You are going to see a lot less Brunello di Montalcino in the United States very soon if Italian authorities and wine producers don’t get their act together.
The Italian Embassy in Washington DC recently received notification from the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) warning that, beginning on June 9, imports of Brunello di Montalcino to the United States will be blocked unless producers can guarantee that their wines are pure Sangiovese, as required by Italian wine law.
Among its many duties, the TTB collects excise taxes and ensures that wines are labeled, advertised and marketed according to the law. Apparently, following the media circus surrounding the Italian government’s investigation in Montalcino, the TTB made repeated requests to the Italian Embassy to clarify the situation regarding Brunello di Montalcino, but were ignored. So now it has come to this.
I have already written numerous blogs about the Brunello debacle including April 21, April 11, and April 4. But in case if you have been on the international space station for the last two months, it basically revolves around a local magistrate who is investigating allegations of illegal vineyard plantings in the region, as well as the possibility that some producers are not using 100 percent Sangiovese to make their Brunellos .
I have not seen a copy of the letter, and it was not sent to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, as stated in other news reports, according to my sources there. But the bottom line is that Brunello producers must prove that their wines are 100 percent Sangiovese if they want to sell them as Brunello to the United States.
“It is all about truth in labeling,” said a source at the American Embassy. “It doesn’t matter if it is Parmesan cheese or wine, the Italian product has to be what it says it is on the label. It’s about protecting the consumer.”
How this is exactly going to happen has yet to be determined. There are a number of laboratory tests that can be used to determine whether a wine is 100 percent what it is supposed to be. I am not an expert, but one test measures the anthocyanin content of wines and matches it up with particular grape types, while the other identifies the unique gaseous makeup of a varietal's volatile components. The only problem is that these tests are not 100 percent accurate, according to a number of enologists who I have spoken to.
I guess the TTB is going to need some sort of official guarantee from the Italian government about the purity of Brunellos exported to the United States. Maybe the TTB will accept the tests? It did in the past. I remember the Austrian wine scandal in 1985, when a tiny number of wine producers added glycol to their wines, and the U.S. government, along with others around the world, accepted certificates of analysis using gas chromatography that proved a wine's purity.
However, just what Italians are going to do now, I have no idea. My crystal ball is pretty foggy at this point. What I do know is that the U.S. government means business, and Italian producers have now started a U.S. bureaucratic agency mechanism going that is not easy to stop. I wouldn’t be surprised if the TTB starts asking for guarantees from other Italian wines as well. If it wants to know that Brunello is 100 percent Sangiovese, why wouldn’t it insist on Barolo and Barbaresco (100% Nebbiolo), or who knows what else?
Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries begin making the same demands. I have already heard from a number of Tuscany wineries that their importers in countries other than the United States are asking for verification that their wines are what they say they are on the label.
This is all bad news, if you love Brunello, and Italian wines in general. The United States accounts for roughly one in four bottles of Brunello sold each year.
“It’s one hell of a mess,” said a source at the US Embassy in Rome.
I couldn’t state it any better in solid American English. May be I should give a rough translation in Italian: “Questo è un casino!”
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