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Brunello 2015: A Fairy Tale Vintage

James Suckling, (WATCH VIDEO)

The 2015 vintage is a historical year for Brunello di Montalcino that nobody should miss. The wines show impressive precision of vivid fruit, fine tannins and freshness in acidity despite their ripeness and richness which makes them some of the most exciting in years.

Winemakers in Montalcino were never better prepared to produce outstanding wines in a year like 2015 with their exactness in their vineyards and cellars from fine-tuned canopy management and crop thinning to optical sorting and soft fermentations. So many wine producers in Montalcino made excellent wines in 2015.

My son Jack and I have tasted 187 2015 Brunellos so far this year and the quality is terrific. We rated about half 95 points or more – classic quality. The wines will be officially available in the market beginning in January 2020. But we wanted to give you a preview of the best Brunellos from the vintage, with some already available on a pre-arrival basis from wine merchants.

“The words for the 2015 vintage are density, tannins and freshness,” says Roberto Guerrini, whose family owns Eredi Fuligni. He made the wine of his lifetime in 2015. We rated it 100 points. “The wines are rich, yet they are fresh at the same time. It is a great year.”

‘Depth of fruit and endless length’

As I wrote last month in a blog following a trip to Montalcino this summer, so many of the wines we tasted showed a beautiful depth of fruit and endless length. They are dense and rich wines with great structure of tannins yet they remain finely textured and comprehensive in the mouth. The seamless tannins seem to melt into the wine – a characteristic I have never seen in my 36 years visiting the area as a wine critic and journalist.

We admit that it is tempting to say that 2015 is Brunello di Montalcino’s best vintage ever, and it may very well be! It certainly compares to other great years of the appellation including 1997, 2006, 2007, and 2010. Looking at the ratings, 2015 comes very close to the average of the great 2010 vintage with about half of the wines receiving ratings of 95 points or more. The big difference is that 2015 has more perfect rated wines than 2010 – 11 in total.

Another important thing to remember is the high quality of the 2016 vintage. The Brunellos will be available in January 2021, a year after 2015. We only tasted a dozen or so 2016s and they were fantastic quality. But we have our doubts about whether the vintage will be better than 2015. Regardless, we clearly have two excellent back-to-back vintages.

“The 2010 was an amazing vintage but then came 2015 and 2016!” says Carlo Ferrini, one of Italy’s most respected consulting enologists who makes a small amount of his own Brunello from his pristine vineyards in southwest Montalcino called Giodo. “We will be debating which of the two years are better for years in the future.”

‘Balance and harmony’

Ferrini said that he thought 2015 and 2016 were better than the highly rated duo of 2006 and 2007 as the wines are more balanced and precise with better freshness. They are what great Brunellos should be today and set a new benchmark for wines from the region. “We were looking for more fruit and concentration in years like 2006 and 2007 and now we search for more balance and harmony in our wines,” he adds.

The growing season in 2015 was impressive. The winter and spring had plenty of rain to make up for the intense sun and heat during the summer. There was some rain in September before the harvest to freshen the vineyards. And as noted before, good vineyard management compensated for the hot weather during the growing season, and sorting out dried grapes at harvest was extremely important for making exceptional wines. Most producers harvested at the end of September or early October, which is a sign that it was not too hot and grapes had a chance to ripen properly.

“We had great hang time,” says Bernardino Sani, general manager at Argiano, which released a new single-vineyard Brunello in 2015 called Suolo. “We had a balanced summer despite the heat. We slowed maturity. We harvested the first week of October.”

This excellent hang time when the grapes are allowed to evenly ripen on the vine certainly delivered wonderful wines. Nearly all the 2015 Brunello shows complex and beautiful aromas. It is not just ripe fruit when you stick your nose in the glass. The palates of the best show such fine-grained tannins. This wonderful harmony in the nose and palate makes the wines so approachable that you want to drink them now.

However, these are Brunellos that will age beautifully for decades ahead making them historical in every sense of the word.

– James Suckling, CEO and editor, with reporting from Jack Suckling

Italy, Tuscany: Picture-Perfect 2015 Brunello di Montalcino and More

Robert Parker's Wine Advocate:

I remember the 2015 vintage in Tuscany through a photographer’s lens. Each snapshot I carry in my memory recalls the sheer perfection of the grapes—the fully formed berries, the vibrant colors and the compact clusters. I traveled far and wide across central Italy during that final phase of fruit ripening before the Sangiovese harvest. This would be one of the very last work trips in which I used my Nikon reflex camera and lenses to snap pictures for my articles before transitioning definitively over to my iPhone. I popped out of my car each time the road opened onto another spectacular vineyard vista to walk through the rows and take close-up pictures of the grapes. Each cluster appeared more photogenic than the next. Ask anyone who farmed Sangiovese that year. They will tell you: Fruit has never been more beautiful than it was in the picture-perfect 2015 vintage.

