The magistrate investigating makers of Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino has cleared some of the wineries he had suspected of using grapes other than Sangiovese. At the same time, without naming names, he has said that 172,000 cases have tested positive for grapes other than Sangiovese. Several things about this case bother me, especially the way so much of the wine world reacted to it by assuming the accusations were true even before the investigation was done.
When the brouhaha came up, I read blogs and columns that were almost gleeful in the way they pointed fingers at big-name producers such as Banfi, Antinori, Frescobaldi and Argiano. They just assumed that these wineries, among the largest and most successful in the region, had to be adding Cabernet or other forbidden varieties; otherwise, how could their wines be as good as, or better than, the carefully crafted bottlings from small, artisanal producers?
My colleague James Suckling has blogged accurately and fairly on these goings-on, and suggested it was all way overblown. And now three of the four wineries mentioned above have been cleared or partially cleared. Expect more clarifications and backpedaling by the investigators before they finally zero in on a few who might really have cheated. Might. We still don't know. Much of the wine has yet to be tested, and yet there seems to be a rush to convict.
This distrust of the big and successful runs deep in human nature. I see it the regions I cover. In Australia, they even have a name for it: Tall Poppy Syndrome, a reference to the impulse to chop down the tallest flowers in the field so it all looks even.
It all stems from the idea that big cannot be as good as small. I've been hearing it all my wine-writing life, usually from ill-informed people in the trade who make assumptions rather than do the legwork (or the palate-work) and actually check the validity of their assumptions.
Tasting blind, as we do for our Wine Spectator reviews, is the great equalizer. Over the years, wines from big producers rise to the top of my tastings, right there with those from small, hands-on guys. That's not surprising. Big wineries have the resources to buy good vineyards, get good equipment, discard their mistakes and put only good wine in the bottle. I taste more faulty wine from small producers than I do from the most successful wineries. That stands to reason. You can't sell a lot if you make bad wine.
As I think about how some in the wine world are too ready to dismiss big wineries, I remember Gallo. In the late 1970s, when I was wine and food editor of the San Francisco Examiner, I got an insider look at Gallo's first efforts to upgrade their wines from their mass-production image. Charles Crawford, who headed the production team, showed me vineyards in prime areas and let me taste wines destined for yet-to-be-introduced upscale Gallo wines. The Gallos weren't doing it by cheating, but by growing good grapes in vineyards in all the right places and investing in the equipment to make good wines from them.
And yet, when the wines were introduced, the first reaction from many in the trade was derision. It took years to overcome that, but Gallo has since established a good reputation for its high-end wines.
I was writing about Tuscany in the mid to late 1980s, when it was all starting to happen there. I remember tasting the new, non-traditional Super Tuscan wines, many of which used Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah with Sangiovese. But some wines were all Sangiovese, such as Flaccianello from Fontodi, Fontalloro from Felsina and, my favorite, Le Pergole Torte from Montevertine.
As I understand it, in this recent flap some of the smaller winemakers looked at the Brunello wines made by their big competitors, such as Antinori, Frescobaldi and Banfi, and decided that they couldn't possibly be that dark, rich and full of fruit character without blending in something else. But Flaccianello, Fontalloro and Le Pergole Torte always had great color and more richness than the Chianti from the same vineyards, and should have ended any doubt that good clones of Sangiovese can produce these kinds of wines.
In the end, it all comes back to what's in the glass. Is it compelling? Does it have character? Does it demand another sip? Those who taste honestly know, small wineries have no monopoly on quality.
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