Back in 2014, the last time our wine panel tried Rosso di Montalcino, one taster did not restrain himself in criticizing the wines.
“I think Chianti blows these wines away,” said Chris Cannon, a veteran restaurateur and wine expert who is now the managing partner of Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown, N.J.
I disagreed with him back then, finding a lot to like in the bottles we tasted. But after the wine panel revisited Rosso di Montalcino recently, tasting 20 bottles from the 2016 and 2017 vintages, I have been rethinking my position.
It’s not generally my inclination to make categorical statements like Chris’s. My orientation is almost always to seek out what’s good in a wine, and to be open to the subtleties and gray shadings that are often more accurate representations of reality than blanket, black-and-white judgments.
But I’ve been drinking a lot of Chianti Classicos recently, and have been thinking about the differences between the Chiantis and the Rossos, as well as their points in common.
They are both red wines of Tuscany, and expressions of the sangiovese grape. Maybe the similarities end there.
Chianti is from the hilly region between Florence and Siena. Unlike Rosso di Montalcino and its big brother, Brunello di Montalcino, which must both be 100 percent sangiovese, Chianti needs only to be 80 percent sangiovese.
In the best Chiantis, the remainder is generally made up of local grapes like canaiolo and colorino, or the wine is entirely sangiovese. International grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot are permitted, and were once common additions. But their presence, even in small percentages, often stuck out, and their popularity in the region has faded over the last 20 years.
The Montalcino zone is to the southwest of Chianti, and tends to be warmer and drier. The Montalcino wines are often denser and more muscular than the generally leaner and more angular ones made in the cooler Chianti region.
In both areas, wines can range from elegant to powerful, depending on the climate and composition of the soil, particularly its fertility and the presence of clay. But the power in the Montalcino wines tends to be amplified.
Brunellos have stringent aging requirements. They must wait at least four years after harvest before they can be released, including at least two years in wood. The category of Rosso di Montalcino was invented to provide cash flow to Brunello producers during this long aging process. Rossos need to be aged only one year after harvest, including six months in barrels.
Rossos also help producers to improve their Brunellos by providing a destination for grapes that they do not want to put into their top wines, either because they are from young vines or for any other reasons.
This is one explanation for the varying quality of Rossos: Some producers regard Rosso as an easy, delicious wine entirely apart from their Brunellos, and create their cuvées to fulfill their vision. Other winemakers use it as a dumping place for grapes or wines that they do not think measure up.
Chianti Classico, like Rosso, must age a year before it can be sold. Other categories, like Chianti Classico Riserva and Gran Selezione, must age for longer periods, though not as long as Brunello di Montalcino. In the end, straightforward Chianti Classico is not a bad comparison point for Rosso di Montalcino.
For this recent Rosso tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Thera Clark, wine director at the Beatrice Inn in the West Village, and Eliza Christen, beverage director at Lilia and Misi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
We all shared a general sense of disappointment in the wines. They were inconsistent, which was not unexpected. After all, the 2016 and 2017 vintages were very different. In 2016, the growing season was long and moderate, and many of the wines have been described as fragrant and nuanced, while ’17 was hot and dry, producing wines that were often exuberantly fruity.
Inconsistency might also be attributed to differences in microclimates, altitude and soils, with some of the wines coming from limestone, sandstone and marl, and others coming from clay-rich soils.
More telling than inconsistency, however, we found too many bottles to be unbalanced, dominated either by tannins or acidity or a lack of one or the other. And in quite a few bottles, possible intricacies were overwhelmed by richness, sweetness and power, regardless of the vintage.
Thera said some of the wines felt forced, as if they were trying to be something they were not. She likened them to people squeezing themselves into suits that were too tight.
Eliza said many of the wines were incomplete, lacking the sort of qualities that are at the heart of sangiovese’s appeal, while Florence said they were short in character.
That said, the wines we did like were balanced, combining bittersweet fruit flavors with lively acidity, earthiness and the sort of structure indicating that the wines would be capable of aging for five to 10 years. None had the dusty purity, grace or transparency that I have enjoyed in so many Chianti Classicos, but those are not qualities I’ve often seen in Rosso di Montalcinos.
Still, we did like quite a few of the wines. Our favorite was the 2016 Uccelliera, rich and tannic, with earthy, lingering flavors of sweet and bitter red fruits. Right behind it was the sweet, spicy and floral 2017 Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, which was also our best value at $25.
Interestingly, these producers are neighbors in the Castelnuovo dell’Abate zone in the southeast of Montalcino, one of the region’s warmer areas. The wines are full-bodied but not at all overripe or forced, to use Thera’s term.
Our No. 3 bottle, the lively, pure and structured 2017 Mastrojanni, is also from the southeast.
The 2016 Fonterenza was our No. 4 bottle, but in some ways I think it had the potential to be the best in the tasting. It came from the Sant’Angelo region in the south, but from higher-altitude vineyards, and was quite floral, textured and energetic. It was a bottle that we all felt would improve with additional aging.
The 2017 La Torre, No. 5, was likewise from higher altitude vines in Sant’Angelo, and was clear, floral and lightly tannic. The 2017 Canalicchio di Sopra was from the north of Montalcino, where wines are said to be leaner and more elegant, yet this, our No. 6 bottle, was big and ripe, with sweet flavors of dark fruits.
Of our remaining favorites, the ripe, balanced, structured 2017 Gianni Brunelli, No. 7, came from the central Montalcino zone; the ripe, round, pleasantly bitter 2016 Castello Romitorio, No. 8, came from the northwest; the earthy, floral 2017 Altesino was from the north; and the big, powerful, bright 2017 La Palazetta from Flavio Fanti was from the southeast.
Some of my favorite producers were not in the tasting. I would always recommend bottles from Le Potazzine, Conti Costanti, Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Fattoria dei Barbi, Il Poggione and, if money is no object, Poggio di Sotto, Biondi-Santi and Stella di Campalto.
In the end, despite our mixed feelings about the tasting, I resist disparaging the whole category as Chris Cannon did at our 2014 tasting. I’ve had too many of these wines that I have liked.
Yet Montalcino is simply a different expression of sangiovese than Chianti Classico, and vive la difference. I am not hesitant to bash styles of wine that stray too far into the overblown cocktail world, but Rosso di Montalcino is by no means there. Good examples have their place, without a doubt.
Still, the number of unbalanced wines we found was unsettling. It’s hard to believe in a category more than the producers themselves do. If a thing is worth doing, as countless parents have scolded, it’s worth doing well. Right now, with these wines, the potential is there, but value and pleasure are not always delivered.
★★★½ Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Rosso di Montalcino 2017 $25
Sweet and spicy floral aromas, with clear, balanced, bittersweet red fruit and mineral flavors. (Indigenous Selections, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
By Eric Asimov