By Alex Hunt MW | February 25 2014
by Kerin O’Keefe
"By law, Brunello di Montalcino can be made only with 100 percent Sangiovese cultivated in Montalcino. Otherwise, it’s not Brunello. It shouldn’t be difficult to grasp," asserts Gianfranco Soldera of Case Basse regarding "Brunellogate," the grape-blending scandal that broke wide open just days before Vinitaly, the country’s largest annual wine fair, rocking both the sleepy village of Montalcino and one of Italy’s most esteemed denominations. The alwaysforthright Soldera is one of the very few Brunello producers to speak out on the issue that currently besieges the wine and threatens its future. A tense silence has fallen like an iron curtain among the majority of Montalcino’s growers and winemakers, as well as their governing Consorzio. This near-total communication breakdown has not only left Brunello fans in the dark but has also generated controversial media coverage that has confused, exaggerated, or even made up the facts, while at the same time casting doubt as to the fate of Brunello as a varietal wine.
Since the mid-1990s, when certain international wine critics as well as the most influential wine guides in Italy began awarding high scores to a new wave of suspiciously dark and concentrated Brunellos, speculation of widespread blending with Cabernet and Merlot has hovered over the denomination as a whole. Journalists were therefore not surprised, during last February’s Benvenuto Brunello annual press tasting in Montalcino, by unconfirmed rumors that a major producer was under investigation for illicitly blending other grapes with Sangiovese to make Brunello. Then, at the end of March, as the investigation widened, news broke that a local prosecutor had sequestered nearly one million bottles of Brunello 2003, the current release, from several leading producers. It was later confirmed that four large companies — Antinori, Frescobaldi, Banfi, and Argiano — were not only under investigation for commercial fraud but had seen the Magistrate of Siena confiscate their 2003 Brunellos. Unconfirmed reports and off-the-record comments from producers claim that several other wineries have also had their Brunello sequestered and that as many as 93 firms have been investigated.
While the Consorzio remains tightlipped and most producers refuse to go on the record, citing the sensitive nature the ongoing investigation, the aforementioned firms are now opening up. "We came under investigation at the end of February but were convinced that the whole thing would blow over once on-site inspections were completed.
Instead, the Magistrate impounded our Brunello 2003 and sequestered about 20ha [50 acres] of our vineyards," explains Tiziana Frescobaldi. According to Frescobaldi, the prosecutor is investigating to see if the company may have used grapes other than Sangiovese to make Montalcino’s flagship wine because of Merlot planted in vineyards registered to Brunello. "Of our 150ha [370 acres] of vines registered to Brunello production, 20-25ha [50-62 acres] are planted with Merlot. We use these grapes not for our Brunello but for Lamaione – our pure Merlot – and Luce – our Super-Tuscan. We have always declared the presence of these vines to the Consorzio, along with the fact that these grapes do not go into Brunello, and until now there was never an issue."
Antinori is also under investigation. "We voluntarily blocked our 2003 Brunellos before they were shipped when we saw what was happening in Montalcino," confirms Renzo Cotarella, head winemaker and managing director for Antinori. The firm’s Pian delle Vigne Brunello 2003 was then sequestered and is awaiting analysis to see if any other varieties have been added. "We have 60ha [148 acres] at our Montalcino estate, half of which are Sangiovese registered to Brunello. We also have another 20ha [50 acres] of Sangiovese, and 10ha [25 acres] of other varieties such as Merlot and Petit Verdot, all of which go into our Villa Antinori IGT. Because of these other varieties, which are grown on the estate but are not registered to Brunello, the Magistrate decided to investigate further," explains Cotarella. He adds that sequestering the wines may have sent the wrong message to consumers.
"Sequestering Brunello may have given consumers the idea that the wines are harmful, which is most certainly not the case," says Cotarella. "Our Brunello is made entirely with Sangiovese, and we want to prove it — only no time frame has been given, and we simply cannot wait years for this to resolve, because once the 2004s are ready to roll out, no one will want the ’03s," opines the winemaker. He goes on to say that Antinori hopes it will not have to declassify its Brunello to IGT, but that this decision depends on how long the situation drags on.
