Rosso di Montalcino is at a critical crossroad. For years it has struggled to find an identity. Outside Tuscany, it’s notoriety is often minimal. As a category, with few exceptions, it represents poor value. This is exacerbated by the fact that the quality of the wine can be wildly inconsistent. What are the issues that have led to this situation? What can or should be done about it? And how should readers approach these wines?
Brunello’s Baby Brother
In discussing Rosso di Montalcino (“Rosso”), the first factor that comes to mind is that it’s often bound to Brunello. That’s a major problem because it can easily lead to raised expectations and set consumers up for a let down. Like its regal sibling, Rosso must be 100% Sangiovese Grosso. But realistically, that’s where the similarities end.
Rosso di Montalcino by law needs only 10 months of aging prior to release as opposed to Brunello which requires 48. Wines can be released to the market on the September following the harvest. Therefore, it’s possible to see Rosso for sale that’s barely a year old. That’s fine if the wines are fresh. But freshness and Rosso don’t always go hand in hand. And I’ll explain why.
Brunello is king in Montalcino and producers know it. Many rely on sales of Brunello for a large portion of their revenue. But as I mentioned above, that revenue is often delayed because Brunello cannot be released until 5 years past the harvest. The release of Rosso after just 10 months frees up cellar space and generates cash flow. But at what expense?
Focus on Quality
You would be hard pressed to find a Brunello producer that is not focused on quality. But that commitment doesn’t always extend to Rosso. The reasons are fairly simple. Rosso is generally made from one of the following:
- Vineyards that are very young and yielding immature or less complex fruit and,
- Sub-standard fruit deemed not worthy of inclusion in Brunello.
While it’s true that some producers have mature vineyards dedicated to Rosso production, that’s not typical. It can also be true that their standards are so high for their Brunello that good fruit finds its way into their Rosso. But again, that’s not common place. Finally, it may simply be the desire of the producer to make excellent Rosso. In this case, they are restricting yields and production and selling off any remaining sub-par fruit. Again, this is generally not typical.
So then what?
With the variables mentioned above being prominent factors in the discussion, what results do we see in the finished wines? Unfortunately, it leaves consumers with a wide array of wines that don’t offer consistent quality. But in many cases, its worse than that. It’s one thing for quality to be variable from wine to wine. It’s another all together for a wine group to lack quality as a whole. That’s what Rosso suffers from. Very rarely does a Rosso excite me the way the 2016 Voliero did. That wine stands out for its excellence but also because it’s such an outlier. And if we listen to winemaker Andrea Cortonesi, he clearly is passionate about his Rosso. Here’s what he told me about his 2015:
“I really shouldn’t have made a Rosso in this vintage! This wine is really Brunello. But in order to make the very best Brunello, I did declassify some fruit. It’s complex, with great tannic structure. It’s a wine for the cellar that will age effortlessly and give you beautiful results over time.”
Quality will always be a subjective term. At least to a certain degree. And through my writing I will separate excellent bottles from good bottles from sub-standard bottles for you. But the next factor is largely out of my control.
Quality to Price Ratio (QPR)
When discussing wines within the general price range of Rosso di Montalcino, I feel rather comfortable asserting that Rosso provides the poorest QPR. The average price for a Rosso is about $20. On its face, that doesn’t sound too daunting. But as we peel back the layers, the proverbial onion begins to stink.
Yes, you can find a Rosso for about $17. But chances are, you’ll be getting an “after thought” Rosso; a wine that’s been crafted of declassified Brunello fruit or young, uninspiring vineyards. It may also be from a weaker producer. However, if you search for Rossos that are crafted to be enjoyable wines, the prices begin to rise. I’m not saying producers plan it this way and I’m not saying price is any guarantor of quality. I’m saying that better producers take steps to make better wine and they should are rewarded for it.
Lisini, Voliero, Piancornello, and Il Poggione make wonderful Rosso di Montalcino. But those wines are closer to $25. At that price, the comparison to Chianti Classico is sure to be made and frankly, I believe Chianti Classico to be more complex and enjoyable than Rosso. Furthermore, it will likely be cheaper. Why? Because for many producers, Chianti Classico is their main wine. It’s the bulk of their production and not their “after thought”. It likely represents their estate, their “brand” more than any other wine they may produce. That is not the case with Rosso and it never will be.
Recently I tried the 2019 Col d’Orcia Rosso di Montalcino. While I regularly enjoy their Brunello and have many vintages of their wine in my personal cellar, this Rosso left me flat. It was moderately aromatic with soft red fruit and spice notes that carried onto the palate. But the entire sensation was of dried herbs and drying tannins. The fruit on the palate was short and austere. In comparison to the Collemattoni above, the difference was stark.
But don’t only take my word for it.
I clearly had my perceptions about the category of wine and the value it represents. But I wanted to gauge how others felt. Therefore, I ran a poll on my Twitter account and asked my followers to weigh in. I asked simply, “What is your opinion of Rosso di Montalcino?” They had four responses from which to choose.
- Buy them regularly – 38.1%
- Poor value – avg. quality – 17.9%
Quality too inconsistent – 20.2%
I rely on you for recs! – 23.8%
If you add the two obvious categories above together, you get a whopping 39.1% of respondents who view Rosso as inconsistent in quality, poor value and only average quality. Further, almost 24% rely on me to make recommendations because they want someone to weed out the chaff. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The comments they left are striking and should be a wake up call for producers.
“Difficult question. I buy them but I must admit that it is good having you as a resource because they can be really good and really awful.”
“Whenever I drink RdM I feel like I am settling…..bad choices on wine (lists) force me to a RdM. I’m never particularly impressed, the best you can hope for is that it will be ok.”
“I buy them fairly regularly but unfortunately I expect the inconsistency.”
“Will buy them to make sangria.”
“I enjoy a good RdM but good ones are usually $25+. At that price point, I don’t find them to be a solid value. I’d rather go Chilean, Spain, or Portugal at the same price with much better quality.”
(On Chianti Classico being a better value) “If you get the entry level CC of a winery, you will very often get a really decent wine. And there’s a psychological twist in it: with CC you start from the bottom and you go up (riserva and GS), while with Brunello you start at the top and go down.”
What’s the End Game Then?
For starters, keep reading Tuscan Vines and as I find Rossos that bear mentioning, you will hear about them. I expect that consistency will remain an issue absent any discipline from the Consorzio. What might added disciplinari look like? We can speculate.
Currently, the minimum alcohol for Rosso is only 12%. They could raise that and perhaps we’d see a corresponding increase in ripeness. They could lower maximum yields per hectare to something more resembling yields for Brunello. I do believe the Consorzio realizes the issue. In the latest modification to the Disciplinare (2015), they removed the maximum elevation requirement which limited elevation to 600 meters. In light of the climate warming, it’s now thought that grapes can fully ripen at the higher altitude. I’m not sure that will have much effect however.
Regarding pricing, unfortunately, I think they will only continue to rise because in a sense, Rosso prices are tied exponentially to Brunello. The latter sets the ceiling – whether actual or perceived. There are always outliers like Biondi Santi and Valdicava whose Rosso often cost more than many Brunello. Those wines don’t drive the market, nor do they represent a baseline.
In the end, the best way for consumers to bring change is to vote with their wallet. If the wines don’t sell, eventually that ripple will effect that market and become a wave that ebbs back to Italy. Until then, we stay tuned.