Montalcino trip report, March 2016: 2011 Brunello and friends
Our Scot-at-large gets alternately frozen by the wind off the hills then baked in the sunshine in Montalcino while tasting 2011 Brunello, and reports back.
Thursday 17th March
Podere Grattamacco, Bolgheri
Not Montalcino at all, but a stop in the Maremma en route from Pisa airport. Bolgheri owes its fame to Sassicaia, Cabernet Sauvignon and the SuperTuscans that once had to be classified as Vino da Tavola or IGT Toscana but now have a set of tailor-made DOC regulations. Nowadays there are 50 wineries in Bolgheri, but you don't have to go that far back to reach a time when there were only two. Cabernet Sauvignon came out of the shadows with the first commercially released vintage of Sassicaia in 1969; Podere Grattamacco was founded in 1977.
Perched high above the seaside Maremma plain, the first thing we see as we arrive at Grattamacco is the rows of broad beans growing between the vines, which will be cut down to feed nitrogen back into the soil. Grattamacco is overlooked only by the oldest Sassicaia vineyards up in the mountain forests, but most of the Sassicaia vineyards are more low-lying and below us. The Grattamacco winery sits among the larger part of the vineyards at 100 meters above sea level and the plain; winemaker-in-chief Luca Marrone points out the landmarks to us. The forests around are protected and no new vineyards can be planted, but Luca is delighted that after years of negotiation they have just acquired a vineyard within sight up the mountain at Casa Vecchia, at a height of 250 meters and on terroir very similar to that at Grattamacco – Luca sees it as a very natural extension to the existing Grattamacco vineyards, and they'll be using grapes from the new vineyard from next year.
The Grattamacco Vermintino is a fascinating wine. It is made from grapes from the oldest surviving Vermentino plots in Bolgheri (dating back to 1986) which in turn were cultivated from cuttings taken from orchard crop that were used by locals to make wine for domestic consumption. Also at Grattamacco they do now have a more recent, experimental vineyard of Vermentino clones from across Italy. Probably twice the price of any other Vermentino you are likely to see, the Grattamacco Bianco will also be quite unlike them. I’ve had the 2012 twice recently, and it’s a wine I’d be utterly confused by in a blind tasting. It has a luscious, waxy texture reminiscent of many a Semillon, a peach and apricot bouquet (almost Viognier) that then develops a diesel character that seems entirely Riesling, and all topped by a dry, pithy finish. Grapes for the Bianco are picked late because ripeness is important to this wine (it is still dry) otherwise acids would be too aggressive, and it is raised one third in barrique, two thirds in stainless steel. The 2014 we taste on the estate has yet to fill out to the extent that the 2012 has, but it has all the hallmarks of another brilliant wine. Waxy and with that dry, pithy, almost bitter finish, the attack is full of orange.
The reds at Grattamacco come from blends of Sangiovese and the Bordeaux varietals. The Bolgheri Rosso gets fruit from mainly the younger vineyards while the more mature vineyards are used to make the Superiore. That said, the Rosso gets an identity badge all its own, a 20% portion of Cabernet Franc (besides the dominant Cabernet Sauvignon and elements of Merlot and Sangiovese) that doesn’t get used for the Superiore, despite the high quality fruit the Cabernet Franc here tends to produce. In tasting the 2014 Rosso, this Cab Franc portion comes across strongly in the menthol cassis and leaf character. Texturally the wine is creamy, fresh and very drinkable now – not a wine that demands cellaring.
L’Alberello is a single vineyard bottling of exclusively Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The 2013 L’Alberello has seen new French oak and smells big, sweet and cedary. The palate is a subtle surprise after the bouquet, fresh, light, in no way over-extracted, with a distinguished balsamic character.
The Superiore blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese. The 2013, of which Luca is justly proud, blends brings lift and freshness alongside menthol and salty aromas which all blend in with some of the same French oak character seen in the L’Alberello. Clearly fine, if not ready yet. By comparison, the 2012 we try is generous and warm, with fairly soft tannins, and more accessible now.
The aim of the winemaking here is to achieve a gentle, not over-extracted style. As they like to say at Grattamacco, Bordeaux varieties in Tuscany with Burgundian texture.
Friday 18th March
To the East of Montalcino, just where the countryside is turning back from vineyards to arable farmland, we find La Rasina. The vines may seem to be petering out here, but there are several important estates around; Casanovi di Neri is close by, and Renieri (which stylistically resembles La Rasina) 2 kilometers away (as the crow flies, definitely not as the road twists). La Rasina as a farm was founded in the 1970s, but winemaking began in the 1980s under Vasco Mantengoli; now his son Marco is in charge.
2014 was a difficult, wet vintage in Montalcino, but La Rasina has excelled with two very different wines. Their IGT Toscana, made from grapes from young vines, is light, fresh, crisp and acidic, with a very Italian touch of cherry and coffee. The 2014 Rosso is heavier. Earthy and mushroom aromas are bound together with a fresh, electric acidity; delicious drinking.
The 2010 Brunello Annata we first tasted last year and have since been stocking is on the richer side for Brunello, so we had wondered if the hotter 2011 vintage would push it a step in the wrong direction. In fact, though, La Rasina have held the line and the 2011 is very much in the mould of the 2010, with a pine needle freshness to it; no sign of baked fruit whatsoever. Very classy.
They are also releasing a 2010 Riserva; at La Rasina, the Riserva goes under the name “Il Di Vasco”, after Marco's father. Quite different from the 2011 Annata we have just tasted, it is dark, tightly-knit and powerful, with a salami and herb character. They only use new barriques in making the Riserva, but it simply doesn’t show. Very well put together. New barriques suggest modernism, but Marco describes his frustration with writers and journalists who oversimplify the region into a division between traditionalists and modernists; at La Rasina “we are not only traditional, not only modern”.
An apparently domestic front door in a Montalcino square opens onto the Salvioni cellar, built into the Montalcino hillside. In fact, the Salvionis live upstairs, while their wines mature below. It isn’t a huge operation; they have about 4 hectares of vines, mostly in the La Cerbaiola vineyard not too far away; Alessia Salvioni, who meets us and shows us around, had jumped off her tractor in the vineyard ten minutes before to hurry back and meet us. Though the cellar is in Montalcino proper, the winery is by the Cerbaiola vineyard.
The website proudly displays their traditionalist credo. There isn’t a complicated lineup of wines here; there’s a Rosso, and a Brunello. Some years they make both, and some years they make one. If it’s a very abundant year, they make both; otherwise, they choose according to the quality of the crop. In 2015, with a brilliant harvest, the choice was easy: Brunello. In 2014, with a cooler, wetter year, they chose to make only a Rosso, but what a Rosso! Fine, pure, elegant, ridiculously good quality.
Alessia gives us a thrilling run through of some absurdly delightful cask samples, working backwards. The 2015 Brunello is pure, fine, and ethereal. It only narrowly beats the 2013, also a masterclass in understated elegance. The 2012 has a bit more heat and power about it. Alessia describes 2011 as “a simple year, not complex”, which is a description that can only apply in relative terms; otherwise, it would be slanderous to describe as “simple” the 2011 Salvioni, meatier perhaps, but with superfine tannins and a delicate finish. Everything we taste at Salvioni is an absolute delight. My mental cellar planner starts ticking.
Podere Santa Marie
You can't see Montalcino town from Marino Colleoni's precipitous property at Podere Santa Marie, but the church bells ring out through the vineyards. The vineyards are set at different heights and angles, mostly with magnificent southern exposure, but the north-facing vineyard has been a salvation in hot vintages in bringing freshness and acidity to the final blend. When Marino moved here twenty years ago, there were no vineyards to see, just a lot of tangled scrub. But as he began clearing, he found a vine stem protruding through the tangled undergrowth. Eventually he uncovered a complete, abandoned vineyard. Care and certification followed, and twenty years on, his small production of Brunello goes around the world.
Marino is a charming if slightly shambolic man who looks like a bit like Brian Blessed on a good day. When we arrive, he has been tracking down his vineyard's latest guest, a badger which has established a sett and routes around the vineyard that entirely disrespect human paths. With grass, flowers and weeds all flourishing between the vines, it's not difficult to believe this is a vineyard run on organic and biodynamic principles. When his neighbours used pesticides to fight an infestation of tiny yellow spiders that ate away at the vine leaves, Marino introduced a slightly less tiny white spider that liked eating the yellow spiders.
The winery is spanking clean, and newly painted. Marino tells us 2015 was such a good year he had nothing to do in the vineyard, so he painted the winery instead. The winemaking is very natural, and it comes across in the character of the wine - these are also some of the most expressively perfumed young Brunellos we tasted. Depending on which cask sample we try, the 2014 Rosso has either a light, smoky raspberry character very reminscent of Etna Rosso (and in which the natural character is quite marked) or a slightly darker, more black fruit style. It's not often we get to play winemaker, but Marino solicits our opinions on the proportions in which he should blend these casks. There's a pretty clear consensus, but Marino is holding off from a final decision till Kermit Lynch visits next month. As for the Brunello, the 2011 is smooth, silky, and pure dark fruit, again with something of the Nerello Mascalese about it. Marino is another of that Brunello group convinced his 2011s are better than his 2010s.
Marino loves to experiment - we also try a Rosato, and a viscous, herbal late-harvest Vermentino made from grapes grown on the Montalcino landmark Monte Amiata. The latest experiment is still in barrel, a vinification of botrytis-affected Brunello grapes. Before you start trying to place orders, most if not all of these experiments will never be commercialised.
It's also at Podere Santa Marie that we develop an enjoyable new tasting metric which we keep up through the rest if the trip, observing the difference in a wine when you taste it first under cool dark cellar conditions and then bring it out into the sunlight.
Poggio di Sotto
When founder Piero Palmucci sold up and walked out of Poggio di Sotto in 2011, there was much fear for the future of this Montalcino treasure; could it really continue to be so good? But new owners Maria Iris and Claudio Tipa have worked very much on the it-isn't-broken-so-don't-fix-it principle, and things continue as sublimely as ever here.
To get up to Poggio di Sotto involves a short but steep drive; by the time we are at the winery, there is a fabulous view over the Val d’Orcia. Vineyards are at 3 levels, 200, 300 and 450 meters (the latter just above the winery, the two former below). Like the other Montalcino wineries along the Val d'Orcia, it benefits from the presence of the hulking Monte Amiata at the end of the valley drawing off the storms and the River Orcia acting as a conductor of sea breezes, which dry the vines.
Unusually for Montalcino, at Poggio di Sotto they have a green harvest at the end of July during which the less good grapes are thrown away. As this lightens the vines, ripeness follows earlier than at neighbouring properties and harvest tends to fall in mid-September. All the wines are raised in Slavonian oak; till the end of the second year, winemaking is identical for Rosso and Brunello. It is then that tasting determines what will be bottled as Rosso and what will stay in barrel, destined to be Brunello. After the fourth year these remaining barrels will be bottled unless there are any of exceptional quality which will be kept for a fifth year in barrel, then to be bottled as Riserva.
The 2011 Brunello has a bright, transparent ruby colour and a deliciously fine bouquet that blends sweet fruit with more savoury herbal notes. In the last two weeks of August 2011 the usual sea breezes did not refresh the vineyards; the heat spike brought hot winds even at night. This demanded an even more rigorous selection than ever, with every bunch being split in half, a more burnt half then being discarded. Expensive, but it has resulted in an incredibly fine wine, with no sign of cooked fruit whatsoever; the acidity is perfect. The aftertaste has some surprise flavours of sweet citrus.
The 2010 Riserva is another experience altogether, with an utterly delightful and rather complex perfume, a blend of camphor, leather, and curry spice. It does also have an astronomical price tag to match. The wines of Poggio di Sotto are quite remarkable Brunello. I did have to double check my notes to decide whether I had rated Salvioni more highly, but no - the winner is Poggio di Sotto.
Francesco Leanza is a purist, and it shows in his wines as much as his demeanour. He has withdrawn from the official consorzio of Brunello producers over a dispute about standards, so Podere Salicutti does not appear on any of the official consorzio maps - but that doesn't stop buyers beating a path to his door, and the wines sell out every year. We miss him when we visit Salicutti (we're clashing with Prowein in Dusseldorf), so we don't have him brooding over us as we taste his wines.
The dramatic amphitheatre-shaped Doppoteatro vineyard, which features in stylised form on Salicutti labels, dominates the entrance to the estate; the Piaggione vineyard falls away below the winery. The Sorgente vineyard is used to make the estate Rosso. In good years, Salicutti will release a label for each vineyard, but that doesn't always hold - in 2009, when the Piaggione underperformed but the Sorgente excelled, Francesco released only one label, the Trevigne, a blend of the best of all three vineyards. There isn't to be a 2013 Piaggione Brunello. On the other hand, Francesco is so convinced of the quality of his 2011 harvest (even over the 2010s) that he will be releasing a 2011 Riserva which he didn't do in 2010. It will only be the fourth Riserva released by Salicutti.
The 2013 Rosso Sorgente is dark and animalistic, linear and svelte - a Rosso serious enough to surpass many estates' Brunello. The 2011 Brunello Piaggione is concentrated and still forbidding, but the long, acid-driven finish leaves me with black tea and oyster mushrooms. The 2013 Doppoteatro, which is 90% Cabernet and 10% Chianti-mainstay Canaiolo comes as a juniper and cigar shock to the plate after so much Sangiovese.
