Frescobaldi’s 2006 Brunello

The launch of the 2006 vintage of Brunello has been mildly controversial.   This special wine is made from the particular type of Sangiovese grape variety grown on the Montalcino plateau in southern Tuscany; the resulting wine is released for sale after five years, at least two of which have to be in oak.  The launch has not been controversial with a big C – the big row which erupted in 2008 continues over whether some growers have in recent years been ‘improving’ their Brunello by adding small amounts of Merlot or Cabernet to improve the colour and roundedness of their wines, which, while harmless to health, would be fraud.

Rather, with regard to the 2006 vintage, the issue has been over the quality level.  Understandably the growers’ consortium was hoping for some unadulterated (sorry) good news to put recent events behind them and it has have been quick to hail 2006 as a five star vintage. And influential American commentators have been wildly adulatory about the quality.    By contrast the word from the Brunello anteprima, the trade tasting of the new wines in Tuscany itself, was much more mixed. Wine journalists reported some very good wines and some ordinary ones.  This matters to the wine lover as Brunello is the biggest name in Italian fine wines (as shown in recent market research). The wines are not cheap so we really need to know how good they are. 

IMG_0650A tasting in London gave a chance to make one’s own mind up, at least about one large and prestigious producer.  Best of all it gave the chance to compare this wine with two earlier good years, 2004 and 1997.  It was a privilege to be at this event at which Marchese Leonardo Frescobaldi presented his wines with apparently tireless good humour and courtesy, and threw in an excellent lunch in the setting of the restaurant which bears his family’s name tucked into a smart corner of the large, new wine department at Harrods.  We British are very susceptible to a touch of class, not to mention lunch, so I will be as objective as I can be! But, on the other hand, wine is supposed to be enjoyed with good food in excellent and, if possible,  informed company, so in another way this was a perfect setting to try the wine.

In general 2006 was a good to excellent year in Tuscany.  On the coast and in the Maremma it was very good – but then it nearly always is.  A better indicator is Chianti Classico which, like Brunello, also comes from inland sites and some altitude. In Chianti the wines are excellently fresh and balanced: see Chianti Classico finds its soul.  But all this matters not a jot – what matters is what the year was like on the CastelGiocondo estate where the grapes were grown and the answer here is ‘mixed’. Lamberto Frescobaldi, the winemaker, wrote in his diary in late August of his foreboding. The weather continued to be cloudy and cool and he was anxious about the forthcoming harvest.  In his mind were the countless of hours of work which had been put in by his workers in wind, rain and the unforgiving sun, and whether this would all come to nothing if the poor weather continued.  But the good news was that September brought the stable sunny weather which all were hoping for and a fine harvest followed.  So what is the wine like? And how does Brunello from good years develop in the bottle? 

IMG_0640 1997
You can see on the left that the 2006 is a typical mid to pale ruby red of oak aged Sangiovese – a good colour but not overly dense. It is a five year old wine aged in mainly used French barriques so it has lost the purple edge of youth. By contrast, the 1997, on the right,  has developed that marvellous pale brick red associated with older wines.  In another decade the orange notes would be even more marked. 

The 2006 has an immediately attractive cherry nose with some balsam notes, of medium intensity.  It is fresh and hits a good compromise between assertiveness and elegance.  This is followed on palate by an impressive attack, the characteristic acidity of Sangiovese, with lots of sour cherry fruit, but there is also some softness (by the standards of Brunello) with modern oak effects, not vanilla but hints of smoke and chocolate, and quite fine and moderate tannins.  In terms of modern versus traditional, it just creeps into the modern end of the spectrum of Brunello – attractively drinkable at a mere five years of age, but recognisably Tuscan and with the structure and assertiveness of Brunello.  Is it a great vintage? – I am not sure; I would need to taste a lot more examples and we will all need to see how it develops over time. Is it a fine wine? Certainly it is. 

The 2004 comes from an uncontestably good vintage, very even and reliable.  It is now in young mid life and has developed a sort of sleek refinement to go with the sour cherry, mineral and maturation notes and powerful structure.  It finishes with liquorish and cloves and is altogether complex and very polished.  If you like your Brunello on the young side, this is wine to drink now and for the next five years – as the Marchese agreed over lunch. 

_T8K78231997 was a difficult and painful year for the growers affected by the hail storms in April which massively reduced the eventual crop. What survived was very good indeed, but not much survived.  Now fourteen years old all the fresh fruit-related flavours have been transformed into layers of mushroom and undergrowth, rounded on the palate, earthly and mineral, with a spicy finish.  Not really a wine for drinking (except perhaps with the lamb with mushroom dish it just about accompanied if you had saved some till this point), more for savouring with friends who will appreciate its subtlety and development.

Whatever the final  view on the 2006s, this tasting showed the enduring appeal of wines from a great territory with genuine vintage variation.  Brunello is never going to be an easy ride with its initial dose of acidity and tannin. But these are what give the wine its structure, power and durability. But the way that the wines develop over years and even decades and the variation from year to year are the factors which give Brunello its perennial fascination.  In this way, 2006 takes its place with many other good to excellent years. 

Other 2006 vintage Brunello

For the sake of comparison, here are some further wines from Montalcino from the 2006 vintage. Both are from the Lea & Sandeman tasting in May 2011:

Collemattoni 2006, 14.5% – on first impression this did not seem that impressive but I think that was just me.  On a second tasting, the perfumed nose was very evident (modest wood effects and underlying fruit), then fine textured fruit, extremely drinkable already. 

Fuligni 2006, 14.5% – strikingly rich, with a fresh palate and layers of interest, substantial if fine tannins reassure that this is for long term development. 

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