Ditch the Brunello, the Best Tuscan Red Wine under 50$

Tuscany offers two world-class appellations for your average aristocrat: The Brunello of Montalcino and the Super Tuscans of Bolgheri. What lies beneath/beyond?! Both of those regions offer some difficult contradictions and overshadow the extraordinary quality bubbling up from their less appreciated neighbors.10119910

On one side we have the  so-called Super Tuscans, which are (typically) Bordeaux/Meritage blends conforming to international styles and are often criticized for lacking the Tuscan personality, in addition to their $$$. Brunello is a regional clone of Sangiovese and its (deservedly) high reputation for quality also results in high prices. These two pillars of Tuscan wine fueled by the power of the global collectors market have an unfortunate influence on traditional Tuscan wines, but there’s hope!

I love to explore Sangiovese in Tuscany, its both so ‘everyday’ and so distinctively Tuscan, but I found myself facing the same conundrum of price v. quality while tasting two ‘lower’ priced Brunelli, the 2006 Ferrero BdM and the 2004 Caparzo BdM. Both from solid vintages and reliable somewhat modern producers. Both10411156 cost $40-$45, which is pretty much the bottom of the spectrum for Brunello pricing. So how did they fare? They were similarly full textured, broad wines with good Sangiovese characteristics of dark cherry and tobacco. Both stopped short however of wowing me with any true personality or complexity. In short they tasted like a dictionary entry for Brunello, and not a whit more. At $40, you should be able to find good examples of Tuscan wine with at least some personality? And is complexity too much to ask?

So I set out to find the best Tuscan wines at <45$, wines that offered more personality and complexity than comparably priced Brunello di Montalcino. My Cellar Rating is not an overall score, but an indicator of how many years from the vintage date I think it needs to hit its prime drinking window.


*Spoiler Alert*

It was really really hard, because there is just too much darn good wine in Tuscany, and because most styles lack a regional brand cache attractive to international collectors, these wines fly far under the radar. Some, like those from Chianti are even more disadvantaged because that region has a long undeserved reputation for poor quality.


2012 Felsina Chianti Classico and 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva

Price: 18-20$/26-29$  Where to buy:

http://www.klwines.com (they have most of their wines available)

Where to buy Classico: Wine Searcher

Where to buy Riserva: Wine Searcher

Cellar Rating (Chianti Classico) * 2-5 years   90

Cellar Rating (Riserva) ** 5-10 years   92

A large producer of Sangiovese in Tuscany, with a broad portfolio of Sangiovese based wines at every price point. Felsina takes the proverbial cake for extraordinary quality at the most reasonable price. I’m doubling up this entry, for both their 2012 Chianti Classico and 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva. The wines differ in their drinking window: the Riserva takes a few more years to really open up and shine, while the regular CC is for near-term drinking.

Humble Wine Cellar


The Felsina Chianti offers plenty of good typicity for Sangiovese: dark cherry cola, sweet tobacco. It offers plenty of complexity as it opens up with notes of tea leaf, herbs de provence and menthol. The palate is light-weight but more elegant than thin, with robust acidity and clean mineral tinged finish. The 2010 riserva offered greater intensity and a broader palate, as well as some tertiary aromas of damp leaves, mushroom and leather. Both wines scream for pizza with spicy sausage, salumi, or a hearty stew.

They also produced some declassified Sangiovese (Fontallaro) and a single vineyard Chianti (Rancia) that are outstanding in the 45-60$ price range.


2011 Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico

Price: 25-35$  Where to buy:


Cellar Rating *2-5 years   91


What the 2010 Tuscan reds have in structure and power, the 2011s have in elegance and accessibility. Like Felsina, Castello dei Rampolla was an both early advocate for high quality sangiovese AND one of the original producers of Super Tuscan blends. Add to that their Bio-dynamic practices dating back to the early 90’s and you get a winery known for trail-blazing.

The 2011 Chianti Classico is dark but fruity, with dark red cherry and warm broad textured tannin. There’s about 5% of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in there which add some darker bigger fruit flavors, and yet it still screams typical Sangiovese with its fresh acidity. I picked this one not just for the overall house style but because its an excellent example of the elegance of 2011 Chianti.