Stefano Cinelli Colombini, owner of Fattoria dei Barbi, says, “This vintage saw textbook timing. Everything happened like clockwork. The rain, the sun and the heat all came on cue.” Riccardo Campinoti of Le Ragnaie remarks on the ease of farming in 2015. “This was a remarkably simple vintage,” he says. “Obtaining high quality required little effort.” Ofelio Fattoi, the patron and founder of Fattoi, says 2015 will be remembered as one of the best vintages ever. “I have been farming grapevines since I was born and never have I seen more perfect looking grapes,” he says.

This is a standout group of new releases from Montalcino. What impresses most about 2015 is the consistently high quality delivered across the board. As a whole, the wines are homogenous and uniform in terms of their intensity, depth and generosity. House styles may differ from producer to producer, but these wines are united by the energy, exuberance and radiance that come naturally to a beautifully warm and sunny vintage like 2015. That distinctive vintage signature is applied evenly across the board, leaving no wine untouched by its magic. 

A small handful of the wines I tasted are a bit closed at this early stage, and these will benefit from more cellar age. However, the majority of the samples tasted showed softly textured, abundant and accessible characteristics that make them beautiful to drink straight out of the gate or with very little aging required. Bottles from the versatile 2015 vintage can go into your cellar for safekeeping or onto your dinner table for near- to medium-term consumption. The choice is yours, and that’s one of the top selling points of 2015.

I have awarded longer drinking windows (of 10 to 20 years) to some of my highest-scoring wines, but many of the samples in the 93- to 95-point range can easily be consumed within the next five to 10 years while those primary fruit characteristics are still fresh and impactful. Unlike the cooler and more austere 2013 and 2010 vintages, mandatory cellar aging is not required. However, 2015 definitely has more firmness, structure and longevity compared to the hot, flatter and less interesting 2011 and 2012 vintages. The wines from 2015 are built to age, should you desire to take this route. 
If I were to apply three descriptors to these wines from 2015, they would be: carefree, cheerful and copious. The 2015 Brunellos require no head scratching on your part in terms of when, how or with whom to drink them. They are simply beautiful as they are.

This article represents a part one of two reports on 2015 Brunello di Montalcino that I will publish in the first quarter of this year. In order to get these reviews to you the reader in a more timely fashion, I have decided to go live with this group of 123 wines. My second report to be published in April 2020 will include some of the estates that release their wines later in the year, as well as those I didn’t manage to get to in this first batch. In that second report, you can look forward to reviews of Biondi-Santi, Fuligni, Pian dell’Orino, Poggio di Sotto, Salicutti, Salvioni, Stella di Campalto and many more of my regularly reviewed favorites.

One thing you might notice in this report is the absence of 2014 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. As it turns out, not a single producer I reviewed here made a Riserva expression in that challenging vintage. The 2014 growing season was watered down by above-average rainfall during the summer months and below-average temperatures. The Sangiovese harvested that year did not have the fiber or power to withstand the extra year of aging that is required for Riserva status. However, to compensate for the lack of Riservas, you will find many more so-called Selezione wines that represent a special selection of fruit or a single-vineyard bottling. If Montalcino continues down a path that ultimately offers more Selezione wines in the place of Riservas, this is a plus for consumers who want to know the origins of the fruit in their best-loved wines. Ultimately, the lack of Riservas leaves me unperturbed, but the increasing number of Brunello di Montalcino Selezione wines is a very exciting trend for the appellation.

Harvest Notes

Federico Buffi of Baricci in the Montosoli area of Montalcino reminds us that the 2015 season saw plenty of rain during the winter months. This led to abundant underground water reserves during the hottest moments of the summer. “The accumulated moisture made for excellent growth during the spring months, and this continued during the budding, flowering and ripening phases of the fruit,” he says. 

“Those water reserves served us well in July and until the 15th of August when summer temperatures were highest,” says Jo Williams of Caparzo. “We had some damage to the flowers during spring showers, and this ultimately led to reduced yields.”

Federico Buffi adds, “Winds that blew in from the north helped to cool down the summer temperatures, especially in the northern parts of the appellation like Montosoli.” 

According to Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra, “The 2015 season was on the hot side, but the vines never suffered because steep nighttime temperature shifts and perfectly timed rain showers served to cool off the plants.” 

Argiano General Manager Bernardino Sani says that veraison came about two weeks early in 2015 and that this gave the grapes more time to ripen slowly during the second half of the growing season.

“The weeks before harvest were dry and breezy,” says Jo Williams. “We harvested fruit at perfect phenolic ripeness without any risk from fungus-based diseases.” 

These conditions led to the thick color and flavor concentration that you get in 2015. However, barrel tastings suggest that the upcoming 2016 vintage is distinguished by more acidic freshness. The 2016 vintage is likely superior to 2015 in terms of longevity and cellar aging. 

I also reviewed a good number of Rosso di Montalcino wines from the cooler 2018 vintage. “The 2018 vintage saw more rain and cooler temperatures,” says Francesco Ripaccioli. “We experienced strong winds before the harvest that helped to concentrate and ripen the fruit.” Francesco draws parallels between the 2018 and the classic 2013 vintage for its structure and age-worthiness. 

-Monica Larner, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate