June 02: It’s been a strange year to say the least, as all ‘live’ tastings have been cancelled in Italy since March 2020, so the opportunity to hit the road after many months and drive to Montalcino, a picturesque cross-country drive that takes about 1:30 hours from her home near Arezzo in Tuscany, was a real pleasure followed by a Tasting of Chianti Classico this month, writes our Italy Correspondent Michele Shah who braved visits to Montalcino and Florence to report on the 2016 and 2019 vintages respectively as part of the annual Tuscan Tasting in which foreign journalists were not invited this year due to the pandemic
It was mid-March 2021 and we were still in lockdown, but I had a special invitation from the Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino to attend the official Benvenuto Brunello Off tasting showcasing the newly released vintage 2019 Rosso di Montalcino; the 2016 Brunello di Montalcino and the 2015 Riserva di Brunello di Montalcino.
Outstanding Brunello 2016- hype or substance
There’s been a lot of ‘hype’ going around the 2016 vintage, so I was very eager to taste the wines. It’s probably one of the best vintages of Brunello that I’ve tasted over the past years, believed to be comparable to the 1990 vintage, one to invest in and lay down in your cellar.
Icy winds greeted me on arriving in an empty Montalcino, which on a Saturday is usually bustling with tourists. All the wine shops, restaurants and cafes were closed and deserted due to lockdown.
As I tasted through a solid range of Brunello 2016, I was struck by the consistency of the vintage. It’s got all the qualities of a fine age-worthy Brunello, with amazingly finely woven tannins and great acidity, one that shows the distinction between the terroirs and subzones. What struck me particularly with the 2016 vintage was that a good number of lesser-known producers made above-average wines, with a consistent tannic structure and a great depth to the wines.
Brunello Riserva 2015
The Riserva 2015, also from a good but very different vintage in character to the released 2016, is opulent in character, with lush, ripe fruit, more aromatic and more upfront compared to the elegance of the 2016 Brunello di Montalcino.
“The 2015 vintage is more-ready to drink, although not necessarily more evolved. For producers who safeguarded the acidity, the 2015 has potential for ageing, However, the 2016 is more classic. At the moment the tannins are still a little on the harsh side seeming a bit austere, but it will give us elegance and complexity with time,” says Francesco Marone Cinzano of Col d'Orcia, a benchmark Brunello estate whose philosophy is based on sustainable biodynamic farming, producing super elegant age-worthy wines.
Record sale of Brunello 2016
The release of the 2016 brought with it the beginning of a year for record sales of Brunello di Montalcino. Overall, the first quarter of 2021 closed with a 37% increase over last year and 23% above the average of the last ten years. In particular, after the first two months, which saw a 19% increase over the same Covid-free period last year, March was by far the best of the decade, with 92% above the average recorded from 2011 till today.
Tastings this month
Fast forward to mid-May, as Italy opens up. There is a cautious, but definite return to wine events and tastings- the first large regional one being the Anteprime in Tuscany, where there was a full immersion showcasing the newly released vintages of its main appellations. In addition to that of Brunello di Montalcino, also of Chianti Classico, Chianti and its sub-zones, Nobile di Montepulciano, San Gimignano, Lucca, Pisa and the coastal area of the Maremma.
Chianti Classico Tasting
The Chianti Classico Consortium, the oldest producers’ association in Italy, founded in 1924 and just a few years away from marking its prestigious centenary, counts 480 members, 342 of which are wine estates presenting their own products on the markets. The estimated global turnover in the Chianti Classico production zone is about €800 million with a bottled wine production value of over €500 million. There has been a considerable surge in the e-commerce sector, which increased sales volume at a global level, especially among Millennials.
The newly released vintage 2019 Chianti Classico will be a definite asset to enhance the success of Chianti Classico in introduction to new markets. It’s a vintage characterized by fresh, well-balanced acidity and tannins, excellent texture and aromas. The alcohol content is slightly lower than average compared to previous vintages, yet in line with market trends.
According to Renzo Cotarella, CEO and head winemaker at Marchesi Antinori, Chianti Classico 2019 is more complex and lighter in style-more in similarity to 2009 or 1999, with fresh vibrant acidity and red berry fruit, but not as intense as vintage 2018. “I’m passionate about the 2018 vintage. It was a vintage that didn’t show up immediately, however, with some bottle ageing it has developed into a lovely wine with a delicate, bright fresh character, while the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2018 is a great vintage, in style similar to a burgundy, characterized by red berried fruit, fresh with vibrant acidity, elegant and intense,” commented Cotarella.”
Cotarella went on to explain that Chianti Classico is an ‘extraordinary terroir of great classic wines’, where Sangiovese should only use local complimentary varietals in the main blend with over 80% Sangiovese, such as Colorino, Canaiolo, Mammolo, or Malvasia to mark a subtle stylistic touch, rather than covering up its personality by using international varietals.
Effects of Climate Change
Sangiovese is a noble grape variety but like many indigenous grapes to show well, it needs to be born into a top vintage, originating from a top terroir and a great selection, and crafted by skilled winemakers. Like all Sangiovese wines the difference in quality comes from the subtle adjustments. It also comes from awareness of the quality of the vintage, the area of production and the grape variety. It’s important to understand and highlight the identity of the wine authentically and yet again, according to Renzo Cotarella there is still a lot of work to be done in perfectly understanding Sangiovese and the climate change doesn’t exactly make matters easier.
Climate Change in Tuscany is becoming ever more difficult to manage, especially when seeking to reach a balanced sugar content and phenolic ripeness. Many vineyards that were restructured in the 1990’s and 2000’s with denser plantings and lower yields, are suffering the changes faced with the higher temperatures due to global warming. Spacing becomes vital when seeking to achieve a more balanced ripening and lower alcohol levels. Densely planted vineyards need more space, more air and better ventilation, so the trend now is to return to less dense plantings.
Sub-zoning of Chianti Classico
The big news in Chianti Classico- and one that many producers believe will make a difference in awareness and quality, is that of sub-zoning. After 13 years of continuous discussions the members of the Consortium will vote this June on amending the appellation to include the mention of 11 sub-zones. “I am delighted that we are finally on the verge of this very important classification which is fundamental if we want to achieve greater heights,” says Laura Bianchi of Monsanto Estate and a member of the Chianti Classico committee. The Geographical Mention (UGA) will underline the diversity which makes each sub-zone unique.
Michele Shah is an Italian wine expert from UK, living in Tuscany for over 2 decades and has worked with Indian Wine Academy in promoting Italian wines in India and elsewhere. She writes occasionally for delWine as our Italian Correspondent.