After Brunellogate: 2004 Brunello di Montalcino

Ready or not, the 2004 vintage represents a new chapter for this (in)famous Tuscan wine.



*** Read Tuscany En Primeur to see live coverage of the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino tasting.***

I had my first comprehensive look at 2004 Brunello di Montalcino at the "Benvenuto Brunello" event that takes place each February inside Montalcino's impressive Medieval fortress. Expectations were high leading up to the tasting and make no mistake: A lot is riding on this vintage. For one, 2004 represents an excellent opportunity as it follows two years that were disappointing, to put it mildly. The 2002 vintage suffered from wet, rainy conditions that shaped watery, low-intensity wines, while 2003 was too hot resulting in jammy, syrupy wines. Anticipation for 2004 has, thus, been building for a while.

Scandal Rocks Brunello
The second, and even more compelling reason for the buzz surrounding this year's Benvenuto is that is was held approximately one year after the "Brunellogate" scandal rocked the economy of this wine-driven, picture-perfect hilltop hamlet. In April 2008, it was revealed that at least four (maybe more) Brunello producers were under investigation for illegally blending outside grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon into their wines. By law, Brunello must be 100 percent Sangiovese. In what comes as no surprise to people like me who have been exposed to many years of Italian living, the scandal is slowly fading from memory and we will probably never know what exactly went down.

Even if Montalcino's dirty secret is never brought to light, it hardly matters. I think the scandal has permanently changed our expectations of Brunello, but more importantly, it seems to have changed the wine itself. 2004 is a new chapter for Montalcino.

A New Style of Brunello for 2004
The first impression was that 2004 Brunello tastes and looks like Sangiovese in a way we certainly have not seen in recent memory. The wines were a dark, garnet ruby color and many had a brownish or aged look. The blue-purple-black hues and bright red reflections of the past vintages were absent. On the nose, there were aromas of pressed blue flowers, wet earth, dried red currants and many of the other aromas most typically associated with the Sangiovese varietal. The balanced conditions of the classic 2004 vintage helped to shape these characteristics, but I also believe that the Brunellogate aftermath has put our Sangiovese sensors into high alert—we were looking for Sangiovese "typicity" and we found it.

The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino awarded 2004 a maximum five stars, and although I would agree that this is a classic, well-balanced vintage, I believe the jury is still out on the longevity of some of these wines. Cellar aging potential is a major selling point for Brunello, but a good number already seemed to have reached their drinking peak. Wait any longer, and they risk becoming flat and tired. As my colleague Franco Pallini from WineNews.it put it (I'm paraphrasing): It's almost as if some of the wines needed that extra percentage of whatever outside grape to keep them going. Without it, the wines seemed to lack wholeness.

Rethinking Tradition
Franco's observations beg the question that Brunello producers themselves have been grappling with for the past year: Maybe Brunello would be a better wine if a small percentage of outside grapes were allowed? One might draw those conclusions from 2004 but at the same time things were so rushed and messy following the crisis, it would be fair to see how 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 (a string of excellent vintages) perform first.

To conclude, I think 2004 is a solid, classic vintage but I'm not convinced that it's a home run. I tasted 112 Brunellos from the 2004 vintage and 71 of those wines scored 90 points or higher. What I found was that 2004 offers fewer extremes. The highest score was 94 points, but the celebrated vintages of the past like 2001 and 1997 went into the high 90's. With 2004, the average Brunello score was 90 points.

I have two additional observations I want to share. The first is that some wines tasted completely different than they have in past years. Siro Pacenti and Pian delle Vigne, both of which have a history of high scores, did not match previous vintages while, on the other hand, there were a few unknown wines that showed impressive results. Other producers, such as Valdicava and Casanova di Neri did not present wines to tastes at this year's Brunello. (Biondi-Santi and Case Basse (Soldera) never attend.)

The second observation is that considering the economic situation, I think this is the year for 2007 Rosso di Montalcino (also released now). The vintage was also awarded five stars and the wines cost about half the price of Brunello. I, for one, will be opening a bottle of Rosso (not Brunello) as I wait for the closing bell on Wall Street.

Here, though, are some of my favorite Brunellos:

94 points
2004 Poggio Antico Altero Brunello di Montalcino
The wine's beauty and intensity are impossible to match: There's an enormous complexity of aromas here with chocolate, black tar, spice, blackberry, forest currant and tobacco all rolled into one. You'll pick up toasted oak tones as well, but they are carefully balanced within the naturally supple and smooth essence of this standout Brunello.

94 points
2004 Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino
This is among our favorite 2004 Brunellos. Winemaker Andrea Cortonesi who once said: "the best irrigation is sweat," has worked hard to craft this plush, modern and penetrating wine. It boasts a deep, dark concentration and a very beautiful bouquet of luscious blackberries, spice, black mineral and cola. It's round and supple.

94 points
2004 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino
Altesino delivers a wonderfully harmonious wine that generates one delicious sip after another thanks to its polished intensity. Subtle wood shadings appear in the background of bright cherry and blackberry. Overall, what distinguishes this wine is its sense of focus, sharpness and purity.

93 points
2004 Castello Romitorio Brunello di Montalcino

Castello Romitorio delivers one of our favorite 2004 Brunellos. Managed by an artist-winemaker father and son team, the estate brings us a beautifully compact and elegant wine that is brimming with fresh fruit tones of cherry and blackberry. The mouthfeel is generous and soft with a luscious fruit-filled finish.

92 points
2004 Tenuta Vitanza Brunello di Montalcino
Tenuta Vitanza is a tiny world of its own, existing  within the tiny world of Montalcino. The winery is located at the furthest extreme of the winemaking zone and its owner, Guido Andretta is a wonderfully bi-cultural Italian-American. His wines are always delicious and 2004 is particularly so: It's fresh and plump with enormous depth of fruit, spice and licorice aromas.

92 points
2004 Mastrojanni Vigna Schiena d'Asino Brunello di Montalcino
This delicious vineyard select Brunello offers loads of intensity and warm aromas of leather, tobacco, spice, wild mushroom, smoked ham and bursting blackberries. It's a ripe and succulent wine with firm tannins and excellent length on the finish.

91 points
2004 Máté Brunello di Montalcino
The Canadian owners of Máté lead a blessed life between painting, writing and grape growing. The product of their Tuscan dream is a bold and modern wine that is shaped by sophisticated oak use and rich extraction. Deep aromas of vanilla, spice and blackberry ride over smooth tannins.

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