I had a quick lunch yesterday at my office with Enrico Viglierchio, general manager of Banfi, the large American-owned Brunello di Montalcino producer, and he looked relieved as we drank a bottle of his 2003 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio alle Mura. His company announced on Monday that the Banfi 2003 Brunellos, as well as the younger vintages, were no longer under legal impoundment after months of investigation into whether they were pure Sangiovese. Under Italian law, all Brunello di Montalcino must made of 100 percent Sangiovese grapes. (According to Viglierchio, the results for a very small percentage of the lots submitted for testing remained inconclusive, and Banfi has agreed to declassify those lots.)
But there are still questions about what is going on in the appellation at large. Yesterday, the Siena magistrate's office said that it found about 1.1 million liters (122,000 cases) of Brunello di Montalcino and about 450,000 liters (50,000 cases) of Rosso di Montalcino that did not contain 100 percent Sangiovese, in breach of Italian law. Another 4.4 million liters (about 490,000 cases) of Brunello and 220,000 liters (about 24,400 cases) of Rosso di Montalcino remain under sequestration and investigation, awaiting lab tests, according to the press release from the magistrate.
As far as I can remember, this is the first time the prosecutor's office has publicly announced that many wine producers broke the law in Montalcino. In theory, some people could be facing charges for fraud. But names and numbers remain undisclosed.
There’s still the question of whether the tests used to prove whether Brunellos are 100 percent Sangiovese are completely accurate, which sheds doubt on the entire process. But who knows?
The whole mess has been handled so badly that I am not sure what to think anymore. I don't want to go into the details of the controversy yet another time, but the whole thing started when a survey of the vineyards revealed that some producers in the region had planted grapes other than Sangiovese in vineyards designated for Brunello production. And some were accused of using them for making Brunello.
The height of the controversy came just as Italy’s main wine fair, VinItaly, opened last April. And it became somewhat of a witch-hunt. It also seemed to me to become an argument about "traditional" Brunellos, which were light in color and leaner in structure, versus those made in a more modern style, which show more fruit and concentration. Some people don’t believe that these richer Brunellos could possibly have been made from pure Sangiovese, and that the fraudulent wines were made to appeal to American palates, which don’t appreciate the elegant austerity of "authentic" Brunello.
In any case, about the same time as the Siena prosecutor was making public the results of his investigation yesterday, I was talking to Banfi's Viglierchio about the whole thing, and he thought that there was something positive about the controversy -- primarily that the appellation of Brunello must be re-evaluated and new regulations created. He said that perhaps Brunello doesn’t need to be 100 percent Sangiovese?
Apparently there are many producers who share his view. Angelo Gaja, for example, made a public statement supporting a change to allow other grapes to be blended into Brunello. He argued the same years ago for Barolo and Barbaresco, if I am not mistaken. In fact, his single-vineyard wines from those appellations are now simply Langhe DOC. A vote by the Brunello wine producers’ association on this subject is imminent.
I am against this. I think that Montalcino is the greatest place on earth to grow Sangiovese, and allowing Brunello to be something other than 100 percent Sangiovese would be scandalous. It would be like telling wine producers in Burgundy that they don’t need to make 100 percent Pinot Noirs anymore, or something more close to home, that Barolo and Barbaresco no longer need to be pure Nebbiolo. "Just add some Cabernet to your Syrah and your Hermitage will be better." No thank you!
But that is not to say that the only "true" Brunello is lean and firm, or that Sangiovese can’t produce wines that are deep in color and rich in fruit and structure. As viticulture, winemaking and popular taste evolve, so do wine styles.
Something as unique and as delicious as a great Sangiovese from Montalcino needs to be protected, even cherished. Its great quality can’t be replicated any place in the world, except for a few other parts of Tuscany. There are other DOCs in the Montalcino area and the rest of Tuscany for blended wines. Let Brunello be Brunello.
Jim Mccusker — Okemos, MI — October 23, 2008 2:52pm ET
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