Notes on the last four vintages in Montalcino by Stefano Cinelli Colombini, who has been “following” the grape harvest in Brunello for more than five decades. This piece originally appeared in Italian on the popular Italian wine blog Vinoestoria, edited by leading Italian wine writer Pietro Stara.
What’s does a “normal” vintage mean today? It’s been four years since we really knew for sure. After eight vintages (2004-2012) that were mostly similar to one another and essentially free of climatic excesses, it now seems that the exception has become the rule. Maybe it all began in September 2013, when growers had a week of terrible scirocco winds and 40° C. temperatures that desiccated grapes to some extent throughout Italy. From then on, they have had mild winters and cool summers; anomalous expansion of vineyard parasites; and rainfall distribution that hasn’t seen a change in the overall amount of precipitation but has often results in extreme events that are concentrated in terms of time and space.
This has led to “complicated” growing cycles that have unexpectedly delivered excellent wines. A classic example is 2013. Nobody hoped to pull out great Brunello from the grapes that had been dried by the September scirocco. But it happened. In 2016, the same thing happened again.
I am 60 years old and I’ve followed the harvests at Fattoria dei Barbi for all of my life (first for fun and then as part of my job). I have never seen August nights in Montalcino like this year’s, with temperatures constantly less than 15° C. I’ve never seen summers with such healthy, dry air as this and with rains nearly every week like this year. But with very few insects and as a result, very little vine disease.
Flowered was delayed 7-10 days because of the cold and the rains disturbed the flowering, thus reducing the yield and causing millerandage. There were certain zones that got less rain. But it rained everywhere.
Then came the summer, with its light but frequent rains. They kept coming during ripening but without the extremity of the heavy rainfall of 2014. Does this mean that everything’s perfect? No, of course not. But the incredible diurnal shifts in temperature at the end of July and throughout August, with nights that reached 12-15° and days that reached 30-35°, caused extraordinary and premature phenolic ripening. But they also gave the vines less time to produce vegetation. The mornings were too cold and so the plants didn’t start producing vegetation early in the day. In many ways, the weather was more typical of an Alpine valley than southern Tuscany.
But these weather patterns were applied to a grape variety like Sangiovese, with delicate skins, as opposed to the robust varieties they grow in South Tyrol. September was cool with a week of rain at the beginning. And this complicated the ripening in areas that tend to be more humid and some of the higher-lying areas. The overall result is unique. And it’s difficult to predict what kind of wines we will obtain. The colors are dark and intense, with black tones we’ve never seen before. Tannins are abundant, alcohol is low.
But how much of the enormous aromatic character in these grapes will remain? Will the wines be stable? The acidity is high but how much of it is malic? What will drop away after the malolactic fermentation?
Right now, no one has the answers to these questions. And there are no precedents for such an excessive situation like this.
Brunello is always judged by its elegance, its complexity, and its balance. And this year is an extreme one. But enological technology and the experience of nearly every winery in Montalcino are very strong, perhaps greater than ever. And for this reason the challenge should fall well within our capabilities.
I can’t say now that the 2016 Brunello will be exceptional. It will surely be something unique and definitely different from any previous vintage. This harvest has what it needs to become a great vintage. But when you do finally taste a 2016 Brunello, don’t tell me that it Sangiovese can’t have color like this!
Stefano Cinelli Colombini