The Role of a Rosso
In Italian, rosso simply means “red”. Every wine appellation that is not exclusively red will have a name that includes the word “rosso” to indicate when the wine is red instead of white, for example.
That being said, some of Italy’s greatest wines have a companion, “second” wine that incorporates “rosso”, and it is worth looking at a few of the most important ones to see what they are about. Not every rosso is created equal.
Central Italy has an almost embarrassing number of fine wine appellations based on native grapes. In Tuscany, Montalcino is home to the world-renowned Brunello di Montalcino, an ageworthy, often expensive wine made from the local clone of Sangiovese. Just 35 kilometers away in Montepulciano, we find Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which permits a variety of grapes in the blend, but must be mostly (and can be exclusively) Sangiovese. Both of these grand wines require ageing in barrel and may not be sold for several years after harvest. And both of these appellations have well-known, more approachable wines called Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano, respectively.
Rosso di …
It has become almost a cliché to refer to these two rosso wines as the “little brother” of the grand wine in their respective denominations. Both Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino must, by law, be made 100% from Sangiovese (the name for the local clone of which is, unsurprisingly, Brunello). The story is similar in nearby Montepulciano. The grand wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (now permitted to be called simply “Nobile”, primarily to avoid confusion with the Montepulciano grape) may have considerably more freedom with regard to the balance of grapes and grape varieties permitted in the bottle when compared with Brunello, but the main difference to the rosso is, again, required ageing before release; the proportions of the grapes and their provenance is the same as for the grand wine. Both of these younger siblings are generally less ageworthy, less demanding – and less expensive. The main differences, legally, are the amount of time the wine spends in barrel and the age of the vines permitted. Not a bad idea, either, since sale of these wines can then take place sooner, bringing in revenue while one waits for the top wine. And the connection of the village name with the word “rosso” helps to identify the rosso with their more expensive, more aged counterpart – not an inconsiderable advantage, avoiding the need of calling the wine something less recognisable and, therefore, less potentially lucrative.
Across the border in neighbouring Umbria is the village of Montefalco, source of one of Italy’s greatest – and most tannic – grapes: Sagrantino. The grand wine here is Montefalco Sagrantino, which must be made 100% from Sagrantino and requires extensive ageing before release. Here, too, there is a rosso, called Montefalco Rosso. But, in spite of the fact that many producers refer to it as such, this one is decidedly not the “little brother” of the grand wine. Legally, at least, it can’t be and should not be treated as such. This is a notable departure from the situation in Montalcino and Montepulciano, where the rosso is generally made as a younger, easier version of the grand wine, but, otherwise, with all of the components and many of the characteristics of the grand wine.
Why Montefalco Rosso is different
Not so in Montefalco. The main reason? The DOC framework does not permit Montefalco Rosso to be even nearly the same as the Montefalco Sagrantino, mostly because the wine cannot have more than 25% Sagrantino. Up until recently, it was only a maximum of 15%. Currently, the regulations stipulate that Montefalco Rosso must be composed of both Sagrantino (10% – 25%) and Sangiovese (60% – 80%). Other grapes are permitted, but not required. Perhaps the most surprising grape that is sometimes found in the rosso is one better known from Piemont: Barbera. Yet the wines made with those three grapes can be delightfully harmonious, with the fruit, freshness and colour of low-tannin Barbera offering a lovely counterpoint to the high tannin and wildness of Sagrantino.
Wines made from pure Sagrantino almost always need years in barrel and bottle to soften those formidable tannins and let the wine become more approachable. Using Sangiovese, which is now well-established as a variety that is, itself, capable of ageing, softens the Sagrantino without “dumbing-down” the wine. Other grape varieties bring different things to the blend, of course, but the contributions are generally far less significant.
The wine is also aged differently, of course. Whereas Montefalco Sagrantino must be aged for 37 months, including at least 12 months in oak, Montefalco Rosso is aged for at least 18 months with no requirement for oak at all. There is, however, also a Riserva that must undergo at least 30 months of aging, of which 12 months must be in oak – putting it within firing range of the requirements of the grand wine. Please bear in mind, however, that there is no stipulation for any of these wines to be aged in new wood. And, indeed, the current trend is to use little new wood, if any.
