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The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Brunello

For some wine categories, the price of entry is too high for most, but daily-drinking alternatives can send out the vibes of the real deal

Posted: Oct 8, 2013 10:45am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

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.

Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 8, 2013 12:21pm ET
Sorry Ben, but for me Rosso di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano just don't cut it. When it comes to Sangiovese, Brunello is king, and there simply is no substitute. These other appellations simply cannot match the complexity, depth of flavor and purity of fruit that are found in a good Brunello.

There are Brunello bargains out there, but you'll have to search for them. Mocali, Caparzo, Vitanza, La Rasina and Tenuta di Sesta are all excellent producers that offer high-quality Brunelli that can often be found for less than $30.
Doug Jeffirs
Chicago, Ill. —  October 8, 2013 6:12pm ET
Little boys aren't men,Rosso is not Brunello.

Adolescents have their charm but they are not the same as their matured counterparts.
Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  October 8, 2013 8:10pm ET
There's this little chain called Trader Joe's that has a Brunello di Montalcino in stock for $19.99 that is pretty tasty.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  October 13, 2013 2:47pm ET
During our July trip to Tuscany and our week in Port Ercole, one of our "go to" dinner wines was a Simone Castelli Morellino di Scansano Podere 414. This DOCG was under $20 and quite enjoyable! An evening encounter with a friendly worker from the Morellino winery resulted in an eventual email dialog between me and Sarah Morellino and an invitation to sample all their wines. Unfortunately we were then at our next destination near Arrezzo and were unable to return to Maremma, but Morellino wines will have my attention from now on!
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  October 16, 2013 7:59pm ET
SNOBS, Some people CAN NOT afford Brunello
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 17, 2013 1:54pm ET
For those who still think Brunello is unaffordable and those of us who drink it are "SNOBS", here's a Brunello that recently received a 95 point score from James Suckling and 91 points from Wine Spectator that was recently offered for $24.95 a bottle with free shipping on a case.

"We’re not kidding when we say that this is the best Brunello bargain we’ve offered in years from Gary’s. Take advantage of our Italian wine buyer’s exceptional talent by picking up the fabulous 95 point 2007 La Lecciaia Brunello di Montalcino at less than half price of what the quality would suggest. Run, don’t walk on this offer, as it may be several years before you see anything like this again, and the Celebrate Italy Wine Sale ends tonight! $24.95"

That is a quality Brunello for Rosso money. If you are willing to put in the time and effort to look, there are TREMENDOUS Brunello bargains out there. There is really no need to "settle" for Rosso di Montalcino or any of the other substitutes.

Scott Stasiuk
canada —  October 20, 2013 3:38pm ET
3 bottles at $20, or 1 at $60. What is the difference in affordability? Nothing snobby about it, just a matter of the classic choice, quantity or quality...
Wijnimport Saffredi
Eindhoven, Netherlands —  October 23, 2013 7:42am ET
I can understand some of the reactions here, but it all depends on the skills of the producer (just like in Burgundy). Of course, rosso and brunello di montalcino are not the same, but there are a few producers that make excellent rosso di montalcino. My latest tasting of rosso di montalcino (vintage 2010) had a clear winner: Domus Vitae (less than € 12,50 excl. vat).
And then there are other regions with producers that make excellent to outstanding Sangiovese wines !!! San Patrignano and San Valentino in Emilia-Romagna + Poliziano's Vino Nobile di Montepulciano !!! I for one find the quality of most Brunello wines going down. Yes, the best of them are outstanding, but the majority have astringent tannin and are overpowering. Sangiovese should all be about finesse and not about blockbuster-power.

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