The Rise of Rosso di Montalcino


The writing is on the wall. In fact, it’s been there for quite a while, yet many have chosen to ignore it, and many still do. The climate in Montalcino is changing drastically. Touring through vineyards with producers during the summer of 2022 was at times depressing, as we looked to the drought-stricken, cracking earth beneath our feet and then up to the sky as if pleading with a higher power, “Please Rain.” At that time in July, the last helpful rainfall occurred in March. That meant that the vines needed water. Granted, vines still looked healthy in many cases, digging their roots deep to find resources, yet they stood at the brink.

There are very few producers in Montalcino that have irrigation set up for such emergencies, and so the fate of the vintage lies in the hands of Mother Nature. Occasionally a scattered shower might fall, 5-10 millimeters, centralized only in one small part of the region. The consensus, at the time, was that harvest may have to begin near the end of August, instead of the historic average of late September through October. Nearly any Brunello producer will tell you that vines can adapt to the heat and still make great wine, but they need water. Jaws dropped in awe by the second week of July, as veraison had begun. Today, Montalcino is starting to resemble a desert; even the plants found throughout the region are a mix of succulents.

An early onset of veraison in Montalcino, July 2022.

Luckily, August 2nd brought a full hour of rain, totaling 33 millimeters in some areas, which provided a much-needed respite from the heat. A large sigh of relief was surely heard throughout the region. As I was writing this article, I heard word from Angela Biagiotti, assistant winemaker at Uccelliera, that harvest had just begun on September 15th. A save? Maybe, but the warmth of the vintage had probably already left its mark. We will see how 2022 fares over time.

Consistently warm and dry years are starting to worry the producers, as they are leading to Brunellos that are becoming unrecognizable compared to the wines of only over a decade ago. With 2017 and shortly 2018 behind us, we may have some very exciting years to look forward to in the form of 2019, 2020 and 2021, but they are all different degrees of excessively warm and dry vintage wines. Maceration times can be adjusted to help with thick skins and dehydrated berries, but the minimum time in barrel must be followed to the letter of the law. Many open-minded producers have accepted that even 24 months can simply be too much time for these wines to spend in wood before placing them in concrete or steel tanks. The 2018 vintage will show many consumers how extended wood aging can strip a remarkably pretty and exotic vintage of some of its charms. Just like 2017, I believe we’ll see Rossos that show better than Brunellos within the same portfolio.

And There You Have It, the Rise of Rosso di Montalcino

A continuing trend developing throughout the region is a new importance placed upon the production of Rosso di Montalcino. Producers often look to new single-vineyard wines or selections from within their vineyards or wineries to create Rossos that can take things to another level. The more lenient rules for producing Rosso make it very easy for winemakers to make far superior wines than the category was originally intended for.

The Rosso di Montalcino DOC permits a producer to use fruit from their Brunello-designated vineyards for Rosso or to make a barrel selection within the cellar and release a wine after only 10 months of aging. Rosso must be 100% Sangiovese and can be refined in any combination of concrete, stainless steel or wood. A next-level Rosso di Montalcino could be the answer to producers having trouble creating a classic Brunello in the face of global warming or wanting to appeal to a new generation that have no interest in cellaring wines for decades before drinking them. Through its more relaxed rules for sourcing, blending and aging, it is possible to create a more balanced wine, but also one that can communicate just as much importance with the potential aging of a Brunello, without losing the Montalcino branding on the label. This also allows wineries to turn over the product much faster and raise cash instead of sitting on wine for five years prior to release, which is a huge investment.

Pian dell'Orino's experimental “vite maritata” or married vine system.

Navigating the expectations of Rosso di Montalcino from the consumer perspective is where things get very difficult. Let’s face it, the category has earned a bad reputation. Pricing on most wines already exceeds what most consumers consider a value. Far too many producers rely on those same lenient rules to create inferior wines, yet those wines can still carry the name “Montalcino” on the label. In the same token, many quality-minded estates simply want their Rosso to be a young and fresh introduction to their house style, and not a “Baby Brunello” or a competitor with the top Super Tuscans. To further complicate matters, there is no way to tell what the style of wine might be from the label. 

At this time, there is still no answer to how this issue can be resolved, outside of following the notes of reviewers, or getting to know the properties that are placing a much higher level of importance on their Rosso. Finding these wines is truly worth the hunt.

A New Idea or a Broad Realization?

