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The Best Brunellos: Tasting the 2015 Vintage on Tour

Anyone who doesn’t fall even just a little bit in love with Tuscany the first time they visit should probably be locked away from the world. There’s something magical about the place that suffuses every bit of the landscape, the food, the people, and the very air.

The first time I visited with the woman I’d eventually ask to marry me, we managed to hit it perfectly at the peak of Spring — the hills were green, the poppies in full bloom, little puffy clouds in the sky, 80 degrees… you get the picture. Makes me misty-eyed just thinking about it.

While we were there, we did our share of tasting, and Ruth fell hard for Brunello. So much so that for many of her early years of wine appreciation, it became her benchmark for any red wine. “Nope, not as good as Brunello,” she would often say. Brunello (Bruno for short) still remains the planned name for our dog, if we ever get one.

For those who are perhaps less familiar with Brunello, here’s a 30-second primer. Wines can only be labeled Brunello di Montalcino if they are made from grapes grown in and around the town of Montalcino, and if they are 100% Sangiovese. There was a point a number of years ago where this could have changed, when a huge scandal rocked Italy involving several producers busted for blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot into their Brunellos. The wines were banned from importation to the US for a short period of time, producers paid big fines, and the whole Consorzio had a vote to decide whether or not to change the rules of the appellation.

In the end, everyone voted to maintain the standards of the past (including, strangely, the very folks who were busted for violating those standards). Brunello will thankfully stay true to its heritage and continue to be made from 100% Sangiovese. In addition to the grape variety and locality, Brunello must be aged for no less than two years in oak, and one year in bottle, and cannot be released until 5 years after each harvest.

Because that’s a long time to keep a wine around without being able to sell it, winemakers may also produce a Rosso di Montalcino, which also must be 100% Sangiovese, but can be sold after just one year of oak aging.

Producers in the region can also make wines from more international grape varieties like Cabernet that used to be known as Super Tuscans before the region won approval for a special designation known as Sant’Antimo IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

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Brunelli, like young Bordeaux, are somewhat more difficult to judge in their youth for those not used to tasting them. The wines can often be tight and tannic, and many don’t show the soft, lush fruit qualities that can emerge after a few years and a little air. But as in many regions around the world, global warming is pushing ripeness and accessibility sometimes out of the winemakers control.

Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to get back to Montalcino since that first trip Ruth and I took more than 15 years ago. But thankfully, sometimes, Tuscany can come to you. That is, if you’re a member of the wine trade living in New York or San Francisco. The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the trade group representing the appellation, has resumed (after something of a hiatus) their “Benvenuto Brunello” tastings in the United States, which involve packing up a bunch of producers and touring them around with their wines.

So when they showed up in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I made sure to keep my afternoon free. This year’s version of the event was somewhat smaller than in past years, with many of the producers listed in the tasting booklet not in attendance. Extenuating circumstances being what they are, this was somewhat understandable.

Most of the wines on offer were from the 2015 vintage, a vintage that has been hyped far out of proportion to its quality I believe. The year was unusually hot and dry in general, though the microclimates of Montalcino ensure that most generalizations about a vintage in the area are fairly inaccurate for many producers. Apparently there were some truly spectacular wines made in 2015, but I don’t think any of those producers made it to San Francisco. There were certainly some standouts in the fifty or so producers whose wares I sampled, but no true superstars. While I don’t taste Brunello widely enough or consistently enough to be able to truly pass judgement on the quality of one vintage in comparison with another, I did find myself surprised that the wines weren’t better. I was encouraged, however, by a continued overall retreat from the flavor of new French oak — an ongoing (and very positive in my opinion) trend in the region.

So here are my scores and notes for the wines I tasted a few weeks ago. As with all scores and tasting notes made en masse at walk-around tastings, these are to be taken with a grain of salt, as they don’t reflect the concentrated attention, time, or controlled circumstances of a sit-down tasting.

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WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2015 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
A medium, cloudy garnet color in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, flowers and sour cherry aromas. In the mouth, the wine is gorgeously bright and juicy with flavors of cherry, sour cherry, and dusty herbal notes all draped in gauzy tannins. Wonderful length and balance with fantastic acidity. Long, persistent finish. 16,600 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2015 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of earthy, floral berries. In the mouth the wine is polished and refined with juicy cherry and cedar flavors wrapped in a blanket of fine tannins. Clean and bright. 10,000 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2015 Altesino “Montosoli” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine has a wonderful floral aspect with aromas of cherry and citrus peel. In the mouth, bright sour cherry and cherry flavors have a wonderful juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Wonderfully long finish with fine grained tannins. 1200 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $129. click to buy.

