~ The stone cottage in the Costanti vineyards is an iconic landmark in Montalcino ~

Brunello Riserva has always existed in a sort of vacuum, a love hate relationship if you will.  Although there are laws governing their production, when you peel back the onion, very little is actually required.  Furthermore, even less is obvious to the consumer.

Brunello must be aged for four years prior to release and is eligible to hit the market on the 5th January following the harvest.  For Riserva those requirements are extended for an additional year.  As a result of the slower time to market, the wines are more expensive. But are they universally better?  Are they any better?

Brunello Riserva

~ There are many excellent Enoteca in Montalcino ~

I like to think of Brunello Riserva existing in three distinct categories.   The first are wines crafted from identical fruit sources as the producer’s Estate Brunello and simply aged an additional year before release.  Next are wines where a special selection has been made; presumably from the producer’s best fruit.

Finally, several producers allocate fruit from a single vineyard that has been specially segregated for Riserva production. This could be an older vineyard, a vineyard with optimal exposure or a combination of both.  Personally, I find this latter type of Riserva to be among the best, but they are also generally the most expensive.  So how does one know which are which?  The short answer is – you read this website!  The long answer is, there’s really no way to tell in most cases simply by looking at the bottle.

Brunello Riserva

~ The streets and alleys of Montalcino are filled with gorgeous doors and architectural oddities ~

To make things more complicated, the vagaries of vintage also play a role in the equation.  As a result, what appears to be a superior wine (say one from a single vineyard) might not be better than a seemingly inferior wine from a better vintage.  The bottom line is to learn as much about your favorite producers as you can. Trust them to make excellent wines and know their style. Allocate your dollars accordingly.  In the absence of any of the preceding factors, I think you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Back in February, I attended Benvenuto Brunello and tasted a handful of 2016 Riserva that day.  By and large, they were excellent.  Since then I’ve tasted a handful more from various vintages. Again, the wines are well made and delicious.  However, does the step up in price come with a corresponding step up in quality?  Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.  To me, that’s a problem.  I’ll cite my impression of the 2016 Poggio di Sotto Riserva – a wine that will likely release for near $400.

2016 Poggio di Sotto Brunello Riserva:  Medium ruby.  Persistent aromas of black cherry, powdered baking spices, iron and shale.  On the palate this is generous with its red fruits and spices.  Leather and powdered minerals are present too.  Very elegant, with mild tannins. All in all, this isn’t much different from the 2017.  91-93 points.

And as a comparison, the much cheaper La Magia Riserva which likely will be available under $100.

2016 La Magia Brunello Riserva:  Holy cow!  Deep ruby with everything dialed up a notch on the nose and palate.  Ripe black cherry is accented with tobacco, clay, fresh herbs and a sweet, ripe finish. Juicy, lively but with large finely grained tannins that need time to settle. The freshness here is compelling.  This estate is on a major roll.  Bravo!  96-98 points.

~ Fabian and Bianca Schwarz  of La Magia ~

The moral?  Choose wisely.  All Riserva are not equal.  Just like any other wine.  Here are two recent tastings that continue to bear out my suspicions.

Approximately 10 miles south of Montalcino, near the tiny hamlet of Sant’ Angelo in Colle, lies the pristine estate of Tenuta Il Poggione. Since 1964, the estate has been under the direction of the Franceschi family and the watchful winemaking eye of Alessandro Bindocci.   Perhaps the jewel of the estate is the Paganelli Vineyard which is the oldest plot on the estate and was planted in 1964.

The 2012 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Vigna Paganelli is still a deep, almost impenetrable garnet color in the decanter.  That said, if you look in the neck of the “duck” you’ll notice the color array which also presented itself in the glass.  Of the two bottles, this took the longest to evolve over the course of the evening.  2012 was an elegant vintage. It has always reminded me of a modern day 1988.  In that sense, this wine is already presenting itself in a more advanced way.  Deep aromas of worn leather, toasted oak and dried fennel frame the core of wild berry aromas.  On the palate, the wine shows a juicy core of wild berry fruit accented with toasted spices, cured meats and dried herbs.  It’s in a really good spot right now, but I’d caution against holding these much longer.  94 points.  Find this wine.

~ This bottle shows the deft work of Bindocci. Although it is from a weaker vintage than the Costanti, it was equally impressive ~

The next wine is also a great example of what I mentioned above.  It’s not a single vineyard wine – but listen to what Andrea Costanti has to say about what Riserva means to him.

The production of a “Reserve”, as we have been taught by Franco Biondi Santi, is part of the tradition of Brunello di Montalcino, more than the cru or single-vineyard wines. Given that Brunello is an extremely important wine, when I decide to make a Reserve I always have to be sure that what I have is outstanding, absolutely fabulous: the best Brunello in an exceptional year, one of those that occur about three times in each decade.

That is precisely the sort of information you need to know!

The 2015 Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is a gorgeous wine.   Deep garnet in the decanter and in the glass.   The aromas are potent and persistent.  Black cherry, wild herbs, toasted pipe tobacco and mint aromas are wonderful.  Full bodied on the palate and not as “young” as one might expect – but perhaps the decanting helped that.  Bright, focused cherry notes are backed by mint, dark chocolate, hazelnut and sweet tobacco notes that are gorgeous.  Persistent and long with meaty tannins that are well integrated but could use 3-4 years to settle.  I think this will be even better and more luxurious at its 10th birthday but it’s compelling right now.  97 points.  Find this wine.

Brunello Riserva

~ The Costanti was impressive and should last wonderfully until its 15th birthday ~

What is your take on Riserva?  Do you think they’re worth the additional tariff?  Which do you seek out and why?   Leave a comment and let’s chat…..


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