2010 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva

Where to buy: Wine Searcher

Cellar Rating ***10+ years!!   90

This is NOT the Monsanto you are thinking of! Rather, Castello di Monsanto is a modern producer in Tuscany, and one of the first to produce a ‘cru’ Chianti (from a single vineyard). The 2010 Chianti Riserva is a bit of a wild card here, a real cellar experiment for those who have never ‘laid down’ a bottle. Its rare for me to find a wine priced under 20$ that not only can last over ten years, but damn near requires it. In an act my wine merchant called ‘infanticide’ I opened the 2010 up and gave it a try: it was absolutely undrinkable for the entire evening. Leaving the bottle open I revisited it for several night in a row and it slowly unfolded from an undrinkable wine to a a recognizable Chianti. By the third day it was still quite a massive wine but showing potential to be a classically style Chianti.

A homegrown blend of 90% Sangiovese and the rest Colorino and Canaiolo, it had deeply buried notes of smokey black tea, dark licorice, and dusty black cherry. Long racy acidity with a rough grained tannic finish. This is one the best values for a long-term cellarable wine I have found. Stash it somewhere cool and forget.


2010 Podere le Boncie “Le Trame”

Price: 40-45$

Where to Buy: Wine Searcher

Cellar Rating ** 5-10 years   94


I couldn’t well leave Le Trame off this list, though the 2010 I last tasted is not as easily found anymore (so my wine-searcher link will direct you to all vintages). Beyond the quality of the juice, this wine should soon be a major icon of modern Tuscan wine, first because Giovanna Morganti is of a new crop of female wine makers (still a rare-breed) making some of the best wines in the world (Also look up Elena Fucci in Southern Italy). Second because a few years ago she handed in the black rooster, her Chianti Classico certification after a long conflict of how to best represent Sangiovese in this terroir. I can’t say I know the specifics, though it may be that her single wine “Le Trame” is primarily Sangiovese with a few nearly extinct native varieties making up a small percentage.

Le Trame has been described as “ferociously” and “supremely” elegant by some of its more enthusiastic fans. I can get behind both; An intense combination of floral perfume and intense blue and red berry fruit may seem a-typical for a sangiovese from Chianti, but the rustic damp earth, racy acidity, and dusty tannin are indisputably Tuscan. Long graceful finish with lithe balance defies expectation (and physics). When reviewers use the words ‘focus’ or ‘linear’ to describe a wine, this is what they mean.


The Magic of low-tannin and high-acid: California Barbera

The everyday reds of Northern Italy are famous for pairing with everyday foods that can be tougher to find a wine for. Barbera has the unusual combination of rich, concentrated flavor with high acidity, and its lower tannin might just make it the perfect ‘pizza’ wine. How has California appropriated one of Italy’s most casual contributions to wine?

Pour yourself a glass of Barbera and you’ll see an inky purple wine tumble out, rich in polyphenols (that is the good stuff from the skins) and surprisingly high in natural acidity (great for food). A traditional Northern Italian table wine, Barbera has transplanted to California with great success, and its for the same reason that some other grapes fail to make great wine here. California has a long warm growing season, causing the grapes to ripen extremely well and often too much if the growers leave them too long on the vine, causing a tradeoff between ripeness, and acidity (as one rises the other declines). Barbera has naturally high acidity to balance out the ripeness that California’s perfect weather provides. So rather than getting over extracted jammy wines, you get a tasty ripe red with perfect balance, not to mention food pairing gold! This makes Barbera one of the few ‘old-world’ grapes that end up doing better in California than their original home.

Food pairing suggestions: Most CA Barbera is going to be bigger in body and fruit than their Italian counterparts, but it still complements the acidity of tomato sauce really well, either in pizza or a hearty ragu.


So lets take a look at my favorite Barbera wine grown and produced right here in California.

Unti Estate Barbera 2012

Price: 30$

Where to Buy:  https://store.untivineyards.com/order/  Or  Wine Searcher

Cellar rating *2-7 years  90pts


Unti Vineyards has made a name for itself growing Rhone varietals up here in Northern California but they also are one of the few producers going all in on Italian varietals, making stellar Sangiovese and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Their Barbera is thick in the glass, deep dark red and purple fruits leap off the surface. The palate is far more muscular than a Piedmontese Barbera, but the acidity leads to a clean lightweight finish. Its has a touch of complexity with some earth and cola on the nose, and a bit of  spice from the modest use of French oak.

2012 was a prosperous year for wine making in California. The long growing season never got too hot leading to a bumper crop that maintained exceptional quality. This couldn’t have been a better year for Barbera, and this Unti bottle shows it well.

As for food, try it with the biggest, spiciest, most loaded pizza you’ve ever had!

