In the wake of the annus horribilis 2008, there was great anticipation among wine lovers and observers at Benvenuto Brunello — the first official outing for the new vintage 2004. The event, held on February 20 and 21, was a memorable moment for a number of reasons. The vintage had been given the maximum rating of five stars and there was no hiding the desire to turn the page after last year’s controversy and let the wine and its excellence speak for Montalcino.
The tasting was exhausting: roughly 170 wines were sampled, including vintage and single-vineyard bottlings of Brunello. Too many wines to taste in the time allotted and tasting conditions were less than ideal: the new wines had not had sufficient time to age in bottle. Even in best case scenario, my impression was that this is a difficult vintage to assess. It still needs a great deal of time to express itself fully. In the worst case, it seemed an over-rated vintage, in which only a minority of producers were able to present wines that lived up to such high expectations.
On the eve of the event, the president of the Brunello di Montalcino producers association presented 2004 Brunello as “a wine defined by its great elegance.” But I found traces of such boldly wielded “elegance” only in a small minority of sampled wines. What is an “elegant” wine? In my opinion, it is a wine that combines components of complexity, refinement, and harmony. It is a wine that shows balance, ample expressiveness, and richness of nuance, and ultimately gives such pleasure that it can called important and “classy.”
In the case of Brunello di Montalcino (and Brunello is not just any wine), even when it is there, greatness cannot but be translated as unbridled youth in this phase of its evolution. Currently, the wine is angular and to some extent imbalanced, with excessive tannin. At this stage, greatness is expressed in an ability to show natural aptitude for improvement over time thanks to its potential for evolution. Save for a small minority of wines (I would say no more than 30-40 of 150), there were very few traces of elegance, complexity, and aging capacity and an ability to improve over time in the majority of wines sampled.
For the most part, these were simple wines. It would be a stretch to foresee long life or the possibility of improvement with time. In many cases, the wines lacked meatiness and structure and were too elementary, of a caliber more in line with Rosso di Montalcino than with Brunello. There was little evidence to back the notion that 2004 will be remembered as a great vintage — let alone a “five-star” vintage.
There were also genuine examples of how the 2004 vintage allowed many producers to create wines with remarkable complexity, multi-dimensional and multi-faceted wines, distinct wines with powerful tannic structure, wines endowed with potential for evolution, wines worthy of the fame of Brunello: Il Colle, Fuligni, Gianni Brunelli, Lisini, Sesta di Sopra, Uccelliera, Le Macioche, Col d’Orcia, Il Poggione, Pietroso, Mastrojanni, Capanna, San Giacomo, Sesti, Tenuta Le Potazzine, Caprili, and San Lorenzo. There were others tasted at collateral events, like Fonterenza, Pian dell’Orino, Salicutti, and Stella di Campalto. And 2004 Biondi Santi and Soldera, tasted privately. But even in a memorable vintage like 2004, with so many disappointing wines (the majority really), should we really be proudly yelling “great vintage”?