500 bottles. At La Taverna Banfi, lunch is served under the vaulted arches of a former barrel cellar.
Where To Stay
For luxury digs, choose the stunning, five-star ADLER Thermae Wellness & Spa Resort and enjoy its thermal pools, or stay at the gorgeous Castello di Velona Resort, Thermal Spa & Winery in Montalcino. For country-chic accommodations immersed in Brunello vineyards, opt for one of the impeccably furnished apartments at Borgo Canalicchio di Sopra Wine Relais. Winery accommodations with unbeatable views can be found in one of five spacious apartments at Roberto Mascalloni’s Poggio al Vento estate, a small, organic farm in Castiglione d’Orcia that produces outstanding wine and olive oil.
Val d’Orcia is a haven for walkers and cyclists, with winding roads that meander through the countryside and offer magnificent vistas. The hilltop town of Pienza, nestled between Montalcino and Montepulciano, is the ideal Renaissance town. A day trip should be on every visitor’s to-do list.
Relax in the thermal pool of Terme San Filippo in Bagni San Filippo. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are free outdoor hot springs in the nearby woods just outside of Bagni San Filippo, with a marked path from the main road for easy access.
Where To Taste
Most wineries offer tastings and tours by appointment only. In Montalcino, visit the beautiful Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Estate. Schedule a tour at Biondi Santi to learn more about the family that invented Brunello. Don’t miss a visit and tasting at the majestic Castello Banfi (pictured left). Donatella Cinelli Colombini’s Casato Prime Donne, the only winery in Italy run entirely by women; pioneering estate Baricci Colombaio Montosoli, located on the slopes of the celebrated Montosoli hillside; and Le Chiuse are all must-see boutique wineries. Be sure to check out Montalcino’s best wine bars, Enoteca Osticcio and Enoteca la Fortezza. For tastings and sweeping views in the Orcia DOC, visit Tenuta Sanoner in Bagno Vignoni, or make an appointment to visit biodynamic producer Podere Forte in Castiglione d’Orcia. In Pienza, visit quintessential Tuscan farm Capitoni.
When To Go
Spring, summer and early fall are the best times to enjoy outdoor activities and tour wine country.
Native grape Sangiovese rules in Val d’Orcia, and it’s the only grape allowed in Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. Brunellos and Brunello Riservas are among the most ageworthy wines in all of Italy. Classic bottlings combine power and grace that boast violet, wild cherry, baking spice and earthy notes, which become more complex over time. Rosso is less structured and made to be enjoyed young. Situated between the Brunello and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano denominations, Orcia DOC wines must be made with a minimum of 60% Sangiovese, while Orcia Sangiovese DOC offerings must be at least 90% Sangiovese. Some producers blend in international grapes, while others use the native grape Foglia Tonda. The best wines are savory and well structured.
Val d’Orcia Local In The Know
“Take your time in Val d’Orcia to enjoy the beautiful countryside and visit the area’s art centers,” says wine producer Donatella Cinelli Colombini. “Follow the Via Francigena, the road that in the Middle Ages connected Northern Europe with Rome, and discover the traces of those who traveled it before us. Don’t miss Buonconvento’s delightful, walled-in hamlet, the town of San Quirico [d’Orcia] and the hamlet of Bagno Vignoni, the only medieval thermal spa that’s still intact today.”
Sip or save? Spotting collectible wines may seem daunting, but fear not—help is here with our simple guide to 10 age-worthy styles perfect for your cellar.
Brunello di Montalcino
Why It’s Classic: Few wines possess the depth, complexity and longevity of Brunello di Montalcino. Made entirely from Sangiovese and created by the Biondi Santi family in the late 19th century, vertical tastings have demonstrated Brunello’s ability to age for decades. Hailing from high-altitude vineyards, classic offerings are fragrant, vibrant, elegant and impeccably balanced. More complex than muscular, they boast sensations of violet, wild cherry, pipe tobacco and earthy notes of leather and underbrush. Bright acidity and firm, refined tannins give them their incredible aging potential. Most estates are small with limited production, meaning many of these gorgeous wines have hefty price tags.
Biondi Santi, Conti Costanti, Fuligni
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, Gianni Brunelli, Le Potazzine
Why Collect These Now: There are now more than 200 Brunello producers across the denomination displaying an array of styles, from ethereal to powerful and everything in between. A number of estates are turning out seductive Brunellos that, while still incredibly ageworthy, are approachable sooner than wines made by some of the more storied houses. The best boast succulent fruit, firm, ripe tannins and a compelling combination of structure and elegance. And while never cheap, when compared to more famous, historic labels, many of these younger firms offer impressive quality-to-price ratios that make them a must for any wine lover.
by Kerin O’Keefe
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