Bedrock Wine Co North Coast Syrah 2014

The 2014 Bedrock Wine Co. North Coast Syrah is a complex, brooding red wine and a ridiculous value.

Quite a bit richer at this stage than the 2013 was 5 months ago but still a great dark, brooding, complex young Syrah (co-fermented with a drop of Viognier). This one is inky black with purple reflection. The nose is viognier forward (so some surprising tropical notes), then blackberry and olive, with pronounced salinity and smoke. The palate is rich and smooth with rough tannin that smoothed out over time with air. I rarely go for the big jam packed style, but this has enough rough edges and complexity to keep most drinkers happy, and will age well too.


Price ~24$

Cellar Rating- **3-10 years

Food pairing – Rich, hearty braises, pork roasts with darker sauces, anything smokey or salty to help compete with the density of flavor here.

Oregon 2013 Pinot Noir, a World Apart

I wanted to take some time to look at just one producer (my current favorite) making Pinot Noir in Oregon, Big Table Farm. The 2013 vintage was a distinctive one due to an unfortunate bout of rain that divided the vintage between those who picked before the rain and those who picked after.

Oregon Pinot Noir of 2013: Big Table Farm

I wanted to take some time to look at just one producer (my current favorite) making Pinot Noir in Oregon. The 2013 vintage was a distinctive one due to an unfortunate bout of rain that divided the vintage between those who picked before the rain and those who picked after. Those who picked early got away technically unscathed, but had to deal with a high-acid, low brix crop that challenged the typical trend in the US market, even in Burgundian OR.

Big Table Farm seemed up to the task, with all three of today’s selections coming in at less than 12% abv! That’s damn low, but the wines were savory, graceful, and seductive. All three were vinified in a mix of used and new french oak.


2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Fermented with whole clusters (giving a more wild, rustic, and green quality). Right out of the bottle it was mono-tone cherry cola on the nose and simple and austere on the palate


with a bitter finish. But after a couple of hours and a great rich braise to pair along side, it flourished in the manner I had hoped for

Very light in color, nose of cherry cola, spice box and a nice rocky quality. Also some garden herbs, all soft and sweet. Beautifully seductive aromatics. Lean and clean on the palate with a surprisingly long spicy finish. Great old world style. Time air and food are needed.



2013 Cattrall Brothers Vineyard Pinot Noirbtfcb13

Very pale, red rose color, the nose is sweet rosewater to start, then very delicate notes of rhubarb, white pepper, fennel, and smoke as it opened. The acidity and finish are both quite light to me, but it paired well with seared salmon and sauteed leeks. I have no idea how it would stand up to (or improve with) age, it is just so delicate. Probably the most complete and whole wine of the three.

11.2% abv. Planted with organically farmed Wadensville clone (own-rooted) on a high and cool site in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA

2013 Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir


Farmed on the Coats and Whitney Vineyards in the Y-C AVA. I opened, then tossed it in the fridge fBig Table Farm Willamette Pinot Noiror a bit to bring it down to cellar temp, which really coaxed some of the aromas out. A very pretty pale garnet, with aromas sweet cherry liqueur, rose water, mint & garden herbs, a hint of wet earth.
Palate is supple and smooth, though with a bit of a watery impression on the mid palate. Some tannin builds up with air but overall the wine is all delicate and pretty and subtle.
11.8% abv. Pommard and Wadensville clones, some whole cluster fermentation.


The Two Faces of California Zinfandel

Zinfandel has come a long long way since its unfortunate heyday in the 1970’s and 80’s. Those old enough to remember trying white zinfandel (or like me bold enough to go looking, for science sake) Might find it hard to believe such an insipid cloying bottle of juice ever was so popular.

While the overall market hasn’t changed quite as much as I would like (light and sweet still drives a colossal amount of volume the whole world over), the fine wine industry has seen Zinfandel return to grace.

Zinfandel has come so far that it occupies a leading role in some of the current market’s trendiest bottlings. Wineries like Bedrock, Ridge, Turley, and Carlisle offer extraordinary high quality Zinfandel based blends from old vine heritage sources.  These extra old vine field blends don’t just offer something tasty and different, they offer a rich backstory. The history (and field blend) that is unique to every vineyard gives the wines inimitable personality. This might be the most appealing factor to a younger demographic that looks for an intimate story and a connection with the wine, rather than just reputation and awards.

