The Pros and Cons of Rosso di Montalcino and Beyond
BY ERIC GUIDO | JANUARY 27, 2022
There are both pros and cons to the strict rules that Montalcino enforces regarding Brunello. The four years of aging required in winery cellars places a huge burden on producers, especially new and aspiring winemakers that must invest time and money for such an extended period before seeing a return on their investment. Luckily, for both producers and consumers, the Rosso di Montalcino category was created. Under these regulations, a producer can use fruit from their Brunello vineyards, vineyards designated for Rosso or make a barrel selection within the cellar and release a wine after only ten months of aging. These wines must be 100% Sangiovese and can be refined in concrete, stainless steel or wood. Frankly, the sky’s the limit. In a perfect world, that sounds great, but this is not a perfect world.
While some producers are truly setting out to create an excellent Rosso, whether meant for early consumption or one that will stand the test of time, there are just as many who are simply trying to cash in on this lesser category. They rely on its very lenient rules to create an inferior wine, yet one that can still carry the name “Montalcino”. To further complicate matters, there is no way to tell what the style of the wine might be from the label. Is it a fun and fresh Rosso from early-harvested fruit with great acidity and perfect for a pop and pour? Or is it the producer’s “Baby Brunello,” a special selection that sees less time in wood than the estate’s top wines, but still enough to impart it with the ability and possibly the necessity to mature in your cellar before drinking? When you then factor prices, which typically push $25-$30 and up, it’s easy to see why so many consumers pass over a Rosso di Montalcino and look to the often more affordable and easily recognized bottle of Chianti Classico that’s sitting beside it on the shelf.
However, Rosso is still an important category in Montalcino. Any lover of the region's wines would be doing themself a disservice by not exploring what the best Rossos have to offer. The best producers, the ones who care, the ones who see their Rosso as a gateway wine to introduce consumers to their brand, have placed a whole new emphasis on the quality of their more affordable wines, whether that be the Rosso, an entry-level IGT or Sant’Antimo (one of the most open-ended DOCs imaginable for both red and white wines from Tuscany). What’s more, the Rosso category presents us with the opportunity to better understand the Brunello vintages that are on the horizon.
Sangiovese vines on the slopes of Montosoli.
My last point is paramount when considering the most recent Brunello vintage we’ve spoken about: 2017. This is a vintage that presented some of the most souped-up and intense Rossos in memory. They were grippy yet dark and packed full of primary fruit. The best of them are still slowly maturing and with years of further potential in a cold cellar. The success of these Rossos makes a lot of sense when compared to the Brunellos of the vintage. In many cases, the fruit for these wines was chosen for its high acidity or harvested early. Grapes didn’t go through extended macerations or long barrel-aging, and it didn’t hurt that some producers declassified extra fruit from their Brunello production to make better Rosso. In the end, the Rosso formula lent itself very well to the torrid heat and dry conditions of the 2017 vintage. Would it surprise you to hear that some producers’ Rossos scored higher than their estate Brunellos in 2017? Well, they did.
What does this tell us about what’s on the horizon? It’s a question to keep in mind as we look at the 2018s, 2019s and 2020s.
At this time, most of the 2018s have already been released and reviewed; however, a few did make it to this report. This is another vintage that produced a large amount of interesting Rossos that are only now hitting their stride, but also quite a few that come across as slightly green or diluted. The 2018 vintage was cold at the wrong times, warm at the wrong times and rainy at all times, except at the end, making vineyard work and selection extremely important. Last January, I wrote in my article, The Power of Three: New Vintage Rosso di Montalcino, “The same qualities that make the Rossos such a success may not hold up well to the long-term aging required to make Brunello.” I still feel exactly the same way. The good news is that during my last trip to Montalcino, a large number of Brunello producers had already removed a few 2018 Brunellos from barrel and placed them into tank.
The tranquil aging cellars of Pian dell'Orino.
The 2019s couldn’t be more different. While tasting the Rossos from bottle and Brunellos from barrel, I can’t help but imagine a marriage of the 2016 and 2010 vintages. The wines have power, depth and structure, but also stimulating acidity that often takes them to another level. If there is a “Classic” Brunello vintage on the horizon, then 2019 currently seems to be it. Interestingly, the conditions themselves were much more volatile than you’d imagine. This was a rollercoaster year of ups and downs, with heavy spring rains giving way to heat waves in both June and July. More balanced temperatures arrived in August following some much needed rain. Temperate and dry conditions lasted through the harvest, along with strong diurnal shifts, which helped grapes to regain health and reach full physiological ripeness, resulting in a perfect and abundant harvest. It also bears mentioning, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that most producers were able to not only spend more time in their vineyards, but also obsess over them. I’m sure you can imagine what this extra effort may have imparted into the wines.
Twenty-twenty, instead, was a warm and dry yet even vintage, with cooling nights that added balance. These conditions delivered a selection of rich, opulent, but elegant, reds. The wines are so beautiful already that it’s hard to envision them getting any better, which could be a problem for the Brunello category. While tasting in Montalcino in July of 2021, I can’t tell you how many producers made a comment similar to “I wish I could take this out of the barrel and bottle it right now, it’s so beautiful”, as we were tasting their 2020s. This brings to light the issues with the required amount of time that a Brunello must spend in barrel. While the 2020s may very well surprise in the years to come, I also fear that two years or more in wood might rob them of some of their magic. That said, the Rossos are simply stunning. While tasting them today, they come across as just a hair behind the sleeker and slightly more energetic 2019s. Readers are going to find a lot to like in the 2020s, especially with regards to their greater near-term appeal. As for the Brunello category, only time will tell.
The Castelnuovo dell'Abate vineyards of Stella di Campalto.
Beyond Rosso di Montalcino
This is where things start to get interesting, sometimes a bit quirky and often a lot of fun, although once in a blue moon a wine leaves you scratching your head in confusion. Frankly, there’s nothing like tasting at a Montalcino winery and watching how happy producers become when you are willing to taste their projects from beyond the restraints of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. Many times, these are projects in other nearby regions, such as Montecucco or Orcia, but more often than not, they come from Sangiovese vineyards or locations where Sangiovese doesn’t thrive, but where producers are trying their hands with a mix of experiments, passion projects or continuing old traditions. These wines can run the gamut of price points and levels of prestige, yet they do so using a lesser important DOC, such as Sant'Antimo or even the all-encompassing IGT Toscana.
This is where you find top selections of Sangiovese, such as Il Marroneto’s Selezione Iacopo, which is produced using Brunello-level fruit but with less time in oak. You’ll also find some thrilling Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon from the likes of Casanova di Neri and Col d'Orcia, as well as Bordeaux blends, like Argiano’s Solengo. However, these wines also range into the totally unexpected, like the Metafisica, a varietal Chardonnay from a tiny vineyard on the Castello Romitorio property, or the Stellare Brut, a metodo classico Chardonnay from Le Chiuse. And, of course, one of my favorite re-emerging trends, varietal Ciliegiolo, for a fun and zesty sip of bright cherry-berry fruit. If you love the Brunello of a specific producer, then there’s a good chance that you’ll find a lot to like about their other projects as well.
The wines in this report were tasted between a combination of visits with producers in Montalcino during July 2021 and in our offices in New York during November of 2021.
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