Rosso di Montalcino – More Than “Baby Brunello”

As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner says, “Rosso di Montalcino is one of Italy’s most food-friendly wines (think pasta, grilled sausage and lasagna).” Like its big brother, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso is made entirely from Sangiovese Grosso – the larger berried clone of Chianti’s Sangiovese that seems to thrive only on the rolling hills of Montalcino. But, unlike Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is supposed to be … fun!

Brunello is intended to be a “serious” wine. When Biondi Santi first labeled Sangiovese from Montalcino “Brunello” in 1888, it was for their best wine from a great vintage. And, so it continued for years, with Biondi Santi only releasing new Brunello in 1891, 1925 and 1945. As “Brunello” became an annual event and more producers joined the party, everyone agreed to keep things serious. Only the most ripe, powerful, and intense wines qualified or could withstand the mandatory four years of cellar time before release – especially before 1998 when the wine had to stay in cask for a full 42 months.

When the Rosso di Montalcino designation was created in 1984, the objective was to let new Brunello producers (they were multiplying furiously by then) generate a little cashflow by selling at least some Montalcino wine a year after harvest. The first Rossos were a mixture of wine from younger vines and casks that didn’t make the cut for the “big boy” Brunello.

But, over the years, the best Brunello producers have come to see Rosso as its own distinct style of wine. The best Rossos retain many of the flavors of Brunello – dark cherry, wood spice, leather, and violets – but in a more fresh, vivid, and approachable style. Eric Asimov captured the whole point of Rosso di Montalcino in the introduction to his 2011 Rosso tasting:

“Here sat the wine panel, having tasted 20 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino, reveling in the unmistakable earthy, dusty flavors of pure sangiovese. With their winsomely bitter, citrus-tinged cherry flavors, these wines were soulful and elemental, like good trattoria food. They wanted less talking and more drinking.”

What Will You Taste? I’ve been drinking wines made by Andrea Cortonesi for years, and one of the many things I appreciate by the man who is often called “a master of Montalcino” is how his Rosso does just what Rosso is supposed to do.

Certainly, you’ll find echoes of Cortonesi’s two Brunellos in this pair of 2013 Rossos. The Uccelliera – from heavy soils in Montalcino’s south – emphasizes breadth, power, muscular tannins, and dark, intense, fruit. In contrast, the Voliero – from sandier soils in the northern part of the zone – delivers more perfume, more elegance, and a lovely floral spice not often found in powerhouse Sangiovese.

But I love that neither wine is trying to be Brunello. They both have the right touch of wood to match their open, pure textures and a level of extraction and tannin that invite drinking young with delicious, fresh foods. You can enjoy either right now, although both will get better over the next few years (and Uccelliera benefits from a decant today). And both cost about half what you’d expect to pay for even an average Brunello.

A Look at the Ratings. One last note, this time about ratings. We’ve come to admire and respect the experience and critical faculty for Italian wines of both Antonio Galloni (formerly of Wine Advocate, now with his own Vinous publication) and Monica Larner (formerly of Wine Enthusiast, now Wine Advocate). And, to quote Galloni, both are most valuable when you look beyond their ratings:

“Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in the value of ratings. In a perfect world, a score neatly summarizes everything that is contained within a review. But a number can never give you context, or tell you important things about a wine, how it was made, and, most importantly of all, if you will like it. I believe it is time for us – all of us – to start giving a little more importance to words. The keys to understanding these wines lie in the producer commentaries and tasting notes more than it does in the scores alone.” Antonio Galloni, Vinous, February 2015

In this case, we suggest you look beyond both the ratings and the words when evaluating Monica Larner’s review of Uccelliera Rosso 2013. I’ve tasted this wine – as you can on Friday and Saturday – and I can’t find the “brimstone and pencil shavings” notes she cites first or the “easy tannins” she finds at the end. What I taste and smell is a rich, ripe wine, with powerful tannins that really want a little time to mellow. Perhaps her sample bottle was shocked or off somehow? We’ll be interested in hearing your comments when you come by to try the wine this weekend!

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