A cheaper option to chic Brunello

Montalcino, a tiny town perched upon a mountain just south of the Chianti region in Tuscany, is home to one of Italy’s greatest red wines, Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello is the local name for sangiovese grosso, a variety of sangiovese, Tuscany’s most important red grape; it ripens well on the surrounding hillsides to produce a wine with power, complexity, and suaveness. Regulations require four years of aging before the wine is released, so the current vintage widely available is 1999, a superb year for Brunello. The demand for Brunello far outstrips the supply from this small area, so prices start at $50 and move up quickly.

Until 25 years ago, when the American-owned Banfi reinvigorated the entire region, there were still only about two-dozen producers. Now the area claims about 200 growers and wineries.

In the mid-1980s, regulations allowed a new wine, Rosso di Montalcino, which, although made from the same clone of sangiovese, could be sold after only one year of aging and, unlike Brunello, was ready to drink upon release. Rosso is made either from grapes grown in vineyards not suitable for Brunello or from grapes grown in Brunello vineyards but that the producer feels are not quite up to Brunello standards.

Even though Rosso di Montalcino never achieves the glory of Brunello, many deliver surprising complexity. But since they command only a fraction of the price of Brunello and are ready to drink sooner, they are worth discovering.

In addition to Banfi’s consistently excellent Rosso di Montalcino, consumers should search for Argiano’s 2003 Rosso, a ripe, succulent wine with an intriguing overlay of herbs and spice (about $24). Another stunning 2003 Rosso, from the respected producer Poggio Antico, has depth and complexity, perhaps because all of the grapes came from Brunello vineyards (about $25). Col d’Orcia’s new winemaker, Pablo Harri, who was hired from Banfi in the late 1990s, made a sensational 2001 Rosso, labeled Banditello, which delivers a classy combination of bright fruit and captivating earthiness ($34).

Argiano is distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607; Poggio Antico is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000; and Col d’Orcia is distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

March 11, 2005.