One of the most underrated wines from Italy has to be the Rosso di Montalcino. This hearty red wine from southern Tuscany is made entirely with Sangiovese, central Italy’s signature grape. It is widely acknowledged that Sangiovese reaches its apex in the fifteen by fifteen kilometer square appellation about 125 miles north-northwest of Rome.
The fact that Rosso di Montalcino does not garner more attention and respect is that it is the second wine in the appellation after the long-lived Brunello di Montalcino, which is considered along with Barolo as Italy’s greatest wines. The Rosso carries the unfortunate, and generally inaccurate, moniker, “Baby Brunello.” With that name, it is difficult to be taken that seriously.
It is, in fact, a serious, and one that is markedly different than the Brunellos, though both are made entirely of Sangiovese. Rosso di Montalcino wines were created to allow the producers of the area to generate revenue as their Brunellos awaited release. Brunello carries the longest aging requirements of any Italian wine, five years. That is a long time for a product to wait before it can provide a return. The Rossos, in contrast, can be released the September after the previous year’s harvest.
The results of the two different aging requirements are two different wines that are best thought about in separate terms. The Rosso is not necessarily a lesser wine, it is just different. The deeply tannic Brunellos often take five or ten years to even become enjoyably drinkable, sometimes hitting their stride after two decades or so and having the ability to last forty or fifty years or longer in tremendous shape.
The Rossos, in contrast, are usually ready to be consumed upon release, though some aggressively oaked versions are better a few years down the road. The Rosso are notable for the pleasant cherry and sometimes prune and strawberry notes found in the best expressions of Sangiovese that are balanced with a good amount of acidity and evident, if often soft tannins. At their best, these are easy to drink. But, full-bodied, these packages arrive at 13.5% to 14.5%. These are serious wines, if a less so than the Brunellos that require a commitment to store and, likely, a commitment to savor thoughtfully with a hearty steak or wild boar preparation, or aged Pecorino or Parmigiano.
What I realized during a recent tour of wineries in the Montalcino appellation is most Rossos are very similar to the top wines from Chianti Classico; not much of a stretch, as Chianto Classico is just forty to fifty miles to the north, a distance seems larger at most wine stores. The Rosso di Montalcino name does not garner as much respect as does Chianti Classico, but the former are of generally higher quality than the latter; certainly more consistently enjoyable to me. They are generally priced similarly to the top non-Riserva Chianti Classicos.
Like the Chiantis, the Rossos are made for food and worth ordering when dining out, or dining in.
Here are a few of the Rosso di Montalcinos that I enjoyed during my trip in late November. I managed to drink a good many.
Altesino Rosso di Montalcino 2010 – Relatively light, bright flavors
Argiano Rosso di Montalcino 2009 – Cherry notes, soft tannins, nice acidity that made it very food-friendly, and also easy to drink
Armilla Rosso di Montalcino 2010 – Aromatic, fresh, balanced and wonderful to drink
Castello Romitorio Rosso di Montalcino 2010 – Richer than most, both fruity and tannic
Colle degli Angeli Rosso di Montalcino 2008 – Pleasantly fruity with hints of strawberry, evident tannins, but smooth
Croce di Mezzo Rosso di Montalcino 2009 – Aromatic, firm structure, balanced and enjoyable
Cupano Rosso di Montalcino 2010 – Plush, smooth and easy to enjoy
Vitanza Rosso di Montalcino 2011 – Full-bodied yet very approachable
If you can find them, the retail prices might run from around $20 to $40. Not cheap, but worth it.