Welcome to “Shelf Stars,” The Growler’s cheap wine column in which we discover the best under-$15 bottles in town. This edition of Shelf Stars is brought to you with underwriting support from The Wine Thief and Ale Jail.
Montalcino is what you think of when you picture a storybook Italian town. It’s a tight cluster of brown and white buildings, with a medieval fortress, church, and ramparts scattered here and there, high on a hill overlooking fields and olive groves for miles.
Any winemaker with an address in Montalcino is sitting on something doubly special. It’s the birthplace of Brunello, the finest expression of Italy’s finest grape. Sangiovese can taste lively, like in Chianti, or more sanguine, as in coastal versions like Morellino di Scansano. But in Montalcino, sangiovese lives its best life—rich and supple, a powerful flavor with an elegant edge. If it were a garment, it would be a velvet blazer worn with a Dean Martin–level of confidence.
Winemakers in Montalcino select only their finest fruit to be made into Brunello di Montalcino, which ages for a minimum of five years before being released. What’s left over is spread among some secondary labels. The “junior” Brunello is called Rosso di Montalcino and it’s also made from 100% sangiovese (and is usually a solid value at around $20. My favorite is made by Il Poggione.)
After that, a winemaker can stretch any leftover sangiovese with some different blending grapes into a regional catch-all term: Toscana Rosso, which is a gamble of a category.
On the top shelf, Toscana Rosso (meaning simply “red wine from Tuscany”) is the designation used by some beautiful wines—the so-called “Super Tuscans” that are made by high-profile wineries that want to use international grape varieties like merlot, syrah, and the cabernets along with sangiovese.
On the lower shelves, they can be full of average quality grapes pressed into very average blends. But they can also be incredible values if you select the right one. It helps your odds to scan the label for signs of quality.
Tenuta di Sesta “Camponovo” ($13)
When I look at the Tenuta di Sesta “Camponovo”, the first thing I notice is an address in Montalcino. A quick web search confirms that the winery makes a range of Brunellos, so I’m guessing some decent fruit went into this bottle. A second sign of quality: it’s imported by Libation Project, a local firm whose book I trust with 100% confidence.
And my confidence is rewarded with black peppery aromas, those luscious dark plum and earthy dried cherry flavors that are textbook sangiovese, and soft tannins that don’t allow the sip come off too fruit-forward. It’s a perfect wine for frozen pizza night but it could also stand up to steak with no trouble at all. The wine is made from 90% sangiovese and 10% colorino, a blending grape that, like its name suggests, is mostly added for its dark color.
Monte Antico ($13)
If you want to know what sangiovese tastes like with those international grapes, but don’t want to shell out $150 for Tignanello, there’s a blend that’s widely distributed in the Twin Cities called Monte Antico. I’ve been drinking it for years and it’s been super-reliable across vintages. It includes 10% merlot and 5% cabernet sauvignon, and even though I find the Bordeaux grapes really shout down the character of sangiovese, it’s a delicious and versatile blend nonetheless.
For those that like: Blueberry jam over raspberry jam, Dr. Pepper over Coke, barbecue sauce over ketchup.
Grapes: Sangiovese, merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc
ABV: Tends to be 13–15%.
Price Range: $12–16
Find it: In the Italy aisle, beneath the Brunellos, near the Chiantis.
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