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Italy's Best Red Wine--Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino?
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 22, 2019
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When we talk about Italy’s best red wine, we are talking about one of the world’s best red wines, because, in my opinion, only France can compete with Italy on this topic.  France has great red wines--Bordeaux and Burgundy (some might also insist on France’s Northern Rhône wines). Italy has Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.  And some friends of mine might argue that the Taurasi wines of Campania and Sicily’s Nero d’Avola belong in the competition.

Most Italian wine lovers would probably agree that Italy’s three best red grape varieties are the following:

--Nebbiolo (the variety of Barolo and Barbaresco (Barolo’s fraternal twin)
--Sangiovese (the variety of Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino)
--Aglianico (the variety of Taurasi and other red wines in Campania)

Geographically, these varieties do best in the following areas:

--Nebbiolo:  in Piedmont (Northwest Italy)
--Sangiovese:  in Tuscany (Central Italy, north of Rome)
--Aglianico:  in the Avellino region of Campania (Southern Italy)

Although I appreciate the Aglianico grape variety, especially as expressed in Taurasi wines, for me, Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino are clearly Italy’s best red wines--especially when made by the best producers, which I will discuss below.  Some readers might wonder why I am not mentioning Barbaresco.  I am not leaving out Barbaresco; when I mention Barolo, I mean both Barolo and Barbaresco.  The wines are very similar; in general Barbaresco wines are slightly less full-bodied.  But the best Barbarescos can definitely compete with Barolos.  The Barbaresco wine zone, named after the town of Barbaresco, is only 15 miles away from the Barolo zone--named after the town of Barolo.  Since Barbaresco is only one-third the size of Barolo in terms of production, I will use the much more well-known Barolo name to apply to both wines.

But which is Italy’s greatest wine, Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino?  It is strictly a matter of personal preference.  For me, Barolo is Italy’s greatest red wine.  A dear friend of mine who is an Italian wine expert swears it is Brunello di Montalcino.

I suspect that one reason for our different opinions can be traced to our French wine preferences.  My wine expert friend prefers Bordeaux to Burgundy.  I prefer Burgundy.  The Nebbiolo variety can be compared to Pinot Noir.  Both are low in coloring matter--rather a translucent ruby red. Both are low in tannin--although Nebbiolo is generally more acidic than Pinot Noir.  Both Burgundy and Barolo are known for their great aromas.  A good Barolo can show aromas of strawberries, tar, roses, licorice, truffles, herbs, coffee, chocolate, camphor, tobacco, and leather (the last two especially with aging).

Sangiovese, on the other hand, resembles the main Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, in its structure; all of these grapes are darker in color, and possess more tannins than Nebbiolo.  “Brunello” is the local name for a variant of Sangiovese, the Sangiovese Grosso grape, a larger, darker-colored, more deeply tannic variety than other Sangiovese strains, in the town of Montalcino and its surrounding vineyard areas.  Brunello di Montalcino’s aromas are reminiscent of tart black cherries, plums, and violets.  

Even the glasses used for Burgundy are the same type that are best for Barolo--large, wide glasses with a generous, round bowl.  Brunello di Montalcino shows best in a Bordeaux-styled glass, tall and large, with more of an oval bowl.

We all know that plenty of mediocre Barolos and Brunellos are available.  The alert buyer of these wines must consider two extremely important points: choose a good producer, and choose a good vintage.  The quality of the producer is easily the most important factor, because a good producer often can make a fine wine in a mediocre vintage.

I list below the finest Barolo and Barbaresco producers, in my opinion.  Category One producers, named in my rough order of preference, are the very best.  Category Two producers range from Very Good to Good.

BAROLO Producers

Category One
Giacomo Conterno
Bartolo Mascarello
Giuseppe Rinaldi
Giuseppe Mascarello (Monprivato Vineyard only)
Bruno Giacosa
Cappellano

Category Two
Vietti (Rocche and Villero Riserva Vineyards only)
Cavalotto
Tenuta Carretta
Elvio Cogno
Poderi Colla
Angelo Gaja
Brovia
Luciano Sandrone
Paolo Manzone
Burlotto
Marcarini
Ceretto
Oddero
E.Pira & Figli
Roberto Voerzio
Massolino
Paolo Scavino
Aldo Conterno
Pio Cesare
Renato Ratti
Cordero di Montezemolo

A note on my top two Barolo producers:  Both of their wines are very expensive.  Giacomo Conterno makes two Barolos; his standard Barolo, Cascina Francia, retails for $230 (2012) and $330 (2010), its current vintages.  Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino Riserva retails for $1500 to $1800 in its current vintage, 2010…making it Barolo’s most expensive wine, by far.  The very traditional Bartolo Mascarello is one of the only Barolo producers who makes just one Barolo, a blend of several vineyards; no single-vineyard Barolos for this winery!  The 2010 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo retails for around $400.