The result? In the right hands, the Montefalco Rosso is more than capable of ageing and presents a profile that is distinct from Montefalco Sagrantino, generally with less tannin and a sleeker line, while still permitting the character of Sagrantino to be recognised. Sangiovese, which is as much at home in Umbria as it is in Tuscany, sets the tone, but Sagrantino is the concertmaster; there is no other grape quite like it.
And therein lies the rub.
The Role of Montefalco Rosso
With such a characterful wine, there are many opportunities that open up. I feel that the role of Montefalco Rosso is twofold:
- To be a fine, ageworthy wine in its own right, providing Umbria with another high-quality, distinctive wine that can be used to increase awareness of and appreciation for the region.
- To be the “gateway drug” that introduces newcomers to the glory that is Sagrantino. Montefalco Sagrantino, with its tannin, its acidity and its barrel ageing, is not always an easy wine to understand, nor is it always a simple wine to drink. A well-made Montefalco Rosso can go a long way towards presenting the character of Sagrantino in a way that is easier to understand (without being in any way insipid). This will help people to enjoy what they are getting when they ultimately start to drink the grape in purezza.
Can They Age?
While I haven’t had the opportunity to try masses of aged wines from this category, I’ve had a few – and they can age beautifully. Here are three standouts:
Unquestionably one of the leading estates in Umbria, not only in Montefalco. Giampaolo Tabarrini is the fifth generation making wine in the family – but the first who bottled the wine. And the first in the zone to focus on single-parcel Sagrantino. His is the kind of genius and inspiration that can inspire and drive an entire zone, and when you meet him you will understand the meaning of the term “infectious energy”. His belief in the Montefalco Rosso as a fine wine in its own right is solidly shored up by such wines as this:
Montefalco Rosso 2006 – Made with 60% Sangiovese, 25% Barbera and 15% Sagrantino.
Light, cool, and redolent of leather and truffle. Tannins are still tight and very fine, and the wine has great freshness. There is still good red fruit and a fine, spicy note. Lovely and balanced, and just starting to go to garnet. The finish is long and subtle.
It may be a small estate, but make no mistake: Paolo Bea (now in the hands of Paolo’s son, Giampiero) is a titan in the zone whose influence cannot be overestimated. Giampiero was introduced to me by Giampaolo Tabarrini as “a great winemaker”. Giampiero immediately denied the moniker, saying that he does not make wine. At most, he guides it. His estate is not organic, nor is it biodynamic, hey says. In fact, he has certification for both – but the philosophy is not the certification. The wines are carefully aged, this Montefalco Rosso is, in fact, the current bottling.
“Pipparello” Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2011 – Made with Sangiovese, Sagrantino and , unusually, Montepulciano – the only rosso I had, in fact, that made use of this fantastic grape variety. This organic wine is smooth and dusty, smoky and mineral, fine and elegant, and in perfect balance. The wine has decades of time left in it, but offers hedonistic pleasure now.
This 15-hectare estate is not one of the historic properties, per se. Guido Guardigli visited and fell in love with the region, buying the property in the 90s, replanting it and devoting it to the production of the native grapes of Umbria. This makes the property one of the older estates of the “newcomers” – of which there are many in Montefalco. Forward-thinking and modern, the winemaking here used to use a great deal of new wood for the reds. The style is starting to change; now larger barrels are being used and the results are even more exciting for me, personally.
Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2010 – Made with 70% Sangiovese and 15% each of Sagrantino and Merlot. When this wine was made, the estate was using 100% new wood – and you can feel that wood character on the nose of the wine still. But it is now well-digested and the wine is showing anise and spice, with superb acidity, fine tannin and excellent length. Savoury, but with some lift and freshness and dark fruit underpinnings. The wood is particularly well integrated in the finish.
Some Wines to Try:
This is a very new estate that makes only red wines, started by Ilaria Cocco in 2000 with the replanting of the family vineyards. Since then, this tenacious and resilient young woman has worked tirelessly – and virtually alone – getting the fledgling winery on its feet. Her first wines were filled in 2014, the first bottles came onto the market in 2018. An estate to watch!
