2012 Rosso di
Rosso di Montalcino is undoubtedly one of Italy’s true
wine success stories of the last decade.
A wine I had all but given up on from the latter part of the ’90s to the
early part of the 21st century, it has undergone a remarkable
quality turnaround and is now one of Italy’s most interesting and dependable
Although it appears that the days in which Rosso was
Brunello’s forgotten little brother are gone for good, it wasn't that long ago
that producers were just going through the motions when making these
considerably less expensive wines.
Clearly, before the global economic crisis clamped down hard, interest
was focused on the much more popular, prestigious and remunerative Brunello. Even worse, it seemed many producers had
reduced their Rossos to being reservoirs for the poorest wine they had made in
the vintage, and their lousiest barrels.
And so, more often than not, Rossos were tough, angular, bitter, dry and
downright unpleasant to drink: with few exceptions, the best were little more
Not so anymore:
due to a combination of the challenge of selling Brunello in today’s
market, a new-found faith in the merits of sangiovese on the part of growers,
and a generational shift at the helm of numerous Montalcino estates, Rossos
have never been better than they are today.
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that many Rosso di Montalcino wines
can best some less-than-stellar Brunellos when tasted side by side and blind.
Abbazia di Sant'Antimo in Montalcino
Rosso di Montalcino is viewed by some—a mistake, in my
mind—as Brunello’s little brother because it is essentially born from the same
vineyards, but the wines go through a much shorter period of élévage.
Rossos can be released into the market on or after September 1 of the
following vintage, and there is no minimum oak aging requirement. Just like Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino is
the product of 100% sangiovese grapes
grown in the Montalcino territory, almost all of which is in my view rather
perversely also allowed to make Brunello—another mistake, in my view. In fact, of Montalcino’s 3,500 hectares,
2,100 are allowed to make both Brunello and Rosso, and another 510 can produce
only Rosso. The only difference between
these two categories of Rosso production has to do with maximum allowable
yields: 55 hectoliters per hectare for those Rossos made from land that is also
allowed to make Brunello, and 62 for those Rossos made where Brunello cannot be
Rosso di Montalcino, previously known by various
different names (another sure-fire sign the wine was long looking for a raison
d’être), acquired its own definitive identity and official recognition
when it became a DOC wine in 1983. In
effect, it’s a rather unique entity in the world
of Italian wine. This is because for the
first time in Italy, producers were allowed to obtain two different DOC wines
from the same vineyards: the ageworthy
Brunello di Montalcino and the fresher Rosso di Montalcino, a wine of early appeal meant to be drunk sooner but,
in typical Montalcino fashion, offering noteworthy structure nevertheless.
In the end, what Rosso you end up
getting in the bottle depends very much on what the producer decides it should
be. While the majority of Montalcino
estates make their Rossos from younger sangiovese vines that could also make
Brunello, others specifically set out to make Rosso di Montalcino from
vineyards dedicated to this purpose. At
some estates, Rosso is aged in oak, albeit for a much shorter time than
Brunello (between six months and a year in most cases, compared to Brunello’s
minimum two-year oak aging requirement).
Therefore, some producers choose to make bigger Rossos than others, and
they achieve this not just by giving the wines extra time in wood but often
longer bottle aging as well, releasing them a year or more later.
At times, Rosso di Montalcino can end
up being nothing more (or less) than a declassified Brunello: wines that the producer, after tasting them
repeatedly from cask, doesn’t think will hold up to the prolonged oak aging
that Italian law requires for Brunello. While it may seem that such
baby-Brunellos ought to be the best examples of Rosso possible, this is not the
case: in fact Rossos made with very little oak aging and from vineyards
specifically planted to make Rosso can be remarkably fresh, food-friendly and
affordable. Clearly, these juicy, medium-bodied
wines are rarely as complex or as deep as the best Brunellos, but they are
often a joy to drink and a real revelation for those who have never tried them
The Rosso vintage that is currently
widely available in the market is 2012, a difficult year for Montalcino in
which the harvest was roughly 14% smaller than that of the previous year and
about 10% lower than the long-term average.
The growing season was characterized by intense summer heat and drought,
which came on the heels of a dry winter and spring. Mature
vines can deal with prolonged water shortage thanks to their deeper root
systems, which can enable them to find some moisture in the soil, but
they invariably cut back on fruit production in order to guarantee their
survival, by diverting all available nutrients and energy into preserving
foliage, the photosynthetic and lifesaving machinery of plants. Young vines fare much worse. Furthermore, water stress leads to metabolic
blockage, so that the polyphenols rarely reach full ripeness, a condition
easily recognizable in finished wines marred by gritty tannins and unripe,
green aromas and flavors.
That said, the remarkable thing about
the 2012 Rosso di Montalcino wines is just how successful they are turning out
to be. This may not end up being true,
by the way, for the 2012 Brunellos, because the latter wines must weather a
much longer period of oak aging without drying up in the process. But in my tastings I found many of the 2012
Rossos to be luscious and irresistible.
“The harvest has given unexpectedly good results,” noted Fabrizio
Bindocci, president of the Brunello Consortium.
“Despite what everyone said, the hot year brought lots
of polyphenols but also very high acidity levels, even 6.3 grams per liter,
though I’m not sure why this is. I even
called up friends and colleagues to see if they knew why, but they are just as
dumbfounded as I am.
The courtyard at Costanti
Most likely, timely September rains had a very
positive effect. While picking began in
the last days of August, off-and-on light showers kickstarted the vines’
metabolic machinery, and the diurnal temperature variations helped to preserve
the freshness and aromatic intensity of the grapes. And in a very clear demonstration of why
Montalcino is an outstanding area for quality wine production, rainfall
amounted to just a few millimeters at a time in September, while on the same
days in nearby Siena (roughly 30 minutes to the north by car), rain activity
continued for several hours unabated.
Finally, 2012 is also a good vintage for Moscadello di
Montalcino, the area’s sweet wine made from the moscato bianco variety (better
known as the grape used to make Piedmont’s famous Asti and Moscato
d’Asti). This notoriously delicate grape
(its thin skins can quickly degrade in very rainy years) were able to ripen
slowly but surely in the clement fall weather.
The 2013 vintage has given even fresher, brighter Moscadello wines.
This report also includes a few late-release 2011
Rossos—another hot vintage but a year in which the onset of heat was more
gradual than in 2012. Although the
talented Francesco Leanza, owner of the highly regarded Salicutti estate, told
me he loves the 2011 vintage, I find the wines to be more irregular than those
of 2012. Unlike in 2012, temperatures in 2011 were hot during both day and
night, which increased the onset of dehydration in the grapes and made for less
perfumed and more angular wines.