BARBARESCO Producers


Category One
Bruno Giacosa
Angelo Gaja
Ceretto (Bricco Asili Vineyard only)

Category Two
Marchesi di Gresy
Produttori del Barbaresco
Roagna
Moccagata
Cascina delle Rose
Poderi Colla
Vietti
Oddero
La Spinetta
Ca’ Romé
Cantina del Pino
De Forville
Albino Rocca
Fiorenzo Nada
Bruno Rocca

My two top Barbaresco producers are also quite expensive.  Moreover, the very traditional Bruno Giacosa Barbarescos are difficult to find.  Giacosa’s best Barbarescos, its Red Label Riservas, start at $200 and go up much higher, if you can find them.  The more modern-styled Angelo Gaja Barbarescos are pricey:  Gaja’s standard Barbaresco is in the $190 to $210 range.  His single-vineyard Barbarescos, Sori Tildin and Sori San Lorenzo, retail in the $453 to $467 price range.  But Gaja’s Barbarescos are more available than Bruno Giacosa’s wines.

Barolo and Barbaresco vintages are mainly the same, with slight variations. For example, the current vintage in Barolo, 2014, is fairly good, better than expected; lots of rain prevented greatness.  But Barbaresco fared better than Barolo in this irregular vintage.

I rate Barolo/Barbaresco vintages of the last 30 years worth buying into two categories, EXCELLENT and VERY GOOD:

EXCELLENT:  2013, 2010 (especially Barolo), 2001, 1996, 1990, 1989

VERY GOOD:  2008, 2006, 2004 (drink now), 1999.


I list below the best producers of Brunello di Montalcino, in my opinion.  Category One producers, named in my rough order of preference, are the very best.  Category Two producers range from Very Good to Good.

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO PRODUCERS

Category One
Soldera (Case Basse Winery)
Biondi-Santi

Category Two
Costanti
Pertimali di Livio Sassetti
Poggio Antico
Il Poggione
Canalicchio di Sopra
Altesino (especially Montesoli Vineyard)
Tenuta Caparzo (especially La Casa Vineyard)
Fattoria del Casato (especially Prime Donne Vineyard)
Casanova di Neri
Siro Pacenti
Salvioni (especially La Cerbaiola Vineyard)
Ciacci Piccolomini
Castello Banfi (especially Poggio alle Mura Vineyard)
Lisini
Fuligni
Argiano
Fattoria dei Barbi
Antinori (Pian Delle Vigne)
Col d’Orcia
Donatella Cinelli Colombini
Uccelliera
Il Marroneto
Mastrojanni

The gap between Category One and Two producers is quite huge for Brunello di Montalcino.  Soldera and Biondii-Santi are clearly the two greatest producers of Brunello, in fact two of the world’s greatest red wine producers.  Gianfranco Soldera is a perfectionist who releases his small quantities of wine only when they are ready to drink.  All of his current vintages, such as 2010 and 2006, are sold out.  (Also, a few years ago, many of the wines in Soldera’s winery were stolen, making them even more difficult to obtain).  A few bottles of his 1998 and 1995 are available, for about $600.  Biondi-Santi, the producer who “invented” Brunello di Montalcino wines in the 19th century, is one of the most famous wine producers in the world, and rightly so.  Its prices are reasonable compared to Soldera’s; a 2010 Biondi-Santi will cost you $190. But this is such a good producer that you can buy lighter vintages, such as 2011, or 2008, for $135 to $150, and still have a fine Brunello wine.  Also, the top listed producers of Category Two Brunellos are all very good, and retail between $50 and $75 for recent vintages.  Tip: 2012 is an excellent Brunello vintage that is currently a great value.

I rate Brunello di Montalcino vintages of the last 30 years worth buying into two categories, EXCELLENT and VERY GOOD:

EXCELLENT:  2012, 2010, 2004, 1997 (drink now), 1990, 1988

VERY GOOD:  2013, 2007, 2001, 1999, 1995

I hope the above information helps you choose either of the two great wines--Barolo/Barbaresco or Brunello di Montalcino--or both.  As I stated above, my favorite is Barolo.  In fact, my favorite red wine in the world is Barolo, followed by Burgundy.  It all starts with the grape variety:  Nebbiolo is my favorite red variety, followed by Pinot Noir.  But I would never turn down a great Brunello di Montalcino.