A little more than two months ago, I penned an article questioning the merits of Rosso di Montalcino. Specifically, I began with the following:
“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.”
At the time, I intended for that article to be an observation and perhaps at most, a plea for the Consorzio to address the issues I raised. But then another idea surfaced. What if I invited the producers to respond?
With that thought in mind, I sent about a dozen producers the article I’d written and asked them to read it and respond to me with their thoughts. Given the delicate nature of the subject matter, I assured them I wouldn’t identify them by their quotes. The feedback was impressive and extraordinary.
I have to admit, I was a little nervous about how my request and article would be received. Montalcino has known me to be a positive voice and a significant advocate. But let’s be honest, it’s a touchy subject. After a day or so passed, I hadn’t received any responses. Then a second day passed. As a result, I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake. But then day three rolled around and the responses rolled in!
What follows are the comments sent to me by the producers. In each case, they come from either: 1) the owner of the winery 2) the winemaker or 3) the general manager of the estate. In some cases, those titles may belong to the same person. They are unedited.
A Tale of Two Rosso
The first comment received was from a winemaker whom I knew shared a passion for Rosso. He deliberately crafts a wine which he intends to be excellent. So I was surprised to see his thought process revealed.
“There is a lot of truth to what you write. And maybe it’s more true for smaller producers who lack cellar space and need the cash flow. However, for me that’s not the case. My goal is to make a “declassified Brunello” that happens to get bottled under the Rosso discipline.”
As I continued to go through the responses, not only was I relieved to get an excellent number of replies, but I was thrilled to get quite a bit of positive feedback.
“For years Rosso was made as you wrote. I see now more Rossos being better and better in quality and this will continue to help them stay in the market and be appreciated by people. The producers in Montalcino are working to produce a great Rosso too now. We are all improving the quality of this wine with respect to 10 or 15 years ago by introducing older vineyards and selecting the best grapes only for this wine. I would bet in 5 years that the totality or almost 90% of the producers will do a really high quality Rosso.
That’s my comment John, I hope also you can try more better Rosso from us in the coming years. Look forward to seeing you soon!”
The next quote resonates with me in many ways. People ask me all the time, who makes a good Rosso? Which Rossos do you like the best? With few exception, my answer is always the same. If you like the producer’s Brunello, trust them to make a nice Rosso.
“I think you paint a clear and realistic picture of Rosso vs. its main competitor, Chianti Classico, which I totally agree, on average, offers better value. Rosso di Montepulciano also is an awesome value by the way. But Montalcino carries a premium, just like a Ferrari does vs. a sporty Mercedes. It matters not that in Formula 1 racing the latter has actually won many more races in the past decade than Ferrari! Ferrari is a Ferrari just like Montalcino is Montalcino.
Having said that I agree with you that the style needs to veer off the ‘dryness’ of the past towards fruit, floral and freshness. But this is up to the individual producers style and often, their skill. In a premium appellation like Brunello the guarantee of quality is in the brand. Drink the Rosso from brands where you love their Brunello!”
Not every producer was willing to elaborate. Some chose not to respond but even a few that did, were curt.
“I think what you wrote is probably correct in some cases Giovanni, but since we don’t make a Rosso di Montalcino, I don’t feel right about commenting on what other producers may be doing.”
And some not so curt…..
“Giovanni, it’s a fair question but one thing I think is important to consider is that every producer has different circumstances. In our case, we’re one of the few producers who make a single vineyard Rosso di Montalcino. We don’t do it every year so when we do, we think it’s an excellent wine. We make other Rosso too which is aimed at a different consumer. That is what you have to factor into the discussion. A lot of Rosso doesn’t leave Montalcino. It’s enjoyed at Osterie in small glasses with panini or pizza. For this it is OK. I do agree that this can diminish the value but it’s hard to change your ways when you are selling your wine. In English they say “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, right?”
Some comments were more reserved, even if they began to answer the question. It was clear in a few instances that they’d be willing to discuss the issue further when I see them next – as opposed perhaps, to putting something in writing.
“John, my thoughts about Rosso don’t differ too much from yours and I’ll be glad to talk with you about it when you have the possibility to come here again. In my opinion, the average quality has grown a lot and, even if you find different styles, very few shows defects.”
I think the above comment is fair. “Defect” or “Defective” isn’t a word I would apply to any of the wines I’ve tried. In that sense, the wines are made well, but in my opinion, they could be made better. Conceptually, if they score say 84 or 86 points, that’s an “ok to good” wine. Does it excite me? No. But they’re not defective.
Finally, this last quote leaves me with a positive feeling that the appellation will be striving to improve Rosso in general. It amplifies the sentiment shared above by many, but does so rather directly.
“Giovanni, you are right. I don’t understand it myself. If I am putting my name on the label, it will always be my best effort. Otherwise, why do it?”
I want to sincerely thank all the producers who provided comments for this important article. Grazie mille! As I mentioned to them privately and at the outset of this article, their identities will remain “off the record”. I appreciate their candor and willingness to share insight that only they can provide.
In the meantime, please continue to rely on me for solid Rosso di Montalcino recommendations. They are not always easy to find, but if the producers are correct, hopefully it will be getting easier.