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Talking Brunello, Change & Vintages with Canalicchio di Sopra

There’s a new stir of life and change taking hold in Montalcino. For some time, we watched this region struggle, first with Brunello-gate in 2008, which nearly ruined their reputation when it was discovered than many of the region’s top producers were using international varieties to boost the color and intensity of their wines. Keep in mind that in order for a wine to be Brunello, it must be 100% Sangiovese. The region worked hard to recover, but it took many years, since the primary reason producers had begun adding other varieties in the first place was to appeal to international tastes.

What followed were two good vintages, with 2006 and 2007, yet many consumers were still confused and didn’t know who to trust. They were left to wonder, who were the truly traditional producers, and did those producers make a wine that they would like? 2007 fared well due to the press and its warmer vintage personality upon tasting, but neither vintage received the attention it deserved. Then came 2008 and 2009, both vintages that had their qualities, but neither received high acclaim. Suddenly the question was, is Brunello worth the tariff? These were never cheap wines, and without a great vintage to help move them, they sat.

Next came the saving grace of the 2010 vintage. The acclaim over 2010 sent demand for the wines of Montalcino through the roof, combined with a hunger that collectors had developed through the last two vintages. 2010 put Brunello on the radar of speculators as well, suddenly placing the wines into the category of collectible. The only odd thing was that no matter how many times a critic or producer would talk about the limited nature of the wines–they just seemed to keep on coming. I remember countless threads of wine-themed message boards that read along the lines of: “Yet another offer on 2010 Brunello….seriously?” It didn’t help that prices inched up, starting with the producer, on to the distributor, and finally at retail.

In the end, 2010 did the job of moving wine, filling cellars and setting a new standard, but maybe too well…

Why? Because demand sank afterwards. The early drinking 2011s were passed up, and the much prettier 2012 vintage was coined the “waiting room vintage” by one of the most well-known Italian wine critics. Even when word of the classic and “back to form” 2013s came around, consumers simply didn’t get excited.

So what were the producers of Brunello di Montalcino to do?

For the longest time, it appeared that much of the region was riding on past laurels, and from our side of the pond, the future looked bleak. However, the stirring that I mentioned was taking place right below the surface, fueled by a small number of artisanal producers who understood that something needed to change. They knew that simply carrying the Brunello banner wasn’t enough, and so they pushed quality to the extreme; they looked at their soils and vines, at the hardware in their cellars, and they collaborated to taste, critique and help improve each other’s wines. They even worked their way into the highest levels of the Brunello Consorzio and put into motion the evaluation of individual terroir within the region. Today, we are finally starting to see the benefit of their labor, although many consumers are still not aware. However, over the next few years, these changes will become apparent, these producers will receive the recognition they deserve, and collectors in the know will be very happy that they got on board early.

At the very front of this wave of change, we find Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra.

A Short History of Canalicchio di Sopra

In the scope of wine-producing regions, Brunello di Montalcino is quite young, having been officially created in 1967. Yet, at the very beginning, Canalicchio di Sopra was there, beginning with Primo Pacenti, Francesco’s grandfather, who purchased 25 hectares of farmland in the north of Montalcino during the 1950s. His grape of choice was Sangiovese, and as the region grew around him, and the idea of creating the wine, Brunello, spread, he along with eleven other producers went on to form the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.

Having founded and planted the lands he was farming, the surrounding vineyards went on to be known as the Canalicchio cru, which was the main source of fruit for their Brunello and defined the house style with its clay-dominated soils, mixed with calcium deposits and pebbles. The wines of Canalicchio were rich and dark with rounder tannins, yet also cool-toned, a result of their northern climate and high elevation.

The next big change was in 1987, when Primo and his son-in-law, Pier Luigi Rapaccioli, decided to combine their lands under the Canalicchio brand and brought the highly esteemed Montosoli cru into the blend of their Brunello. As many producers of the time worked to acquire lands in both the North and South of Montalcino, hoping to find balance between the structure of the north and ripeness of the south, Primo and Pier Luigi made the defining choice to remain a fully northern producer of Brunello.

Their success was very much the result of their two vineyards, which perfectly contrasted each other’s attributes, as Montosoli brought a unique blend of soils to the mix. These soils were made up of Galestro, as Francesco Rapaccioli would later describe to me as “the most Chianti Classico-like in Montalcino.”

The New Generation of Canalicchio di Sopra

Then came 2007 and the introduction of Francesco Ripaccioli into the cellars of Canalicchio. Francesco, having recently left business school to help his family in a time of need, came home with no formal winemaking training to speak of. However, what he did have to fall back on was his life-long experience of growing up amongst the vines and in the cellars of Montalcino. He also had their family’s consulting winemaker, Paolo Vagaggini, to help guide him.

