After the baking and arid 2017 vintage, 2018 was cooler and damper, yielding Sangiovese stylistically recalling an era prior to the recent solar years, with generally impressive results. Vinous’ Eric Guido has described the best wines as “Burgundian”, with “vividly dark, ripe fruit, balanced acidity and refined tannins”. He also notes that in 2018 the “quality of mid-level wines is higher than in the past” and we have a selection which - bright, fresh and supple - will delight on release, whilst the top wines, for longer ageing, “will overperform, overdeliver and thrill”.
In short, this is an absolutely charming vintage with immediate hedonic appeal but also some wines worthy of more extended cellaring and there are a number of superb wines from our favourite growers that we cannot wait to share with you. The cherry on top are the prices – as Burgundies continue to rise, especially in the light of two very short vintages, Brunello continues to advance in quality and transparency to its varied terroirs. We're thrilled to work with so many top producers from Montalcino, so do check out our Brunello 2018s.
The Growing Season
2018 was far from a uniform vintage for Montalcino, let alone Tuscany. Guido characterises it as a “Conundrum” or “Rubix Cube”, with those in the north near Montosoli enjoying serene September weather during harvest, whilst those in the warmer, earlier ripening south having to pick through the unfamiliar sound of rain. This was generally a cooler vintage, by Montalcino’s standards, more so than any of the preceding years with the exception of 2013, and also a particularly wet one. Heavy rain in spring and summer were in one sense welcome after the heat and drought of 2017, yet the humidity – described by some locals as “tropical” – meant growers had to be particularly wary of mildew pressure.
Laura Paolucci at Mastrojanni in the south notes “demanding phytosanitary management” in response to the rain and humidity, with “frequent interventions” in the vineyard, whilst in the north, Castello di Romitorio’s owner Filippo Chia did “everything possible to protect the grapes from the humidity and keep the remaining grapes healthy, such as not tilling the soil, removing leaves, and using special organic clays”. Whilst Sangiovese in many places achieved optimum levels of ripeness, rarely did this happen consistently on the vine, making life particularly challenging for pickers during harvest. Mastrojanni resorted to even “more rigorous selection of the grapes in the vineyard”, with yields down a further 10% on 2017 (which was already comparatively short). In fact many producers have elected not to bottle a Riserva this year, putting all their grapes, oenological know-how, blood, sweat and tears into their estate & single vineyard Brunellos.
And what of the wines? Did they succumb to the challenges of the growing season, or rise above them? The familiar refrain of recent Burgundy & Bordeaux vintages rings true here too; lower yields do not equate to poor wines, and from our tastings there are some wonderful Brunello 2018s… if you know where to find them. This is the overwhelming consensus of commentators too. “Like 2013”, declares Water Speller writing for Jancis Robinson, “this vintage is about skill as much as terroir. What counted in 2018 was talent (and risk-taking) in interpreting this cool year. More than a handful did a splendid job, but just like the 2013 vintage, 2018 separates the wheat from the chaff, and revealed a hierarchy of estates that cannot easily be ignored.” Increasingly growers in Montalcino and commentators are at pains to point to sub-regional variations and cooler vintages, as we have seen in Burgundy and Barolo, and they tend to unveil terroir specificity. However, whilst recognising that some warmer, more southerly situated sites produced notable successes, Speller does not consider that the division of quality was at all clear cut between "the cool north" or the "hot south".
Stylistically, the best wines are “extremely polished and well-integrated with bright, ripe fruit and fine, textured tannins” according to Claire Nesbitt (writing for James Suckling), and many are, surprisingly in the context of young Brunello, “attractive to drink now”. Indeed, Guido challenges the perception that Brunello “has to be a 20-year-old wine to be an excellent wine”, urging collectors that the 2018s will “overperform, overdeliver and thrill for whatever their lifespan might be … [Brunello 2018] shines already today yet promises a steady and prosperous evolution over time”. Even those without the stuffing for long-term cellaring “are charming and fruit-forward, like a basket of fresh berries, followed by a delicate and often semi-sweet expression on the palate”, perfect for enjoying in the mid-term whilst you wait for your 2015s and 2016s to come around. However Speller reminds us that there are also “wines that show great purity of fruit, muscular tannins that will require prolonged bottle-ageing, and spectacular balance”, wines which “remind very much of the 2013 vintage in their capacity for long-term ageing”.
We were thrilled to add a number of new growers to our Brunello offering last year, and with the tragic exception of Valdicava, who lost almost the entire crop to a freak hailstorm and will not be releasing a Brunello 2018 this year, all have fielded the challenges of the season successfully. In Walter Speller’s report only a handful of growers achieve his top banded score of 17.5, and of those three are favourites at Honest Grapes: Giodo (“Shows real potential and promise and is not short of appeal”); Cortonesi I Poggiarelli (“I have no doubt that in five years’ time you’d
wish you had bought a case of the stuff”); and Le Ripi’s Cielo d’Ulisse (“Impeccably balanced. Irresistible”); with Argiano and Patrizia Cencioni not far behind either.
Meanwhile Eric Guido draws special attention to a few leading growers: in the North-East he highlights “Le Gode”, who “made unique, beautiful wine that should not be missed”; alongside Argiano & Mastrojanni in the south, both crafting “distinctive wines that will be cherished for years to come”, and which Guido (with Le Gode) will be adding to his own cellar, urging readers to do the same! There’s high praise for Filippo Chia & Romitorio too. The Filo di Seta (“a total success for 2018”) and estate Brunello di Montalcino both get smashing reviews from Guido, wines Honest Grapes’ Wine Gurus take every year. Regional specificity continues to play an important role in Montalcino, and for Claire Nesbitt “many of the best Brunellos in our tastings come from the magical hill of Montosoli, on Montalcino’s north side”, where you will find Le Gode and Valdicava, and a little further south-west, Romitorio.
The Last Word
The Brunello 2018s “will certainly please many Italian wine lovers” according to Claire Nesbitt, who declares joyously that “it’s a good time to buy and drink Brunello”. This is very much a region on the move. The Drinks Business’ Filippo Bartolotta reports that during the “first 9 months of 2022, in fact, there was an increase in sales of Brunello di Montalcino equal to 21.5% in value and 6% in volume”, and with access to equivalent crus in Burgundy and Barolo diminishing, we are expecting Brunello to continue attracting new punters looking for great wines that can be enjoyed at fair, sensible prices. Quantities are limited in 2018 however, so as usual, you will have to act quickly to secure allocations of these wines.
In many respects, this is also a very special vintage of a kind that is sadly becoming less and less frequent. As Walter Speller cautions, "with the inexorable progress of climate change, in the future freshness may end up in short supply. I feel we should treasure every vintage that displays this most important quality. The best 2018 Brunellos have this in spades.” We’ll be kicking the campaign off in earnest during January, so don't miss out on this wonderful vintage and make sure you sign up to receive first dibs on all these wines, as they are released.