Faced with the same dilemma – declassifying its sequestered Brunellos or stockpiling an entire vintage while the far superior 2004s line up in the cellar to await their release in early 2009 – Argiano has already chosen the former course. "It’s not because we added any other grapes, but because we simply cannot afford to leave our wine blocked in the cellar for a prolonged period," says Stephane Schaeffer, Argiano’s sales director. The wine has now been renamed Il Duemilatre di Argiano, an IGT, and will be sold for about 15-20 percent less than its original Brunello price tag.
According to Banfi’s vice president Lars Leicht, the firm’s 600,000 bottles of Brunello 2003 have been impounded on suspicion of overcropping, after investigators found discrepancies between vineyard yields. "According to Brunello’s production code, vineyard yields must be a maximum of 80 quintals per hectare. Some of our Brunello vineyards yield 75 quintals/ha, while others yield 85, with the average being the stipulated 80 quintals/ha. These are vineyards, not machines, and as long as our overall yield was within the stipulated limits, we feel we have abided by the production code."
Consorzio under pressure
Though these firms have spoken out and explained the facts regarding the investigation, most other producers have refused to speak out on the blending charge facing their neighbors, instead bemoaning the damage that the scandal’s fallout will do to the image of Brunello. Even the Consorzio, rather than communicating how it is going to solve the problem of guaranteeing consumers a genuine product, has preferred to rely on carefully prepared press releases that circumvent the underlying issue of Brunello’s authenticity as 100 percent Sangiovese with ineffectual statements such as: "We cultivate vines, not suspicion."
The Brunello Consorzio is obviously under tremendous pressure from the scandal because, since 2004, it has been responsible for regulating and controlling all aspects of the wine’s production. According to press statements issued by the consortium in the wake of the blending debacle, after inspecting over 1,667ha (4,119 acres) of Brunello vineyards between 2004 and 2007, the Consorzio found only 17ha (42 acres) that weren’t in compliance.
But the current state of affairs has many wondering if there is not perhaps a conflict of interest in having the Consorzio – made up of all of the DOCG’s 250 producers – responsible for regulating and overseeing all aspects of its own production.
At the beginning of April the situation reached new lows. Combining several food and wine-related scandals, popular Italian magazine L’Espresso published an edition dedicated to "Velenitaly." Roughly translated as Poison Italy, and a pun on the name Vinitaly, the article in question portrayed Brunello and other famed Italian culinary products as contaminated.
Although the Consorzio rightly criticized the publication, since it insinuated that the wine was harmful, the former began its own tirade against what it defined as "Media Terrorist attacks on Brunello that were ruining Brunello’s image" – almost as a way to deflect attention from the real problem of purported misdeeds. The Consorzio even hired consultants to help with Brunello’s "image problem."
Yet the lack of transparency on the alleged use of other grapes – now supposedly solved with professional PR tactics – is exactly how not to keep or win back Brunello fans who are less concerned with Brunello’s image than they are with its substance. Brunello’s combination of power and finesse, earthiness and elegance, has won it devoted fans all over the world. It is the only Tuscan wine that must be made exclusively with Sangiovese, the most planted grape in all Italy (see "Brunello’s Moment of Truth," WFW 11, pp.74-80). That Sangiovese reaches such heights of greatness in Montalcino as to make it comparable to the magnificence Pinot Noir attains in Burgundy, or Nebbiolo in the Langhe. Adding other grapes to Brunello would suppress the wine’s complexity and uniqueness. "Montalcino has become famous for Brunello, so why should we change it?" asks Andrea Costanti.
Changing the code
Yet after the Brunellogate scandal, certain producers, and even some wine critics, began declaring publicly that the time had come to change the most fundamental part of the Brunello production code by allowing the addition of other grapes. Interestingly enough, these same critics who complain that Brunello’s production code is too severe, happily overlook one of the truly disturbing elements of the current rules.
