In this ongoing series, I halt at the gates of the world's finest appellations, where most wines start at $40, and find a way to slip past for $20 or less.
This one's a bit of a rosso herring.
Brunello di Montalcino, the pure Sangiovese in the heart of Tuscany's wine country, is an expensive wine to make. Land is pricey and there's not much to go around. Producers are required to sit on inventory for two years in oak and four months in bottle—but the expected protocol is that the wines not reach the market until five years after the harvest. It's a cost passed on to the consumer: You're hard-pressed to find a bottle under $40 on the shelf.
Enter the Rosso de Montalcino denomination of origin, created in the 1980s so that producers could present a younger (still 100 percent Sangiovese) "Brunello," for release as soon as a year after harvest, and keep the winery wheels turning with cash on hand.
So the closest thing to $20 Brunello is Rosso di Montalcino. Basta! Right?
The Montalcinesi are second only to the Champenois when it comes to insisting on the inimitability of their land and brand. But as in Champagne, the best plots and vintages, and the oldest vines, are groomed for the more expensive bottlings.
Rosso may provide a sneak peek into a storied terroir, but after the kingly riserva Brunellos and the princely normale Brunellos, Rossos are third-string royalty. Montalcino Sangiovese just doesn't often reach its full potential at $20 or less, though the advantages of land and know-how can trickle down to Rosso; for dependable examples, look to Argiano, Col d'Orcia, La Gerla and Mastrojanni, among others.
So for a second Brunello alternative, I'd like to turn the spotlight on another, underappreciated, Tuscan appellation called Morellino di Scansano where Sangiovese also reigns—and here, the cream of that crop can come in at under $20.
The expression of the fruit may not fool you into thinking you're drinking Brunello. But Morellino di Scansano has gotten hot enough that some of the major players in Montalcino are buying up land or grapes and bottling the stuff, bringing generations' worth of expertise to the Scansano area's viticulture. With the 2007 harvest, Morellino di Scansano earned the right to call itself a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or DOCG, a cut above a DOC.
A few Brunello names now in the Morellino business include Fattoria dei Barbi, Jacopo Biondi-Santi, Poggio Nardone and Mocali. (And other Tuscan dons like Mazzei and Fattoria le Pupille stand tall in the region.) Alessandra Milliotti, who runs Mocali, bought Morellino land and put down vines in 2001 for the same reason you might buy Morellino—she couldn't afford more Brunello. In the time since, she has taken the same care in her approach to both terroirs, focusing on organic practices, utilizing green harvest, cold-soaking the grapes for five or six days to draw out their flavor and color.
The Morellino di Scansano area is substantially bigger than Brunello and warmer, located in the southerly Maremma region of Tuscany, near the coast. (Scansano is about 37 miles south of Montalcino.) Winemakers only have to hit the mark of 85 percent Sangiovese in Morellino, and the ball-and-chain of extended aging is absent from its DOCG regulations. In fact, Morellino may be released as early as the spring after harvest, though riserva variations also excel.
How well does Morellino resemble its elder cousin? "What is similar I think is you can smell the fresh fruit, sweet cherry," said Milliotti. "It's also more easy to drink because the fruit is more [forward] in the mouth, more soft."
So next time you don't have $50 but are seeking the floral elegance and sweet fruit of Tuscan Sangiovese: Consider the lesser-known quantity. Best do it while the top-shelf stuff can be found for well under $20, because the Italians know Morellino's moment is arriving.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.
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