It’s amazing to think of what Francesco had accomplished in such a small amount of time. Now with eleven vintages under his belt, you would never know that only a decade ago he was learning from the ground up, analyzing each and every process in the cellar and working to elevate Canalicchio to the next level, and that’s exactly what he accomplished.

With the help of his brother, Marco, who focuses his energy in the vineyards, Francesco took to cleaning out the old cellars, replacing rotting and dirty barrels, and looking at the fruit of their vineyards from a parcel-by-parcel, row-by-row perspective. This approach followed through into the winery as well, where parcels were vinified separately before deciding on the final blends of the Rosso, Brunello and Riserva. During this time, Francesco gained the respect of the Brunello di Montalcino consortium, landing a seat within the organization and serving there for six years.

When asked about their style, as many collectors fear the dreaded terms “modern” or ‘international”, Francesco takes a very bold position. For him, he refuses to call his style traditional because, in his mind, tradition in Montalcino meant old-school farming practices and decaying cellars. What Francesco will also offer up is that Brunello itself can not be looked upon as traditional to Tuscany, looking back to his grandfather and contemporaries who strived to create a single-varietal wine in a region where blending was the age-old tradition. That said, work in the vineyards here is done through natural and sustainable practices, as well as through hand selection. In the winery, the wines see long macerations and aging in 30-hectoliter Slavonian Oak casks.

When asked about what separates them from other producers, Francesco goes back to the decision that was made decades ago, to stay a producer of the north instead of trying to create a homogenous version of Brunello. In his mind, the northern elegance, with silkier tannins and floral personas has become a calling card of Canalicchio, and this is all achieved through a reliance on terroir. In each vintage, Francesco works to find the perfect blending of their parcels within Canalicchio and Montosoli to produce their Brunello and Brunello Riserva, meaning that one year may see a 50/50 blend of the two, while another may change. This goes for the Riserva as well, which was usually 80% from their Vigna Vecchia Mercatale parcel in Canalicchio, with the rest from old vines in Montosoli. This line of conversation brought us to the next exciting development at Canalicchio, the creation of single-vineyard Brunello.

The New Brunello di Montalcino: Single-Vineyard Expressions

The reality is that there are already single-vineyard Brunellos in production; however, they remain the exceptions, not the norm. Yet what we will see in the very near future is a much larger emphasis on the individual crus within the region, and Francesco is firmly positioned at the front of this evolution It will start with the 2013 Brunello Riserva, which was sourced entirely from the Montosoli vineyard, but it will culminate into so much more.

Throughout the time that Francesco and his brother have worked the vineyards of Canalicchio, they have watched the individual parcels closely. Some, in many cases the best locations, required replanting, which took place in a section of Montosoli in 2009. While others host vines from 1995, along with a complex terroir that shows through in the finished wines. This is the parcel that makes up the 2013 Riserva and will go on to make a Vina Montisoli by 2018. Another parcel named Vigna Casaccia, within the Canalicchio cru, was planted in 1990 and will also see its own bottling starting with the 2015.

Francesco Ripaccioli

Francesco explains how ironic it is that people look at this as a progression, because for Canalicchio, there was a time (1966 through 1986) that an individual vineyard parcel of Canalicchio made up the entire contents of a bottle of Brunello under his family’s name; they simply weren’t named on the label.

In the near future, we will begin to hear about each vineyard’s unique traits and make buying decisions based on them, very much the same way that we do in Piedmont or Burgundy. The Brunello di Montalcino of wineries like Canalicchio will continue to be produced, and they may even define a new level of value in the region. In the end, it’s an exciting development for both Brunello di Montalcino and its producers.

It might also be exactly what Montalcino needs to find its place among the elite wine-producing regions of the world, in their minds and the minds of consumers and collectors.

A Vertical of Canalicchio di Sopra

One of the best parts about having Francesco visit our market are the verticals of Canalicchio di Sopra that take place while he’s here. Some producers simply get it. In this case, meaning that the ability for writers, buyers and sommeliers to taste through multiple vintages, and on a near annual basis, helps to fully understand the style, ageability and vintage differences of a brand. It’s because of these tastings that I found myself able to speak up about Canalicchio, having formed my own opinions about their Brunello, as well as Francesco’s sincerity and skills first-hand.