For under the regulations governing Brunello, producers are permitted to use up to 6 percent of concentrated must derived from virtually any grape variety from any other region in order to raise alcohol levels. The use of concentrated must for winemaking in Italy is authorized by a national decree but should be prohibited in the country’s top denominations, and particularly for its varietal wines.
But rather than tighten restrictions, some are using the current situation as an incentive to modify Brunello and essentially turn it into a completely different wine. According to post-scandal interviews published by the Italian media, Ezio Rivella, Castello Banfi’s now retired manager and winemaker, is one of those who thinks change is in order. "Brunello’s production code is too rigid. None of the great Bordeaux appellations or French wines in general stipulates the exact percentage of grapes that should be used […]. The most important thing is quality and origin; the rest should be up to the producer," proclaims Rivella, who is obviously not a fan of Burgundy nor, it would seem, of Brunello either.
Recognizing the absurdity of promoting a message that boils down to "We broke the law, so let’s fix it by changing the law," Montalcino’s producers quickly backed off from following Rivella’s lead and are now avoiding any mention of amending the wine’s production code to allow other grape varieties. At the same time, shockingly few want to go on the record to defend Brunello’s 100 percent heritage. In fact, the stock answer from most producers has been, "Well, off the record, we feel it’s probably not the right time to discuss modifying the production code, so we don’t want to go on the record either way" – which is not very encouraging for Brunello admirers.
A surprising number of both wine critics and producers in favor of adding other grapes don’t seem to fathom that adding Merlot or Cabernet to Brunello would destroy one of Italy’s enological masterpieces, by making it just like so many other wines produced there and abroad. Were Brunello to become a blended wine, consumers would quickly and permanently lose interest and gravitate to far less expensive bottlings. It should be noted that no one in Montalcino is forced to make Brunello. Producers who want to experiment with international varieties have ample opportunity to do so under the Toscana IGT or even Montalcino’s Sant’Antimo DOC appellations. Both have flexible production codes, though admittedly they have neither the name recognition nor the lofty status of Brunello, which generates sales and commands higher prices — which is of course why everyone in Montalcino wants to sell "Brunello."
Strict labeling agreement
At the time of going to press, the prosecutor has not proven any wrongdoing, and everyone hopes the situation will be resolved soon, both for the firms involved and for consumers.
Although the majority of Brunello’s producers are passionate professionals dedicated to working with one of the most temperamental grapes in the world to fashion a world-class wine, the current blending debacle has proven that more controls and guarantees are needed across the denomination to safeguard the product. If handled properly, Brunello should eventually emerge as an even better wine, a benchmark for pure Sangiovese that would allow the subtleties imparted by terroir to add extra dimensions. But to achieve this, authorities will have to make sure that not only does Brunello remain a varietal wine, but that winemaking practices that are incongruous with quality wine should be curtailed or eliminated altogether.
In what may be a first real step forward, the Consorzio announced in May that it has engaged the services of a former director of the Food Fraud Repression Office. Dr Capretti — a professor of wine legislation at the University of Pisa – is to oversee strict controls over Brunello production and will create a new structure to guarantee that producers adhere to protocol. According to Marone Cinzano, the Consorzio’s president, part of the overhaul could include more laboratory analysis of Brunello before it is commercially released.
Brunello’s problems are far from over, however. On May 9, the Consorzio was informed that the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau would begin blocking all US imports of Brunello from June 9 unless the wine is accompanied by a laboratory analysis certifying that the wine is "pure Sangiovese." Those without appropriate certification will not be allowed into the USA, Brunello’s biggest market, accounting for 25 percent of the DOCG’s total production. Since Brunello is by law supposed to be 100 percent Sangiovese, the addition of other grapes would violate a strict labeling agreement between the US and the EU that stipulates that what is on the label guarantees what is in the bottle. According to Marone Cinzano, "Based on the level of anthocyanins, tests can prove whether Brunello has been made exclusively with Sangiovese or if a wine has been blended with other varieties. We now need to act rapidly to ensure consumers in the US and everywhere of Brunello’s authenticity."