Brunello di Montalcino 2018: elegant and age-worthy

The 2018 vintage in Montalcino was challenging for producers, but the wines have exceeded all expectations. After extensive tastings of the wines and conversations with producers, we explore the growing season, what defines 2018 Brunello di Montalcino and share our favourite wines
Brunello di Montalcino 2018: elegant and age-worthy

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The 2018 vintage in Montalcino is certainly one to get excited about – particularly for those who love fresh, floral vintages packed with tension. Vintages like this are becoming ever rarer in today’s warming climate, and therefore all the more precious.

Despite the pleasing results, the growing season was far from easy. A very wet and then humid spring and summer made it very demanding for vignerons – but the results are much better than expected, with some stunning wines.

While it might not have the power of 2015 or the structural intensity of 2016, the wines have fantastic energy and elegance, and plenty of acidity making it a versatile vintage that can be enjoyed in its youth or will age well. “I will certainly be cellaring many bottles of 2018 myself,” says Canalicchio di Sopra’s Francesco Ripaccioli, a vigneron but also a Brunello collector, who always gives an insightful description of the vintage.

Ripaccioli believes that this “fresh” vintage might be overlooked by critics looking for power, but he sees many similarities with 2008. That vintage passed with little fanfare on release but proved to mature into a stunning year that aficionados just can’t get enough of these days. Certainly, for Ripaccioli, the 2018s share 2008’s purity and, while it doesn’t have the structure of his favourite overlooked vintage 2013, it has many similarities to this year as well.

For Riccardo Talenti, 2018 is “a classic year” reminiscent of the Brunello of the 1990s. “The wines have excellent acidity, well-built and persistent tannins with a very fresh base of fruit.” For Sabina Sassetti (Livio Sassetti), the vintage produced wines with “extremely soft, elegant tannins and great aromatic extraction”.

There is a lovely transparency to the vintage and single-vineyard sites really prove their mettle – offering very distinct interpretations dictated by terroir. Argiano’s single-vineyard Vigna del Suolo, Canalicchio di Sopra’s Vigna Casaccia and Casanova di Neri’s Tenuta Nuova are all outstanding examples.

Giacomo Neri was surprised by the 2018 Tenuta Nuova’s “quality of tannic texture, depth, persistence and the salinity”, something he believes “has been manifesting for some years in an increasingly intense way”, and really came to the fore in 2018. For him, the wines are “not wide but long, fresh, with great scents, complexity, elegance and have great ageing potential”. For Poggio di Sotto, the wines are “rich in aromas and structure, very recognisable and characterful with good acid and alcohol content”.

The season started with plenty of rain in the winter months which was much needed following the drought conditions of the blistering 2017 summer. This helped re-balance the water reserves in the soil and the cold winter allowed the vines to reach adequate dormancy. Budburst and flowering all happened with little mishap, and yields looked very healthy. Spring and summer remained moderate in temperature with just one heat spike in July where temperatures reached 35-36˚C. From mid-June to the end of August temperatures sat around, but rarely exceeded, 30˚C, keeping the vine in good health with no shutdown, encouraging the berries to reach full phenolic ripening and no scorching of berries.

Cerbaiona’s Matthew Fioretti emphasised how the rainy spring and humid weather that followed resulted in downy mildew which would go on to cause difficulties in the vineyards right up until harvest. And there was a lot of rain. Poggio di Sotto’s Maarten Leereveld noted that by the end of May they had already exceeded the rainfall for the whole of 2017. Sabina Sassetti highlighted that great attention was required in the vineyard to maintain concentration. If there was any concern it was the combination of high yields and moderate temperatures that meant grapes could struggle to achieve full sugar ripeness – so most producers did a green harvest in August to offset this.

Ripaccioli is a firm believer that a vintage is best judged by the last 30 days prior to harvest and, despite ambient weather for much of the year, two significant rainstorms on 1st and 17th September impacted the harvest. Unlike in 2017 where the dehydration of the berries was a problem, the grapes swelled following the rain, with dilution of flavour and structure a danger. While it no doubt had some impact, it was heavily moderated by strong westerly winds that blew throughout September. In fact, Ripaccioli explained how the grapes lost 30% of their berry weight in the two weeks prior to harvest thanks to the wind’s dehydrating effect.

For Giacomo Neri of Casanova di Neri, the distinct diurnal temperature shifts leading up to harvest resulted in a slow and constant ripening of the grapes. It meant the wines built up aromatic complexity and retained high levels of acidity, giving the wines a lovely freshness. With its high-altitude vineyards, the strong, warm, westerly winds in September were very welcome for Biondi Santi, really helping dry out the vines and grapes following the rain. Biondi Santi was able to start harvesting as early as 16th September.

For many, harvest was typically delayed by around five days to encourage the grapes to reach full ripeness. Berry-by-berry selection was necessary to ensure optimum results for what was potentially a large crop with uneven levels of ripeness. Despite the potentially high yields, the final numbers in terms of production throughout Brunello saw 2018 volumes among the lowest of the last six years, around 25% below 2016 and 2017, and similar to 2019 (set to be released next year). Green harvesting and extensive selection at harvest was clearly adhered to. At Canalicchio di Sopra this meant 10% of grapes were removed at sorting – compared to just 1% in 2016.

Sassetti Livio Pertimali

Sassetti delayed harvest until 10th October. They felt the mild September and later harvest enabled them to bring in very healthy grapes that had “finally” reached perfect ripeness. With all the grapes in, the numbers were impressive – both alcohol and pH levels were the same at Canalicchio di Sopra as they were in 2016. It is a pH level that is one of the lowest in recent years – giving the wine a great level of freshness and huge ageing potential. The Canalicchio wines sit at 14.5% alcohol – as is typical – thanks to the removal of more dilute berries at sorting.

Tasting a wide range of 2018s, the wines generally have an immediate appeal. The texture is noticeably elegant and there is lovely clarity to the fruit. The wines are medium-bodied, making them immediately seductive and, in some, there are lovely floral, perfumed, almost Pinot-Noir-esque aromatics. The best wines are full of energy.

This is certainly a vintage of sophistication, creating wines with transparency, fine textural elegance, plenty of tension and impressive length. Producer styles and picking dates (from fresh to raisined fruit) still tend to dominate over and above vintage influence. Those who managed to balance the freshness with concentration and keep the oak in the background, produced excellent wines. Very few were lacking concentration and the best have great length, a tensile, racy appeal and beautiful, lifted aromatics. The 2018s will bring lots of drinking pleasure.

Brunello di Montalcino 2018: the vintage in brief

  • A reference vintage for high-quality, cooler, fresher Brunello

  • Great aromatic flair with strong floral and spice notes

  • Polished, elegant, resolved tannins make the wines approachable fairly young

  • A versatile vintage with high acidities providing long ageing potential

  • Riservas were typically not made, meaning the best fruit will be found in the normal Brunello bottlings

  • The opposite in style to the riper, more powerful 2015 and 2019s (released next year)

  • Similar in character to 2008 or 2013

Our favourite 2018 Brunello di Montalcino wines so far

Poggio di Sotto, Poggio Antico, Canalicchio di Sopra, Altesino, San Polo, La Fiorita, Cortonesi, Talenti, le Potazzini, Argiano

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Gavin Smith
Gavin Smith is a wine obsessive who has visited Bordeaux and Burgundy every year since joining the wine trade in 2006. Previously a wine buyer, Smith now loves exploring the history and philosophy behind producers.