There are new investors at Salicutti, but Francesco has agreed to stay on for three years to help them bed in. Given the sort of purist he is, I can't imagine him allowing changes to be made while he's on the estate, and given Salicutti's high reputation, anyone with any sense would be very cautious before changing anything.
Saturday 19th March
Breakfast at Sesti includes some foraged wild asparagus, followed by an early opportunity to wander round the estate. It's not just vines and olive groves here, there are also wild artichokes, caper berries, pomegranates, mushrooms and cacti. And wildlife, too; there are radios in the vineyards to scare away the porcupines, boar and deer that love eating shoots and budding grapes.
At the heart of the estate is the Castello di Argiano, the southernmost fortification of the 13th century republic of Siena. When the Sestis first moved here, they had to choose whether to start by restoring the castle or the vineyards; they chose the vineyards, to our benefit, but are now raising funds to restore the tower. Botti lie in cool repose in the castle cellars; nothing like the thick walls of a medieval fortification to maintain a constant temperature. As Giuseppe shows us around, he christens the Uncorked ambassador "the Corkster"; I believe the moniker given to last year's ambassador was UncorkED.
Giuseppe believes firmly in the influence of the moon on agriculture, telling us that if you prune a vine on the wrong lunar phase it will bleed away sap, while in the right phase, it will release almost none whatsoever. At Sesti, they plant, prune and harvest according to lunar cycles. Which isn’t to say they are biodynamic in the conventional sense (as much as biodynamics can be “conventional”). As a qualified astronomer, in the 1970s, at a time when few people had even heard of biodynamics let alone practised it, Giuseppe was already asserting the biodynamic calendar as set out by Rudolf Steiner couldn’t work as the astronomical measurements are erroneous. Nor, despite using no pesticides, do they like to assert that they are organic, since they are well aware they have neighbouring wine estates some of which certainly do use a range of chemicals, and of course the wind will carry chemicals. So Sesti back labels just read “maximum respect for the environment”, which entirely undertstates the amount of care they take.
Unlike most of the other estate we tasted at, there are no cask sample teasers at Sesti; they believe that since these samples will always be different from the final blended, bottled product, to taste from cask is to confuse the issue.
The 2015 Sauvignon is crisp and smoky, not a green, gooseberry style of Sauvignon Blanc. The Sesti Rosato has its roots in the hot summer of 2003, when Elisa had accidentally oversold the white, and there was none left for the family to drink – they decided they needed a Rosato. When (half English) Elisa tried to register a Rosato, the registrars assumed her language was at fault, “oh Elisa, you spelt it wrong – it’s Rosso.” But no, Sesti had made the first 100% Sangiovese Rosato in Montalcino. The 2015 Rosato is almost unfashionably dark for a rosé, crisp, fresh and with a distinct if light strawberry tang.
The 2014 Grangiovese is lighter than its predecessors, with a bitter cherry character. I’ve previously found that while Grangiovese seems like an accessible wine from the word go, it can still benefit surprisingly from being left alone for a couple of years. Giuseppe describes the weather effects in 2014 as being macchia di leopardi, leopard spots, patchy - Sesti was lucky in avoiding the worst of passing hailstorms that damaged vineyards elsewhere. The 2014 Rosso is light by Rosso standards, fresh and refreshing. The 2011 Brunello has a delightfully evolved colour, that hint of orange that says botti. The perfume is intriguing and complex, with a surprising note of green pea among the herb and fruit. Deceptively light, this seems drinkable already but actually will have a long evolution ahead of it. By way of a contrast, we taste the 2008 Brunello, savoury, orangey, and highly expressive, in the sort of place the 2011 is likely to be in within a few years. Sesti of course also release a Riserva, the Phenomena, the labelling famously illustrating a particular astronomical event of the harvest year. The 2010 Phenomena is denser, with an effusively complex bouquet and a more marked wood influence. One of my colleagues has remarked that he's never yet had a Phenomena that's actually ready, nor expects to; it is clearly a wine for the long haul.
A final thought on the 2011 Brunello vintage
With the August heat spike, 2011 was a trickier vintage to manage than the much heralded 2010s. Winemakers who got the vintage wrong made resiny, overripe wines, but those who got 2011 right have made some spectacular wines, combining freshness, power and elegance in a very classic Brunello style. /NT
With thanks to Rupert Monier-Williams for making the trip happen, and to Sarah, Elisa and Giuseppe Sesti for their hospitality