The other side of Zinfandel is one that still sticks to traditional modes of selecting and blending grapes from their own estate, rather than from historical vineyards with countless varieties. Both Older wineries like A. Rafanelli, or newer(ish) ventures like Brown Estate have applied more modern sensibilities to their straight Zinfandel bottlings.

Both sides of modern Zin have eschewed its past representations, either the pale sweet blush, or the cloying jam jar reds.

* A Note on Aging *  Zinfandel was historically picked later in the season to maximize development of the sugar (or because farmers didn’t know any better). That made pretty unfit for aging. The selections I tasted below run the gamut for age-ability. Bedrocks wines need the longest, minimum 5 years, probably up to 15, Ridge and Carlisle(not featured) should be held for 3-5 years. A. Rafanelli too is balanced enough for a 3-5 year window from vintage (up to 10), and Brown Estate is the best for short-medium term drinking (1-5 years). All of these wines follow the modern trend of crafting for both immediate term and long-term enjoyment, so you can’t really screw it up!



Bedrock is probably the hottest new winery in California, founded by Ravenswood scion Morgan Twain-Peterson, his family connections have no doubt contributed to the range of historical vineyards he has access to. As a result there is some overlap between Bedrock, Ridge, and others who source from similar vineyards. Unlike Ridge, which tends to buy a more Zin heavy allotment, Bedrocks blends are more diverse.


2013 Bedrock WIne Co. The Bedrock Heritage

Bedrock Heritage Wine 2013

Roughly 40% Zinfandel, 30% Carignane, and the last 30% the mixed blacks. Planted first in the 1890s, owned by Hearst at one point.
Gritty tannin, velvety fruit, with loads of different herbal and spice quality (oh hi graham cracker, is Zinfandel home?). A little less open on the nose then the others, but feels like it will do brilliantly in 10 years or so. What I loved about this one is it didn’t hit me over the head with Zinfandel spice, and the fruit quality (while still very primary) was brambly with depth and complexity. (45$) *Ridge also sources from this vineyard for their Hooker Creek bottle.


2013 Bedrock Wine Co.Evangelho Vineyard

60% Zinfandel, 18% Carignane and the rest Mourvèdre, Palomino and Mission. Just inland from the Sacramento Delta, planted on 40ft deep sand bank, the vines were planted in the 1890s on their own root-stock. Phylloxera wasn’t a concern due to the high-silica content of the earth. The high winds, warm weather, and sandy soil make for a remarkable and unique wine. Vibrant and coiled, this blend showcasing strong minerality and acid. Red fruit and baking spice with a streak of saline. (38$)


Ridge has a lot of well deserved fame for their historic Cabernet from Monte Bello, but their large assortment of Zin blends from historic vineyards is a real accomplishment. All of their heritage blends are worth trying, though I chose the most freely available for this article.

2013 Ridge Geyserville

73% zinfandel, 17% carignane, 9% petite sirah, and 1% matar. A real benchmark wine for the style. Robust, and structured. Even with the chill I put on it the aromas sang from the glass. Typical baking spice, some rocky quality and and tight core of black brambly fruits. The fruit definitely was reluctant to come out and I imagine a few years will bring this exceptional wine into balance. On the palate the minerality is perfect, with salinity and slate adding some real complexity. Food friendly acidity, but softish tannin. (37$)


2012 A. Rafanelli ZinfandelA. Rafanelli 2012

Labeled as Zinfandel but I was told it had a small amount of petite sirah blended in as well. This wine screams old school California with its inky red color, and supple texture. Unapologetic influence of french oak (vanilla cream) merge with lush red berry fruits on the nose and palate. Some herbal notes of Bay and garden herbs came with time in the glass. Needs another couple years to shine I feel, but just hitting its window. The 2013 I tried just recently will need much more time as the oak is unbalanced and generally its tight and unyielding. (38$)

*I should note that I also tried a 2004 bought online, just about a year ago. While over the hill, it was only just so and still had some beautiful herbal and textural elements. Just to prove that a wine like this can absolutely make 10 years in more structured vintages.


2012 Brown Estate (Napa Valley) Zinfandel

While this label was founded in the mid 90’s, their style isn’t quite on the cutting edge. Rich full bodied purple and black fruit, this wine was soft and luxurious, yet the high alcohol doesn’t show one bit, and the powerful quality of the fruit doesn’t unbalance the wine. I’d still prefer to leave it for another year to mellow that fruit however. If the tendency of modern wine towards higher acid frustrates you, Brown Estate offers of wonderful example of a more mainstream style done well, with balance and class. (40$)