2013 Capanna “Riserva” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, raisins and dried herbs. In the mouth, tight tannins close in a fist around a core of cherry and leather shot through with electrically vibrant acidity. Notes of leather and cedar linger in the finish. 560 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.

2015 Franco Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of aromatic cherry and cedar. In the mouth, classic cherry and sandalwood flavors mix with aniseed and citrus. Gorgeous and balanced with a long finish and great acidity. 2000 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2010 Le Chiuse “Riserva” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium brick color in the glass, this wine smells of red apple skin and exotic dried flowers. In the mouth, velvety tannins deliver earthy flavors of red apple skin, dried flowers and candied fennel seeds on a plush texture that is very disarming. Excellent acidity and balance.350 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $151. click to buy.

2015 Musico (Podere La Casella) Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a wonderful floral and bright berry aroma. In the mouth, floral and cherry flavors mix with cedar notes for a long bright expression of fruit and cedar that is quite pretty. Muscular tannins. Great acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2014 Musico (Podere La Casella) Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light brick red in color, this wine smells of citrusy, floral cedar notes. In the mouth, citrusy cherry fruit is juicy with excellent acidity and gripped by putty-like tannins that flex their muscles in a long finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2013 Musico (Podere La Casella) Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light brick red in the glass, this wine smells of bacon fat and red miso. In the mouth, bacon fat mixes with cherries, cedar and road dusty. The tannins, too have a dusty quality, and float across the palate, buffing the edges of the mouth. Long finish, and still excellent acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2015 Poggio Lucina Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cedar. In the mouth, juicy sour cherry and raspberry fruit is draped in a skein of muscular, fine-grained tannins. Wonderful acidity makes the wine wonderfully bright. 2500 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2015 Ridolfi Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light ruby in color this wine smells of floral and cherry aromas. In the mouth, juicy flavors of sour cherry and herbs have a wonderful elegance. Fine, dusty tannins coat the mouth and linger with cedar and cherry and citrus through a long finish. 4200 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2015 Tenute Silvio Nardi “Vigneto Manachiara” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully floral, cherry and earthy aroma. In the mouth, fantastic acidity enlivens cherry and cedar and forest floor flavors that are deeply resonant and wonderfully juicy. Great long finish that has just a touch of heat in it. Still, an excellent wine. 500 cases made Score: around 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2015 Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass with some bricking at the rim, this wine smells of floral aromas and red fruits. In the mouth, sour cherry flavors have an intense powerful quality mixing as they do with slightly spicy sandalwood and incense flavors. Fabulous acidity and wonderful length with powdery, subtle tannins. 2200 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2015 Val di Suga (Tenimienti Angelini) “Vigna del Lago” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of dusty roads cherry and dried flowers. In the mouth, that floral quality persists along with flavors of cherry. Powdery fine tannins coat the palate. Good acidity and length. Quite a pretty wine. 600 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $51. click to buy.

2015 Val di Suga (Tenimienti Angelini) “Poggio al Granchio” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dusty sour cherry and sandalwood. In the mouth, sour cherry flavors are wrapped with dusty tannins and juicy with fantastic acidity. Elegant and long. 1000 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2015 Fattoria dei Barbi “Vigna del Fiore” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of sour cherry and red apple skin. In the mouth, red apple skin flavors mix with earthy dusty notes and are stretched taut by muscular, tight tannins that need a few years to relax. Aggressive, but with very pretty flavors. 500 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2015 Belpoggio Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sandalwood, cherry and thyme. In the mouth, flavors of cherry and herbs mix with dusty road under a blanket of fine grained tannins. Excellent acidity. 1300 cases produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.

2015 Capanna Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raisins. In the mouth, intense raisined flavors are nonetheless juicy and bright thanks to excellent acidity, and shot through with tight, muscular tannins. I normally don’t like such dried flavors but there’s a lot of verve in this wine. 3200 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2015 Castello Romitorio Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry. In the mouth, fine grained tannins wrap around a core of tart, sour cherry fruit tinged with leather and slightly bitter herbs. Good acidity but somewhat narrow and squeezed. Needs time for the tannins to develop. 5000 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $59. click to buy.

2015 La Fiorita Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, cherry and leather. In the mouth, cherry and leather notes mix with dusty road and fine grained tannins. Good acidity and length. 1800 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2015 La Magia Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry with wonderful floral overtones. In the mouth, cherry, cedar and dusty earth mix with a touch of bitter herbs that linger in the finish. Fine grained tannins and good acidity. 90 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2014 Poggio Lucina Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of orange peel, berries and dried flowers. In the mouth floral flavors mix with cherry and dusty roads. Fine grained tannins and very good acidity. 740 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2013 Poggio Lucina Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of raisins and dried flowers. In the mouth, floral notes mix with sour cherry, cedar and dust under a gauzy blanket of tannins. Very good acidity. 2200 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2015 San Polo Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and sweet cedar. In the mouth, cherry and cedar flavors are shot through with zingy acidity and dusted with fine tannins. Citrus notes linger in the finish. 3400 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $46. click to buy.

