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Brunello Investigation Ends

Italian treasury police issue final report on blending scandal; raises more questions than answers

Mitch Frank, James Suckling
Posted: July 24, 2009

The investigation into production of Brunello di Montalcino appears closed after Italy's financial police, the Guardia di Finanza released its final report on the case Saturday. But the report offered little clarity.

The report was the culmination of a nearly two-year investigation launched by Siena public prosecutor Nino Calabrese, who has accused several Montalcino wineries of using grapes other than Sangiovese in their Brunellos di Montalcino and Rossos di Montalcino, in violation of appellation rules. Calabrese began his investigation in September 2007, sending the Guardia to comb through winery documents and vineyards in search of evidence of other grapes being used.

In the spring, he sequestered about 6.5 million liters (722,500 cases) of Brunello di Montalcino and about 700,000 liters (about 78,000 cases) of Rosso di Montalcino. The wines ranged from the 2003 to the 2007 vintages. In an average year, Montalcino produces 540,000 cases of Brunello and 375,000 cases of Rosso di Montalcino. The wines were subjected to laboratory tests conducted by the Florence office of the Central Inspectorate for Quality Control of Food and Agricultural Products.

In the final report, the Guardia does not give specific test results, but says that 1.3 million liters of Brunello (144,000 cases) and 680,000 liters (about 75,000 cases) of Rosso, Chianti Classico and other reds were declassified to the less strict Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) category, while 100,000 liters (11,000 cases) of the non-Brunello wines were sent for distillation. Declassification frees the wine from sequestration, meaning it can be sold.

From the start of the investigation, neither Calabrese nor the Guardia identified any of the wineries under investigation. But the Italian media has reported several names. A Florence newspaper wrote that Argiano, Castelgiocondo (owned by Marchesi de' Frescobaldi), Pian delle Vigne (owned by Antinori), Castello Banfi and Casanova di Neri were the accused wineries. The first four have all confirmed previously that their wines had been sequestered. Casanova di Neri owner Giacomo Neri told Wine Spectator that none of his wine had been declassified and he has done nothing wrong.

Why the wine was declassified, however, is still a matter of dispute. Argiano declassified its sequestered Brunellos a few months after the investigation began, saying it could not afford to keep the wine impounded and would sell it as a super Tuscan IGT instead. Antinori and Banfi all reported several months ago that their wines had been cleared for release, while Frescobaldi reported that half its wine had been released and the rest had yet to be tested. A winery employee at Banfi told Wine Spectator that the American-owned winery had agreed to declassify a small amount of its 2003 Brunello because testing had been inconclusive.

Saturday's report accused 17 individuals of possible fraud, including three staff members of the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino. Eight of the accused are reportedly cooperating with investigators. The report did not say if charges will be brought.

Despite concerns over damage to the reputation of the appellation, there have been few signs of slowing sales of Brunello and the highly rated 2004 vintage has been well-received.

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