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.
My Top 2015 Brunellos
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.