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Italian Wine Ambassador’s Insider Notes on the 2019 Brunello di Montalcino Vintage Blog - Big Hammer Wines

Every November herds of wine journalists and a handful of professionals make their pilgrimage to Montalcino. In 2023, I joined a couple hundred people in my role as a Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador to have a first look at the 2019, Five Star vintage of Brunello as well as some 2018 Brunelli Riserve, another red wine. 

The tasting was well organized (which is an unusual statement when referring to Italians) with a small army of sommeliers at the ready to deliver wine samples to our seat. Inside the former Chiostro del Museo di Sant’Agostino in the center of the historic hilltown, we sat around round tables quietly sniffing, swishing, and spitting. We ordered the wines via an online app six at a time and over the course of two and a half days, I tasted more than 200 wines. 

Tasting Brunello upon release is no small feat. I suspect tasting Sagrantino or Tannat at such a stage would be even more challenging to the palate, but few wines - red wines mostly - are as tannic, astringent, and mouth drying than Brunello at this stage. At some point, any writer runs out of adjectives to describe the tight, lip-smacking, dry, sandpaper feeling that saps the tongue and mouth of moisture more than the desert. 

In speaking to producers, the general consensus is that it was a relatively easy vintage free from inclement weather. Global warming and hotter summer temperatures and summers that stretch into fall is cause for concern. 

Some producers are discussing moves to higher elevations where, in the past, Sangiovese Grosso could not be grown or expected to fully mature. But, rules regarding the DOCG and the price of those picturesque Tuscan hills painted in sfumato make it a challenge. 

My evaluation at this tasting event was more qualitative about the vintage and specific about the individual wines. I’m not looking to expound at length or repeat the same adjective over and over again about the hallmarks of Sangiovese such as “sour cherry, strawberry acidity, dark morello cherry, red fruits, orange peel, leathery, angostura, dried cherries, herbal, tart cranberry, burnt blood orange, cinnamon, etc.” I think you get the point. I don’t write for a magazine. My goal is more simple. I ask the questions, “Would I want to drink this? Will I buy it and can I recommend it to my clients and friends?” 

If you love Brunello and Sangiovese, it’s important to remember that for all the glitz and glamour among the well funded and top producers, winemaking is still very much a family farming affair in most of Italy. Understood in this way, it shouldn’t be surprising that there really are “A”, “B”, and “C” producers. 

A lot of the “C” producers are still making wine the same way as grandpa taught them. Some may wear this as a badge of pride. Unfortunately, that often means that no one in the family has actually been to school for winemaking. If anything, they may have audited some classes and asked some neighbors some questions about how to manage volatile acidity (smells like red wine vinegar), which is a frequent specter among wines in the “C” class. 

It’s not only small family producers making “C” graded wines in this group. I often find large, internationally distributed wineries that are producing paint by numbers wines. They are so boring and overpriced that I feel sorry for the red wine lovers around the world who think these wines are the best representatives from the region.

I am reminded that we remember not what was said or even what we drank, but we remember how we felt. Going to a five star luxury hotel, castle and winery with a Michelin chef is an amazing experience. Does it matter that they serve you “C” graded wines? Probably not. red wine

Unless, you’re me. I want all of that plus “A” level wines. Red wines, especially

The “B” producers in Montalcino tend to have excellent vineyard locations and often located near the “A” level wines that consistently produce top quality wines every vintage. However, the “B” producers fail to achieve consistency. Perhaps the weather didn’t go their way or they lost their up and coming star winemaker to a more prestigious or well funded winery. The “B” producers are often worth seeking out in high quality vintages as a rising tide lifts all boats.

The “A” level producers seem to consistently fire on all cylinders. There’s stability in the winery and in the winemaker. These wineries are recognized as having outstanding vineyards and locations. These top wineries may have a long history, but they are constantly evolving, investing, learning, and adapting to the climate, the vintage, and even the market. The “A” level producers make delicious wines even in vintages that are derided as “less than” by the critics, and those wines - red wines and white wines - are often excellent buying opportunities for consumers.

Here’s a list of some red wines, in no particular order, that I’d buy and drink and can recommend from the 2019 vintage. I scored all of the wines below at 92 points or above.

 

Greg Martellotto with Alex Bianchini of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona winery.

 Brunello pic 2

*Inside Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona new barrel aging room.

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