Spotlight on Rosso di Montalcino


Rosso di Montalcino sometimes gets overlooked in the rush to focus solely on Brunello. That’s a shame, as the best Rossos offer pedigreed expressions of Sangiovese from this magical hillside town and its surrounding vineyards. At the same time, styles and overall quality are variable, which makes navigating Rosso a bit of a minefield. Here’s everything you need to know…

Rosso di Montalcino – An Overview

Making sense of Rosso di Montalcino requires a bit of work, as the wines run a wide gamut of styles, from simple, easygoing reds meant for near-term drinking to far more serious wines than can approach, or even surpass, Brunello in terms of quality.

Starting from the most building block concepts, Rosso di Montalcino is 100% Sangiovese that can be made either from vineyards that are specifically designated for the production of Rosso, or wine from Brunello-designated vineyards that is declassified down to Rosso, an approach many estates take with younger-vine fruit and/or casks that aren’t considered to be of the highest quality. In first-rate vintages, estates have a natural financial incentive to bottle as much Brunello (and Brunello Riserva) as possible, whereas in less favorable vintages, Rosso can be a good outlet that allows producers to bottle only their best lots as Brunello while generating quicker cash flows.

Unlike Brunello, the regulations that govern production of Rosso give producers quite a bit of leeway, especially with regards to aging, which is one of the key reasons the styles of wines are so wide-ranging. During my tastings of Rossos for this article, I tasted everything from straightforward, vinous Rossos made to offer immediate pleasure, to more structured, powerful wines, and even one 2018 that was already in bottle.

To complicate matters further, a number of estates have started to offer two Rossos – usually a simple, fruity version and a more structured, powerful bottling. Both carry the same designation: ‘Rosso di Montalcino.’ How can a consumer tell the difference between these wines, other than by price? The answer is there is no easy way. Moreover, where estates make two Rossos, the ‘important’ wine is usually more concentrated and saddled with greater oak influence, neither of which necessarily makes for a better or more complex wine.

I generally am not in favor of denominations introducing new categories – Italian wine is complicated enough as it is. But it does seem to me that if producers in Montalcino want to go down the path of offering two styles of Rosso, perhaps the simpler versions should be ‘Rosso di Montalcino’ while the more structured bottlings should be ‘Rosso di Montalcino Superiore’ with some additional quality guidelines to ensure wines live up to top billing.

Some of the most compelling and delicious Rossos I tasted this year

What’s in a Name?

Rosso di Montalcino benefits greatly from its association with the ‘Montalcino’ brand, which makes the wines easy to sell as ‘baby Brunello.’ But that is a double-edged sword, because, while the natural link to Brunello can be (and should be positive), that presupposes that Rossos are good wines. What happens when they aren’t? What happens when Rossos are thin, diluted, or worst of all, technically flawed? Well, at that point the very obvious risk is that the entire Montalcino appellation is tainted by low quality wines. In Piedmont, this is not an issue with Langhe Nebbiolo because there is no linkage with Barolo or Barbaresco. Of course, that creates a different set of challenges. But in Montalcino, Rosso has to be good, and it really should be more than just good because the reputation of each estate and entire region is at stake with every single bottle. I tasted too many Rossos that were washed out and lacking in any real depth or pedigree. I also saw a few wines with technical flaws. In 2019, in a global wine market, there is just no room for unsound wines.

Recent Vintages

My tastings focused on the 2017, 2016 and 2015 vintages. Because of the factors I highlight above, the most important being the wide stylistic variation in the wines, release schedules are also quite different from estate to estate. Two thousand seventeen will be remembered as a very hot and dry year. The 2017 Rossos are decidedly racy, exuberant wines. The best 2017s are delicious, but there is no way of getting around the naturally flamboyant style of the year. In 2016, the long, balanced growing season yielded wines much more aromatically expressive and nuanced. If this vintage has a slight shortcoming it is that some Rossos lack just a bit of depth. I suspect most of the best juice will be bottled as Brunello. And then we get to 2015, which has the best balance of the three, for Rosso, with a terrific combination of richness and depth from the warm weather that year, along with a good deal of structure.

The Salvioni farmhouse, Montalcino

Producers To Look For – The Best Of The Best

This is a short list of most consistently outstanding producers of Rosso di Montalcino. Unfortunately, none of these wines are particularly inexpensive. In the $20-25 price range, quite frankly, Chianti Classico often delivers better value.

Biondi Santi - Tenuta Il Greppo – A beautiful Rosso that captures the classically austere style Biondi Santi is famous for.

Canalicchio di Sopra - Ripaccioli – A gorgeous expression of Sangiovese from the northern part of town.

Capanna – An estate that has been on a roll of late with super-elegant wines.

Costanti – I prefer the straight Rosso over the newer Vermiglio bottling.

Cupano – A rich, luscious Rosso that expresses the essence of the house style.

Le Chiuse di Sotto - Gianni Brunelli – A serious, pedigreed Rosso and a superb expression of Sangiovese from Montalcino.

Fuligni – One of Montalcino’s benchmark Rossos.

Lisini – A powerful expression of Sangiovese from the southern part of the appellation.

Pian dell’Orino – A deep, intense Rosso full of character and personality.

Le Potazzine – The epitome of translucence and finesse in Montalcino Sangiovese.

Salvioni – Bottled from one, sometimes two, casks of declassified Brunello juice, and only in some vintages.

Siro Pacenti – One of the most consistently outstanding Rossos. The rich, sumptuous style is classic Giancarlo Pacenti.

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