“Camorata” Montefalco Rosso 2015 – Made with 60% Sangiovese, 25% Merlot and 15% Sagrantino. – Lovely and aromatic, there is plenty of red fruit and fennel, with a clear hint of wood spice in the nose. Sapid and with fine tannin, this is a polished wine with good length – and an extraordinary success for a new winemaker.
Despite being the 5th generation of winemaking in the family, Danilo and Sandra Cariano’s estate is a new producer in the zone, having only bottled their first wine in 2012. Up until then, then grapes went to other estates. They also have nearly 3000 olive trees on their estate, and their olive oil (just a few day old when I tried it) was some of the best I have ever had, anywhere.
“Pippinella” Montefalco Rosso 2015 – Made with 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino 7.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7.5% Merlot.
Beautiful deep, dark fruit in the nose – plum and black cherry, with just a dash of black currant. There’s a hint of star anise. Smooth, surprisingly supple tannin and good freshness. A fascinating combination of restraint and sweet fruit.
This small estate is the family property of Valentino Valentini, who also just happens to have been Montefalco’s mayor. The philosophy behind the wines is low-intervention and as close to nature as possible, with all chemical products eschewed and viticulture focused on biodiversity and sustainability.
Montefalco Rosso 2016 – made with 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, 10% Merlot and 5% Colorino del Valdarno – fresh and natural, with a savoury hint and a bit of black tea. There is an appetisingly sweet herbal character, and the wine goes out deliciously salty. Sweet red fruit emerges in the lovely, long finish.
A beautiful, cutting edge, modern biodynamic estate making excellent wines. Emma and Roberto Di Filippo have a delicious pet-nat, they have (good!) wines without sulphur, they are experimenting with ways to make Sagrantino more approachable. As so often with biodynamic estates, the focus is very firmly on respect for the land and biodiversity – they are even managing some of their vineyards using geese for pest and weed control.
“Sallustio” Montefalco Rosso 2015 – Made with 60% Sangiovese, 25% Sagrantino and 15% Barbera – surprisingly light and dancer-like on the palate, classic and crunchy with dark fruit, black tea tannin and a nice finish.
Montefalco Rosso Riserva
Donatella and Daniela Adanti continue a tradition set in place by their father in the 60s, at the time of the founding of this well-known estate. The wines are classic, well-mannered, and bear a recognisable house style across the entire line and back into the old vintages.
Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2014 – Made with 70% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot and 15% Sagrantino, aged for 30 months in barrel. This wine always comes from a single vineyard parcel. Restrained, with some baked dark fruit and grape jam. Graphite and a hint of tobacco, with black coffee and dark chocolate. Elegant and fine.
One of Montefalco’s historic estates, Filippo Antonelli’s family is also quite storied and significant for Italy. Filippo, himself, is currently the president of the Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco again, having already served terms in the 90s and at the star of the new millennium. The estate itself is large and organic, in a beautiful setting and with a fine agriturismo – and even a cooking school. The wines look more towards ageability and elegance, and are a reference in the zone. I even used the passito for my pairing with Black Forest Cake recently.
Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2015 – made with 70% Sangiovese, 15% Barbera and 15% Sagrantino. The selection of grapes is more severe than with the standard rosso. This is a very young wine, offering plenty of structure and light red and black fruit. Very good grip and fine length, with a menthol finish. Needs time, but it will be great.
The family began with a business selling, and then also producing (and selling) fine lace. That business still exists, but they are also unquestionably the best-known and most influential wine estate in the zone, internationally. Caprai put Montefalco on the map in a big way. Modern and innovative, not only are their wines widely-exported and widely-enjoyed, the estate is responsible for most of the research into Sagrantino clones that has been undertaken.
Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2016 – Made with 70% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot and 15% Sagrantino aged for two years in second-pass barriques. Beautiful, smooth dark fruit. There is significant wood influence and a clear international style, with good density and really excellent length. Modern, approachable and eminently enjoyable.