I’d like to start with a few general opinions and realizations about past and current vintages. First and foremost is the level of quality found in the Canalicchio di Sopra Rosso di Montalcino. Both the 2015 and 2016 vintages are gorgeous, with the ‘15 showing more ripeness, and the ‘16 able to fool you into thinking it may be a cooler-vintage Brunello. If looking for value from Montalcino, then this is where you want to look. Next is the continued rise in purity, refinement and structure that you can see moving through the vintages, especially the difference from the years prior to 2008 (with 2007 suffering from the warmth of the year, in my opinion).

There is one exception though: the 2006, which has repeatedly wow’d me every time I’ve tasted it. I personally don’t believe the vintage receives the acclaim it deserves, but Canalicchio, as well as a number of other Brunello producers, struck gold in the vintage, and these wines will go on to be epic.

Lastly, don’t just focus on the big vintages, as Canalicchio did a remarkably good job in both 2008 and 2012, especially with their heavenly 2012 Riserva.

P.S.: I included a few notes from Brunello vintages tasted with Francesco on two different occasions this year for a more complete view, and don’t miss my pre-release taste of the 2014!

On to the Tasting Notes

(In order of Wine, then Vintage)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2014 – The nose was restrained at first, slowly opening to reveal notes of dried cherry with wild herbs, minerals and hints of animal musk. On the palate, I found a textural experience, as waves of silk seemed to overlay gruff tannin, with notes of black cherry and sweet spice, propelled forward by zesty acidity. The finish was medium-long, showing a twang of wild herbs and tannin, as minerals and savory spices lingered. This note was taken from bottle, and the experience was much better than expected after all of the reports I heard about 2014. That said, it should be interesting to see how this matures over the coming months and at final release. (92-94 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2013 – The nose was classic, with dark woodsy tones and red woodland berries upfront, as notes of moist soil, savory herbs, cedar and dried cherry came forward. On the palate, I found silky textures, with cool-toned dark red fruits, offset by vibrant acidity and sweet spice, as fine tannin and minerals mounted. The finish was long, showing tart wild berry fruit, a twang of savory minerality and saturating tannins. The 2013 is totally classic and ready for the long haul. (95 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2012 – The nose was slightly restrained at first, yet once it opened up, the 2012 really made itself known with its perfumed and remarkably pretty personality. Here I found mineral-laced cherry, hints of dried citrus, and dusty spices. On the palate, soft textures gave way to ripe strawberry, lifted by brisk acidity, which created a juicy yet wonderfully refined expression. The finish was medium in length, resonating on the wine’s soft and giving nature, with a mix of saline-minerals, tart red berries and a twang of savory herbs. The 2012 is so beautiful right now, that it’s hard to imagine it getting any better. I say pop one open for yourself and take a peek. (93 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2011 – The nose was dark and ripe, showing crushed cherry, plum, sweet spices and botanicals, with marine-influenced mineral tones. On the palate, silky textures carried ripe black cherry and sweet balsamic spice across the senses, yet I craved more acidity. The finish was medium in length, resonating on dark ripe fruits in an easy-going–yet never overdone–expression of Brunello. The 2011 was a bit one-dimensional, yet it would be fun to drink on its own. (89 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2008 – The nose was dark and brooding, yet also rich, alluring and almost sensual. Here I found crushed strawberry and raspberry with balsamic wood, spices, dusty florals and minerality of oceanic origins. On the palate, silky textures gave way to dark red berries, with a mineral, herbal lift, as a twang of zesty acids added energy. The finish was long with a green tinge yet wonderfully balanced and staying in the vein of the ‘08’s richness, as a mix of red and black fruits lingered along with spice and inner florals. (94 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2006 – The bouquet on the 2006 was fresher than I would have expected, yet considering how long it’s taken this vintage to come around, I found myself happily surprised. A burst of mineral-laced black cherry, complemented by cedar, dried florals, minerals and zesty spices lifted from the glass. On the palate, I found enveloping, silky textures, made vibrant through brisk acidity, and showing notes of sweet-and-sour red fruit, with depths of savory minerals and herbs. The finish was long, displaying balsamic-tinged black cherry, lifting herbal tones and a slight tug of youthful tannin. (96 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 2005 – The nose on the 2005 was wonderfully pretty, showing fresh strawberry with dried herbs, florals, and hints of moist earth. On the palate, I found light textures with zesty red fruits, minerals and inner floral tones in a light yet energetic expression. The finish was medium in length, showing pretty spice and floral tones. The ‘05 is drinking beautifully, yet it’s hard to justify the tariff. (90 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 1998 – The ‘98 remains a perfect expression of mid-maturity from a Canalicchio Brunello. The nose was earthy at first, with a display of dark soil, animal musk and crushed fall leaves, yet it begins to to open over time, adding dried cherry, balsamic spice and hints of leather. On the palate, I found soft yet lively textures with hints of residual tannin still peaking through, as notes of dried cherry, savory spices, and inner floral tones caressed the senses. The finish was long with savory black fruits, minerals, herbs and a lasting note of menthol. This is in a perfect place right now and a shining example of how well these wines mature. (94 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 1996 – The nose on the ‘96 was perfectly mature, hauntingly dark and impossible to dislike, leading off with a note of sweet-and-sour brown sauce (trust me, it’s a good thing) and then turning to balsamic spice, dried cherries mixed in moist black soil, sweet minerals and animal musk. On the palate, I found velvety textures that you could become lost in, with flavors of crushed cherry, sweet brown spices, and Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Georganne earth tones. It finished long with a twang of balsamic spiced cherry. This is simply a pleasure to drink. (94 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino 1995 – The nose was dark with haunting floral tones, grounded by notes of moist soil, minerals, and dark earth. Undergrowth, green botanicals and a hint of tobacco resonated. On the palate, I found a soft expression, giving way to notes of dried strawberry and minerals with a wave of brisk acidity that kept things lively and fresh. The finish was medium in length, showing mineral-soaked strawberry and earth tones. (92 points)

The Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2010 – The nose was dark with balsamic-inflected florals, savory herbs, cedar shavings and dried black cherry. On the palate, I found silky textures with mineral-encased crunchy cherry, sweet herbs and zesty acids, as tannin seemed to mount with each passing sip. The long finish was structured, showing medicinal cherry, balsamic spice, and fine gripping tannin which saturated the senses. The 2010 Riserva is a beast today, yet it should be amazing over the coming decade or more. (96 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2012 – The nose was dark and intense with sweet balsamic spices and wild herbs upfront, giving way to black cherry, leather, dusty soil, minerals upon minerals and undergrowth. On the palate, I found velvety textures with dark berry extract that you can feel coating the senses, then gaining freshness in the glass as brisk acidity set in, along with sweet herbs, tobacco, cherry and minerals. It was long on the finish with black cherry, balsamic tones, wild herbs and mouthwatering acidity. (95 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2007 – The nose showed black cherry with sweet herbs, dark floral tones and sweet minerality–reminding me of Flintstones vitamins. On the palate, I found silky textures, displaying ripe cherry and strawberry, sweet herbs and balsamic spice, yet still lively through brisk acidity. The finish was long, showing ripe red fruits encased in grippy tannin with the slightest hint of heat. The 2007 is a good wine for a more international palate, yet it lacks the refinement and depth of the best vintages. (92 points)

The Rosso di Montalcino

Canalicchio di Sopra Rosso di Montalcino 2016 – The bouquet was an exuberant blend of tart black cherry and savory herbs, with floral perfumes, hints of animal musk and undergrowth. On the palate, silky textures washed across the senses leaving a coating of ripe blackberry fruit and minerals, which slowly faded to reveal more cherry tones and spice. The finish was long with saturating dark red fruits, minerals, herbs and hints of tannin. This gorgeous Rosso has me very excited to see what the Brunellos of the vintage will be like. (93 points)

Canalicchio di Sopra Rosso di Montalcino 2015 – The nose was sweet, spicy and seductive with a mixed bouquet of dried cherry, cinnamon, clove, sweet rose, crushed stone and hints of new leather. On the palate, I found a zesty expression with soft textures offset by juicy fresh berries, sweet exotic spice, licorice and inner floral tones. It seemed to hover on the palate, through a mix of vibrant acidity and fresh red fruits, while pleasing the senses throughout. The finish was long with spicy red fruits, and a bitter twang of savory herbs offset by lingering acids. The ’15 Rosso shows it’s ripe vintage fruit but in a wonderfully balanced way. It’s hard to resist. (92 points)

Credits & Resources

Article, Tasting Notes, and Tasting Photos by Eric Guido

Vineyard, Winery and Family photos used with permission from: Canalicchio di Sopra

View the selection of Canalicchio di Sopra at Morrell Wine & Spirits

Thank you to Marea and Maialino for hosting and preparing the perfect pairings for our vertical tastings.

on December 2, 2018

Very informative article, thanks, Eric. I have some limited experience with this producer from vintages in the 1990’s. It was great to get an update on happenings there, which has certainly renewed my intrest in the estate.
Cheers
Steve Adams

on December 5, 2018

I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Canalicchio is certainly one to watch. I’m happy to say that there’s good reason to be excited about Montalcino again.

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