Montalcino View (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Thee has been a lot of commotion in Montalcino during 2011, as certain individuals want to change the makeup of Rosso di Montalcino by allowing grapes other than Sangiovese in the blend. Rosso di Montalcino, just like Brunello di Montalcino, by definition, must contain only Sangiovese - there are no exceptions.
However, these individuals want to change the regulations allowing grapes such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon to be a small part (as much as 15% under one proposal) of the blend for Rosso di Montalcino. A vote was held on this matter in Montalcino on September 7 and the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated, with only 31% of the vote favoring this change. Many wine journalists and bloggers in Italy and throughout the world have commented on this, most notably Franco Ziliani in Italy at his blog vinoalvino along with Jeremy Parzen in America (here is the link to one of several posts on this subject) and Wojciech Bonkowski in Poland). Each of these gentlemen along with other noted Italian wine authorities such as Nicolas Belfrage from England, Juancho Asenjo from Spain and Kerin O'Keefe, an American wine journalist living in Italy, have all commented on the need to keep Rosso di Montalcino as 100% Sangiovese. I am in agreement with this opinion.
I wanted to share a few quotes from two vintners in Montalcino about what these wines represent. I wrote an article on Montalcino in 2005 for Drinks magazine in the US; going over my notes recently, I found some interesting remarks. The first is from Rudy Burrati, winemaker at Banfi, one of the most successful estates in Montalcino.
"The characteristics that we seek include the optimal tannic structure that is typical of Montalcino, freshness and fruitiness, and the "typicity" of Sangiovese grown in Montalcino, reflecting the characteristics of the weather, soil, and other elements."
Burrati was speaking about Brunello di Montalcino here, but it is clear that he was also referring to Rosso di Montalcino as well, at least as far as freshness and fruitiness and typicity.
The second quote is from Lamberto Frescobaldi, who produces a Rosso and Brunello under the Castelgiocondo label. I asked him if he thought Brunello might become a more approachable and forward wine over the next few years. Here is his reply:
"I don't think Brunello will ever become more forward or approachable. I do however think that wine lovers are becoming more knowledgable and open to appreciate a wine as difficult as Brunello."
These are his thoughts about Brunello; I did not ask him about Rosso.
So here you have remarks from two important producers in Montalcino, emphasizing "typicity" as well as maintaining a style of wines that are not forward and approachable. So why the need to change things? Well with Rosso, adding a small percentage of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon would definitely alter the style of the wine, arguably making it more appealing to a wider audience that understands the international style of wine much easier than they do a specific approach.
Consumers look to Rosso di Montalcino as a substitute for a Brunello; this is either for price ($25 for a Rosso versus $50-$70 or more for a Brunello) or for drinkability - a Rosso di Montalcino is released much earlier than a Brunello and is softer in tannins and more drinkable sooner (the current releases of Rosso di Montalcino are either 2008 or 2009, while the 2006 vintage is what is currently available for Brunello).
Whatever the reason, a consumer should expect a Rosso di Montalcino to offer that thumbprint of Montalcino - which means the characteristics of only Sangiovese. If they want to buy a blended Tuscan red, they have dozens, if not hundreds of choices, some made by these same producers in Montalcino, who can bottle a Sant'Antimo Rosso DOC or else an IGT Toscana Rosso.
The bottom line for me is this. There are thousands of red wines from dozens of countries around the world. Yes, the world is a smaller place and when it comes to wine, that too often means a style of wine that is easy for everyone to understand. So producers take the easy way out. Do that and you lose uniqueness, a sense of place.
While the majority of producers oppose the change in regulations for Rosso di Montalcino, it is a sign of the times that this matter was even presented in the first place. It is understandable however, as it's clear that the vintners as a whole have done a poor job developing and marketing the Sant'Antimo category. They realize that few consumers know what Sant'Antimo means, but everyone understands Montalcino. So they take a shortcut and try and morph Rosso di Montalcino into something it's not.
Montalcino - Rosso or Brunello - must continue to have an historical identity. That means only a single variety - Sangiovese.