2015 San Polo “Podernovi” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry and cedary. In the mouth, cherry and cedar notes are gripped in a tight fist of tannins with dusty notes that linger with cherry and citrus in the finish. 740 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2015 Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earthy cherries. In the mouth, the wine is equally earthy, with dark brooding depths wrapped around by tight muscular tannins. Good acidity. 14,100 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2015 Uccelliera “Voliero” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium brick red in color, this wine smells of barnyard and bacon fat with a hint of red fruit underneath. In the mouth, sour cherry flavors are meaty with the umami of miso and with dusty tannins. Good acidity and length. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2015 Val di Suga Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and sandalwood. In the mouth, classic flavors of cherry and sandalwood are wrapped in a tight fist of tannins but remain juicy and bright thanks to excellent acidity 10,000 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2015 Val di Suga “Vigna Spuntali” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells of anise and cherry. In the mouth, distinct anise seed flavors mix with cherry and leather under a thick blanket of tannins. Decent acidity. 800 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5

2015 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cedar. In the mouth tight tannins wrap around a core of cherry cedar and citrus notes. Long finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2015 Castello Banfi “Poggio Alle Mura” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and citrus peel. In the mouth, tight, muscular tannins wrap around a core of cherry and leather. Good acidity. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2015 Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass with some brick color at the rim, this wine smells of earthy cedar and citrus peel. In the mouth, dusty and earthy flavors of leather licorice root and red berries turn bitter towards the finish. Leathery tannins. Decent acidity. 12,400 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2014 Carpineto Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of espresso, cherry and leather. In the mouth, flavors of leather and cherry are creamy and wrapped in a sheaf of muscular tannins that have a putty-like texture. Good acidity. 3000 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $39. click to buy.

2015 Casisano Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a floral quality along with aromas of cherries. In the mouth the wine is fruity and ripe with flavors of cherry and dried flowers. Polished and glossy on the palate, the tight tannins squeeze the fruit and linger through the finish. Good acidity but missing some complexity. 3800 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $42. click to buy.

2015 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry and dried herbs. In the mouth, dried herbs and cherry mix with leather underneath the gauze of dusty tannins. Decent acidity. 16,600 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $85. click to buy.

2015 Cortonesi “La Mannella” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, the fruit remains somewhat sweet, with cherry dominating, touched by leather and wrapped in a fist of tight tannins. Good acidity. 2000 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2015 Fanti Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells…well…funky. Like old socks and cherry. In the mouth, cherry and earth flavors mix under a throw of fleecy tannins. Decent acidity. 4300 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2015 La Fortuna Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby with a hint of brick at the rim, this wine smells of cherry, flowers and sour cherry. In the mouth, sour cherry and cherry flavors are wrapped in fine tannins. Good acidity but there’s some heat in the finish. 2800 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2015 La Fortuna “Giobi” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby with some orange seeping in at the edges, this wine smells of sour cherry, raisins, and chocolate. In the mouth sour cherry fruit is draped in gauzy, fine-grained tannins. Good acidity. But a bit tired. 180 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2015 La Magia Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherry. In the mouth, intense flavors of cedar and cherry are shot through with the exotic woods of incense. Dusty tannin and notes of bitter herbs linger in the finish. Decent acidity. 3600 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2015 Le Chiuse Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and river mud. In the mouth, flavors of earth and cherry recall that same river mud. Deep and loamy. 1100 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $72. click to buy.

2015 Tenute Silvio Nardi “Poggio Doria” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, red fruits and dried flowers. In the mouth, earthy, dusty flavors of cherry and dried cherry mix with a touch of leather. Peanut-butter-thick tannins. Decent acidity. 250 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8

2015 Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of heavily ripe cherry and raisins. In the mouth the wine is fruity and rather plain with cherry and raisin flavors that don’t excite. 13,000 cases made. Score: between 7.5 and 8.

2013 Col d’Orcia “Poggio al Vento Riserva” Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color, this wine smells meaty and bacon-like. In the mouth, it seems heavily Brettanomyces driven, with barnyard and leather dominating the palate. Notes of earth bury the fruit and make it a bit hard to take. 1300 cases made. Score: between 7.5 and 8.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5

2015 Pian delle Querci Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of fruity berry aromas. In the mouth, the wine is quite thin and limp, offering berry flavors of cherry and not much more. Not exciting. 3100 cases made Score: around 7.5.