Fire and Ice

From a year of climatic extremes, the 2012 Brunellos di Montalcino excel, with ripe fruit, depth and freshness

From the June 30, 2017, issue

The 2012 growing season in Montalcino gave vintners the conditions to make ripe, complex and powerful reds with excellent structure and freshness. The combination of an unusually cold and frosty winter and spring, a very hot and dry summer and a perfect September resulted in wines that manage to balance concentration and power with freshness and elegance.

Imagine wines replete with ripe fruit flavors of cherry, strawberry and plum, accented by floral notes and layers of wild sage, thyme, juniper, leather, iron, tobacco and tea. Back these flavors with a rich, dense texture and weave it all together with fresh acidity and plush tannins. That describes the best 2012 Brunellos.

“From a climatic point of view, 2012 can be defined as an extreme year, which, paradoxically, turned all its extreme conditions into its strong point,” states Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra. “These conditions perfectly integrated into and compensated for each other.”

Located just north of the town of Montalcino, Canalicchio di Sopra offers one of the top-scoring Brunellos di Montalcino from 2012 (95 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $79), a 50-50 blend of Sangiovese from the Canalicchio and Montosoli estate vineyards.

A look at the top scorers shows that great reds were made throughout the Montalcino zone. Altesino’s Brunello di Montalcino Our 40th Harvest (96, $65) and the La Serena Brunello di Montalcino (96, $50) deliver the elegance and vibrant character of the northern part of the region. From the southern sector, the San Felice Brunello di Montalcino Campogiovanni (96, $60) and Collemattoni Brunello di Montalcino (96, $65) offer more tannic structure, though the latter also has an elegant side.

“It was a fantastic summer season, very hot but very dry,” notes Elisabetta Gnudi Angelini, who owns both Altesino and Caparzo. “[There was] very little production, but it was very special. The grapes were so healthy, especially in the north part of Montalcino, with incredible phenolic maturation and concentration of color and tannins.”

These are just a few of the highlights among the nearly 100 wines I tasted from the 2012 harvest. Also in the classic range are Altesino’s Brunello di Montalcino Montosoli (95, $125), Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino (95, $65), Le Ragnaie Brunello di Montalcino Ragnaie V.V. (95, $125) and a duo from San Filippo: its regular Brunello di Montalcino (95, $70) and the single-vineyard Le Lucére (95, $80).

Overall, more than 90 percent of the 2012s I tasted rated outstanding or higher. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines in this report is available.) The wines combine the freshness of the 2010s with the density and power of the 2006s, yet with an extra element of ripe Sangiovese fruit. I rate the vintage at 96 points.

“The wines adapted to the little amount of water so that there was less vegetation and the clusters were smaller. 2012 is a vintage where the final result is extraordinary,” reports San Filippo owner Roberto Gianelli.

I also tasted about 20 riservas from the 2011 vintage. Like 2012, ’11 was a warm vintage, but the heat came in a three-week period in August, when temperatures peaked at 105˚ F. This caused the vines to shut down, making optimum ripeness difficult to achieve.

Unlike the 2010s, the 2011 riservas have not benefited from the extra year of aging. Most seem to be developing quickly, and offer softer structures than either 2012 or 2010. Some wines are approachable now, while others should reach a good peak in the next two to three years.

Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100 percent Sangiovese, specifically the Sangiovese Grosso subspecies. The area is a mix of vineyards, forests and grain production zones, ranging in elevation from 500 to almost 2,000 feet for the cultivation of Sangiovese for Brunello di Montalcino. Montalcino’s complex mix of clay and limestone soils and a Mediterranean climate tempered by the influence of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the peak of Monte Amiata combine to create the region’s unique terroir.

The southern portion of the zone is more susceptible to winds from the sea and is lower in elevation and warmer. Thus it is often harvested two to three weeks earlier than the northern vineyards. Giacomo Neri, proprietor of Casanova di Neri, has vineyards in both areas. He began picking at his more southerly Tenuta Nuova on Sept. 18 but didn’t harvest his Cerretalto vineyard in the northeastern part of the appellation until Oct. 9.

The extreme weather began in the winter. January 2012 ushered in warm temperatures, but the mercury plunged at the beginning of February, accompanied by plenty of snow. Colder-than-average weather extended into March, when a risk of frost at the end of the month was narrowly avoided.

Spring advanced in a regular fashion. Then the heat turned up over the summer months, exacerbated by the lack of rain from May until the end of August. A few days of rain at the beginning of September, particularly on the 5th and 6th in the south, recharged the vines. The arrival of more seasonal temperatures in September and a good diurnal range advanced ripening of the grapes slowly.

“The grapes were underweight at the end of August, but on September 5th and 6th rainfall gave the boost to the vintage,” says Giacomo Bartolommei, the winemaker for his family estate, Caprili (2012: 94, $55). “In fact, the rain was not too much, and it wasn’t in [the entire] Montalcino area but just in the south zone. This rain was really a masterpiece for the full ripening of the grapes that were underweight but rich in color and had good acidity as well.”

To protect the grapes from the heat, Bartolommei did not remove any leaves during August in Caprili’s vineyards. In the end, however, the yield was 25 percent lower than average. Gnudi Angelini said her crop was 20 percent lower in the northern part of the appellation and as much as 30 percent lower in the south. Overall, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino reported a 14 percent decrease in the size of the crop compared with the long-term average.

Some producers, such as Gnudi Angelini, started picking at the end of August in the south, but most waited until mid-September and finished in the first or second week of October.

Ultimately, it was the lack of development of the vines before the September rains and the cooler weather that protected the grapes from the heat, allowing them to ripen and retain freshness. What would have been an early harvest turned out to be within the average range of picking dates for many.

“I think that this protective mechanism that the plant adopted toward the fruit was the key of this vintage. [It is a] warm vintage in spirit, and fresh in the mouth, sapid and enveloping at the same time,” says Ripaccioli.

“Not all great vintages follow the same path to grandeur,” he continues. “There are years in which the path is perfect and linear, such as in 2010. And then there are vintages like 2012, where the seasonal and agronomic path is more tortuous, sometimes even extreme, and where the winemaker is called upon to interpret, understand and dare.”

Those who dared made brilliant Brunellos di Montalcino that will delight fans of the region’s wines for years to come.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Tuscany.