Though it is hitting 102 or 103 today, it is not too hot to drink red wine here. Cooler evenings – if not exactly cool – plentiful air conditioning and a widespread preference for the red stuff assure that.
I had a fantastic red wine last night at 13 Celsius, the Casanova di Neri Rosso di Montalcino. It was one of the best wines I have had in a while, and I just returned from drinking a lot of wine over the course of two weeks in Italy. This was $11 a glass, maybe just more than the average glass of wine costs at a local restaurant. It took a couple of minutes to open up, but it a wonderful long-lasting flavor featuring deep cherry notes, plenty of structure without being too tannic or acidic to drink alone, and a wonderful balance.
That type of wine, Rosso di Montalcino, has to be one of the most underrated wines from Italy. This hearty red wine from southern Tuscany is made entirely with Sangiovese, central Italy’s signature grape. It is widely acknowledged that Sangiovese reaches its apex in the fifteen by fifteen kilometer square appellation about 125 miles north-northwest of Rome.
The fact that Rosso di Montalcino does not garner more attention and respect is that it is the second wine in the appellation after the long-lived Brunello di Montalcino, which is considered along with Barolo as Italy’s greatest wines. The Rosso carries the unfortunate, and generally inaccurate, moniker, “Baby Brunello.” With that name, it is difficult to be taken that seriously.
It is, in fact, a serious, and one that is markedly different than the Brunellos, though both are made entirely of Sangiovese. Rosso di Montalcino wines were created to allow the producers of the area to generate revenue as their Brunellos awaited release. Brunello carries the longest aging requirements of any Italian wine, five years. That is a long time for a product to wait before it can provide a return. The Rossos, in contrast, can be released the September after the previous year’s harvest.
The results of the two different aging requirements are two different wines that are best thought about in separate terms. The Rosso is not necessarily a lesser wine, it is just different. The deeply tannic Brunellos often take five or ten years to even become enjoyably drinkable, sometimes hitting their stride after two decades or so and having the ability to last forty or fifty years or longer in tremendous shape.
The Rossos, in contrast, are usually ready to be consumed upon release, though some aggressively oaked versions are better a few years down the road. The Rosso are notable for the pleasant cherry and sometimes prune and strawberry notes found in the best expressions of Sangiovese that are balanced with a good amount of acidity and evident, if often soft tannins. At their best, these are easy to drink. But, full-bodied, these packages arrive at 13.5% to 14.5%. These are serious wines, if a less so than the Brunellos that require a commitment to store and, likely, a commitment to savor thoughtfully with a hearty steak or wild boar preparation, or aged Pecorino or Parmigiano.
What I realized during a November tour of wineries in the Montalcino appellation is most Rossos are very similar to the top wines from Chianti Classico; not much of a stretch, as Chianto Classico is just forty to fifty miles to the north, a distance seems larger at most wine stores. The Rosso di Montalcino name does not garner as much respect as does Chianti Classico, but the former are of generally higher quality than the latter; certainly more consistently enjoyable to me. They are generally priced similarly to the top non-Riserva Chianti Classicos.
Like the Chiantis, the Rossos are made for food and worth ordering when dining out, or dining in. The retail prices might run from around $20 to $40. The one from Casanova di Neri is about $35. Not cheap, but well worth it.