Everyone was talking about the growing Brunello di Montalcino scandal yesterday during the first day of Vinitaly, the annual wine fair in Verona, Italy. Italian newspapers and broadcast media were full of reports on Italy’s financial police, Guardia di Finanza, investigation into wine producers planting grape types other than Sangiovese in their vineyards.
I wrote about this on March 21. At the time, I thought it was only the growers association, who was investigating these vineyard anomalies. I had no idea there was a huge political battle between the local magistrates office in Siena and the wine producers association of Montalcino. The magistrate now is blocking shipments of Brunello from key producers until the investigation uncovers more. And he seems bent on destroying the region’s reputation with very little due process. It’s a vinous witch-hunt, for lack of a better phrase. Nobody knows when and where it will all end.
I was in the most popular restaurant in Verona last night, Bottega del Vino, and the handful of Brunello producers I saw looked exhausted. They looked like someone going through a very bad divorce, or worse. I felt very sorry for them. And a number of them spoke to me about the situation.
People in Italy often say if the Guardia di Finanza knock on your door, then they are bound to find something. I know a case when the financial police made a thorough investigation into one of Tuscany’s best small wine producers because they couldn’t believe how small his wine production was for the size of his vineyards. It didn’t cross their minds that he intentionally had tiny grape yields to produce some of the best reds in the region. They finally dropped their investigation.
I think the real scandal, however, is how the Italians have handled the whole thing, both officials and the media. I can’t understand how a magistrate can have such unbridled power to make broad-reaching orders with no checks or balances. The Italian media is just as bad with its feeding frenzy on the whole thing, following a number of other national scandals such as tainted mozzarella and mountains of uncollected garbage in Naples. Stories on the situation in Montalcino are full of inaccuracies and stupidities.
After ten years of living in Tuscany, I've found that Italians so many times seem to be their own worst enemies, but that would be a book, not a column. I still love the country and the wines.
But back to the point. If Brunello producers have been adulterating their wines with Merlot, Cabernet or anything else, they should be punished in some way. The minimum is that they should immediately correct their vineyards and declassify their Brunello.
The essence of Brunello is Sangiovese. It was created as a pure wine, just like great Burgundy. And that’s what we love about it. It’s what we pay a premium for as well.
As I wrote before, it's possible that wine producers could have intentionally planted other grape types to boost the color, structure and fruitiness of Brunello. Sangiovese can make thin wines at times, and Brunello is aged for a long time in barrel or vat before bottling. That diminishes the fruitiness of the wine, especially in lighter vintages.
But I still think that many of these illegal plantings are simply honest mistakes whereby the wrong bench grafts of vines were used when the vineyards were originally planted. Maybe I am wrong.
Some say that the darker colors in many of today’s Brunellos has been because of the use of Cabernet Sauvignon or other varieties in the wines. Many critics are alleging that some Brunello producers have illegally added Cabernet or other wines sourced from outside the region to their Brunellos. This would be a real scandal (though an old story in the world of wine). But so far as I know, this is not true, nor a focus of the current investigation.
In any case, when the Italian media and government finally decide to move on to the next scandal, someone needs to take a serious look at the DOCG laws and consider updating, or even abolishing them. They obviously are not worth even the paper they are written on and they are too antiquated for today’s viticulture, winemaking, marketing and distribution.