The reality is that creating a superior Rosso di Montalcino isn’t a completely new idea, it’s just one that has spread as Montalcino adapts to current times. For over a decade, estates like Canalicchio di Sopra, Le Potazzine, Pian dell'Orino, Conti Costanti and Baricci (just to name a few) have all been producing Rosso that is a cut above average, ages remarkably well and is a tremendous relative value. A recent 20-vintage vertical of Canalicchio di Sopra’s Rosso demonstrated how well the wines show over the course of two decades. Even the higher-profile and pricier Rossos of Biondi-Santi, Salvioni (La Cerbaiola), Poggio di Sotto and Stella di Campalto communicate a balance of superior quality and the unique stamp of each winery and their terroir. 

Lately, several wineries have found a way to provide the best of both worlds to their clients. They phased a few different Rossos into their portfolio, at different price points, so the consumer can make a choice between the fresher introduction wine or the more important bottlings; Il Marroneto, Castiglion del Bosco, Castello Romitorio and Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona are examples that come to mind.

In the next few years, consumers can expect to be introduced to many more of these “Super Rossos”, wines that bear single-vineyard designations, special selection fantasy names or have been improved through the addition of fruit that was once designated for Brunello. It’s advantageous for Brunello lovers to seek these wines out because today, there really is a lot of value to be found from the top bottlings of Rosso di Montalcino. 

The desert plants found throughout Montalcino give you a real glimpse into its true climate.

Simply So Much To Choose From

As mentioned earlier in this piece, we are now confronted by three warm and dry years that produced more balanced wines overall than in 2017 and 2018 and are absolutely stunning to experience in the form of Rosso di Montalcino. These wines are going to provide fascinating insights into the young Brunellos that are still maturing in cellars, while also giving consumers a lot of pleasure over the coming years. Barrel tasting of 2019, 2020 and 2021 in Montalcino is always an interesting affair; everyone goes back and forth about which vintage they find more appealing or superior to the other. What it seemingly comes down to is personal preference. But most bets are on either the potent, powerful and structured 2019s or the rich and elegant, yet deceptively spicy, 2021s.

With the power, depth, structure and stimulating acidity that often takes them to another level, the 2019 Rossos continue to impress, yet in many cases still need more time in bottle to fully come around. If there is a “Classic” Brunello vintage on the horizon, then 2019 currently seems to be it. The growing season was quite complicated, even volatile, with heavy spring rains giving way to heat waves in both June and July. August provided some relief following some much-needed rain. Luckily, balanced and dry conditions prevailed through the harvest, along with strong diurnal shifts, which helped grapes to regain health and reach full physiological ripeness, resulting in a healthy and abundant harvest. Tasting the 2019 Rossos today can be very exciting from the potential perspective as most of them remain structured and youthfully shut down. That said, there are depths of complexity beneath the surface that will reveal themselves with time. These are wines to hold while drinking your 2020s.

Rosso in every style imaginable and all overdelivering.

With total elegance, yet are almost too pleasurable at times, the 2020 wines come from a warm and dry, yet even, vintage with cooling nights that added balance. These conditions delivered a selection of rich, textural and opulent reds that boast gobs of ripe red fruit and extract. Most 2020s are so beautiful today that it’s hard to envision them getting any better, which could pose a problem for the Brunello category. Unfortunately, the same balanced heat and dry weather also imparted them with higher alcohol levels. I witnessed many wines at 15%, which can make it difficult to continue past a couple of glasses. Take these Rossos for what they are; in balanced doses, this high-test vintage really delivers the goods.

Possibly the best of both worlds, but at the sacrifice of quantity, 2021 combines the underlying power of a classic year with the elegance and opulence of a warm and dry vintage. Two thousand twenty-one was a hot season with helpful rains that lasted well into late spring. In April, a frost arrived that decimated many vineyards in the south. Luca Marrone, head winemaker at Poggio di Sotto, explained that production was down by 80% as 10 hectares were lost to frost, and their warm and dry conditions continued throughout the summer with a small amount of refreshing rains in late August that brought balance. On average, harvest began around the middle of September with surprisingly healthy yet low quantities of fruit. It’s going to be a lot of fun tasting more broadly through the 2021 Rosso di Montalcinos; what I’ve sampled so far has piqued my interests. 

The wines for this report were tasted in Montalcino in July 2022 and in our New York offices in August 2022. As usual, this report includes a handful of other recent releases that are outside the Rosso category.

© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

You Might Also Enjoy

Abruzzo: The Great Divide, Eric Guido, October 2022

The Pros and Cons of Rosso di Montalcino and Beyond, Eric Guido, January 2022

The Power of Three: New Vintage Rosso di Montalcino, Eric Guido, January 2021