It’s all too easy for lovers of Chianti to stick with what they know.
Chianti and its big brother Chianti Classico can be wonderful wines, but there are alternatives similar in price, quality and, ultimately, value.
The village of Montalcino lies 70 miles south of Florence, in the region of Tuscany in west-central Italy. Most people are familiar with the bright, vibrant and complex wines of Chianti and Chianti Classico, but not so much with the wines of Montalcino. Chianti and Chianti Classico are made with the grape sangiovese, while the wines of Montalcino are made from a superior clone of sangiovese called Brunello – technically called sangiovese grosso. Differences between the grapes can be debated, but really the climate in Montalcino is more responsible for the wine’s superiority than the clonal differences.
The village of Montalcino is further south than the district of Chianti, and as a result, the climate is warmer, drier and benefits from a maritime breeze. This gives the wines of Montalcino more body, structure and finesse.
Arguably the greatest in Tuscany, Brunello di Montalcino is a beautiful wine that is capable of and often requires long bottle aging in order to mature to its zenith. There is an ongoing debate about which wine is best: Brunello di Montalcino or Barolo from Piedmont. This is not unlike the ongoing rivalry between the great wines of Bordeaux and the great wines of Napa. The debate is futile because they are all great wines and ultimately it comes down to one’s personal preference.
One of the great things about Brunello is the guidelines and restrictions set in place in order to retain quality and authenticity. Brunello requires a minimum of two years of barrel aging and a total of four years of aging with a minimum of four months in bottle before it is available for release to market. This guarantees a certain level of oak influence along with a level of high quality that cannot be emulated any other way.
As one would think, these wines can be very expensive. There are sensibly-priced Brunellos that start at $50. Brunello offers notes of black cherry, baking spices, rose petals, violets, tobacco, leather and vanilla. Typically these are medium body wines with a beautiful elegance when mature.
Beneath this wine is another tier known as Rosso di Montalcino. This classification offers amazing values that start at $20 and don’t require the long bottle aging to mature. This tier only requires the wine to be a year old before releasing to market. The obvious difference is the minimal or lack of barrel aging altogether. As a result, Rosso di Montalcino offers consumers a more approachable wine with considerably less tannin. Rossos are always bright, vibrant and silky, similar to Chianti and Chianti Classico but with slightly more body, ripeness and richness. Even more exciting values can be found from the rare producers that bottle their young vine grapes separately – often labeled “Tuscany” or “Rosso.” These gems are rare but do exist and always under $15.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.