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The Best Value in Brunello di Montalcino?

As one slides, (gently and willingly I trust), into retirement, I’ve noticed that one’s wine buying priorities can change. For starters, laying down those big reds that require 20 years plus of cellar time becomes either a hedge against inheritance tax or an altruistic gift to your kids. Personally, I also find that big and heavy becomes more and more tiring, and elegant and refined more and more delightful. And, a subject of increasing importance as prices seem to be ever more stratospheric, any sense of value for money has long gone out of the window. Which, on a pension, is not exactly ideal.

So, what do you do? Trading down seems depressing, an admission of defeat. But is it? However much you try to convince yourself, a village is not a premier cru and certainly not a grand cru. And when it is, in the rare hands of a maestro, it costs even more!

But sometimes you can discover things that you previously overlooked, or rather sneered at. Wines that you didn’t ‘need’ to buy as you could happily afford the grown-up version. Like Rosso di Montalcino.

The pejoratives are numerous: ‘baby brunello’ or, even worse, ‘poor man’s brunello’. It doesn’t exactly make you proud to stock it in your cellar, does it? And, as an inveterate wine snob, I must admit that in the past I always considered buying rosso a bit disappointing as I’d rather have ‘the real thing’.

Mount Amiata from Poggio di Sotto

My appreciation for Brunello is not quite the same as it is for Nebbiolo. Sure, Montalcino is a lovely walled town and the vista over the rolling vineyards looking towards Mont Amiata is beautiful. And, yes, Val d’Orcia, with its golden slopes and cypress trees, or fields of scarlet poppies in spring, is a picture postcard. But the wine? It is much beloved of US wine critics and scored accordingly. But there are some large, commercial estates, and, well, some of the more available and affordable brunellos taste, for me, manufactured for the transatlantic sales. Big, ripe, alcoholic and velvety with dark chocolate. Sorry, not my thing, and often priced as you’d expect (or fear), given the endless high scores of the adoring, raving critics.

Thus when we visited Montalcino, I was not so sure if I didn’t prefer Chianti to Brunello – it’s all the sangiovese grape at heart, and the wines that little bit further north in Tuscany often seem lighter and a bit more finessed than the blockbusters down south. And cheaper, even though Chianti as a red wine growing area predates Montalcino.

Too often at dinner, a bottle of Brunello would start off with lovely wild cherry aromatics, but then descend into hard tannins. The wines would be a concerto of three movements, a lovely floral nose; a ripe body of red fruit but then when you expected a grand finale, the music turned discordant and the tannins too raucous. Ponderous, rather than ripping on the tongue. What some discerning critics term ‘trying too hard.’

But we did some research and came up with a couple of relatively new names. Yes, of course there was the standard bearer estate of Biondi-Santi, but they were at the upper end of the price scale and needed decades to soften out. No, the two names were, perhaps not surprisingly, estates that made Brunello that would appeal to burgundy lovers, wines of refinement and delicacy that danced on the palate rather than stomped.

Poggio di Sotto was founded in 1989 by Piero Palmucci, and rapidly became known for benchmark, classical Brunello, but was sold to the (large) ColleMassari group in 2011. I can’t really comment on the takeover, but the few wines I have tasted subsequently seem to have respected the style, though the pricing is high.

Which leads us to the Rosso.

Yes, it costs as much as some straight Brunello, but it is delicious and when I read my notes, I usually find the same comment of ‘brunello meets Chambolle’. It is perfect at around a decade old, so ages gracefully, and is soft, floral and delicate, but with lovely red fruit. Roses and cherries, what’s not to like? It is not trying to be impressive, to score mega points or to age two decades or longer.

It also comes in at 13.5% which is another advantage of Rosso – it doesn’t have the 14.5-15% weight of big brother. It doesn’t need 15-20 years to age and costs a lot less. I did say there was much to like? And as global warming heats up the vineyards and beefs up the wines, a little less is no bad thing.

Which leads us to Pian dell’Orino. My local enoteca in Paris had told me to contact them, though the name was unknown to me. We pitched up after a concerted downpour and met Jan Erbach outside. The weather was grey and gloomy, the vineyards waterlogged and, well, it didn’t look too sunny. We felt a little embarrassed to be taking up a winemaker’s time just after the harvest, especially on such a grotty day. The enthusiasm seemed lacking all round.

But three hours later I had to tell him that we couldn’t take up any more of his valuable time, and that he surely had more important things to do. We had spent a fascinating hour in the vineyard discussing his passion for biodynamics and how it worked. I wish I had recorded it as I’ve never heard such a plausible explanation and demonstration of the seemingly implausible. He showed us how he trained the wines and we ended up dreaming about the arch priestess of biodynamics and the world’s most expensive example, Mme Lalou-Bize Leroy in Burgundy. We visited the winery, tasted the wines, toured his biodynamic herb garden and tasted his olive oil. Amazing, and all just for my wife and I. Exceptional. The passion for quality and Nature was palpable.

There is nothing heavy about these wines. No dark chocolate, no over-ripe flavours, no heady alcohol, no teeth enamel-threatening tannins. The estate was started by Caroline Pobitzer in 1996 and is right next door to Biondi-Santi. With Jan they certified biodynamic in 2003, one of the first in the region. The two come from Sud-Tirol/Germany but have a passion for the area, for sangiovese grosso (Brunello) and for respecting the environment.

The Rosso is the affordable end of the range, is very light on its feet and we are back to that Chambolle made with sangiovese leitmotif. Floral aromatics and red fruit, exotic cherries basking in a bed of roses on a warm sunny afternoon.

I should have listened more carefully to Jan, as I am pretty sure we tasted the 2014 in large botti, and that he mentioned that the Brunello might me bottled as rosso due to the difficulties of the vintage, and I note, unusually, that the vineyard bassolino is named on the label. So here you are not trading down, but trading up! A rosso wearing some of the haute couture of a Brunello. Soft, more density than usual, but the same aromatics and the same elegance. And, at 8 years old, spot on.

So, if you are looking for the best value in Brunello, perhaps you should see red…

As a final aside, the father of them all, Biondi-Santi, also downgraded some of their Brunello into Rosso in 2014, with a red stripe across the label like an aristocratic sash. In general, their wines need a lot of time, so I haven’t tried it yet, but I am impatient.The trouble is, stupidly I bought only one.

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