The official line on Brunello di Montalcino in 2009 is that it’s a very good, but not quite the best vintage—“four star, not five star,” says Fabrizio Bindocci, President of the Consorzio. From the wines presented at the Consorzio’s event in New York January 27, I’d be more inclined to give it three stars. The word most often being used to describe the vintage was “plush” but that is not an adjective I would use.
The most noticeable feature is the extreme variability, from wines that have tight red fruits with punishing acidity to fruits with more black fruits and smooth elegance. The vintage is being billed as perfect for restaurant wines, showing much less acidity and drinking much sooner than the 2008s, but I find this hard to see from comparing 2009s with 2008s at the tasting. The fact is that 2009 is so variable that it’s all but impossible to make a single generalization for the vintage. It’s fair to say that few if any wines rise above the level of restaurant wine into being worth consideration for the cellar: many in fact strike me as more what I expect from Rosso di Montalcino.
Most of the wines are around 14.5% alcohol, but this seems to fit quite naturally into their flavor spectrum and is surprisingly unobtrusive. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one of the wines I liked best came from the north, showing floral delicacy, and had only 14% alcohol; where one I liked least came from the south and with 15% alcohol made an altogether heavier impression. But although quite a number of wines conformed to the stereotype of finesse and elegance from the north and greater power from the south, there were plenty of reversals: nor were the wines from high altitudes (up to 500 meters) necessarily any tighter or more acidic than those from down below. The type of oak (French versus Slovenian, barriques versus larger containers) seems to be just as important. Once again, it would be brave, if not foolhardy, to generalize.
I suppose it would be fair to say that the wines I liked best fell into two styles: those with floral finesse and red fruits (where more came from the north than the south); and those with smooth black fruits, elegant and round (where most came from the center or south.) But one of the best wines supported all the traditional arguments for blending: a mix from north and south it had a combination of power and finesse, with good flavor variety.
One thing that is evident is that the debate between modernists and traditionalists has run its course. There are certainly stylistic differences, but (at least in the wines represented at this event) they were less extreme than they were, say, ten years ago. I have to admit however that I did not like wines showing evident new oak.
The 2009s certainly seemed quite acidic enough, thank you, so I was worried about the official line that 2008 has more acidity and should be left longer before starting (and will age longer). Of course, Sangiovese is a variety known for its acidity, but to my mind the difference is more that the fruits in 2008 tend to be firmer, in fact in many cases greater fruit concentration absorbs the acidity better. It also seems to be a more consistent vintage, although firmness sometimes becomes a bit too sturdy. In fact, I think some of the 2008s are readier to drink now than the 2009s. The 2006s at the tasting tended to be rather tight, with a certain lack of generosity, and sometimes a little crisp.
The best wines at the tasting were the 2007s, perhaps partly because many of them were Riservas. Riserva isn’t always a sure fire bet in Brunello (they can be too much) but whenever it was possible to compare a 2007 Riserva with a regular bottling, it had an extra dimension and greater refinement. These wines had a combination of smoothness with greater complexity that lifted them well above any of the 2008s or 2009s. Among the latter two vintages, the most elegant 2009s carry the day; but sight unseen, there is a better statistical chance of enjoying a 2008 given the variability in 2009.